Saving our cities with suburbs

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  • Published 20031202
  • ISBN: 9780733313509
  • Extent: 236 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm)

OVER THE PAST few years we have experienced a massive and sustained attack on the form of Australia’s cities. Politicians argue that we have to adopt a new urban form. Planners and other “urban specialists” inveigh against the traditional form of development. Simplistic environmentalists argue that this is environmentally unsound and that cities need to change to make them more urban (what they mean by this is never defined) to reduce environmental stress. Developers and other lurk merchants proclaim the benefits of apartments and are supported in their views by various trendsetters and especially newspaper lifestyle commentators. But why are suburbs so out of fashion?

The suburban form of our cities developed from their foundations. As there was no established agricultural hinterland, settlers had to provide or grow much of their own food. Even convicts were expected to provide much of their own sustenance. This was recognised in the early plans for the layout of towns that specified varying sized allotments. In Sydney, Governor Phillip proposed allotments should be 60 by 90 feet (18 by 27 metres). Governor Darling specified half-acre (2020 square metre) allotments with buildings set back 20 feet from the boundaries.

By the time Newcastle was settled some of the options had been closed off, so a quarter acre was specified as the allotment size with main streets 100 feet wide plus two 10-feet-wide footpaths. The Melbourne grid was laid out under the Colonial Secretary’s instructions with allotments of half an acre, one chain (20 metres) by five chains. Adelaide’s initial plan envisaged one-acre allotments, although later towns laid out in rural areas in the South Australian colony specified half-acre allotments. The plan proposed for Brisbane was based on allotments of a quarter acre with generous public squares and reserves and streets 90 feet wide. This plan was vetoed by Governor Gipps who felt that “wide open spaces encouraged public disorder”. Gipps ordered one-fifth-acre allotments with streets of 66 feet, except for Queen Street which was specified as 80 feet wide.

The aspirations of the early settlers from urban England, and especially the middle class, for suburban villas was given energy because land outside the towns was still available as a government grant and rents in the town were high, thus providing an incentive for people to build their own homes outside the towns. Another pressure may well have been the dangers from fire that closely packed dwellings presented in a situation of unpredictable long dry periods.

The Building Act of 1837 was an encouragement for those who held the conventional view that suburban housing was healthier. The introduction of building ventilation regulations based on miasmatic theories of disease transmission in The City of Sydney Improvement Act of 1879 had a major and persistent influence on the design of housing. Regulations covering structural safety, fire and health aspects of housing all helped to enshrine suburban separate houses in their own gardens as the dominant form of housing.

Other colonies followed similar trajectories in the development of regulatory regimes in response to similar demands. A house in its own garden thus became the predominant “national” form of urban development.

Once developed, the effect of this relatively low-density form of development was to enable successive generations of households to attain a high degree of self-sufficiency. Some argue that the extent of domestic production was largely the reason for the relatively high standard of living enjoyed by Australians in the late 19th and early 20th century.

In the original settlements there were no centrally organised waste-
disposal systems. The original form of development, however, meant it was possible for households, especially those on “suburban” blocks, to accommodate and manage most of their own wastes, including human wastes, on site.

In the inner areas of the cities primitive human-waste collection and disposal systems were developed that often led to the creation of “nuisances”. Wherever they could be afforded, “reticulated” sewerage systems were developed. Once the system was developed, all land holdings within reach of the sewer had to pay property-based charges for the service whether connected to it or not. This led to the connection of all dwellings and commercial undertakings to the sewerage system. In areas beyond the drainage area of the sewer, and where soil conditions were appropriate, waterborne “septic” tank disposal systems were developed. The overflow effluent from these was then distributed to aspiration pipes, rubble drains or trenches to soak into the surrounding land. This in turn meant that the allotment for a dwelling had to be large enough to cope with the effluent flow. An allotment area of a quarter of an acre was regarded as the appropriate size in most soil conditions to cope with the waste flows. Once reticulated sewerage systems were provided the need for allotments to be on a “quarter-acre subdivision” was removed.

