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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.

Third, an Outer Arc that stretches from the new release areas of the Central Coast to the North-West Corridor, Penrith-Hawkesbury, the Macarthur region, Sutherland Shire and North Wollongong. These suburbs reflect the benefits of economic mobility. They house the small businesspeople, the contractors, franchisees and consultants of the new economy, living in double-storey estates on the urban fringe.

When Paul Keating said in the 1980s that his economic reforms would change Australia forever, he meant it. Thirty years ago, there were 200,000 small businesses in this country. Today there are one million. That's an additional 800,000 small business families. And where do they live? Most likely, in the new suburbs ringing Australia's major cities, close to their businesses and the communities in which they grew up. This is the great driver of economic aspiration in our society. When I grew up in Green Valley in the 1970s, our values were based on the politics of us versus them - the working class versus the North Shore. Now, when a young person grows up in my electorate, they can see prosperity in the neighbourhood next door. Social mobility has become more tangible and achievable. The politics of envy has been replaced by the politics of aspiration.

The other dominant political theme in the Outer Arc is social responsibility. For the first time in Sydney's history, moving to the outer suburbs has become a lifestyle decision. People do not want the troubles of other areas to follow them to the fringe. This is why they place a premium on public decency and responsibility. Not surprisingly, people who have experienced lawlessness truly value the rule of law. This is the commonsense of suburban life.

Contrary to Professor Lloyd's assertion, the suburbs have a strong social conscience. It is based on a practical understanding of how the good society requires a certain level of order and cohesiveness. This is one of the pillars of social justice: the shared expectation that people are responsible for their own behaviour. Indeed, none of our institutions can succeed without sanctions against irresponsibility. It is not possible to learn and succeed at school if some students are allowed to cause chaos in the classroom. It is not possible to have a strong and trusting community if people live in fear of crime. It is not possible to create public confidence in the tax-transfer system if people can get away with fraud and free loading. Social rights need to be matched by social responsibility.

Thus, politics on the fringe follows two golden rules:

The party that backs economic aspiration ahead of economic envy will most likely win; and

The party that has the longest list of excuses for people who do the wrong thing will most likely lose.

Federal responsibilities

If these changes were only happening in Sydney, it might be possible to leave them to the States and local government. In practice, however, they are occurring throughout our capital cities. Sydney may be Australia's first global city but it will not be the last. Globalisation is also having a profound impact on Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.

The growth of our cities is being driven by federal factors: economic openness, active migration and major infrastructure decisions, especially the construction of airports and universities. In the new economy, airports are the equivalent of the seaports of the 19th century - the main transit points for the movement of people and products. Universities generate much of the knowledge and innovation of the Information Age. Both are essential to the development of global economies and global cities.

The federal government needs to take greater responsibility for the urban consequences of its policies. It is not sufficient for the national government to drive change in our cities but leave the management of change to the States and local government. Cities, the places where most Australians live, are a national responsibility. No level of government can afford to ignore the impact of internationalisation on our communities and lifestyles. As a discipline, urban planning has lost much of its certainty. In the new economy, the location of investment and jobs is moving at a faster rate than urban form. This has increased the degree of difficulty in planning our cities and suburbs. All levels of government need to respond to this challenge.

There are other good reasons for federal responsibilities. Urban form and efficiency have a powerful impact on Australia's economic growth rate. For instance, 30 per cent of Australia's GDP is produced within a 100 kilometre radius of the city of Sydney. In large part, our national prosperity relies on the effectiveness of transport, communications and settlement programs in our major cities. Economic management and urban planning are two sides of the same coin.

Simon Crean has declared his intention to put cities back on the national agenda. We want to modernise Australia's housing and urban policies. This is a vital part of the Labor tradition. For 50 years, this issue has differentiated us from the Tories. Menzies left the enormous post-war growth of our cities to the States. Gough Whitlam and Tom Uren put suburban services and infrastructure on the national agenda. Fraser took them off.

