Why suburbs must be the next frontier for cities policy

By Ross Elliott, cross-posted from The Pulse:

“Around the world, the vast majority of people are moving to cities not to inhabit their centres but to suburbanise their peripheries. Thus when the United Nations projects the number of future ‘urban’ residents… these figures largely reflect the unprecedented suburban expansion of global cities.”

That’s from the second line of the introduction to a landmark global study by Alan Berger (MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism) and Joel Kotkin (Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University), entitled “Infinite Suburbia” (Princeton Architectural Press, New York 2017). The point being that we have confused ‘urbanisation’ with inner city urbanization. The figures however – should we care to consult them – confirm that for the vast majority of people who say they live in a particular city, that means living in a suburb of that city.

This misunderstanding has contributed to cities policy in Australia becoming one sided. Since the advent of the ‘Building Better Cities’ program under then Federal Minister Brian Howe in the late 1980s, the focus has been on inner city renewal. To a large extent this made sense at the time: inner city areas were run down, with ageing infrastructure and falling populations of residents and workers.

In Brisbane, the effective 1990s teaming of Lord Mayor Jim Soorley with Trevor Reddacliff and the ‘Urban Renewal Task Force’ saw a reversal of fortunes of inner city precincts like New Farm, Teneriffe, and Fortitude Valley. The focus then was very much on inner city precincts and for 30+ years, that’s remained the case. The legacy in terms of world class urban renewal is there for all to see (though it’s one that few can now afford).

In the same period however, suburbs and suburban centres did not receive the same levels of policy interest or infrastructure attention. It became fashionable to view ‘the city’ as mainly an inner core which was the economic and community frontier of the future. Author and urbanist Richard Florida in The Creative Class more or less defined the case for lavish inner urban investment as central to attracting and retaining talent. (He has since recanted. In his latest book The New Urban Crisis he admits that he got this wrong and that inner cities have become playgrounds for elites at the expense of the majority of – mostly suburban – residents).

Suburbs – it was alleged – were an irresponsible and environmentally destructive form of urban development that led to obesity, was popular only with lower income, lower educated people who ‘love’ their cars and fast food and who work in industries with low skills and in decline. If you think I’m exaggerating, how’s this acerbic comment from noted Sydney Morning Herald urban affairs writer and “celebrated urbanist and Fairfax architecture critic” Elizabeth Farrelly:

“The suburbs are about boredom, and obviously some people like being bored and plain and predictable, I’m happy for them … even if their suburbs are destroying the world.”

The derision of suburban living or work became a widely accepted norm amongst a clique of self-appointed, largely income-privileged inner city dwellers. The risk for Australia is that this sense of inner urban superiority has found its way unchallenged into public policy at all levels of government and across the political spectrum. As a result we have a policy imbalance where cities policy has through default come to mean “doing things to improve the inner city.” This often includes region-wide infrastructure on the basis that its primary purpose is to make it easier for more people to access inner city areas, whether they need to or want to or not.

Cities policy needs to be redefined to include suburbs if it is to evolve and provide a more mature and equitable city-wide solution to enhancing people’s qualities of life. For the benefit of Elizabeth Farrelly (a resident of Sydney’s inner city Redfern) and others with similarly prejudicial views, let’s ground truth the reality of Australian cities.

In terms of population, the inner city (Statistical Area level 4 of the ABS) of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne represents just 11%, 7% and 13% of the Greater Capital City populations (2016 Census).

So roughly nine out of ten residents of the major capitals are what Farrelly would call “boring” suburbanites out to destroy the world. Boosters might claim that inner urban renewal has seen an explosion of inner city residents because ‘that’s where most people most want to live.’ Yes there has been significant growth, but nothing like the numbers that have settled in suburban regions of the metro area. The graph below shows the change in population over a decade.

Another favoured shibboleth of these boosters is the notion that the inner city is where “all the jobs growth” has been and will be into the future. But the evidence doesn’t support this. Strong inner city jobs growth has driven much positive change in our CBD skylines but compared with jobs growth across the metro regions, it has been jobs growth in suburban locations that has been the engine room of metro wide employment growth in the ten years to 2016, as the next graph shows.

