Suburbs as New Policy Frontier

It’s an obvious move as this article from New Geography explains; which, though its focus is on Australia, has meaning in America as well.

An excerpt.

“Around the world, the vast majority of people are moving to cities not to inhabit their centres but to suburbanise their peripheries. Thus when the United Nations projects the number of future ‘urban’ residents… these figures largely reflect the unprecedented suburban expansion of global cities.”

That’s from the second line of the introduction to a landmark global study by Alan Berger (MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism) and Joel Kotkin (Chapman University), entitled “Infinite Suburbia” (Princeton Architectural Press, New York 2017). The point being that we have confused ‘urbanisation’ with inner city urbanization. The figures however – should we care to consult them – confirm that for the vast majority of people who say they live in a particular city, that means living in a suburb of that city.

Cities policy in Australia has become one sided. Since the advent of the ‘Building Better Cities’ program under then Federal Minister Brian Howe in the late 1980s, the focus has been on inner city renewal. To a large extent this made sense at the time: inner city areas were run down, with ageing infrastructure and falling populations of residents and workers. In Brisbane, the effective 1990s teaming of Lord Mayor Jim Soorley with Trevor Reddacliff and the ‘Urban Renewal Task Force’ saw a reversal of fortunes of inner city precincts like New Farm, Tenerife, and Fortitude Valley. The focus then was very much on inner city precincts and for 30+ years, that has remained the case. The legacy in terms of world class urban renewal is there for all to see (though it is one that few can now afford).

In the same period however, suburbs and suburban centres did not receive the same levels of policy interest or infrastructure attention. It became fashionable to view ‘the city’ as mainly an inner core which was the economic and community frontier of the future. Author and urbanist Richard Florida in The Creative Class more or less defined the case for continued lavish inner urban investment as central to attracting and retaining talent. (He has since recanted. In his latest book The New Urban Crisis he admits that he got this wrong and that inner cities have become playgrounds for elites at the expense of the majority of – mostly suburban – residents).

By contrast, the suburbs were derided by many design, planning and other commentators as culturally, environmentally and economically inferior forms of urban development. Urban socialist Graeme Davidson in “The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne” called them “the opiate of the middle classes” (referencing Karl Marx’s derision of religion). Melbourne Age columnist Natasha Cica called them “crass over class” and architect Robin Boyd described them as “a material triumph and an aesthetic calamity.” Suburbs – it was alleged – were an irresponsible and environmentally destructive form of urban development that led to obesity, was popular only with lower income, lower educated people who ‘love’ their cars and fast food and who work in industries in decline. If you think I’m exaggerating, how’s this from noted Sydney Morning Herald urban affairs writer and “celebrated urbanist and Fairfax architecture critic” Elizabeth Farrelly:

“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.”

The derision of suburban living or work became a widely accepted norm amongst a clique of self-appointed, largely income privileged inner city dwellers. The risk for Australia is that this sense of inner urban superiority has found its way into public policy at all levels of government and across the political spectrum. As a result we have a policy imbalance where cities policy has through default come to mean “doing things to improve the inner city” – which includes region wide infrastructure designed to make it easier for more people to access the inner cities (whether they want to or need to, or not). Cities policy needs to be redefined to include suburbs if it is to evolve and provide a more mature and equitable city-wide solution to enhancing people’s qualities of life.

Retrieved February 26, 2019 from

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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