This cycle of action and inaction continued in the 1990s. Brian Howe created the Better Cities Program and then, in one of the early and worst decisions of his government, Howard abolished it. As with most issues, he has returned to the narrow complacency of the Menzies years. Even though federal policies are changing the face of our cities, the federal government has little interest in urban policy. It sees the cities solely as a cost-cutting exercise, through reduced funding for the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement (CSHA) and urban infrastructure. The only federal minister to take an interest in urban form has been Joe Hockey.5 The Hockey plan for Sydney is to double its population - to bring an additional four million migrants to the city, without additional federal support for their settlement and the services of a civilised city. All change, no responsibility. This is the Howard and Hockey approach to urban policy.

Urban sprawl

As a world city, Sydney will continue to grow. This is inevitable. The challenge for government is not to prevent growth but to more effectively manage it. The city should not be allowed to sprawl beyond its environmental, financial and lifestyle limits. I oppose the Hockey option of a mega-city of eight million people, stretching from the Southern Highlands to Newcastle, devoid of open space and urban amenity. Sydney must not become the next Los Angeles.

We must recognise the natural limits of our geography. Sydney is surrounded by fragile river systems and national parks. Its topography and wind movements are conducive to photochemical smog, especially in the Cumberland Basin. On environmental grounds alone, we must combat Sydney's sprawl. The financial and lifestyle costs of urban sprawl are also excessive. It is estimated that the public cost of servicing a new housing lot on Sydney's fringe is 25 times more expensive than the cost of infrastructure for in-fill development. High-quality consolidation is a town planning and economic necessity.

Without the effective management of Sydney's growth, the costs of congestion will continue to grow. This is a car-dominated city in which more than 80 per cent of journeys are made by private vehicle. In the Outer Arc, car transport is a way of life. There are huge social and lifestyle costs if people are forced to travel long distances for employment and basic services.

In my 25 years of political involvement in the outer suburbs, there has only ever been one issue. How do we move the jobs and services to where the people have moved? Without adequate planning and provision, commuters are forced to spend long periods of time - up to 20 hours a week - away from their families and communities. Urban sprawl is a barrier to social capital.

Sydney's Outer Arc has many more labour force participants than labour market jobs. Penrith, for instance, has a job deficit of 36,000. In Campbelltown the shortfall is 34,000. This results in long journeys to work on Sydney's congested roads. In peak hour, it now takes 70 minutes to travel from Campbelltown to Blacktown and 80 minutes from Rouse Hill to the eastern suburbs. This is a modern form of water torture - weaving through back streets and sitting at traffic lights on under-developed roads.

These are serious problems for which all levels of government must take responsibility. National economic and migration policies are driving Sydney's growth. The national government must be part of the solution on the urban fringe. It needs to meet the legitimate aspirations of suburban families to live, work and learn in the one community. In effect, we must demand a higher standard of urban development. In the past, governments have released residential land without requiring the early development of employment land. While in recent decades, developers have paid contributions for the provision of municipal services, they have not contributed to the new urban agenda, particularly the provision of community-based education and lifelong learning.

This must change. The federal government has a role to play in securing an integrated form of development, so that jobs and services are available as the residents move in. The Mawson Lakes development in Adelaide is an outstanding example of how this can be achieved. Through land banking and public-private partnerships, high quality yet affordable housing is being built adjacent to a technology business park, two new schools and a university campus.

This model needs to be replicated nationally. Aspirants on the urban fringe are demanding a range of new services, such as broadband Internet access, telecommuting and learning centres. It is good commercial practice to make these facilities available. It is good government policy to partner these efforts. Integrated development is the best way of achieving win-win outcomes - for residents, developers and governments. This is a key objective in the ALP's policy review process. We want people in the outer suburbs to be able to live, work and learn in the one community. We want to overcome the Howard government's neglect of housing and urban affairs. We reject the Hockey option of unlimited sprawl and congestion. A federal Labor government will fulfil its responsibilities for Australia's cities.