The development of regular communal garbage collections from dwellings and commercial undertakings also reduced the need for large allotments.

Initially households made their own provision for water supplies. Households installed tanks to collect and store rainwater from roofs. In response to campaigns for publicly provided secure supplies of potable water, major cities developed reticulated water supplies.

Generally, the inner areas of Australian cities had allotments of one eighth of an acre although once they reached a size where they were no longer “walking cities”, smaller subdivisions were made in inner suburbs to cater for demand by low-income earners for housing close to the city centre. Middle-distance and outer suburbs had quarter acre allotments until the early post-World War II period when allotment sizes were reduced because the need to allow for domestic production, water storage, on-site sewage management and on-site garbage disposal had been removed.


THE ATTRACTION OF the suburbs was the appeal of the idea of a “green and secluded neighbourhood”, one where families could enjoy “fresh air, a pleasant view and a shady garden”. Miasmatic theories of disease transmission reinforced this desire and regulations governing the design and construction of buildings, especially dwellings, enshrined this in the late 19th century. By the beginning of the 20th century, garden-city ideals gained currency, reinforcing the earlier ambitions of residents. The generally high and egalitarian distribution of wealth and income in the population meant that the great majority of the population enjoyed this more spacious form of development. The fact that Australian cities had internationally high levels of home ownership and a general perception that there was space aplenty reinforced the notion of the “normalcy” of the form that Australian cities developed.

Recognition of the centrality of the separate house in its own garden to the aspirations of the overwhelming majority of the population and the view that this would breed a conservative constituency was the foundation of the post-World War II campaigns of Robert Menzies, then leader of the Opposition in the Federal Parliament. The increase of home ownership to a record level of 70 per cent by 1961, where it has largely stayed (although is now falling), is a measure of the success of the first element of that campaign. However, the assumption that it would lead to political conservatism does not appear to have followed.

In the post-World War II period, Australian cities experienced a rapid increase in population – largely from immigration to support the new industrialisation but also from rural-urban internal migration that followed the changes in farming due to mechanisation, restructuring of industries like flour-milling and brewing, changes in railway technology, etc. This increase in urban population was accompanied by a rapid increase in motor-vehicle ownership that facilitated a massive increase in the suburban reach of all the major cities. The development of the road system and the increase in the capacity of radial roads, later to be enhanced by the construction of freeways and tollways, increased their centralisation.

What then were the advantages of the suburban character of Australian cities?

The suburbs were perceived as enabling households to develop a high degree of independence and security, especially through their own production of food and services. The suburbs allowed a high degree of individual expression (sometimes derided by “highbrow” cultural critics). They enabled on-site coping with much household waste. The development of gardens, especially the planting of trees for shade, enabled households to moderate their local climate to some degree without installing air-conditioning. The dwellings built in traditional ways had low levels of invested energy in them and were largely built with renewable materials. They were often built in stages and by the owners and also were readily adaptable to changing household needs. The outdoor space allowed householders to pursue a variety of hobbies, to have pets and to store recreational vehicles and equipment.

The suburban house provided a healthy comfortable environment and one that enabled family-centred activities ranging from cricket in the backyard to Christmas barbecues. The adaptability of suburban houses made them easy to retrofit solar hot-water heaters and to install rainwater tanks to collect water and reduce metered consumption.

In short, the suburban house and its garden provided the stage on which most Australians lived their easygoing lives of comfort in reasonable balance with nature. The advertising images of Australia’s attractions and the suggestion that visitors would be welcomed by putting another prawn on the “barbie” projected the notion of a free and open society in a free and open built environment.

SO WHAT HAS changed? The development of large-scale farming and food production, together with improvement in the transport, distribution, marketing and storage of food, reduced the attraction or need for domestic production. The cheap mass production of clothing and other household consumption items made household production less attractive. The reduction in household size and increased participation of married women in the formal workforce meant that on the one hand the demand for domestic production fell while simultaneously on the other there was less “domestic labour” available to produce the food and clothing, thus leading to a reduction in household production. These processes, in turn, led to reduction in the need for households to have large areas to support them.

