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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

suburbia « Previous | |Next »
January 13, 2009

In Australia, suburbia has been mythologized as a site of homogeneity and conformity (the conservatives white picket fence), planned and structured as bedroom communities serving urban centers, and built around subdivisions, shopping malls, and retail strips of suburbia, with poor public transport and limited services and entertainment.

During the last decade conservatives have played off the "common sense" of battlers in suburbia against the gentrified, inner city cosmopolitans whilst talking market prosperity to those living in the three-car-garaged McMansions.

McKenziesuburbia.jpg Aerial #65″ by Sarah McKenzie.

Is this going to change now with the global financial and economic crisis? Not the suburban sprawl, as that is being actively fostered by state governments who talk about urban consolidation in doughnut cities. But the economics of suburbia in a warmed up world; the energy inefficient houses, the car dependency, the traffic jams etc.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 6:58 AM | | Comments (26)


Enjoyed "Aerial 65", but wouldn't "North West
Tasmania after Gunns have finished with it " been also a to the point title?

"Little boxes,
little boxes,
and they're all made of
ticky tacky...".
But nothing has happened since the nineteen-sixties
"To wake up my mind...",
for the average Aussie so,
"They tore down the trees, put 'em in a tree museum,
... put in a parking lot".
But the resulting mess was sadly,
"Acres and acres of
tar and cement".

The current financial crisis is certainly a "catalyst" for change to more sustainable urban/suburban way of living but there are two fundamental factors that have not changed since the financial crisis. The first is the financing model for public transport and the other, local politics.

Financing model is a technical matter that can be learned and adopted without much pain. I know that some state premiers and ministers have visited some cities with successful experience including the Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway Corporation. If we do not change our financing model to support public transport and continue to rely on Federal Government funding, the current financial crisis would do just the opposite to damage the public transport/land use integration. The current drop in oil price will do just the opposite to promote private car growth. The public transport system is not viable on its own. The current system, if left unchanged, would continue to favour suburban sprawl and the current financial crisis simply doesn’t help.

The difficult part is on local politics. We all heard about developers "buying" council seats to make way for their development. They also have the money to change the voting behavior in the council as well as local opinion so as to push forward their suburban sprawl plan. This is not a simple case of bribery or moral issue but a case of fundamental flaw in the current planning system.

We all know that individual local councils has the power to prepare land use zoning plan in accordance with State planning objectives, and to approve all applications for planning permission for minor change of land use. This is what I call an “over-decentralized” planning system. In contrast, the Hong Kong planning system is “over-centralized” in that all land use planning and planning permission rest with one single central authority.

The problem with the “over-decentralized” planning system is that local interest would overwhelm the land use planning agenda and defeat the purpose of State planning objectives such as 2030 in Melbourne, while the “over-centralized” planning system tend to ignore the pain inflicted upon local citizens in pursuing the State planning objectives. Just ask the Chinese living in China and we know how the social upheaval caused by the illegal demolition of houses for development worries the Communist Party.

My proposed solution is that the State Government should take back the land use planning power leaving behind the power of approving minor change of land use to the local councils. I understand that some measures have been taken in NSW State to take back some planning power from the local councils but have met with objections. We are not surprised but if we need the will to do the work, this is the kind of will that we need.

Verdelle Smith!

Where did that pop out from in that thing I call my brain?
As soon as I saw the piccy above I thought of that song and when you posted the words her name jumped out.

I know feel obliged to post something more relevant.
Did you know only about a little above half of homes in Australia are insulated?

There is another important factor: the cultural shift that causes terrace houses, townhouses and apartments close to the city to be considered suitable for raising families.

The City of Sydney where I live has been encouraging generally sympathetic infill development, a process started by Frank Sartor's Living City program in the CBD and immediate surrounds when he was mayor.

I live in a mixed residential/retail area on the west side of the city. Fifty years ago there were families in these terrace houses; the next generation tended to move to quarter acre suburbs to bring up families, but now, children are coming back again.

Most amenities are within walking distance, there may not be any big back yards but there are pocket parks and a few large ones dotted around the district. Back streets are closed off to through traffic but open to pedestrians and cyclists.

It's a mode of living that is common in continental Europe but was never really fashionble here. If there is a market for apartment living developers will build for it. If there is no market governments can do what they like but it won't happen.

Nice to see Paul has finally shown his true colours and delivered us a poem.

and I say this quite unsarcastically.

Les, the music we grew up was top stuff. Had content.
I used to have an old valve radio and listened to it at night, when every else had gone to bed. If I held the wire that was the antenna, I'd get a stronger signal and pick up eastern states and country stations.
On the teev news tonight, they did a retrospective on Tamla Motown, including an old guy who turned out be one of the Four Tops.
Where do the years go?

your comment:

It's a mode of living that is common in continental Europe but was never really fashionble here. If there is a market for apartment living developers will build for it. If there is no market governments can do what they like but it won't happen.

