The dawning of a new age of suburbia

By Ross Elliott, cross-posted from The Pulse:

“Mr. Covid has been the best city and regional planner Australia has ever had. The suburbs will shine and regions will grow. Maybe we should forget about big city infrastructure projects for a while and spend it on our future resilient communities where people look out for each other.”

That’s a note from late 2020 from a good friend of mine – a highly regarded town planner in Australia, who has led both city planning for large metro cities and worked across the globe, most lately in the Middle East. He’s no dill. The irony is – and he’s right – that it’s taken a global pandemic to shake ourselves out of what now seems like having been under a spell for a long time: the idea of centralised, high density urban cores, surrounded by dormitory suburbs from which workers would commute daily, preferably on high volume public transport, to their city based offices. Our subservience called for endless amounts of public money to be thrown at inner city altars, rewarding the increasingly privileged professional clergy who enjoyed commensurately rising real estate prices, while suburban areas languished.

But the lure of the emerald city was always an illusion. In early 2013 in “The demography of employment part one: a suburban economy,” I made the observation that none of the actual evidence supported this vision:

“We have collectively developed a fixation on our CBDs and inner-city areas as economic drivers of employment. While they are very significant in size, they are not dominant relative to the spatial distribution of jobs throughout metropolitan areas. If the evidence is clearly pointing to cities with employment overwhelmingly located in suburban locations, and points to this trend continuing, it is possible that a variety of public policy settings could need resetting given the realities of our urban environment. It is equally possible that opportunities for growth and development to meet market demand for employment lands in suburban locations haven’t yet been fully captured.”

By early 2015, in “Is it time for suburban renewal?” I wrote: “there seem now to be no shortage of publicly funded initiatives focused on delivering a better quality of urban existence within a five kilometre ring of the CBD, and too few focused on the hard and soft infrastructure deficits that our suburban areas are still living with.”

However, no end of evidence or public debate was sufficient to wrest the planning orthodoxy from the centralised vision of the inner urban economy and its elites living, working and playing within a mystical 5 kilometre ring of a CBD temple.

Even in the face of obvious policy failure – rising congestion, chronic infrastructure lags and falling quality of life – faith in the religion of centralisation was not shaken. A 2018 ABC News investigation into overcrowding and infrastructure inadequacies in Sydney and Melbourne prompted the Planning Institute of Australia to respond with the suggestion that what was needed to fix the problems of centralisation and density was in fact more centralisation and density: “We want Tokyos, Parises, and New Yorks – and we can do that by planning well.” The fact that this policy prescription was unelectable given its electoral poison, was clearly irrelevant to PIA at the time.

But as my friend has since wryly observed, a virus has changed all of that. Property industry leaders who once worshipped at the altar of centralisation have sniffed the winds and seen hope of new salvation in the suburbs. Fund managers are predicting a significant fall in demand for CBD offices as workers adopt more amenable work-life practices – working from home or from suburban hubs. The chief of publicly listed developer Stockland – Mark Steinert – is now publicly predicting a shift of the entire metropolitan economy away from CBDs to more suburban locations. Such comments would have been heresy only just 12 months ago and no doubt been savaged by Stockland’s investors. They now reflect conventional wisdom.

The evidence globally is flooding in: high density urban cores are finding economic demand seep into suburban homes or suburban work hubs. There has been an exodus of workers and their employers from centralised, expensive cores. Once prized New York real estate is boarded up, tenants gone. Manhattan offices are being touted as possible residential conversions.

Elon Musk has declared he is moving to Texas, while Tech giants Oracle and Hewlett Packard have similarly set up shop in more affordable, more amenable, more liveable cities. Fast growing US city economies are no longer poster-children cities like NYC or San Francisco or LA, but mid-scale cities like Austin Texas, Nashville Tennessee, or Phoenix, Arizona. The move is on. Remarkably, for the first time in 170 years, California has actually lost population.