In terms of the share of metro wide jobs, the inner city regions of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne represent 14%, 8% and 15% of the metro region respectively. (Sydney is understated as the ABS definition of inner Sydney does not include North Sydney). So broadly 85% of people who call themselves residents of these cities are going to work in suburban workplaces.

Here’s where the policy imbalance comes in. We are a highly urbanized nation but, just as observed in Infinite Suburbia, our urbanisation is chiefly suburban in nature. Roughly nine in ten people who would say they live in Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne awake from suburban beds each day – not inner urban ones. And roughly 17 in every 20 travel not to inner city workplaces but to suburban ones.

Australia’s cities policy would do well to reflect this economic and demographic reality. What has been achieved in inner urban renewal and enhanced community infrastructure has been outstanding but it is time to spread the focus wider to be fairer. The quality of life and employment opportunities of future suburban city dwellers – however they may continue to be sneered at by some inner city elites – are just as worthy as anyone else’s.

If we fail to re-balance cities policy to more accurately reflect where the majority of us live and work, we will risk creating cities of two classes of people, based on geography. This is just as anathema to the Australian tradition of “a fair go” as is a feudal class structure of Kings and Clergy ruling over a peasantry – with positions in the social heirarchy defined by birthright.


  1. Excellent article.

    There was a shift made many decades ago. Before the shift the general idea was to build more good stuff so that ordinary people could have more.
    The pinnacle of success was a humble cottage on approx 1/4 acre of land with a great backyard.

    Since the shift, the idea has been to give less good stuff to ordinary people, and give far more to elites. Hence ordinary people cannot have a big house for little money, they must have a little house for a lot of money (money handed to elites).

    It is now time for ordinary people to call BS on the elite. Urban sprawl is a good way to live. Like democracy, it might not be perfect, but it is better than all the alternatives.

    • +100, Claw
      Actually the history of “urbanization” – through the 20th century and ongoing in the developing world now – is actually a story of the dense, crowded cores of poor people emptying out; and the so called “urban growth” with rural populations shrinking, is entirely a story of growth of suburbs. And the whole revolution in “production” could not have happened with everything crammed in to the urban core and the big rentier class gouging the lion’s share of all created real value in goods and services.

      The current “popular” narrative about “evil sprawl” is one of the stupidest things in political history.

      • What “the elite” means, as differentiated from “the rich”, is that a lot of people who are not rich are nevertheless part of the orthodoxy that plays into the hands of the rich. Journalists and bureaucrats and school teachers and Uni professors and professional cause-mongers for example. This bloc is “the elite”. They aren’t really elite, either, but they think of themselves that way, they “know what is good for everyone”.

  2. How do you implement change in the suburbs?

    NIMBYs are relentless against any change.

    You can’t add more roads to existing suburbs so gridlock and bottle necks will ensure. This is already a consequence of current policy, if you add more people throughout a suburb via more job opportunities or higher densities where do you concentrate the infrastructure?

    Just another thought bubble it seems.

    • NIMBYism is strong. I know of plenty of open boarder proponents who are also actively resisting against the building of apartment towers in their blue chip suburbs.

      As an aside, can anyone actually articulate a real reason why excessive migration is good for the common man, aside from “muh food diversity”

    • All solved Mal has allocated 200M to fix all the big city hot spots. Reported in the HS today. That’s get a few goat tracks if anything the way our road contractors charge.

    • Nimbys are just normal people that care about something worth keeping. Look at every single park, reserve, national park, canopied suburb etc they only exist because someone somewhere cared about it. The problem isn’t the old nice suburbs, the problem is the new crap suburbs. Old suburbs have trees, reserves, parklands, playing fields, transport etc etc. Nimby is now the war cry of the bitter, the burn it all down crowd that are the new useful idiots of the developers.

      It’s not that the old stuff is nicer, it’s that the new stuff is permanantly crapper. Look at new developments and new estates – no backyards, no room for trees, no infrastructure, no transport, no nice retail (only corporate mega malls) etc etc. This new crap will never even become nice, and people know it and are scrambling to get to the good stuff.