I live in a town house in the inner city in this kind of block It is happening in Adelaide. People are moving back to the city but the townhouses and apartments are not suitable for young professionals to raise families. They have to move out.

An article in The Sydney Morning Herald by Tony Recsei shows the cultural resistance:

We have no quarrel with those who prefer living in a high-density area, nor with those developers who take advantage of the free market to fulfil that limited demand. But Bureau of Statistics figures show 83 per cent of us prefer to live in a free-standing home, and we do object to draconian policies forcing us to live in bland high-rise units.

draconian policies? Sounds anti-planning to me; ie.,plans being developed for the land around stations on the future metro lines.

the inner city in Adelaide has trees and parklands. The townhouses are of different sizes for different incomes --not all are ticky tacky boxes.

I agree with you that:

The public transport system is not viable on its own. The current system, if left unchanged, would continue to favour suburban sprawl and the current financial crisis simply doesn’t help.

Still there needs to be ways to help people move easily around the city and the inner suburbs-----your experience. I fear that the outer 'mortgage belt', suburbs will always remain car dependent, even if they develop more employment.

As for local politics a lot of the resistance--not all-- is to bad, inappropriate development by shonky developers and corrupt councils. Other resistance is to the new---the old is the only way. No change. That is particularly evident in the seachange towns. Other local resistance is aesthetic---a dislike of modernism and a preference for the simple and plain older places

The Australian is pretty convinced about the problems of outer suburbia. An editorial says:

The ghettoisation of the disadvantaged in Australia, and in other Western countries, with its resultant social decay, has been politically caused and must be politically solved. There is no colder charity than state welfare. The social safety net has become a dragnet. It was an easy answer for state and federal governments to locate the most economically disadvantaged in big public housing estates, where such housing was once built in pockets among private housing. Worse, some of these estates were built far from concentrations of jobs. But their inhabitants were out of sight and out of mind for governments and most voters, with only a small group of local members of parliament to speak for them. Worse still, the age of welfare arrived, and with it the political practice of buying off constituents, and easing conscience, with more tax-funded welfare, a practice not restricted in all its forms to lower-income recipients. Ours is a society that has such difficulties with values that we have created an underclass rather than had one thrust on us by the misfortunes of economics or war.

Maybe some education would help with the unemployment issue.

I guess that Latham's ladder of opportunity tried to address this education and bogan issue. Maybe Latham's ladder is based on a view that 'downplays the disadvantage of social groups in favour of emphasising individual capabilities and aspirations'.

As kids we lived in unit blocks with no yards and houses with yards. Regardless, we played in the street with the neighbours' kids.

On top of fashion we have the current panic over children in public spaces. 'Good' parents wouldn't let their kids play in the streets these days.

Les might know more of the details, but a proposed block of units (in Brisbane?) was recently cut by a few floors because it would be overlooking a school and kiddy fiddlers might move in and spy on the playground.

That kind of social environment doesn't bode well for more dense living arrangements.

on a gate to a fenced playing area in the south parklands in Adelaide where I walk the dogs there is a sign.

the sign reads No adults without children are permitted to enter the area. It used to read no dogs.

The sign is designed to exclude the homeless and the pedophiles is my interpretation.

Living in Bowden, I'd tend to agree, Gary.
Beaut to take the dog out for a walk around the golf course or along the Torrens.
Where I live, the huge Clipsal site has been hived off and what has been almost a little country town a thirty minute walk from town now waits with bated breath for the horrors to come.
Going out to Elizabeth, where I grew up, the picture is mixed. They made some effort to make over some of the more decrepit parts, but since the early 'nineties all the open space has been gobbled up, so the place has lost the one aesthetic factor going for it.
Urban cosolidation needs to be "done" a bit better.
But hey, its only Elizabeth, etc- no one cared much at the best of times.

the redevelopment of Bowden is removing all the dirty toxic factories, foundaries, etc It has an artistic community, a train line from the station to the city, a proposed tramline to the Entertainment Centre, a river and the western parklands and a pleasant walk to the city. it provides good urban living --unlike the experiences of Simon in Melbourne.

The redevelopment of the Clipsal site is not going to take any of that away. Presumably it will be more housing like the new stuff McMansion stuff that is going up there now. They are better than the salt infested, dark and damp working class cottages of the 1890s, 1920s or 30s are they not?

Elizabeth, as the hub of the outer suburbs of northern Adelaide, is heavily dependant on the car factories. It's survival dependents on the car manufactures making green cars. The public money is going to go into the density housing in the inner suburbs as that makes the public transport system viable.

So people do what you do--shift from the outer suburbs to the inner ones or to the CBD. It is possible in Adelaide---but not so in Melbourne or Sydney, where it is far too expensive.

the Rann Government, and the SA public sector, have little interest in trying to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. Social justice and class has been pushed into the background. So kids leave school early with little educational qualifications.