Urban renewal

In the past, the urban renewal agenda has been associated with the inner-city. As Sydney has grown older, however, the need for renewal has moved to the Middle Arc. The mass of three-storey walk-up flats constructed in the western suburbs in the 1960s and 70s has deteriorated significantly. These areas usually adjoin public housing estates that also require redevelopment.

This is an opportunity for Commonwealth-State private housing partnerships. The objective should be to consolidate and redevelop the sites, with a better mix of housing types and urban design. Given the proximity of these neighbourhoods to town centres and public transport, it is possible to achieve strong commercial and urban consolidation outcomes. Most importantly, the renewal projects would substantially upgrade the amenity and lifestyle of places like Liverpool, Fairfield and Bankstown.

Urban renewal should be a leading objective of the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement (CSHA). In the private sector, more than 50 percent of new capital spending goes into home renovations. In public housing, however, renovation work has been as scarce as employment creation. More than half of Australia's public housing stock was constructed before the 1960s, often in the wrong place with the wrong design. It badly requires redevelopment. This will not be achieved without private sector involvement. State housing departments simply do not have the expertise or resources to do the job properly. We need to follow the model adopted by the Defence Housing Authority in the 1990s. Through partnerships with progressive developers such as Delfin, DHA was able to fully redevelop its housing stock. I want the CSHA to be a redevelopment agreement, not just a funding agreement for rental housing.

Federal-State co-operation is also required to overcome public housing poverty. This is the slow-burning scandal of Australian public life - the steady deterioration in the social and economic environment of our broadacre housing estates. We need to develop new and innovative solutions to poverty, through social entrepreneurship, social venture capital and community ownership schemes. These ideas will be examined in Labor's policy review, along with other reforms to end the curse of social exclusion.

Urban affordability

Australia faces a housing affordability crisis, both in the ownership and rental markets. Home ownership rates among young Australians have fallen. Low-income families have been priced out of the property market in our major cities. Cutbacks to public housing have produced record waiting lists and placed additional pressure on private sector rents.

In the past, governments have dealt with affordability concerns through demand-side policies, such as rent assistance. These strategies need to be complemented by supply-side policies that ease the pressure on the rental market. Increased home ownership has a crucial role to play in this process. By reducing the demand for rental accommodation, it is possible to drive down rental prices.

Labor's policy review will consider a range of innovative home ownership models, such as shared equity schemes, co-operative housing, matched savings accounts and nest-egg accounts for young Australians. Whereas the current homeowners grant was designed to compensate for the negative impact of the GST, Labor wants to create permanent and more substantial forms of assistance for homebuyers. This is my top priority in housing policy. Other affordability strategies will also be examined, including:

  • Government land banking on the urban fringe as a way of combating price speculation and urban sprawl;

  • Urban renewal partnerships that consolidate public and private sector sites and reduce unit costs;

  • The revitalisation of the CSHA and expansion of public housing stock; and

  • Streamlining the planning approvals system, with lower compliance costs and more flexible development codes (such as dual residential use by small business).


Before he became President, Abraham Lincoln wrote that "the legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all or do well for themselves." This idea, pioneered on the Illinois frontier, is just as relevant today on the fringe of Australia's cities. In isolation, the private property market cannot achieve for people the social benefits of integrated development: the containment of urban sprawl, the provision of basic services, the renewal of housing stock and more affordable accommodation. These things can only be achieved by government - not just part of the public sector, but by all levels of government working together.

This role is doubly significant for the national government. The States and local councils do not have the power or resources to deal adequately with the urban consequences of globalisation. Federal responsibilities are all-important. This is why Labor wants to put cities back on the national agenda. We are the only party with a clear vision for suburban Australia: Economic ownership for all; Social responsibility from all; Fully serviced and cohesive communities with all.

What's happening in the suburbs?

Brendan Gleeson

I have two broad answers to this question. The first answer is who really knows? Certainly not many of our policy makers and policy analysts. The evidence for this is the constant effect - mostly perverse - of spatially blind policy making. One such effect is the misdirection of public resources to communities that are simply not as needy as many of the places and peoples in our cities.