      And it’s not surprising now the old suburbs are putting a fence around their nice lives that the poor can’t break through – these are the people that run and own the city, they were never going to just roll over. https://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/national/queensland/townhouses-to-be-kept-out-of-suburbs-if-council-approves-temporary-ban-20190204-p50vne.html

      The answer is not to destroy what’s beautiful, but to make more things that are beautiful.

      • There was a re-zoning of land in Kogarah from R2 Low Density with a 0.5:1 FSR and 9m height limit which changed to 4:1 FSR and 33m height limit.

        During the exhibition phase everyone who was having land re-zoned supported the proposal. Obviously a big pay day was awaiting. Those who missed out or were not lucky enough to be included in the zoning rallied against the re-zoning. When reading between the lines and even some submissions they were asking for compensation.

        In the end, NIMBYs really are about money. Either, protecting the amenity of the existing suburb with no changes to enhance land values, or restricting supply by lobbying against higher density (unless their land is part of the re-zone).

      • That’s not true L. Look at the Lord Mayor of Melbourne – she raised her kids in a house with a backyard in a beautiful leafy suburb, then cut it up for townhouses with her neighbour so no-one could ever have what she had. That’s not a nimby, that’s just a greedy selfish person, that’s a developer. Developers are not nimbys – some people that live in green suburbs are developers sure, but they are not nimbys.

        In the example you use, i bet there were plenty of local residents fighting the rezoning. They wanted to keep the character of the place they grew up in and raised their kids in – it was the developers that were greedy.

      • Also, don’t forget that urban beauty is a collective. If a nice suburb is rezoned for townhouses, then eventually all the beauty is gone, all that’s left is concrete dog boxes and no trees, no character. Eventually everyone folds, even the nimbys, they just give up and go and so the beauty is destroyed, never to return.

      • Ahh Morgs, you make it too easy.

        You do know that the beneficiaries of re-zoned land are the LAND OWNERS, not the developers. Developers, people who buy, build and sell are not land bankers, they get no benefit from re-zoned land.

        It is the mum and dads who own the land who receive a windfall by the stroke of a pen by some back office strategic planner at Council.

        Yes, there are speculators out there but they generally buy greenfield land on the fringes and lobby for a re-zoning.

        We have been discussing infill, any re-zoning of infill land is benefited by the individual land holders who are normal people who are just lucky. NIMBYs simply missed out on the re-zone and are salty.

      • I realise that. The point i’m making is that not every land-owner wants to be a beneficiary of the rezoning, they would rather it wasn’t rezoned. The land owners become developers, if they are greedy, and true many are.

        And many, even nimbys, are forced to become developers if the character changes and they want out.

      • For instance, i would argue hard against a zoning change in my area that allowed townhouses. But if it was forced through against my will, I would have to be pragmatic and act and split. I have seen so many suburbs destroyed by townhouses right across the east coast of Australia.

        Back to the beauty as a collective, once the greedy win, the beauty is dying it’s only a question of time.

      • Morgs, thanks for your inputs. I used to think that townhouses (2 per block) were the ruination of Glen Waverley, etc. At least these had some controls on them.

        It is the fence to fence Chinese monster single 2 storey houses (with 6 beds, 4 baths, usually so high they cannot have a full pitched roof) that are the real blight on the landscape. They do not come under any planning constraints except do not build on your neighbour’s land. We know they are coming when we hear the chainsaw early Sunday morning.

      • Yes, that’s true ITAg. At least some of the townhouses had postage stamp yards. There really needed to be laws that governed the % of the block that can be built on. We lived bayside for many years and it was heartbreaking, the leafy green suburbs with beautiful modest houses and leafy yards all ripped out for boundary to boundary boxes with no trees and no room for trees ever.

      • Good discussion between Morgs and Labrynth. Far too few people get that important distinction – “developers” per se are actually paying upfront to site vendors, all the development potential for the site, so the gainer is the site vendor. Developers livelihoods are made more risky by the increased site acquisition and holding costs, which they have to cover in the value of the structure. Things were far better when the site was only a small part of the overall project cost.