But the main reason for the change in the fortunes of the suburbs lies in other directions.

By the late 1970s, governments in Australia were facing a situation where they had exploited all the “surplus” capacity in the variety of urban services they supplied. Politicians of all persuasions had engaged in a competition to see who could maintain the lowest forms of public-sector funding. Those in power sought ways of increasing urban density as a way of reducing the demand for public capital rather than extending the urban services to keep pace with growth in demand for urban space.

Some commentators claimed that the choice of housing types was constrained and that increasing density would rectify this.

The notion of consolidation was adopted in the early 1980s as a way of increasing density, allegedly to save on infrastructure service costs, reduce environmental stresses – especially by increasing public-transport patronage – and increase housing choice.

This coincided with changes in the structure of the building industry. Whereas the big building unions paradoxically were strong supporters of Menzies’ initiatives to extend home ownership to larger proportions of the working class, the construction of domestic housing was increasingly difficult to unionise because of the development of subcontracting in the housing industry. The advent of large-site construction of high-density housing and offices, however, led to better opportunities for unionisation of the workforce. Building unions that had campaigned to help Menzies deliver the suburban house and garden now found themselves lukewarm about this policy and preferred high-density urban development, although few subcontractors appeared to live in such housing.

Newspapers also found that the high advertising income streams that attended the marketing of high-density housing was acceptable. They found space in their lifestyle pages to sing the praises of a romanticised urban lifestyle in which people did not have any household chores but had time to engage in a café society, while offering little critical comment.

The falling family size, the so called “empty-nester syndrome”, the attractiveness of early retirement and notion that the new retirees would have comfortable lives engaged in recreation in their coastal retreats and new “urban” lives in smaller, garden-free, medium-density dwellings, led many to succumb to the temptation to invest in “urban housing”. Uncertainties in stock market investments were reflected in reduction in superannuation pensions and the belief fostered by the real estate industry that investment in property would be a profitable venture, further led many to invest in medium– to high-density housing. In the early 1990s, these processes were fuelled by the overseas demand for Australian real estate. The period of low value of the Australian dollar and the consequent increased demand for investment units further helped create the impression that there was a strong underlying demand for change and that everyone who invested in flats stood to make substantial capital gains.


ALL THIS WAS in spite of evidence that the demand for a house in its own garden remained the preference for the overwhelming proportion of Australians.

Governments nonetheless pressed on with policies designed to increase density, pressuring local-government authorities to approve more higher-density redevelopment. Suburbs fought to defend their environment.

The ideologically determined policy initiative was maintained.

The policy was supported by a curious coalition of intellectuals and aesthetes who had long expressed disdain for the suburban life. Adopting a crude physical determinism they made it fashionable to sing the praises of high-density living.

The campaign was effective: allotment sizes fell in both new and redevelopment areas. The change in policy was not buttressed by analysis of the uses to which households put their gardens or backyard spaces at different periods in their lives. Nor was the policy supported by analysis of its likely effects. The net effect of the changes in form resulting from the reduction in allotment size is now obvious in Australian cities. The effect, however, is not uniform nor has it occurred in locations thought to best meet the policy objectives. The 1996 census revealed that in Sydney, for example, the highest concentration of medium– and high-density housing was in areas not served by rail services. Moreover, there was no systematic evidence that the per capita energy and water consumption was reduced by increased density that air and water pollution were reduced by higher density, that higher-density housing led to increased public-transport usage or that housing choice was increased.

By early 2003, evidence emerged that the pyramid scheme called high-rise development began to lose its attraction as the oversupply of apartments made it difficult for investors to rent them.

The adoption of new technologies has wrought major changes on the structure of cities. Early forms of energy conversion led to high-intensity factories and warehouses. This was especially obvious in Sydney where factories and warehouses were built on the harbour foreshores to take advantage of the easy delivery of coal to power their operations. The adoption of small reliable electric motors transformed the organisation and processes of manufacturing and adoption of developments in materials-handling technology, such as forklifts and the palletising of materials and products, all led to demands for different forms of factories and warehouses. The rapid post-World War II move away from cramped waterside industrial and warehousing sites to extensive new industrial areas on the fringes of the metropolitan areas changed the structure of the city. Subsequent changes in manufacturing including adoption of “just-in-time” delivery of components and final delivery of products served to solidify those changes.