Even the Emerald Isle – Ireland – has seen Covid-induced changes to work lead to public policy responses in support of remote working. “COVID-19 has brought a change in terms of the way we work and remote working – or connected working, as I call it – is now a reality,” said Irish Minister Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys. “It was an aspiration only a year ago, and now it’s a fact of a life – and it’s a good thing”.

Here at home, the evidence is also piling up. Regional economic growth seems to be getting an adrenaline boost from Covid, or more correctly our policy makers’ response to it – exhausted by lockdowns, the lure of a less dense environment is proving hard to resist for many. Figures from the Regional Australia Institute show that by late 2019, capitals were shedding jobs while regions were gaining them.

Only the most fervent centralist must now acknowledge that the age of centralisation has come to end. Indeed, as much was observed to be happening pre-Covid by the respected Brookings Institute in early 2019. The virus has just accelerated what was already underway.

Where does this leave the anti-suburban elites – the likes of Elizabeth Farrelly who infamously declared: “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”?

Hopefully, it leaves them without a worshipping congregation anymore. Hopefully it means the suburbs and regions will no longer be regarded with disdain as second or even third rate living or working choices. Hopefully it also means we will see decades long obsessions with inner cities turn to more balanced views of where policy and infrastructure priorities should fall.

We are at the dawning of an age of suburbia – where regional and suburban economic needs can respectfully and rightfully claim equal status with those of the inner city. Policy makers would be wise not to resist this change but instead to embrace and support it.

PS: Yes, “The age of suburbia” is a nod to the flower power song of hope from 1969 by The Fifth Dimension – “The Age of Aquarius.” You can get all groovy and sing along to the lyrics “Harmony and understanding, Sympathy and trust abounding, No more falsehoods or derisions, Golden living dreams of visions” … and watch the clip here:

Let the sunshine in!


  1. Recent SMH articles have pointed to the planning minister clearly stating that housing targets are not going to be reversed (NSW). There is a chronic under supply that they want to catch up on. The greater Sydney commission has district plans which then filter into local council’s ‘local strategic planning statements’ which then are further refined by council’s ‘housing strategy’ reports. These tell you where future density is heading.

    There has been no signal from NSW Planning to update these documents due to the pandemic.

    The trajectory is simply the same as pre covid.

    • UpperWestsideMEMBER

      Mayte – they can’t change the plans midstream. All the pollies mates have been land banking for years and need their (in)just rewards.

    • happy valleyMEMBER

      Because the most expensive properties are in Sydney and need the biggest continuing rocket that’s also where Highrise Harry builds dogboxes and they’re the things that count in planning terms.

  2. Congratulations Ross on your outstanding article !

    I do hope it is distributed and reprinted widely … both within and outside Australia. It is enormously important.
    … Professor David Levinson of the University of Sydney nails it … essential viewing …

    The New Normal ’ … David Levinson (University of Sydney) … TRANSPORTIST
    … h/t PH and AB …
    … Australian public servants overwhelmingly support working from home: survey …

    APS managers won over by working from home … Judy Skatssoon …(Australian) Government News

    Working during the Pandemic:: From resistance to revolution? … University of New South Wales (Canberra) pdf – Working From Home Report_Final (1).pdf

  3. Many people will perceive this shift away from the city as temporary. This is probably based on the fear of change and loss. Yet, the economic and social benefits of suburban work locations looks many times stronger than the disadvantages. Way more pleasure than pain. Just think of the money. Government infrastructure and maintenance in central cities, Business overheads in cbd, huge energy usage in transporting people into long queues twice a day. Queues do look archaic. They aren’t efficient or productive, they are excessive clotting, they are inefficient. I wonder if the productivitiy Commission dislikes the simplicity, since Covid made businesses move away from cbd, productivity has jumped higher.

