Welcome to Exurbia

If you drive on the highway from Australia’s capital Canberra to its largest city Sydney, you pass a sign that seems strangely out of place. ‘Welcome to Sydney’, it declares. Yet all around are trees and fields, with hardly a suggestion of human habitation, let alone of the imposing architecture of a global city. It looks like a practical joke, similar to those signs they erect up in the middle of nowhere pointing the direction and distance to London, Rio, Paris and New York. Sydney is the absent host, not yet present to meet you in person: Welcome to Sydney … and Welcome to Woop-Woop while you’re at it.

So to what exactly is the freeway motorist being welcomed? In the five thousand years since human beings first congregated in recognisably urban settlements, around present-day southern Iraq, only those of us who have lived in the last one per-cent of this time-span could be expected to make any sense of the welcome sign. To most urban dwellers, past and present, the word city (or its rough equivalent in other languages) would signify nothing more or less than a dense congregation of humanity, of commerce and community, of worship and government, and of wealth, poverty and social diversity.

Like similar peri-urban roadside signs throughout Australia, the welcome sign marks the potential rather than the actual dimensions of cities and towns. In Sydney, signs are placed at the boundaries of something called the Greater Metropolitan Area, a projection of mid-twentieth century planners and policy makers who saw horizontal low-density expansion and the unfettered use of the private motor car as natural, inevitable and sustainable. The signs suggest that, although the detached family dwellings in which most Australians live haven’t arrived yet, they will continue their relentless march towards the edges of the foreseeable urban universe.

But will this forecast be realised? Will the host eventually arrive at the party? Or have we now, in the era of global warming, perhaps reached a tipping point, a moment to find new ways of dealing with inexorable urban growth?

Suburbia has long been synonymous with Australian nationalism. In the late nineteenth century, journalists bemoaned the way Sydney and Melbourne had assumed the worst features of industrial England, and called on governments to emancipate the deserving poor from the slums and tenements. In 1888, the Bulletin, a radical nationalist newspaper, editorialised:

What our workman wants, and is entitled to, and will have in the long run, is a detached cottage with a piece of land. Fancy an Australian working man tramping up four flights of stairs on his way to bed! Fancy the atmosphere of such a menagerie, the smells of fifty dinners, some hundred pairs of books of soiled clothes, of gutter gambling children! Faugh! Tenements for working men? So English you know!

Alarmed at the spectacles of slums and squalor, the middle classes campaigned for urban reform but it was only after the Second World War that governments began to construct suburban ‘Homes for Heroes’ on a large scale.

The post-war blueprint for Sydney, the County of Cumberland Plan, followed London’s Abercrombie Plan in seeking to confine the city’s growth within a green belt. But by the late fifties an acute housing shortage, caused by the baby boom and post-war immigration, led the New South Wales State Labor Government to abandon the idea of the consolidated city. From that point, the piecemeal creep of project homes across the Western and South Western Sydney has been guided by political expediency more than planning principles. Peri-urban landowners made fortunes when their property was re-zoned for housing but this caused the city to expand into places without the social infrastructure (such as public transport links) through which people obtain a sense of connection to both local and metropolitan communities.

Today, once again there is a shortage of accommodation in Australian cities– particularly Sydney, Perth and Darwin – and, as in the post-war decades, housing costs compel young adults to remain in the parental home much longer than most would prefer. The situation has increased the pressures on politicians to expand the stock, but with governments no longer prepared to build social housing, the task of managing urban growth is formidable. While there has been some inner-city medium density infilling, the ‘Australian Dream’ of idyllic suburban family life and languid consumerism at the broad-acre frontier continues to be popular.

Soon after he was elected in 2011, the New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell invited owners of green field sites around Sydney to nominate areas to be rezoned for housing. Two years later, he announced that, with Sydney’s population projected to grow by 1.3 million over twenty years, his government would approve the construction by developers of up to 171,000 new homes. This involved abandoning a long-standing policy commitment for 70 percent of new housing to be confined to brownfield sites. By stating that his government would ‘make home ownership, particularly the ownership of a backyard, a reality again’, O’Farrell effectively rejected the pressure for more compact cities. He appears not to have heard the environmentalist critique of sprawl: that if everyone on earth lived like the residents of outer Sydney, we would need the resources of three planets to support them.