There are two main reasons for spatial blindness in our policy realms. First, because the public sector at all levels has withdrawn from research and relies heavily on aspatial consultancies for information about social trends.6 Amongst the few consultancies that purport to be spatial, most lack rigour and substance. Market research has overtaken social scientific enquiry. Second, the spatial social sciences in Australia have withered and no longer provide input to policy.7 To some extent they only have themselves to blame for their increasing policy irrelevance. Empirically based scholarship has been supplanted by theoretical introspection.

Policymakers have often looked on in horror, but have largely done nothing to help. Significant public investment in spatial scientific research could have prevented much of this. My centre, the Urban Frontiers Program, is now the only dedicated place of spatial research in Australia. Australia, the world's most urban - indeed metropolitan - of nations lacks this most basic ability to understand itself.

What we really know

The few spatial social scientists still working in Australia (you can count them on two hands) have struggled in the past decade to map and forecast social trends. Some larger vectors of change, especially in the cities, have been charted, and some attempt, in the context of resource impoverishment, has been made to survey these shifts at a closer level.8 The suburbs of our major cities may be the crucible of Australian life, but they are poorly understood and their dynamism is often under-appreciated. Most Australians live in metropolitan suburbs, and if governments simply made policies based on this assumption, public endeavour would be much more effective than it is at present. So what are the major patterns of change in our suburbs?

First, self-containment is strengthening at the regional and sub-regional levels, for reasons we don't yet fully comprehend. Put simply, people who live in suburbs are increasingly likely to work and recreate in their own regions and neighbourhoods. Unfortunately, most of our State and federal policy settings continue to assume that our major cities are monocentric (they never really were). The resulting investment and policy intervention patterns are contributing to a process of increasing socio-economic inequity on local and regional levels. Such policies are also exacerbating environmental stresses, especially greenhouses emissions, because the urgent need for improved intra-regional mobility is so misunderstood by our governments.

Second, socio-spatial polarisation is strengthening at regional and local scales within our cities. There is not time here to provide an exhaustive social scientific definition of social and socio-spatial polarisation. Yet, in broad terms, we can note a strengthening of residential segregation between the three main social groupings, which have emerged through structural change in the last two decades: the wealthy, the coping, and the lost. Geography matters as it never has before: a household's life chances are increasingly defined by the place, not the region, in which it lives.

Broadly, the new geography of suburban segregation includes the following elements: public housing estates with residualised and high need populations; new concentrations of the disadvantaged and excluded in private housing areas, often in degraded medium density housing stock; increasingly decrepit and under-serviced middle ring suburbs that continue to host large intakes of new migrants; 'privatopias': new exclusionary residential developments, both within the older suburban fabric (enclaves) and at the outer suburban edge (exclaves).

I want to close with a few comments on the privatopias that have received so much popular and political attention in the wake of recent election, but the origins of which are so poorly understood. My remarks are referenced against the contemporary social geography of Western Sydney, which is, I believe, reflective of broader patterns of change in other metropolitan regions.

The decline of the public domain & the hidden subsidies of privatism

The American economist J. K. Gailbraith long ago noted the increasing qualitative divergences between the private and public spheres in market societies, as captured in his memorable depiction of 'private affluence and public squalor'. The observation resonates in Western Sydney, where a myriad landscape is emerging through new patterns of social and physical change: degraded or neglected public facilities and infrastructure increasingly contrasts with their well-resourced private equivalents, whose use is confined to those with the ability to pay.

A private constellation of health, education, human services and recreation facilities is emerging to cater for the needs and desires of the more affluent and the more anxious. Many of the new users of such facilities are not affluent, but seem willing to put themselves under considerable financial pressure to avoid using public services and facilities. The culture of anxiety about public facilities and services has been encouraged by sensationalist media reportage about 'dysfunctional' public hospitals and schools. For some, the mood of anxiety is reinforced by actual experiences of degraded and neglected public services. Even in fringe areas with newer public infrastructure, however, a mood of suspicion and avoidance is mounting, all of which helps to perpetuate the decline of the public sphere - as schools struggle to fill enrolments, health services are left to treat a residualised population, and public transport services are abandoned to the excluded and the angry.

