News & Current Affairs
25 March 2015
by Ross Elliott
Where we live: the case for suburban renewal
The advent of ‘urban renewal’ in the 1990s has been such a blistering policy success that it’s now arguably well out of proportion to the realities of need based on where people actually live. It’s as if the magic “5 kilometre ring” around our city centres has become a policy preoccupation and an industry obsession. One look at the evidence though suggests perhaps it’s time we turned attention to the suburbs, where the vast majority of us live, to restore some balance.
The middle and outer suburbs may not capture the interest of intellectual elites or (with some exceptions) provide the homes of the wealthiest in our society, but they do continue to house the vast majority of Australians. All the hype and excitement about “inner city café lifestyles” belies the statistics which show in stark reality that Australia is not only a nation of city dwellers, but within those cities we are overwhelmingly a nation of sub-urban, as opposed to urban, dwellers.
Gushing media reports about inner city real estate markets and frantic development activity, public transport projects, parkland projects, bikeways, cultural facilities and the like fail to mention that only 10% of us, at most, live within the 5 kilometre ring. A thumping majority of 90% to 95% of Australians, in the major cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, live outside the 5 kilometre ring of privilege. As a rule, 70% to 80% of us live further than 10 kilometres from the city centre, in outer-middle and outer suburban areas. It’s also true that the majority of us not only live beyond the inner city, but we also work outside it. Our pattern of living is not only overwhelmingly suburban, but so is our economy.
So how do our three largest cities shape up on the evidence?
There are just over 330,000 Sydney residents living within 5 kilometres of the city centre. There are a total of 4.34 million people living within 50 kilometres of the city centre, so that’s a fairly small 8% of the total who call the inner city home. Twice as many people – 675,000 – live from 5 to 10 klms out and the numbers and percentages continue to rise the further out you go. They may live at lower densities in the outer suburbs but numerically they outnumber inner city residents ten to one. If we think of suburbs from 10 to 20 klms out as ‘outer middle’ areas and those over 20 klms out as ‘outer’, then 80% of the Sydney population lives further than 10 klms from the city centre.
There are fewer people living within 5 klms of the Melbourne City Centre than even Brisbane. Of the total 4.154 million people who live within 50 klms of the city centre, this is just 5% of the total. There are a further 13% of Melburnians who call the 5 to 10 klm band home, while a very substantial 82% of Melburnians call the outer-middle and outer bands home. Even if the number of people living within the 5 klm ring of Mebourne’s CBD doubled, it would have next to no impact on the overwhelmingly suburban distribution of the population across the Melbourne metro area.
In Brisbane, there are around a quarter of a million people within 5 klms of the city centre. That represents 11% of the total 2.15 million people who live within 50 klms of the centre. A further 17% or 356,500 live from 5 to 10 klms out, which actually makes Brisbane the more centrally populated of the three cities studied. 72% of Brisbane residents live further than 10 klms out in middle-outer and outer suburbs which is still a very large majority but not quite the 80% of Sydneysiders nor the 82% of Melburnians.
One observation worth making is that our governance systems aren’t well designed to deal with large metro regions. Sydney has an astonishing 38 local governments across its metro area, and Melbourne has 12. Brisbane is the exception, with one large local authority providing local government services to 1.13 million people. But even in Brisbane’s case that leaves a further 1 million people living within 50 klms of the city centre governed by a number of different local authorities.
I am not suggesting we should have single local governments for our entire metro areas. In fact there are some good reasons for the ‘local’ in local government to focus on smaller areas. However, if we want metro wide solutions to apply policy attention and taxpayer funds equitably to suburban and urban areas, local governments may not be best vehicle. You could hardly expect, for example, the highly exclusive Sydney City Council – which at 25 square kilometres covers an area not much larger than its CBD and nothing more – to put up their hand and say “we don’t really need NSW taxpayers to subsidise our outrageously expensive light rail extension because we understand there are higher priorities for people in Bankstown or Hornsby.”
Which means that state governments, working with local and federal agencies, are the ones needed to adopt a broader governance approach to metro regions, with a focus on sustaining and developing the suburban economy along with the inner urban.
The other, more glaring observation is that democracy seems to be failing the suburbs. Nine out of ten city dwellers may live in the suburbs and more eight in ten also work there, but increasingly it’s hard to shake the suspicion that it’s the people who live and work within a 5 klm ring of our city centres that are making the decisions and spending the money.
From politicians to heads of government departments, media organisations and industry leaders: the well off and the influential are overwhelmingly from the inner city. They live there, they work there, and primarily socialise and circulate within this hot house of privilege and influence. It may also explain why in some urban planning circles, there is an increasing sense of anti-suburban elitism creeping in. The suburbs and their ‘McMansions’ are topics of disdain for some, which is a pity.
The people who live in the middle-outer and outer suburbs of our cities in the main don’t live there because they have to: they live there because they want to. They don’t deserve derision, nor are they looking for sympathy. It may surprise inner city elites, but many have little interest in battling congested inner city traffic or paying excessive real estate prices or living in crowded inner urban arrangements or paying exorbitant parking fees for the privilege of working or living in or simply visiting in the inner city and what it has to offer.
Yet while numerically superior in every way, the suburban existence remains largely shunned in policy circles. The more that the intelligentsia become isolated from the suburban heartland of our economy and way of life, the weaker we become as a nation.