    So many savings for so many businesses, that’s tipped the balance a bit.
    So much concern businesses have about reduced sales and higher costs, this will only tip the balance more in favor of being out of the CBD

    • Arthur Schopenhauer

      It’s much more expensive to maintain suburban infrastructure, over say 50 to 70 years, than a denser city.
      The last 10 years has seen a de-suburbanization in NE USA, where roads have been reverted to gravel, and sewer lines shortened, due to lack of city funds.
      Solar power with batteries, along with mobile telecoms does reduce the cost, but sewage, roads and water are a large ongoing costs to cities.
      So state governments see densification as attractive to their budget bottom line.

      • As population density increases the maintenance cost increases. This increase starts out in favour of density in the beginning but quickly outpaces density as density increases.
        But its evidently cheaper to build infrastructure in country areas compared to the city environments, cost of maintenance is also cheaper.

        Take the Pacific highway upgrade, $15Billion to upgrade 650klm of road,,,,$23m per kilometre ( crazy high but… ) , how much did the Sydney light rail cost? $2.7B for 13 klm….. only $150M per kilometre…. and will service a lot less people per year….

        Economies of scale is used to justify the idea its cheaper to build infrastructure in cities than country areas. the problem here is that economies of scale on work for certain scales… once you get to a certain size costs blow out.

        • Arthur Schopenhauer

          Yep. As an example, London at 10 million people, sucks in most of the resources of the UK. The next largest cities in Europe, Paris & Berlin, are 2 million people and use far less of their nation’s resources.

          • Not sure it’s an arts degree issue….

            I would suggest it’s not that they don’t understand it but more that there is a certain prestige in running a billion dollar project that doesn’t come with a million dollar project…..

            Also, mates like big price projects…..

          • Strange EconomicsMEMBER

            All NSW govt policies treat this as temporary. Back to mass immigration, student low wage exploitation etc in a year.

            Which is why NSW govt sends workers back to the offices.
            Meanwhile our corner cafe has a nice queue at 10 am from the work at home people.

      • Agree Arthur. Your comment “sewage, roads and water are a large ongoing costs to cities” is very pertinent. These will become more problematic as the cost of energy (oil in the case of roads and sewerage) inevitably rises.

        We missed the boat with rail over the last 50 years by encouraging US-style dependence on roads and ICE cars and trucks in our blindness to ultimately inevitable energy constraints. Madness in a country like Australia. What we should have done was criss-cross the country with high speed rail…. too expensive now, sadly.

        But the day of ICE vehicles for everyone is coming to an end and there are simply not enough resources to replace them with indvidual EVs for everyone, so we have a very large upcoming problem.

        • Jumping jack flash

          One of the reasons i decided to take the plunge and take on a colossal pile of debt to obtain a house was to be able to live more affordably.

          Solar and batteries are the first things to be installed over the next 12 months. Includes solar hot water.

          Water next. 12k litre tank plumbed into the house. a mate of mine has it done and it works great. Just toilets and laundry though. I don’t think ill be able to be so choosy.

          Im not so sure about sewage yet, but im researching.

        • the day of ICE vehicles for everyone is coming to an end

          First they came for our guns.
          Then they came for our backyards.
          Then they came for our cars.

          What other horrors does the future hold for us? When I need a permit to walk down the street and take a breath of fresh air that’s when I’ll get really worried. Oh oh.

      • I’ve lived in suburban houses with backyards and I have lived in a 2-bedroom unit. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Overall for me the house with yard wins hands down. However I would be horrified if govt elites tried to force people out of units into houses against their will.

        I do not accept the argument that we all should be crammed into home units in order to save a few kgs of aluminium/copper wires, concrete and PVC pipes and roadbase/tar.

        If each house has 20m of copper wire per person instead of 1m of copper wire per person for a unit, then where exactly is the huge cost that you are worried about?

        If every pound of pooh has to slide 5km downhill to a treatment plant in a town, instead of 500m in a city, then where exactly is the huge cost that elites are so intent to save?

        If every drop of water must be pumped 50km to houses instead of 5km to units, then is it really worth living like battery-caged hens to achieve this puny saving?

        Arthur Schopenhauer please explain.

