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A more sustainable Australia: from suburbia to newburbia

A more sustainable Australia. As the 2013 election campaign continues, we’ve asked academics to look at some of the long-term issues affecting Australia – the issues that will shape our future. Australia’s…

Our cities may be booming, but what about our regions and suburbs? Flickr/Takver

A more sustainable Australia. As the 2013 election campaign continues, we’ve asked academics to look at some of the long-term issues affecting Australia – the issues that will shape our future.

Australia’s cities have a sprawl problem, and it’s driving us all apart. Growth in housing continues in the outer suburbs and regional areas, while jobs remain in the central city and inner suburbs. The result is that 74% of Australians drive to work.

Driving to work costs time, money, and has an effect on health and well-being. It’s also a major part of Australia’s high carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, as good jobs gravitate to the inner city, housing becomes ever less affordable in the inner city, exacerbating the suburban divide.

It’s not just travel time and peak hour traffic that’s the problem. It’s the cost of living in the inner city versus the social isolation of the outer suburbs.

What can we do to bring cities closer together?

Australia’s current metropolitan plans – which set the policy framework for housing and jobs growth in each of our capital cities – designate specific areas for new development and employment growth. These are connected by existing or planned transport corridors.

So where’s the best place to direct development?

This question raises a classic debate about urban form. Metropolitan planners have grappled with the best configurations for housing and jobs for over 50 years, but actual development patterns reflect both market forces (where firms want to locate and where people want to live) and urban regulation.

Essentially there are three models. The first option involves moving people to where the jobs are, by creating more homes near employment centres. Australia’s become quite good at populating the inner city with diverse and higher density housing, but affordability is suffering.

The second option is to make it easier for people to travel to work, through better networked public transit. But governments have been reluctant to spend on public transport – aside from some notable exceptions.

The third option is to move jobs to people.

That’s not as easy as it sounds. It’s hard to get private firms to relocate from established centres unless the incentives are pretty attractive. Lower-cost undeveloped land might attract some firms, especially with reduced regulation, but this appeals mainly to land hungry lower value industries like storage and warehousing.

A very liberal approach to development on the urban periphery does allow for some economic migration outwards. The Walmart highway strips and big box malls blighting the outskirts of many American cities are one legacy of this type of approach.

Some academics call this “scatterisation”, because without any imperative to centralise, development is very footloose. That makes it hard to sustain a concentration of economic activity within a single location. So the benefits of agglomeration – the clustering of complimentary businesses, the stimulation of secondary employment in local services – never really arise.

It’s not really viable to service dispersed industry by public transport. But when state or local governments become desperate to attract economic development of any kind, there is a real temptation to ease up on spatial strategy – potentially undermining existing commercial and retail centres, and future public transport use, in the process.

Better using existing transport infrastructure, by promoting jobs in middle ring and established outer suburbs, could be a key opportunity. Realising latent value in currently underutilised hubs – like Lidcombe or Granville in Sydney’s west – would give workers a contra-flow commute on trains returning from the city centre.

The federal government’s Suburban Jobs Program provides a model. The scheme sought to fund projects that attract and retain jobs beyond the metropolitan CBDs, particularly in areas affected by high population growth and increasing traffic congestion.

Time will tell whether these projects will deliver lasting benefits to their host regions, but the concept of supporting capacity building schemes able to create direct jobs while enhancing local skills and knowledge, is sound. Such schemes should be a priority for well-located middle and outer ring suburbs hardest hit by job losses in manufacturing, particularly areas serviced by heavy rail.

Relocating government agencies is another good way to bring jobs to suburban and regional centres. In Western Australia, more than 5,000 jobs have moved from expensive CBD offices to shared hubs in Perth’s suburbs over the past two years, and decentralisation to regional centres is also planned.

Similarly, a special decentralisation task force has been established recently in NSW, where only around 31% of state government agencies have a presence beyond the Sydney metropolitan area.

Sometimes financial incentives are used to encourage companies to shift to regional areas. Unless these are carefully targeted, it’s usually better to focus on locational carrots like infrastructure, amenity, and access to skilled workers, and to nurture local business from the ground up.

The Regional Development Australia Fund, now in it’s fifth year, has provided funding for strategic infrastructure projects ranging from the development of a regional museum and cultural square to a business innovation and start up centre in regional and outer suburban Australia.

As the creative refugees flee expensive inner city rents, there are new opportunities for suburban and regional areas to rebrand. Now that self sufficiency – producing local food, energy, and water – has been revalued, suburban homes and generous backyards could hold new appeal.