        And local opponents of upzoning are actually saying “no thank you” to a windfall capital gain. Whether everyone understands this is doubtful. I rather think most NIMBYs falsely believe that denser dwellings will drag their neighborhood’s values down. That was true once, back when land was cheap, median multiples were 3 anyway even for McMansions as the standard housing unit, and dense areas really were slums. Back then the McMansion was a multiple of income of 3, and the slums housing units were a multiple of more like 1.5 times the median income. But now you are talking about the McMansion being 9+ and the dense row-houses in the redevelopments still being 6. Completely different game.

      • I don’t think so Phil, I’ve always been acutely aware that rezoning will increase the property value. You don’t even have to think about it really, you can tell by the endless attempts by the speculators to rezone the place. What it definitely does do is destroy the beauty of our suburbs and drag down everyones life and amenity.

    • The actual solution, identified by the best urban economics experts like Alex Anas and Alain Bertaud, is to do “good”, well planned greenfields expansion now. Particularly put in rights of way and designations of land and space for future infrastructure that will be needed as growth occurs. Failure to do this for the last few decades is the real problem, not “sprawl” per se.

      Even the current planning fad for intensification is a disaster on the grounds that the existing infrastructure and underground services are overloaded already, and all the capacity expansion solutions as the highrises go up, are NOT cheaper than greenfields expansion. This current planning fad is all in very bad faith. It is a successful rent-seeking play enabled by useful idiot “planet-savers”.

      • I lived in Cairns for a while and it is a living breathing example of this poor planing. There is so much land, but they drip feed it onto the market so instead of getting great developments with a mix of acreage and townhouses, with parks and open spaces. Every development is rigged to serve up tiny plots to desperate families that end up with touching eaves, postage stamp backyards and no room for shady trees (probably the single most important thing in the tropics).

  3. Spot on. Well said.

    BTW I just received a txt from UAP …it says “your freedom is under threat watch channel 9 from 7.20 to 7.35 thu 7th feb for an important announcement.” Yikes I thought we were done for years ago….what now?

  4. There are plenty of outer suburbs in Australia that are totally bloody awesome, and the answer is simple. Trees, parks and reserves – talk to people who live in these places they love them, they laugh at the battery chooks in their sky kennels with their noise and smog. But increasingly, these areas are getting decimated by greedy developers feeding the population ponzi, and there is an army of anti-nimby warriors that do the bidding of the developers because…

    • +100, Morgs. Suburbanites are attracted by “amenity” too, whatever the trendy inner city urbanites say. In fact a lot of the “amenity” in the expensive inner city is heavily cross-susbidized anyway because of the opportunity cost of space there. For example, a spacious Opera House or Museum should be out in the suburbs. Any major sports ground anywhere near the inner city is a rent-seeking, cross-subsidized racket. Plenty more examples.

  5. what’s considered inner city in the case of Sydney is ridiculous, using the same metrics Inner London (City of London) has population of 10k

    Some parts of city like Parramatta or North Sydney with high density are classified as suburban in this case

  6. The pointless and vastly expensive tram line in Canberra is a case in point. It connects an outer suburban area to the inner city, notionally to allow the denizens of the suburbs to get to the inner city and vice versa.

    But neither of those two groups wants to go to the other place. Certainly nobody in Gungahlin gives two knobs of goat shit for Civic or wants to go there.

    It’s really all about corruptly jacking up land prices along the tram lines so that developers and politicians can build more low quality dog boxes for maximum profits.

    • Except that it’s not “developers” per se; it’s the site vendors. They get to sell the site at a price that represents “development potential”, the developer just has to cover a greatly increased site financing and holding cost in the profit of the structure. This is why developers tend to have a high rate of attrition in these distorted (by planning) markets – even as housing shortages worsen. The UK has been going this way for decades.

  7. The thing that bothers me about such discussions is earnings vs income, jobs, and how FIRE sector antics has shaped everything …. per se a few decades of historical land development up and down the coast here around Brisbane.

    In America examples like Calif, AZ, Houston, et al, mirrors the same or was a leading factor in the whole sausage making e.g. talking about how “consumer” attitudes towards property management is a bit after the horse has bolted the barn i.e. people seeking yield in lieu of wages is baked in ….. decades of lost share of productivity will do that and then people see reality different than say past generations.