  4. Arthur Schopenhauer

    Los Angeles population more than doubled in size from 577,000 to over 1.2 million between 1920 and 1929.

    The advertising of the LA Chamber of Commerce promoted the city to tourists, intending settlers, and health seekers.

  5. Intercity blight was created by a diverse group of forces ranging from the steel/oil partnership to developer lobby and at no point was the endeavor about what was good for the unwashed. It was always about market share and profits for C-corps. This paradigm shifted post neoliberalism becoming dominate in the mid 70s and replaced the suburban / Mfg transit model to one of FIRE sector intercity dwelling model.

    I guess post covid the only thing that matters is jobs and not repeating the past of stranding capital assets in some utopian shift where everyone runs from one side of the ship to the other.

    • Arthur Schopenhauer

      You ascribe so much to corporations Skip. Live in a poorly heated brownstone on Manhattan or In a well heated house and garden in the suburbs? Hundreds of thousands of people voted with their wallets, because cars were cheap enough for a salary man to afford. There wasn’t a pernicious plan. The change was an emergent property of the economic and social circumstances.

      The current raging popularity of Noosa and Byron Shires is not a grand plan engineered of Stockland or Mirvac or Westfarmers . It’s a response to circumstance. After the trend has been established, those that are seeking profits move in.

      The electrification of transport will change city form dramatically. It has been resisted by all the major car manufacturers for years. Now the trend is established, and future profits are easy to see, the corporations are starting to move into the space. Yet even those established corporations that are spearheading the shift, such as VW, have to overcome internal pressure to not change.

      If what you are saying is, profits are more important than people, then yes, that has been present since the emergence of feudalism, towns and cities.

      • The history of the above is well documented, especially the lobbying and collusion to destroy public assets so they can be privatized.

        That not unlike the early tax haven/offsets for C-Corps became a cottage industry and post plaza capital was always looking for the next untouched location to be first in best dressed is inherent to the paradigm.

        Neoliberalism is just rewarmed Corporatism and inherently anti democratic aka authoritarian – read about it.

        • Arthur Schopenhauer

          My contention is corporations come in after a trend has been established, and move to the area of most attractive profits.

          (I have spent a night drinking with an influencer/propagandist from The Heritage Foundation, at a fancy bar in SF. The primary sources are more revealing, interesting and horrifying! 😀😂)

          • The problem is and always has been a lack of vision by governments that have allowed corporations and the pursuit of private wealth to dictate policy and direction. In the case of US and Australia this caused an unholy reliance on individual ICE cars and roads, rather than rail as in the UK and EU, Japan and China, which will come back to bite us.

    • reusachtigeMEMBER

      And love will steer the stars
      This is the dawning of the age of Suburbia
      Age of Suburbia

    • Skippy your ideologically possessed. It have your blinkers firmly tied on. I dont think you wrong its just that you don’t see that there are other factors. For me growing up with no internet in the country, I remember the pull of the big city was huge. I would dream of moving to the action, where the people were. This was true for almost all my friends and I can on assume true for people across all the ages.
      Now with the internets ability to connect us kids don’t seem to crave that action as much. (This is all from anecdotal evidence).

      • Yep. Up a blind ally with nowhere else to go. The problem will arrive with inflation when repayments can’t be met even with zero interest,

    • President elect George Bernard Shaw

      Of course along with that zero percent interest they charge you a fee. Usury by a different name.

  6. reusachtigeMEMBER

    OMG suburbia is so dull as are the people who live there. Shoot me if I ever get stuck there for too long. And regional towns aren’t much better unless they contain luxury beach houses and spas to rest and party at.

  7. Ireland …

    Is 2021 the year we finally say goodbye to the office?

    (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar urges bosses to allow workers stay home over Covid fears

    88% of civil servants feel as ‘effective’ working remotely – survey … RTE

    • ErmingtonPlumbingMEMBER

      Why won’t governments just source most of their “Work from home” civil servants from low cost countries like India and the Philippines like the the private sector does?
      Gotta minimise the Tax payer burden.
      Isn’t that why we don’t make our own public transport assets and police cars anymore?
      To “Save” money.