Visions of “newburbia” imply retrofitting strip and box malls around fresh modes of work and trade – shared business hubs, surrounded by lively local retail and services, well connected to regional and global centres by quality transport and communications infrastructure.

Regional cities such as Bendigo in Victoria showcase the potential of non-metropolitan areas. The resumption of regular rail services to Melbourne has provided new economic opportunities for a wider regional hinterland. There’s also an active city council keen on promoting other urban magnets like culture and the arts.

Could suburban and regional revival change Australia’s economic geography? High value jobs growth will likely continue to focus on the globally connected capital city CBDs. But stronger commitment from all levels of government to supporting sustainable growth in well located alternatives could ease some of the pressures affecting inner cities and outer suburbs alike.

Thanks to the Sustainable Australia Report 2013 for inspiring this series.

Join the conversation

18 Comments sorted by

  1. Jeremy Culberg

    Electrical Asset Manager at Power Generation

    One thing that may help is broad commitment from governments (both federal and state) to locate their "head office" type major employment centres outside Sydney / Melbourne / Brisbane (etc). And if necessary, maintain one building in the CBD where all the representatives of the various departments can meet . . . for that matter, it would help if they simply shunted those roles to non-CBD. So Western Sydney, or Ipswich area.

    And on one final step, I would put a hard percentage limit on the number…

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  2. Dale Bloom


    There could be a “city refugee”, where someone who was living in an Australian city now seeks asylum elsewhere.

  3. Theo Pertsinidis

    ALP voter

    In matters of economic reward... money is the issue. But I hate governments throwing good money after bad.

    My view is that manageable debt after wages are paid and provided the spending is for the good of the country and it's people... Australia does have a AAA rating... is preferable to surpluses and the asphyxiating effect surpluses can have on the economy.

    It's more than risk management... it's picking winners.

    How far can we go with a manageable debt... forever?

    Anybody can get a…

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  4. Arndt Ritter

    logged in via Facebook

    Shouldn't step 1 be "Don't release new land for development"?

  5. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    'Australia’s cities have a sprawl problem, and it’s driving us all apart.'

    But right now families can buy an apartment in inner-city Melbourne for the same price as a house in the outer suburbs. But they're choosing not to. Have they decided 'being driven apart' is not so much of a problem? Maybe they like the space?

    'Driving to work costs time, money, and has an effect on health and well-being.'

    Well again, this is a choice people can actually make. They can buy a (small) place in the inner city near public transport. And it seems they've decided they don't want to.

    So is the issue people in the suburbs are making the wrong choices, and need a bit of coercion?

    1. Eric Ireland

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Most of the new flats being built in Australia are too small for families. Build more three bedroom flats with a bit of greenery around them, and families will come.

    2. Phillip Dawson

      Lecturer in Learning and Teaching at Monash University

      In reply to James Jenkin

      I think you're on the money James. Australia has an obsession with the large house and backyard, which will never be possible in the city. It's also unnecessary and anti-social. My wife, son, and I live in a small 2.5 bedroom apartment in the inner suburbs and couldn't be happier. We just have less stuff/clutter and spend our outside time with other people at the park. Everything is within a 5km 'triangle of happiness': work, home, and services/shopping/entertainment, with trains, trams, cycle-friendly roads and busses going in every direction. Yes we could have instead bought a mansion in the outer-burbs and spend our lives complaining about the lack of transport/work/services are where we live, but that's a little silly.

  6. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    There are at least two independent forces at work or you could say a number with subsets as in manufacturing as against services industries, factories as against retail and businesses and all of those will rise and fall because of demand and supply factors as well as the general economy so attempting long term planning is fraught with danger if the basics are not well understood as we are now seeing with the auto industry and many others that have moved abroad.
    Then you have housing as another independent…

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  7. Robert Nelson

    Associate Director Student Experience at Monash University

    It's a good article, Professor Gurran, which systematically combs through the options for urban development. The only problem is that the conclusion rather falls into the pattern that you describe as a risk, namely that artificial job-creation schemes in outer regions might not result in agglomeration qua denser hubs but another form of scatterization. We could indeed shift offices from the city to the fringes or regions; but unless the workers in those offices are exclusively local—which is unlikely—they will have to cross town by car or face multimodal transport of many hours. If their job is in the city, at least some services can be guaranteed. My fear is that newburbia will remain automotive because predicated on low density; and meanwhile, its nebulous utopian promise takes the pressure off increasing density in the areas that already have decent public transport services or are pedestrian- and cycle-friendly.