An increasingly assertive mood of privatism pervades new release areas. The pleasures of order, homogeneity and amenity are celebrated; the provision of high quality social and urban services is acknowledged as the rightful reward for individual effort. But the reality is quite different. The paradox is that this form of privatism is induced, in some instances explicitly encouraged, by government endeavour.

The public contribution to the creation of these new 'model communities' is not acknowledged and - or - understood. A complex and expensive matrix of public initiatives - financing, regulation and service provision - shape and support these privatopias. Long term planning and investment by public agencies has created the amenity and value that are captured in private estate development. The privatised infrastructure and services that support new residential communities remain heavily dependent upon direct and indirect government subvention and risk sharing, though this fact is not generally appreciated within the community. The private motorways, for example, benefit from government risk-sharing, and from new public investments that can deliver windfall revenue gains.9

Far from being simple testimonies to the rewards for individual effort and thrift, these 'landscapes of self-reliance' are in fact heavily dependent upon public subsidies and public endeavour for their creation and maintenance. The fiction of self-provision is a simple story that is readily digested by those already anxious about the state of publicly provided facilities and services. It happily neglects the hidden subsidies of privatism. The contribution of public endeavour to private wealth remains largely unsigned and unheralded.

In a context of strong regional population growth, the internal migration from established areas to new release areas does not result in a depopulation of older places. In this sense, our patterns of urban decline contrast with those observed in US and some European cities, where depopulation is a key dimension of change. A more subtle but nonetheless powerful shift is underway in Western Sydney, involving an exodous of wealthier, Australian-born residents for newer residential estates; and their replacement by poorer households, with a preponderance of tenants, recent migrants, Centrelink 'clients', and people with high support needs. This twin process of cultural and economic segregation is reinforced by uneven and frequently inequitable patterns of service provision and infrastructure development.

The overprovision and underprovision of services and infrastructure to different communities is both complicated and powerfully reinforced by federal policies and programs, which have shifted large amounts of public resources into privately provided health and education services. Private health and education services are strongly spatially patterned, meaning that their provision is reliant upon and related to distinct geographic catchments, whose boundaries are defined by demand thresholds and spatial concentrations of client households. Commonwealth policies that favour the provision of such private 'collective' services therefore tend to channel significant public resources to the wealthier communities that are able to capture them. In Western Sydney, these forms of federal public subsidies are being largely diverted to recently developed residential communities, where new and existing private education establishments and health-fund supported facilities are flourishing.

The Commonwealth's First Homeowner Grant Scheme has provided a vast public subsidy to the construction of new 'model' communities. Perversely, the receipt of such housing support helps recipient households to qualify for further subsidies. Having been supported into home ownership, many recipients will, in time, access taxation related subsidies - notably the negative gearing provisions - to further enhance their wealth, and thereby increase their 'social distance' from the poorer households, which will never qualify for major forms of public financial assistance. Many Australian households receive federal housing assistance, not just the poor. The wealthy, however, tend to receive asset - and therefore wealth - enhancing assistance, whilst the poor receive 'life-support' aid (income supplements, accommodation) that does little to improve their life chances. In Western Sydney, as in other suburban regions, these forms of assistance are spatially patterned: the former are captured by the residents of newer homeowner areas, and the latter are supporting growing concentrations of the needy in older localities.

