“We are living in a global suburban age. While statistics demonstrate that the amount of the world population in metropolitan areas is rapidly increasing, rarely is it understood that the bulk of this growth occurs in the suburbanized peripheries of cities. Domestically, over 69 per cent of all US residents live in suburban areas; internationally, many other developed countries are predominately suburban, while many developing countries are rapidly suburbanizing as well.”

That’s not some anti-urban crackpot statement (as some inner urban elites might think) but the introduction to a biennial theme of the MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism (USA). They understand that suburban and regional centres are not irrelevant for the future economy but highly important.  MIT are a pretty credible lot – hardly likely to pursue fringe urban planning or economic theories.

In Australia however, that message is not getting through. From the Prime Minister down, there is a sense of irrational exuberance that the jobs of the future will mostly be concentrated in our CBDs and inner cities. Urban planning which supports increased concentration of employment through generous infrastructure allocations to inner urban areas is the manifestation of this inner urban obsession.

And while CBDs and inner urban areas are lavished with costly projects designed mainly to benefit the minority of people who work there, suburban and regional centres – where the majority live, work and play – have been largely left to fend for themselves.

This process started in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the likes of Richard Florida (author of The Creative Class) was a cause celebre amongst planning and government circles. Florida and others argued that to attract the creative class of worker (synonymous with high skills and the new economy), cities needed to invest heavily in the quality of life in their downtowns. This was a precursor to the inner urban hipster, and preceded the rise of the inner-city latte set.

Florida’s thinking sat neatly with theories of New Urbanism and ‘Smart Growth’ (which redefined suburban progress as urban sprawl). The collective wisdom moved from supporting a growing suburban realm to one that disparaged it: the burbs were for bogans, the home of sprawl, “McMansions” full of low wage earning, culturally deficient and poorly educated masses, eating fast food diets and slurping sugar drinks. Inner cities, by contrast, were for educated, cultured and knowledgeable people who had little need for suburban spaces or suburban habits but greater need for inner city waterfront cycle ways, museums, theatres and quality restaurants run by notable chefs. And lots of baristas.

Urban planning shifted quickly to a highly regulated approach which promoted much higher densities of inner urban housing (and limits on outward expansion) because, after all, the inner city is where everyone in the future will want to live, right? The promises of these regional planning policies bordered on messianic. Take this example from the “Draft Metropolitan Strategy for Sydney to 2031” from the early 2000s:

“A home I can afford. Great transport connections. More jobs closer to where I live. Shorter commutes. The right type of home for my family. A park for the kids. Local schools, shops and hospitals. Liveable neighbourhoods.”

And what have we got as a result? Some of the worst housing affordability in the world. Worsening congestion. Longer commutes. Limited housing choice, much of it not ideal for raising families.

The ongoing policy focus and infrastructure obsession with centralisation is utterly at odds with economic and community signals. New economy industries in technical, scientific or professional services, or health and social care, have little interest in centralisation. Digital technology has broken that particular tyranny of distance. Undeterred though, we continue to watch as political and industry leaders promote costly infrastructure projects that enhance and support further centralised employment and a concentration of amenity in inner urban cores.

For the record, the proportion of metropolitan wide jobs in the inner cities of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane was 11, 13 and 12 per cent respectively at the last census.  The reality remains that in our metropolitan centres, the majority of people both live and work outside inner city bubbles of privilege.

The penny is finally dropping in some minds. Former Victorian Planning Minister, Matthew Guy (now Opposition Leader) once extolled the virtues of high density inner urban development. Looks like he has had a Damascus moment, commenting in The Australian that “Victoria is becoming a great, heaving, unsustainable mess. The whole of Victoria is just becoming an offshoot of Melbourne.”

The emphasis on centralisation of jobs, housing and supportive infrastructure makes little sense in a country with such large land masses and capacity for expansion. Not only that, but the economic winds – enabled by rapid expansion of disruptive technology – are trying to blow the other way. Suburban and regional centres, long disparaged by the cognoscenti should instead be looked on as part of the solution to economic expansion and development. Where once we promoted urban renewal, we now need to turn our minds to suburban and regional renewal. We need to identify the critical infrastructure constraints of suburban and regional business centres and remedy them to encourage accelerated development of employment opportunities across the board.

In a bid to put some balance into the discussions about urban development and growth, a Suburban Alliance has been formed in Australia – with the intention of supporting research projects into the nature and needs of the suburban economy, and to use these as a platform for well-informed policy advocacy. Wish us luck. The initial focus starts in Brisbane but if the idea finds support, we’d like to see this expand to cover all major urban and regional centres.

The more supporters we can muster the sooner this absurd preoccupation with all things inner city can begin to be balanced with a better understanding of the important role played by suburban and regional business centres and why these are part of the solution to enhanced economic opportunity.

  • Totally agree Ross and I believe we are much better served with new cities being produced in areas where we can improve work opportunities as well as quality of life through careful and considerate planning.

  • Totally agree that we should decentralise. Promotion of smaller inter connected communities with each having peripheral industrial and small business areas could greatly reduce sprawling inner city apartment blocks and long commutes from dormitory suburbs.
    Each mini town should also have a 'heart' – preferably a green park surrounded by cafes and small businesses. This would need good smaller regular bus services, and shorter rail or bus facilities linking each community. We should also provide amenities close to the small town centres for our rapidly ageing population. Time for the big developers to do a big rethink, and the local councils to stop giving them license to build what we don't need or want.

  • I have argued elsewhere that the concept of suburbia in Australia is now almost entirely devoid of meaning or value and serves mainly to provoke unproductive debate. As a planner (albeit an academic one) I believe we should be able to see the big metropolitan picture and recognise that different parts of metropolitan regions are connected (physically, socially, economically and ecologically) and have to manage different growth pressures.

  • Plenty of work to be done in this space. Based on my experience in Adelaide if suburban areas got half of the capital $ of infrastructure projects over the past 10 years that have been spent in the CBD and inner areas, which is still well below their population ratio, then most of the infra shortcomings in suburbia would have been resolved.

  • I have argued previously the need to develop cities and infrastructure that promote green spaces and green infrastructure, effective mobility and accommodation strategies and the need to balance growth of commercial space (not just retail space) with residential development. Spaces such as the Southport Priority Development Area (and similar spaces around Australia) provide for development advantaged by distorting zoning provisions and relaxed infrastructure changing regimes. See the news that Logan City is to provide millions of dollars of infrastructure charging relief for development of the Springwood Development Area.
    These actions do little to spread the opportunities across cities, not just within small geographic spaces that distort the market, burden the transport and parking system, impact the load capacities of water, waste water and sewerage systems. Do these spaces create distortions to the infrastructure development and charges in other areas with the local government area.
    Better planning is required.