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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.