With a federal election due in September, the now very unpopular federal Labor government has been forced to respond to this suburban boosterism. State governments have primary responsibility for metropolitan development – for new housing, roads, public transport, schools, hospitals – but this has not prevented Prime Minister Gillard from entering the urban debate during the early stages of the campaign. In March, she spent five days in Western Sydney, Labor’s erstwhile working class heartlands, now a region of growing affluence. Here she was courting the voters in marginal seats crucial to the election outcome.

Gillard made two key promises. First, she said government would help fund an extension to Sydney’s motorway network – and she called on O’Farrell to come up with matching resources. Tapping commuter frustrations with rush-hour traffic, Gillard claimed the extension would speed up the daily commuting grind thus ignoring a central (although counterintuitive) tenet of global planning orthodoxy: that building freeways eventually slows traffic down by inflating demand for land around the exit roads and increasing the number of car journeys. City leaders across the western world are prioritising public over private transport but in Australia, the road lobby remains all-powerful and politicians continue to worship at the altar of the car.

The Prime Minister’s second promise was to restrict access to temporary work visas for foreign workers – ‘Australian jobs for Australians’. In a city where ethnic tensions, particularly involving Arabic-speaking minorities, have grown, this was a wink to ‘little Australia’ xenophobes, many of whom have joined the white-flight from Sydney’s polyglot inner and middle suburbs to master-planned estates on the fringe. Once there they fiercely defend the zoned tranquility of the ‘Australian way of life’, resisting anything that might expose them to pressures for urban consolidation, and the anticipated intrusion of the multicultural city. For such people to defend the suburb is to defend the nation against the forces of globalisation: a microcosm of civilisational clash.

In this strategy, Gillard took a leaf from the playbook of Bob Carr, former Labor Premier of NSW and now her Minister for Foreign Affairs. As a state politician, Carr was always happy to sound the political dog-whistle to populist provincialism. In 2002, in a typical appeal to the ‘Save our Suburbs’ movement, in 2002 Carr lamented the way immigration promoted urban growth:

I like our lifestyle, I like Sydney with lower densities, so do 90 per cent of the population in the Sydney Basin. But if the Federal Government continues to force-feed an increased annual migrant intake into the Sydney Basin you get more growth at the fringes but you also get more intense development in our suburbs. I’m not happy with that and I think the bulk of people in Sydney are not happy with that.

In the sixties, American urbanists like Jane Jacobs and Richard Sennett saw the suburban flight as a form of secession from the city and public realm. They argued that to commute is to avoid the social and cultural complexity of the city, to seek insulation from strangers, and from the random encounters that nourish our citizenship. This may do a disservice to many who live in low-density areas, underestimating their creative, worldly and cosmopolitan values. But there is little doubt that the growth of gated outer-suburban enclaves works against the egalitarian ambition of early metropolitan planners and reformers, who sought to encourage social mixing in public space.

The line between the inner and outer cities now increasingly marks out the plate tectonics of Australian political life. With the election looming, Labor is distancing itself from the Greens, with whom it has been in coalition for the term of the Gillard government. The party hard heads recognise too close an association with Greens and their supporters – effete, privileged, bicycle-riding inner-city gentry – risks alienating the carbon-hungry swinging voters on the fringe. Instead the ‘party of the workers’ has entered a Faustian pact to build things (freeways, coalmines, offshore immigration detention centres) currying electoral favour at the expense of an ethical global citizenship. None of these will help those homes and livelihoods are threatened by rising water and extreme weather.

Despite the effects of climate change, there appears to be a future for low-density growth. Perhaps the vision of the Greater Metropolitan Area will eventually be consummated. But why should the city stop growing at the Welcome to Sydney sign? For fifty years the car has exerted a centrifugal force on the Australian city and, without some political resolve, it will almost certainly continue to do so. The vast polycentric conurbations of the Tokyo-Yokohama or Orange County in California demonstrate that urban growth is not, as once thought, limited to a point of practical commuting distance from the CBD. We might be seeing the production of exurbia, a new kind of hermaphroditic place, neither rural nor urban, where the distant sun of the old metropolis exerts only a faint gravity.

George Morgan

George Morgan is a senior lecturer at the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Western Sydney.

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