Apart from new subsidies and policy shifts, Commonwealth funding cuts to human services and labour market programs have been a further driver of social differentiation in Western Sydney. A study commissioned by WSROC in 2001 found that the rising cost of childcare - largely a result of Commonwealth cuts since 1996 - had impacted differentially in two Sydney case study areas, one in Lower Northern Sydney and one in Western Sydney (Fairfield-Liverpool). The study showed that shifts in childcare funding and delivery were associated with a weakening labour force participation rate amongst women in the Fairfield-Liverpool area. Many women who stayed in the labour force were forced to make informal and inferior arrangements for childcare. By contrast, women in the wealthier Northern Sydney suburb were less likely to succumb to rising cost pressures by leaving the labour force. Finally, childcare costs relative to average family income were actually lower in the Northern Sydney suburb than in Fairfield-Liverpool. Within Western Sydney, there is an uneven pattern of access to childcare. The situation in many wealthier new release areas is doubtless closer to North Shore conditions than those evident in Fairfield-Liverpool, or in other older middle suburbs.

Generally, these new and established federal government policies have tended to powerfully reinforce the process of residential segregation. If the Commonwealth is at least partly responsible for rising socio-economic stresses and widening geographical cleavages in Western Sydney, it is ludicrous to argue that their amelioration is simply a State responsibility. Alternative Commonwealth policy settings, that reinforce the public sphere and public services instead of undermining them, would do much to arrest the drift to social segregation in Western Sydney.

Overall, we can observe in Western Sydney the erosion of what Europeans call 'social solidarity'. Social solidarity means an absence of exclusion and mutual respect within and between geographic and social communities. Social solidarity for the European Union is a key political value, not for misty-eyed philosophical reasons, but because the Europeans recognise this as a precondition for prosperity and happiness. Solidarity does not mean uniformity, but the type of social integrity that emerges from diversity and tolerance. As such, social solidarity needs a rich and mixed societal 'soil' if it is to survive and thrive. Practically speaking, this means communities that contain a balance of different views, skills, cultures and resources. My assessment of the state of social solidarity in Western Sydney is not encouraging. The strengthening moods of separatism and privatism amongst the region's growing number of affluent communities are mirrored by the deepening gloom and ill humour of its excluded and poorer residents.

Australia's cities and its patterns of urban change are distinct. It is a common failure of analysts and policy-makers to assume that our urban problems simply mirror or follow those observed in US or European cities. The misuse of the terms 'ghetto' and 'underclass' to describe Australian urban conditions are cases in point. Nevertheless, our patterns of urbanisation share some broad causal pressures and outcomes with those observed in other developed nations.

In Europe, the problem of social exclusion has been linked to patterns of socio-economic change that produce increasingly segregated cities. The loss of 'social balance' in established working and middle class urban areas, and their fragmentation into separate concentrations of wealth and poverty, are recognised as key problems for democracy and social solidarity. In the UK, the social scientist and commentator Anne Power makes the following comment:

We have now reached the point where urban areas have become too physically dispersed, too traffic bound and too socially polarized to be attractive to many groups. People often leave cities today because they are too depleted. On the whole, it is the better-off who move out, leaving behind marginalized communities with little power to tackle negative conditions. Yet cities need a mixture of incomes and activities if they are to thrive economically. People will live in well-planned, well-designed, well-managed city neighbourhoods, but only if crime, traffic, schools, other core services and environmental conditions are more equal.10

Just so. In Western Sydney I have no doubt that everyone aspires to live in "well-planned, well-designed, well-managed city neighbourhoods". This ideal is surely a universal aspiration shared by all those who vote, and those who cannot. The problem is that universal aspiration requires universal access to key public goods and amenities. Our governments have become increasingly unwilling to guarantee such universal access, and thus it is only those with market power who have the ability to satisfy their aspirations. The private forms of "well-planned, well-designed, well-managed city neighbourhoods" are the master planned showpieces of new urbanism that rejoice in their privileged homogeneity. Left behind are the deteriorating older suburbs with their increasingly residualised, and in some cases desperate, populations. Only those ground down by prolonged exclusion and poverty have surrendered up their aspirations for a good home, a good neighbourhood and the other resources necessary for a good life.

