In the late 1980s Australia embarked on a grand design for its cities.
The ‘Better Cities Program’ was initiated under Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating with Minister Brian Howe driving the policy. The aim was to prevent the hollowing out of inner city areas, many of which were dilapidated; with run down housing, falling school enrolments, ageing or no longer suitable infrastructure (much of which was designed for the post war industrial era) and swathes of socially and economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
Fast forward to today and Australia’s inner cities are now havens of privilege. They feature some of the most expensive housing markets in the nation. New schools being built for the children of wealthy inner-city residents living in multimillion-dollar homes. These schools are very expensive for taxpayers to fund – land prices plus high-rise structure costs make them so (certainly compared to a traditional low-rise school in a suburban area). The inner cities feature concentrations of social and physical infrastructure designed to make life especially pleasant for the inhabitants – dedicated cycle ways, multiple forms of subsidized (and in some cases free) public transport, cultural centres, museums, some of the best public parks and open spaces. Little wonder these inner-city areas now top the ranks of the most desirable places to live. Provided you are rich. Preferably very rich.
The Census shows us that inner-city residents are among the nation’s highest income earners (with the exception of some high paid resource industry workers). The data also shows that those living closest to the inner cities are most likely to benefit from public transport to get them to or from work. That public transport system is paid for by all taxpayers. The irony is that working and middle class city dwellers in middle or outer urban rings, for whom public transport is ill suited (they don’t work in the inner city) are in effect subsidizing the very expensive inner urban PT systems enjoyed by those who earn a good deal more, and who are more likely to live in a considerably more expensive home in a more socially advantaged community that enjoys better infrastructure.
The point being that “the cities agenda” in Australia that began with the aim of correcting infrastructure deficits and social disadvantage of the inner city now seems hell bent on continuing to concentrate public investment in those same inner urban areas – despite these now being areas which enjoy considerable economic and social advantage over the balance of middle and outer urban dwellers. If this is the cities agenda of today, then what it is doing is taking from middle- and working-class families and giving to those who enjoy more advantage. The solution for those who can’t afford to live in the inner-city areas now? Smaller and smaller units, possibly in a ‘build to rent’ project.
Author Peter Seamer – former CEO of the Victorian Planning Authority among many other things – warns in his new book “Breaking Point: The Future of Australian Cities” that these policy settings need to be re-thought. He cautions that we are racing towards a class system in Australia based not on birthright but on location. Demographer Bernard Salt famously described the ring of privilege and entitlement which surrounds our inner urban areas as “the goat cheese curtain.” The degree of entitlement and superiority evident amongst some in the urban planning community extends to deriding the housing and lifestyle choices of those who live and work beyond this ring of privilege. In 2013 Sydney Morning Herald Urban Affairs writer Elizabeth Farrelly contemptuously described them in the following terms:
“The suburbs are about boredom, and obviously some people like being bored and plain and predictable, I’m happy for them … even if their suburbs are destroying the world.”
The May 2018 Federal Election sounded a very loud warning bell for urban planners to pause and reflect on how today’s “cities agenda” is potentially accelerating this divide. The privileged classes within Bernard’s goat cheese curtain were caught by surprise by the result. Much of the media, virtue-signaling business leaders, urban designers, planners, policy makers and others who typically live and work within inner urban areas fell totally out of touch with the aspirations and concerns of middle and working class families living in the suburbs and regions of our country. While inner city areas recorded strong support for progressive/green political agendas, the same agendas found little support beyond the bubble.
It’s a fact of urban living in Australia that eight or nine in every ten city wide residents wakes from a suburban bed in a suburban home and travels to a suburban place of work. The inner cities – important as they are to our economic future – do not and never have represented majority interests. This is something worth keeping in mind with “the cities agenda.” A cities agenda for the Australia of 2019 may be better served by focusing on the genuine infrastructure and community needs and challenges on the suburban nine in ten, who haven’t enjoyed the same level of attention for some time.
It’s their turn.