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The age of suburbia

By Ross Elliott - posted Tuesday, 5 January 2021


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:

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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.

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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.

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This article was first published on The Pulse.



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About the Author

Ross Elliott is an industry consultant and business advisor, currently working with property economists Macroplan and engineers Calibre, among others.

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