As Geoff Strong said in The Age is that a large part of large part of the education problem for Australia's working class lies in lousy attitudes in the home. Its leave school early and get a trade. or nothing. The old Anglo Saxon working class distrusted a university education.

I vaguely remember something about this issue and think there was issues of parking in that the building was next to a school. The media always beats up the kiddyfiddler aspect. These buildings next to schools and day care centers are very noisy and always sell at a reduced price and change hands more because of the issue. I don't know whether the building went ahead at the lesser height.

Lyn, Gary

Lyn’s case of the “proposed block of units (in Brisbane?) was recently cut by a few floors because it would be overlooking a school and kiddy fiddlers might move in and spy on the playground” and, to a lesser extent ,Gary’s “No adults without children” sign in the parkland fascinate me.

That reminds me of a metaphor about “designers’ solution” versus “engineers’ solution”.

A designer’s solution is user oriented but plays down cost/durability factors, while an engineers’ solution does just the opposite. There is always an argument: to what extend should the user needs be compromised because of existing constraints.

If the argument in both cases is sound, we probably have to build houses with no window facing children playground. This will have a significant impact on planning/design principles. We could also see adult without children being prohibited from entering, not to say using, swimming pools etc, which is less of a planning/design issue, but which certainty has the potential of becoming a planning/design issue (e.g. build children-only swimming pool).

I hope, as Les mentioned, these are not relevant planning/design consideration and let the psychologists, educators, law enforcement officers etc. to deal with problematic individuals. Of course, if the problem becomes one of widespread social significance (e.g. general safety aspect at night), this will become a planning/design issue and needs to be dealt with.


There is currently debate around Southport about the proximity of a sex shop to a local school. The shop in question has had transvestites standing out front handing out leaflets and such. Presumably all boys that pass this shop will immediately rush home to dress in their mothers frilly nighties and high heels and the girls will thrust a pair of dads hawthorn footy socks down the front of their Y fronts shave their heads and ride motorcycles into the sunset destined for a life of unnatural fornication.

Jeez! Do some people even realize that sex is what made children.

Les, I had a good laugh at that too.

This from the state host of the Indy boobs from the balconies festival and that other major cultural event, Sexpo. Home to the highest rates of divorce and domestic violence in the country, and they're worried about what the location of a sex shop will do to the children.

Maybe they think 'make love, not war' is an unhealthy message?


Time will tell, but it doesn't seem wise to be making urban planning designs on the basis of a moral panic. We have plenty of retiree-only, resort-style developments up here which impose restrictions of access on children and pets. Maybe it would be better to plan for enclaves of families with children, built around school hubs, which could restrict access to unsupervised adults and all entertainments deemed unsuitable.

Actually, that could solve the clean feed problem at the same time. These communities could have their own, filtered, ISPs, their own indie news services, codes of conduct and dress, security services.

Why not? We already have walled estates with street frontage presentation requirements and security services.

What I cannot understand is why there is no major investment in public transport by the states.

In Victoria as The Age points out

Labor in opposition also warned that public transport required huge infrastructure development to cater for a fast-expanding population. Shortly before taking office, it promised to invest more in trains and trams. Instead, it followed the lead of its predecessors, with spending on roads several times greater than on public transport projects. Only in the past couple of years has the balance begun to be corrected.

They knew. They promised. They did nothing. Why?

the Age editorial says that:

As leaked documents showed this week, Yarra Trams even cut spending on badly needed track renewal works even as its profits grew significantly.

So it is not just the failure of state governments to invest.

When we hear of whopping amounts being spent on these things we rarely hear about what it's actually being spent on. Is road money being spent repairing and fixing other problems with existing roads, building necessary, access roads, or freeways where trams and trains could go instead?

When we hear of money being spent on public transport, is it being spent where it's needed to improve the system?

I recently heard that somewhere on the Gold Coast millions of dollars worth of new buses are sitting around rusting. The idea was to build really big buses for use during peak times, but after they were built it was found that, when filled with fuel, they failed to pass weight restrictions and would damage roads.

Somebody, somewhere, is able to say x dollars were spent on public transport that year. Expenditure can mean zero.


Not true I am afraid. There was a hold up a couple of months back but that was related to the new ticketing system machines needing to be validated. Bustech the local bus manufacturer that also operates Surfside is upgrading to a newer fleet that will be increasing services over the next few months.Every bus that will run is being used daily. N.S.W has cut spending to public transport in the tweed area and as of Monday new timetables are going to be in use with reduced services. Qld is increasing funding so that Surfside can run services later and more often into the suburbs. Over the next few months you will see brand new shorter Mercedes buses in use.

There is a hold up with the new depot at Coomera as the local council seem now to prefer the site would be better used and would provide higher earning for them if it was used for residential purposes.

Thanks for setting me straight on that Les. I heard it from someone who gets their news from the Gold Coast Sun. Should have known better.

I like those little buses. They seem more practical for this place.

Yes I rode on those old little ones a few times. Made me think of the Partridge Family and bursting into song.
What was that song they sang?