These restructuring forces were increased by the adoption of new marine transport technologies, especially those related to the containerisation of cargoes and the development of very large bulk carriers. The close connection between shipping and the original centre of the city meant that the area around the docks was fully developed. Adoption of the new transport technology could not be accommodated on the existing harbour shores. This in turn led to pressures to develop port facilities in new locations. All of the state capital cities have now been restructured leaving old port and dockside support areas to be redeveloped for new uses.

TOWN-PLANNING SCHEMES INTRODUCED in the 1950s sought to capture some of the advantages of centralisation while minimising its disadvantages by fostering the growth of suburban centres. Initially, these were planned to take advantage of “natural foci” developed around public transport nodes. While the restructuring of the city resulting from the range of new technologies occurred, it did not always take place in the locations favoured by the town-planners. Moreover, the vibrant new shopping malls that developed did so usually in locations selected because of their easy access by motor vehicle and because they had sufficient space for parking. A major reason this new “decentralisation” within the metropolitan area did not deliver the advantages planned for the suburban centres is that there was little decentralisation of public administration or public facilities and virtually no devolution of political responsibility. Residents continued to be forced to travel to the city centre for most of their dealings with government. The decline of retailing in the traditional centres left many of them depressed and run-down. The privatisation of public space that accompanied the new malls led to further decline of the traditional centres, except in a small number of locations that have been able to develop as recreational or tourist destinations.

The original decisions on the layout of the settlement of each colony and subsequent decisions on the siting and layout of later towns have had a strong continuing effect on their structures. The original and subsequent subdivision patterns developed around transport and access routes established and then reinforced the structural centralisation of Australian cities. The impotence of the urban-planning system to overcome the limitation wrought by these historical elements has created a situation that has meant that when radical changes to their structure have been visited on cities by the adoption of new technology, especially in transport infrastructure, the rigidity of the planning and development control system has resulted in inefficiencies in the operation of the city. This rigidity and predetermination of the course of development is called path dependency.

The path dependency effects of the development of other infrastructure services have similarly led to inefficiencies as the cities have grown. The historical investment in major infrastructure services (water supply, sewerage and drainage) and the institutional arrangements created to develop and manage them provide a brake that also prevents too rapid a changed response to new technology or short-term “fashions” in economic or financial systems. These inhibiting forces may have negative effects in the way urban services are delivered. For example, the “big pipe in – big pipe out” water-supply and sewerage systems based on 19th-century technology and administration had undoubted benefits in terms of public health. However, the water-supply and sewerage authorities and their political masters have been slow to recognise the need to change their approach to the delivery of hydraulic services in the face of increasing evidence that we cannot continue with a profligate attitude to the use of water.

Probably the most important predetermining effect has been the incremental extension and accretion of the centralisation of political, economic and administrative power. Governments and their bureaucrats have continued and strengthened the centralisation of power and administration long after it was clear that the major cities had grown beyond the scale where residents could have easy access to “the centre”. This has meant that government and its administration has become distant from citizens and produced a centralisation of city structure that further entrenches the separation as the city grows. The centralisation of investment in cultural facilities is one example of this process. Path dependency is also enshrined in the rights and privileges codified and vested in private property.

The form of city development has also been affected by similar path dependency. In part, this flows from the durability and longevity of investment in housing. It also stems from the persistence of aspirations, expectations, conventions and ambitions of the population. We have seen this in various periods in the stubborn resistance of people to attempts to change their cities. We saw it in the 1930s in the resistance to “flat” developments and we see it currently in resistance by communities trying to save their suburbs from the effects of consolidation. While the need for domestic production might have been reduced, households continue to demand a living environment where they can attain the privacy they desire, where they can pursue home-based leisure activities, where their accommodation is flexible enough to enable them to accommodate visitors and children, and so on. The suburban form of Australian cities and towns was enshrined in them from their beginnings and was not something arising out of the adoption of particular transport technologies at various times, although it is clear that Menzies’ view that the ideal form of housing was for a single house on its own plot of land heavily influenced much of the suburban development of cities until recently.