      • Hugh PavletichMEMBER

        India … Working from home … Massively boosting employment opportunities for women …

        … “We’ll see work going to people rather than people going to work,”

        Work from home revolution is a surprise boon for India’s women … Saritha Rai … Bloomberg / The Economic Times

        The coronavirus pandemic has hit women worldwide with job losses and closures of childcare centers. Yet a surprising bright spot is emerging: India’s $200 billion technology services industry, where new rules are expected to provide female workers with a broad swath of flexible work arrangements and fresh employment opportunities.
        On the outskirts of New Delhi, Teena Likhari, 45, quit her job running operations for the Indian back office of a Silicon Valley company in 2018 because of a family medical emergency. Looking to rejoin this year, she expected a market stunted by lockdowns. Instead, the pandemic had made work-from-home mainstream in her industry, which had long shunned the practice.

        Not only did the operations manager quickly land a job with Indian outsourcer WNS Global Services, but working from her home in the city of Gurgaon, she began overseeing a 100-member team in the city of Pune about 900 miles away.

        … “We’ll see work going to people rather than people going to work,” said Keshav Murugesh, group chief executive officer of WNS which employs 43,000 workers globally, nearly 30,000 of them in India. “With flexible hours or selected work days, over 100 million Indian women with secondary degrees, could potentially find employment,” he said. … read more via hyperlink above …
        What happened with goods and containerization around 60 years ago is now happening with services globally … Malcolm Gladwell explained containerization back in 2015 … and lessons we can learn from it …

        Into The New Year With Malcom McLean … VIDEO … Malcolm Gladwell

        Malcolm Gladwell … Wikipedia

  8. Hope it reverses. The city scum needs to go back where it came from. Nothing worse than these ‘relaxed lifestyle’ blow ins arriving and f-ing things up in every possible way.

    • Can’t stand it. Nauseating watching them bare foot, designer clothes, European SUV-board on top, botoxed, lips. FO.

      • boomengineeringMEMBER

        When a few years ago was working on the gas pipe from Walambilla to Moomba the co worker from Young had only been to Sydney once in his life. He reckoned that all Sydneysiders drove BMWs wore blue poofy shoes and were all horrible people.

        • Sydney’s toxic, and now seems to be infecting everywhere up and down the coast. I hate it. To be honest, I feel at home anywhere in the world, but in Sydney. it lacks soul, friendliness, space, trees, honesty, authenticity, and is full of suspicious greedy, selfish people, pretending to be everything but in their little cliques.

          I can understand people wanting to get out of there, but it’s them that make it sht, and they’ll now infect everywhere they land.

          • boomengineeringMEMBER

            Yeah but there’s one little island type community where all is good and that is Ermington

    • boomengineeringMEMBER

      Someone here said a while sgo that 2 out of three went back but that still leaves you with one third of many.

  9. PalimpsestMEMBER

    Love the idea of the ‘burb change. But there are other consequences. Cities thrived partly because of the ‘network effect’. Financial types move to Sydney rather than Melbourne, for example. Attempts to smear the federal public service across the Country have been, until now, remarkably unsuccessful.

    Challenge 1: None of our digital tools have been able to support a real network in an industry or sector so we don’t have to physically gather at various watering holes. They’ve supported existing relationships, sorta, at a basic level.
    Challenge 2: What happens when one is looking to change to a new company or team. For new starters finding and engaging with a mentor as a remote worker is problematic.
    Challenge 3: Can this be done in a Country where the ruling classes are so ossified, with a supporting cast of people happy to look backwards not forwards. There’s almost no modern internet capability. The NBN was planned for future capacity but implemented for last decade, and is struggling to provide last decade throughput today. EV policy is so ‘anti’ here that suppliers like Kia and VW won’t release models in Australia. New Tech start ups can’t get funding. We’re just not set up emotionally or technically as a Country to support forward looking ways of working.