On the other side of the ledger, the winners have their social aspirations and their material appetites fed and inflated by the enormous public subsidies that have been directed towards them. Over time, the aspirations become greater: no longer will a four bedroom house suffice, when a mansion with a pool seems the minimum; no longer will a family sedan meet the needs of a family, when a four wheel drive seems affordable and necessary. From a societal perspective, 'aspiration dependency' is an expensive habit that is difficult to break by political means. Once hooked on subsidies, affluent households are not likely to support policies that seek a more egalitarian and sustainable distribution of social resources and life opportunities.

Wanted: new ideas for Australian cities

I have described the new imbalances that are emerging in the social geography of Western Sydney. These are emblematic of a wider social and geographic re-sorting that is underway in other parts of metropolitan Australia. These shifts raise profound issues for our democracy because the drift away from socially balanced communities produces new imbalances of perception and outlook. Sociologists remind us that interaction - that is meaningful human contact at a personal and daily level - is the key to ensuring tolerance, harmony and contentment in dynamic multicultural societies.

I venture to say that the 'culture of anxiety', which pervades public debates and private behaviour in Western Sydney, might well be dissipated if we were to re-establish public spaces, facilities and services that invite participation and interaction by all. These need to be reinforced by non-government civic resources that are similarly inclusive, and which invite a continuous discovery of differences. Governments cannot create such public and civic spaces on their own, but they must lead and invest in the processes that will produce them.


These two papers were presented at the Evatt Foundation's Breakfast Seminar on 18 March 2002, Mayfair Room, Southern Cross Hotel, Sydney. Mark Latham MP is the Shadow Minister for Housing and Urban Development. Dr Brendan Gleeson is the Deputy Director and Senior Research Fellow at the Urban Frontiers Program, University of Western Sydney (Macarthur). The discussion was chaired by Foundation Executive Committee member, Professor Frank Stilwell, School of Economics and Political Science, University of Sydney.



1. 15 February 2002, page 10. 2. Bondi, in fact, is part of the blue ribbon Liberal seat of Wentworth. In the 101-year history of the Federal Parliament, it has never been held by the ALP. 3. Only four other electorates in NSW did the same: Cunningham, Fowler, Newcastle and Watson. 4. See Bob Birrell and Byung-Soo Seol "Sydney's Ethnic Underclass", People and Place, Vol.6, No.3, 1998, pages 16-29. In the 1990s, the overseas-born adult male population increased in the local government areas of Fairfield, Auburn, Canterbury, Liverpool, Bankstown, Parramatta, Holroyd, Blacktown and Hurstville and fell in the following LGAs: Ashfield, Botany, Marrickville, Sydney, Concord, South Sydney, North Sydney, Drummoyne and Leichhardt (inner-city); and Penrith, Blue Mountains, Camden, Wollondilly and Hawkesbury (outer suburbs). 5. See Joe Hockey, "A Vision for Sydney", Speech to the Committee for Sydney, July 2001. 6. There are some important exceptions to this observation: for example, the national consultancy SGS Economics and Planning has made an enormous contribution to spatial scientific understanding of social and economic change in Australia over the past two decades. 7. By this term I mean the disciplines of Geography and Urban Planning, as well as the spatially informed sub-currents of other social sciences (eg urban economics, urban sociology). 8. A recent important example of this work is the new book by Kevin O'Connor, Robert Simpson and Maurice daly, Australia's Changing Economic Geography, (Oxford University Press, 2002). 9. A case in point is the recent extension to Sydney's M5 Motorway, which delivered huge windfall property value gains to proximate property owners, including those holding commercial and industrial land. 10. Anne Power, "Social exclusion and urban sprawl: is the rescue of cities possible?", Regional Studies, 35 (8), 2001, pp. 731-42.

Read Letters in response to these articles: It's five minutes to midnight out here, writes Wayne McMillan (Mark Latham replies) We need an eco-economy, writes Len Puglisi (Brendan Gleeson replies) There is another pathway to affordable housing, writes Shann Turnbull


Suggested citation

Gleeson, Mark Latham & Brendan, 'What's happening in the suburbs?', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 3, April 2002.<>


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