What's happening in the suburbs?

Federal responsibilities for cities

Mark Latham

In the Australian newspaper last month, Christopher Lloyd, a Professor of Economic History at the University of New England, lodged the following letter to the editor:

What happens when Mark Latham's suburban strategy, and Gough Whitlam's before him, is successful and the erstwhile Labor-voting disadvantaged suburbanites achieve their aspirations, get their higher degrees and city or academic jobs, move to Bondi, become Radio National listeners, develop a conscience about asylum-seekers and Aboriginal injustice and grow to hate monarchical symbolism? 1

Professor Lloyd may know a lot about economic history but he needs to update himself on the recent history of Western Sydney.

Increasingly, successful people in our region are staying in the western suburbs. They are more likely to move into new, double-storey housing estates - such as Macquarie Links, Glenwood and Glenmore Park - than move to Bondi.2 Professor Lloyd has repeated one of the dated stereotypes about Sydney's urban geography: that the city is divided in two - the west and the rest. Even worse, he has repeated an elitist and patronising view of the suburbs: that educated people do not live there, decent jobs are located elsewhere and its residents are yet to develop a social conscience.

All of this, of course, is nonsense. Every day, the changing face of Western Sydney further dates and invalidates this stereotype. Globalisation has transformed suburban Sydney - its economic aspirations, its urban form and its political values. The western suburbs have benefited from this process. Commentators who depict the region as an endless flatland of fibro homes and fringe dwellers do so from a position of ignorance. They are blind to the economic revolution of the 1980s and 90s and the new politics this has created. It is no longer a question of the west and the rest. Sydney is now a large, global city with a range of regions and interests. We need to modernise our understanding of the metropolis. I would argue that the city has broken into three distinctive arcs.

First, a Global Arc that stretches from the North Ryde business park through the North Shore, the inner-city and the eastern suburbs to Kingsford-Smith Airport. This is an internationally competitive and cosmopolitan area with all the lifestyle attractions (and expenses) of a world city. Politically, the Global Arc is willing to embrace the rights agenda and symbolic issues. At the 1999 Republic referendum, for instance, each of its federal electorates voted Yes (Bennelong, Bradfield, Berowra, Warringah, North Sydney, Sydney, Lowe, Grayndler, Wentworth, Kingsford-Smith and Barton).3

Second, a Middle Arc that spans the older western and south-western suburbs - from Hurstville to Blacktown, from Auburn to Liverpool. This area comprises a mix of traditional working class communities and newly arrived migrants. It has above-average levels of unemployment and welfare dependency. It also features a high rate of urban churning, especially in its ethnic base. Bob Birrell's research at Monash University has identified a sharp rise in the proportion of overseas-born people in the Middle Arc, matched by a corresponding increase in Australian-born populations in Sydney's inner and outer suburbs.4 This is what the Americans call "white flight" - the movement of young families and retired people from troubled neighbourhoods to the relative stability of the urban fringe.