    Some organisations, Banks especially, have seen the rental savings. A complete return to the previous status quo will be slow, although the APS is being forced back to the office, and legal firms are always conservative. However, the City ain’t dead yet.

    • President elect George Bernard Shaw

      Agreed about network effect. Although people can meet through social media, at some time it would be advantageous for some at least to meet in meat space.

  10. Goldstandard1MEMBER

    I think people do forget however that events, shows, festivals etc. all happen in the cities because they can attract the most people from multiple areas. That’s all a city is, the middle of suburbia.
    Sure you can live in Bendigo or Apollo Bay, but you won’t watching live shows, opera, going to the noodle festival or seeing the Australian Open and many other 100s of things (without travel and accomodation). It really depends on what you value in life.
    I myself am middle aged with a young family so don’t want to live the retirement life on a regional beach yet. Still need the vibe of the city but covid has taken care of most of that!

    • but you won’t watching live shows, opera, going to the noodle festival or seeing the Australian Open and many other 100s of things

      All overrated to a troglodyte like me.

    • Donald Rumsfeld

      I’m middle aged with young family and the idea that life is about shows, Australian Open, Opera and festivals absolutely stinks of someone who shouldn’t have kids. I know so many people like you who spend their time boozing on at gigs and festivals while dropping their kids off or leaving them with the sitter.

      Then there are actual parents who had kids because they want to be with them – camping, travelling, doing things together as a family. No better place for kids in Australia than to be near the beach or out in the fresh country air.

      Possibly the most self centered comment i’ve read in a long time and the almost total lack of self awareness is amazing.

      Oh, and as someone who grew up in BOTH inner CBD Melbourne and a country life style places like Lorne have better festivals than Melbournes PACKED narcissistic utter wank fests.

      Now we know that city life style is the leading cause behind cancer rates, dementia and a host of debilitating illnesses as well – but above all – utterly useless adults who have the resilience of one dollar sticky tape.

      • Goldstandard1MEMBER

        Wow, I’m guessing there was a lot of assumptions made there. I stop reading rants from non paying members after 2 lines…..

    • A city doesn’t need to be a heaving metropolis of millions to provide those sorts of amenities though. 500k(ish) (maybe even as low as 250k) is enough

      • Goldstandard1MEMBER

        Agree, I was merely pointing out that cities are formed as they are a central point for services and entertainment and people want proximity to it.

    • President elect George Bernard Shaw

      Don’t forget in Australia moving out of the city means less auctions and open houses to attend.

  11. Fast growing US city economies are no longer poster-children cities like NYC or San Francisco or LA, but mid-scale cities like Austin Texas, Nashville Tennessee, or Phoenix, Arizona.

    I dunno that Phoenix is a “mid-scale” city – it’s the 5th largest in the US and the larger area (incl. Scottsdale, Glendale, etc) is something like 6m people.

    (It’s probably going to be practically uninhabitable inside fifty years thanks to climate change as well.)

    • It will probably also be practically uninhabitable inside fifty years due to Californians fleeing the results of what their politics has done to California and bringing those politics with them.

  12. It will probably also be practically uninhabitable inside fifty years due to Californians fleeing the results of what their politics has done to California and bringing those politics with them.

  13. Abbott & Gillespie

    This a typical Aussie overreaction to a pandemic that has barely touched this country.

    Is anyone is Taipei or Shanghai looking for a sea change in response to the pandemic I wonder.

    I get it to a degree if you live in a COVID wasteland like the UK.

    But moving to the regions or ever outer suburbs you’re missing out on a lot of career and/or business opportunities.

    People that have moved to the country to work remotely are going to be in for a rude awakening when it’s time to find a new job and they realise that employers still want someone physically nearby.

    • I think what we’re seeing is a whole bunch of people who don’t want to live in cities but have to for work.

    • No they won’t.

      They might say it, but the idea a third of even white collar professional workers are financially secure enough to arbitrarily walk away from a job is laughable.