  8. Alastair Taylor

    Editor at Alamar AV Communications Pty Ltd

    "Resumption of Rail services to Bendigo" ? The Regional Rail Project simply increased line-speeds on the existing line to a maximum of 160kph in areas and new trains were deployed and frequencies increased - services were only suspended temporarily for those works to be carried out.

  9. Verity Webb

    Marketing Manager

    Maybe starting small is the way to go. The state govt here has targeted Footscray for special attention - so there are several proposals in for high-rise apartments. Grocon is already building a monster (which will house a re-located government department,) near the Footscray railway station (also being rebuilt) and yet, our small business, seeking office space in Yarraville, Seddon, Footscray for the past 10 years, remains - in North Melbourne. There is only serviced office, which is badly located…

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  10. Phillip Dawson

    Lecturer in Learning and Teaching at Monash University

    In the city, there are probably ~50 jobs that very closely match my skill-set, spread across 7 employers; in these alternative visions of newburbia/regions there will be the job I move there for, and if that goes sour then I can move or work a less skilled job. No thanks.

  11. Trevor S

    Jack of all Trades

    "sustainable Australia" is oxymoronic and will be as long as the current orthodoxy remains. We imported $2 Billion in fruit and vegetables alone last year, how is growing horticultural produce on other continents for consumption locally ever going to be "sustainable" ? Another example, population is an issue in any sustainability debate, so use a stick to encourage people not to have children, no baby bonus, no tax bonus and tax penalties for more than 2 children. Throw in free condoms, free…

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    1. Jenny Goldie

      population and climate activist

      In reply to Trevor S

      'Sustainable Australia' shouldn't be an oxymoron. It should be what we aspire to. Absolutely agree that we have to remove all incentives for people to have more than two children but we do have to curb, if not eliminate, immigration. Our stewardship is to this nation as well as the world and we have to stabilise population here as soon as possible. Then we might have a situation where infrastructure can catch up with population growth and prices of inner city apartments will be affordable.

      Apartments can be made suitable places to raise children only if there is adequate playing space nearby. But the suburban backyard does offer the opportunity to grow food and we might just need that if we suddenly find - through drought or flood or other extreme weather event - that food supplies are difficult to acquire.

  12. Chris Baulman

    logged in via Twitter

    Perhaps there is an OPTION 4 - Encourage "localism" by stimulating voluntary activity, especially in areas of high unemployment.

    While in many cases unemployed people want or need certain Centrelink supervision, in the case of an individual who would CHOOSE to do community work for an organisation that has itself already been approved, three current restrictions are inappropriate and unnecessary.

    i) community work is only allowed if it can be shown that it is likely to lead to paid employment…

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  13. James Hulse

    health professional

    These days after decades living and working in the State capital, I live in a so-called regional area. I have come to realise that in spite of active local lobbying, our place just doesn't figure when it counts. This is patently obvious to anyone who follows over time what is and isn't being funded and supported.

    The metros (State govts in particular) siphon off resources from the regions that produce them. Take mining for instance! Bugger-all is coming back to the communities being ripped apart, both physically and socially.

    I expect it is the same with agriculture, tourism etc etc. The neglect of the non-metro (and we're not talking beyond the black stump here, but 150km "up the road") is a waste of human resources and is stymying national development. Small population and large land mass to blame? Na, it's our mindset. If we supported the real NBN for starters, the whole godforsaken country would see the difference.

    Are the powers that be afraid of something?

  14. Andrew Smith

    Education Consultant at Australian & International Education Centre

    According to Ross Elliott of The Pulse (blogged by MacroBusiness):

    ' The reality, however, is that despite their profile, our CBDs account for a very small proportion of jobs in the economy. Census data for employment has its limitations but even with these limitations in mind, the evidence is emphatic: employment in our cities is overwhelmingly located in suburban locations.'

    Further, most would…

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  15. Rachel Dawson


    One of the more obvious solutions to the urban sprawl problem is to make sure existing buildings are fully occupied. Many people have spare rooms in their house which could be rented out to boarders, given the right encouragement. (Major de-cluttering is often needed!) Shared housing has many benefits to the individual and to society. Many other systemic issues need addressing - untenanted office buildings, large hotels with small occupancy rates, little used holiday houses, property bought by developers but unused etc. Creative ideas are needed, rather than just releasing more land on the edge of the city.
    In a similar vein, much of the congestion on the roads could be reduced if it was the norm to car pool. But planners are stuck on building more motorways if there's congestion. They forgot to notice that car usage just gradually increases to capacity again! You'd think a good ad. campaign on the merits of car pooling would be cheaper.