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Low-density living in the outer suburbs is not the root of all evil.

Urban sprawl isn’t to blame: unsustainable cities are the product of growth fetish

In a recent article on The Conversation Robert Nelson argues we are all morally culpable for unsustainable urban sprawl. He goes on to suggest we fix this by taking advantage of opportunities for higher density development in sparsely populated inner suburbs.

But his argument is based on a false opposition: mounting evidence shows that high density development in inner areas performs very poorly in terms of resource consumption and greenhouse emissions. The idea that outer suburbs are inherently less sustainable than inner ones doesn’t bear scrutiny.

The key question is not where we accommodate growth; it’s our slavish pursuit of growth itself.

Urban accumulation

The metro fringe is expected to accommodate 40% of our national population increase in the next 15 or so years. Australia has for some time been experiencing record population growth, cheered on by business lobbies, and rationalised by the expertise they buy. Not all of it is corporate conception, or undesirable: the fertility spike and commitment to a humane migration program are also contributors.

The urban sustainability crisis betrays not bad consumption patterns but the awesome success of accumulation. Our cities express the ceaseless economic expansion imperative and its politico-cultural expression, which Clive Hamilton has memorably described as the “growth fetish”.

We have sprawl in every possible physical form – from low density suburbia to the vertical sprawl produced by market driven compaction. It is a fallacy to describe the latter as sustainable.

The existing urban footprint simply cannot absorb the human increase. It is a physical, social and political impossibility. And the underlying imperative of accumulation will drive excessive urban expansion in its various forms.

Risky business

The physical form of cities and suburbs has little influence on overproduction and its social and ecological consequences.

We are, as Nelson correctly implies, in the tightening grip of a species crisis. As the German sociologist Ulrich Beck describes it, we live in a World at Risk – from climate warming, resource depletion, economic default, and social breakdown. The ecological crisis may be the gravest of these as it appears to be moving with wild speed and threatens to upend the planetary order entirely. But it cannot be divorced from the other calamities which all derive from a human modernity that, as Beck states, is devouring itself.

The looming human catastrophe is not a moral crisis or a consequence of ethical failure. It is the product of a political economy that has defined, if not always exclusively, the process of modernisation through the past five or so centuries. The long haul of capitalist accumulation has brought us to the abyss of species threat.

It is wrong to explain this historical process in moral terms. This merely distracts attention from the role of capitalism as a driver of growth. As the philosopher Slavoj Žižek put it recently, “The point of emphasising morality is to prevent the critique of capitalism”.

Capitalism is a force for ceaseless accumulation driven by valorisation (value creating value). It is hard-wired to expansion, and can never be reconceived or reformed as a “steady state” economic order. It expands or it dies.

And therein lays its marvellous, terrifying power. It is a human order set in epic contest with the natural order, scaling ever upwards the heights of risk. One day it will reach the precipice of possibility and a structural transformation will ensue. Humanity will survive this, as it has all other historical transformations, but we do not know what new social dispensation will be possible in its wake.

Weathering the storm

It is simply impossible to dramatically change the urban form in the timescales of looming climate and resource emergencies. Absent war or massive calamity, cities resist sudden change. We cannot design our way out of a crisis generated by the underlying political economy that has driven modernisation for centuries.

However, good planning and design are vital to the project of making our cities as safe and resilient as possible. Elsewhere I have urged us to reconceive cities as lifeboats that will carry an increasingly urbanised humanity through the storms that lie inevitably in our path.

It is only fair that we break from our long habit of malign neglect and cut the outer suburbs an appropriate share of national resources. The investment should be in a massive suburban overhaul to realise the latent environmental potential of the low density form. In quest for resilience, households should be assisted towards self-sufficiency in water, energy and food production.

Paul Mees’ important Australian book, Transport for Suburbia, shows decisively that good public transport is possible in the low density form. We must lament the intellectual and political idiocy that has convinced us that it cannot be made to work in the suburbs.

The outer suburbs simply aren’t the source of our mounting environmental problems. And neither is social delinquency a helpful way of thinking about what is a long run failing of the market economy. We have to prepare the lifeboats for what lies ahead.

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