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Urban expansion is driving people further out, and it’s unsustainable.

The grass isn’t greener in the outer ‘burbs

For a long a time real estate close to the palace was socially desirable, and anyone with aspirations didn’t want to know about the rest.

Today in Melbourne inner-city people are embarrassed to reveal knowledge of the outer suburbs such as South Morang, like 17th century Parisians who would mispronounce the street-names of poorer areas or affect not to know them at all.

Throughout history, the distribution of wealth has had a geographical expression. Snobbery, however, is only part of the challenge of urban geography.

Power and privilege are concentrated within 10kms of the city centre. Within this zone are expensive schools, galleries, cafes, majestic parks, concerts, grand buildings and much that a Parisian might recognise, all within cycling distance. The closer to the city you get the more railway stations and tram lines they are, as the public transport network converges on the centre.

Beyond the ring road

Services and destinations thin out the further out you go. That’s where the less well-off live. It’s a long drive to school, work, shops, doctors, or leisure centres. The dominant mode of transport is by car, which creates congestion. Families lose time to frustrating commutes. The roads are deadly for bikes and demoralising by foot. Bus services are few and far between.

To be less well-off means to endure greater hardship: less fun time and more grind; and fewer amenities and opportunities for yourself and children. In a society with egalitarian traditions, this disparity of wealth is ugly.

When inequity has a geographical expression, compensations are invoked as if by reflex. There is a compelling case to redress the terms of disadvantage. These calls to pour money into the outer city — a modest $10 billion — have great moral force, matching the positive discrimination that already operates in universities, where low socio-economic status is defined geographically.

On top of the enlightened ethical basis of these calls to reform and greater funding for the expanding outer suburbs, there are pragmatic reasons for politicians to listen: the outer areas form swinging electorates.

It’s a convincing case in many ways, except for one, which is cripplingly difficult to deal with. And here’s the moral rub.

Sprawling problem

Since the 1970s, we have known that the sprawl is ecologically, economically and socially damaging. Authors have written protests against the trend, objecting to the exorbitant cost of providing services and warning of the reliance on motor transport. Alas these monitory counsels have always fallen on deaf ears. The suburbs have grown consistently and inexorably.

This is in part due to the inner areas, which don’t want to accommodate more people. Protecting the low density of the inner suburbs of Australian cities, the outer suburbs have grown ever outward.

People use the phrase “voted with their feet”, as if an exodus to the outer suburbs is a consumer choice, and suburban growth its logical outcome. A house and garden 30kms out is more appealing than an inner suburban flat. By expressing this as a choice of lifestyle, we fail to acknowledge that many have been denied choice by established, inner suburbs. Inner suburbs have made the choice for the outer city by jealously protecting their own low-density living.

Crimes against sustainability

For anyone with a memory of reasoned resistance to the sprawl, it now seems a bit rich to hear complaints from the fringes that the people who have voted with their feet are now tired of their cars. For the better part of 40 years, the community has been advised that the expansion is stupid. Now the people who went ahead regardless are visiting us with the cost of their mistake. But remember, it isn’t just ‘their’ mistake but the logical consequence of our collective mistake, namely to protect the sparsity of established suburbs that enjoy so many amenities.

Thanks to the worst planning in the world, we are left with a very ugly predicament.

On egalitarian grounds, the outer suburbs need to be propped up with subsidised services; and the more we provide them, the more we mask the true costs and negate the natural disincentives for further expansion.

We should have added extra tax to outer suburbs and actively discouraged their growth. Alas, now that they’ve been built and people are forced out, the money flows in the opposite direction and props up their unsustainable (if difficult) fortunes.

Invoking social justice at this juncture is understandable but also insidious. Poorer people are undoubtedly the victims. The one concept however that never translates into action is sustainability. Maybe we should only discuss the social and economic woes of the outer suburbs once the crimes against sustainability are confessed and strategies are firmly in place to demand that all future growth has to be where abundant services and infrastructure already exist.

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