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Our growing and groaning cities

By Brad Ruting - posted Thursday, 28 December 2006


Australian cities are marvellous organisms. They have centres of awesome skyscrapers and world-class landmarks, suburbs stretching further than the eye can see, and wondrous doses of ethnic diversity. Our largest cities have undergone many changes over the years, presenting governments with many interesting and unique problems.

After the war, the Great Australian Dream was suburban home ownership, with spacious backyards for the children. Suburbs spread along railway lines, then were aided by the motor car, allowing us to travel wherever, whenever, completely in control.

Then came the 1980s. Change accelerated, bringing deregulation, the decline of manufacturing and the New Economy. Our cities kept growing. Gentrification picked up steam, with the squalid and smelly making way for the shiny and chic. High-rise was in vogue, with more people in smaller areas embracing cosmopolitan lifestyles and rejecting the culture cringe of life out in the ’burbs.

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However, our suburbs kept expanding. Our cities remained big, sprawling creatures, continually gobbling up land. Expanses of motorways were constructed, clogging up almost as soon as they opened. Obesity found us as we spent too long driving and working and not enough time being healthy. Then petrol prices rocketed up. Interest rates rocketed down. The property market turned red hot: great if you were a part of it.

Households found their very basis - the house - a lot less affordable. Cheap was the suburban edge, but petrol prices kept rising, mortgage payments too. Suburbia is under threat.

And still our cities kept growing. Where do we put all these people? State governments are trying to force them into existing urban areas. We’ve filled out, now we’re filling up. High rises are on the rise, dominating existing centres and carpeting over old, probably still contaminated, industrial land. Master planned communities are emerging. Everything’s so much closer. But is this a good thing?

These developments have not arisen evenly. Some areas grow faster than others, and governments are struggling to provide everything we need - just look at public transport networks, water supplies, or the growth of private schools.

Private developers have taken over. They design our cities now. Rows of almost identical, characterless, apartments are going up overnight. You can buy into a community of like minded people. Sign here and you get contemporary urban excellence and nice neighbours. Be safe and feel safe. New high-rise developments aren’t just houses, they’re lifestyles.

They’re the future and we’re embracing them. Buildings are designed with sustainability in mind, with energy and water efficiency and novel ways to recycle your rubbish. Who says you can’t buy environmental values?

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These sound great, but soon it will be where millions of Australians live. Yet people are complex creatures, and don’t always do what planners want them to. They don’t give up their car because trains visit the station down the road a few times every hour. They don’t reduce consumption because their apartment has sustainable design features. Master planned communities in expensive new developments are being marketed, but will social interaction really occur? Are communities really based on location, or on social interests? What about those neighbours who aren’t a part of this utopian community?

The exclusively wealthy Macquarie Links estate is, after all, next to Macquarie Fields. Think public housing, riots, and socio-economic disadvantage. The cities of the future are abutting the suburbs of the present. These new communities are great, if you can afford to participate, but are they good for society? What about those who can’t afford new apartments, private schools or private healthcare? Where do they live?

Not only is this new, high-rise urbanism polarising our cities, it’s also bad for children. Mighty rows of steel and brick might impress now, but children will grow up in them. No backyards, no interaction with other kids in the streets. Parents are too busy working (paying off the mortgage) to take their children out, and who wants them mixing with the kids from outside the estate?

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About the Author

Brad Ruting is a geographer and economist, with interests in the labour market, migration, tourism, urban change, sustainable development and economic policy. Email: bradruting@gmail.com.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Brad Ruting
Related Links
Griffith University Urban Research Program
Melbourne 2030: Planning for sustainable growth
NSW State of the Environment 2006 Report
Sydney Metropolitan Strategy

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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