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Making a place for policy in our suburbs

Any solutions for Australia can’t ignore the suburbs. mugley/Flickr

In the degreasing after the 2011 New South Wales election a lot was made of the supposed influence of western Sydney voters, their electoral motivations and allegiances.

Western Sydney surely has its problems but the stresses and tensions shaping voting behaviour in Australia’s great wen are merely emblematic of a wider “urban question” pressing at the soul of our nation.

Despite our nation’s love of rural mythology, Australians are an overwhelmingly urban people. At least half the population dwells in the middle and outer suburbs of our major cities. Sydney’s centre, population-wise, is neither the CBD nor Balmain but the western suburb of Ermington.

Because we are a suburban people, looming 21st Century challenges will be felt most intensely within our cities. Global threats like climate change, energy or food price shocks, will press most heavily on our suburban realms.

Our response to them - and to local stressors like population growth, water scarcity, transport dysfunction, employment restructuring and housing costs - must also be suburban.

Yet while the political marginality of western Sydney, south-east Melbourne or northern Brisbane often bubbles to the fore of national debates, Australia’s suburban depths are rarely sounded in our policy making.

At the local scale most of our cities are governed by small municipalities which struggle with challenges beyond their local bounds. State governments have the greatest role in urban planning through their metropolitan schemes, but have mostly stuck to bumbling managerialism that implies neither the wit nor appetite for long-run urban reform.

While the Federal government has announced a national urban policy, so far this program has gained uneven public attention. Federal urban policy capacity is small and very recent. Has the government given this capacity the necessary critical mass to sustain lasting, coherent and strategic policy urban change?

Decades of shallow federal capacity is surely one reason why our political representatives have found urban problems so intractable.

The resort has been to suburban cartographies marked “here be battlers”, their mysterious terrains charted through ad-hoc focus groups and crude statistical stereotypes.

Thus Howard’s ragged battlers became Latham’s pushy aspirationals, were transmuted into Rudd’s anxious working families, and now rise again, zombie-like, as Gillard’s bleary-eyed “alarm clockers”, waking up to opportunity.

The shallow policy result has often been misconceived or ill-considered ad-hoc gestures. The casting down of infrastructure projects like pearls upon an electoral roulette wheel – often followed by their subsequent abandonment - is just one symptom.

The weak appreciation of our urban and suburban character has also missed many possibilities for longer-run political coalitions organised around urban and suburban problems.

Among centre-left politics, for example, urban policy offers the chance to address working class demands for affordable housing, accessible jobs and cheap convenient transport while satisfying middle class desires for order, amenity, good design and environmental quality.

An increasingly uncertain and insecure urban future demands much better understanding and shaping of our cities and suburbs. Our growing national population will flood into our cities adding to existing global and local stresses.

If this growth is to become truly sustainable we will need much stronger policy attention to the distributional effects of urban growth. We need better understanding of the structure of our cities, the shape of urban development, the impact of infrastructure, the division of effort between government and other sectors, and the capabilities of the institutions that we task with shaping our cities.

We need to join urban economic productivity to suburban social solidarity to limit current dysfunction and secure against future stressors.

The new national urban policy is thus a necessary and welcome start, albeit hesitant and patchy. The main thrust so far is an intent to suburbanise employment to reduce capacity pressures on overdeveloped CBDs and bring jobs closer to suburban housing.

This is paired with a therapy, with yet untested efficacy in Australia, to relieve congestion in the cities through “smart” road network management.

Yet while the national urban policy targets our major cities, the accompanying Sustainable Population plan recoils from them in panic and, as if a bombing raid is imminent, plans their evacuation to regional towns. Making out for a bunker on the frontier, though, is no solution to problems back home.

There is more that could be done to improve our cities and their suburbs. Much of this was canvassed in the national urban policy consultation period. One option would be to establish independent metropolitan commissions to remove the management of urban growth from the political cycle, insulated from special interests.

Restructuring our cities around new suburban clusters of high-value employment and affordable housing with cultural facilities and linked by good public transport, rather than business-as-usual building of car-based malls, is a further option.

Extending public transport more consistently and broadly within suburbia is a necessary measure to advance social inclusion and economic function. This requires an appreciation of the multiple factors - not just the fetish of urban density - that support the use of public transport. These include availability, connectivity, quality and competent management.

Affordable housing requires major investment, and could be funded through vigorous capture of uplifted land-values around new rail nodes. Better measures to track our cities’ progress are needed - we don’t yet have a consistent measure of the relative economic productivity of our cities nor of social advancement within them. These are but a few of the many possible options.

We also need to move quickly to a wider, better founded and more ambitious understanding of cities. This could ensure current debates don’t become captive to the talking points of self-interested lobby groups.

Strangely our national research priorities ignore our cities, let alone the suburbs, and despite some recent rebuilding the independent urban research capability of our universities remains thin.

That we now have a national urban policy signals an elementary recognition that our cities and suburbs matter as places of significance to Australia. But the task of translating this recognition into a wider program of building cities and suburbs that in turn builds the nation, has only haltingly begun.

Urban reform, a necessary large-scale effort that transports Australia’s cities from the dysfunctional legacy of the late-20th Century, to meet the present and forthcoming imperatives of the 21st Century, still awaits.

To avoid this task is to tie ourselves to the frustrating cycle in which occasional irruptions of suburban electoral dissent surprise and confound political comprehension.

Voters in our vast suburban realms pose legitimate and challenging questions about the way we organise our cities, our suburbs and, ultimately, our nation. It’s time we offered them some bolder answers.

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