The more recent attempts to re-form the cities by setting the suburbs up as some kind of “straw man” target comes from a number of policy failures including:

  • Failure to develop a population policy including one related not only to the total population but also to where the population might be accommodated;
  • Failure of our federal system to acknowledge that the states need more financial support if they are to develop and maintain a high level of basic urban services;
  • Failure of the states to properly plan the development and operation of the cities;
  • Failure of the infrastructure authorities to re-examine their roles and the technologies they employ in meeting community needs; and
  • The tragic race to the bottom indulged in by federal and state political leaders to show who can make the lowest commitment to raising taxes to pay for public facilities and services.

It also comes in part from pursuit of architectural and lifestyle fashions imported from other cultures that are not grounded in the lived experience or aspirations of the majority of Australians. The influence of fashion in a consumer-driven economy is not confined to products such as clothing, food, recreational equipment, toys or household goods but is also manifest in the popularising of architectural styles and the selling by politicians. The desire to be “modern”, “with it”, “in touch” or “up to the minute” is exploited in the projection by those who seek to influence the behaviour of others. Lifestyle trendsetters and politicians both energetically project themselves as having some understanding of fundamental truths. When this applies to matters ephemeral it is of little moment but when it is expressed as support for some imagined “urban life” or city form the very permanence of the concrete expression of the notion can have long-term consequences that are not consonant with the ambitions of residents.

I do not argue here that path dependency is the dominant effect in the trajectory of development of either the structure or form of the city, although it clearly is important. Points of inflection and discontinuity in the development trajectory may occur as a result of natural disasters, economic failure, major technological changes or the determined pursuit by governments of policies to change social aspirations and mores.

Some argue that path dependency provides the framework for continuity, stability, familiarity and security without which we would not have civilised life. Others deride this as being old-fashioned or conservative. Yet others claim that it is possible to so organise urban life that cities achieve economies in their operation and facilitate a democratisation of engagement while preserving the significant elements of their histories. They would further claim that the structure of the city could be developed to serve these ends by devolving power, decentralising administration and investing in public facilities and services.

When opportunities are seen for new business or investment the same appeal to continuity, stability, familiarity and security is not so much in evidence in relation to the form of the city. Defenders of suburbanisation may mount arguments based on these concerns but proponents of change tend to minimise their significance.


THE RECENT HISTORY of Australian urbanisation provides a paradoxical commentary on the growth of Australia’s cities. Although “progress” has been seen in terms of the connection of dwellings to a variety of networked services that are highly centralised, the need for them to continue to be connected is now increasingly being questioned. Innovations in communication technology, for example, have reduced the need for telephones to be connected by buried copper, encouraging households to collect their own water may greatly reduce the need for households to be connected to a reticulated water system, etc.

The inherent inefficiencies of centralised systems have begun to lead to redirection of growth away from the centre. We do not yet have the development of “edge cities” but centrifugal forces that produced such outcomes in the United States, where major commercial centres develop on the urban fringe (usually at major road interchanges), are evident in Australia.

Pressure on resources, especially on water supplies, and pollution loads on receiving waters, are increasingly leading to reconsideration of the way urban water supplies are provided and maintained. The populations of all major cities have reached the point where, at current levels of consumption, the limits of water supplies have been reached. Initial responses were to pursue pricing policies designed to reduce consumption. More recently governments, local and state, have encouraged the local capture, storage and use of rainfall as a way of meeting demand. Simultaneously, governments have explored the possibility of recycling wastewater for domestic and commercial use to reduce the pressure on resources and to reduce the discharge of wastewater into the oceans, rivers and bays in or near the cities.

The rapid inflation in real estate prices over a relatively long period appears to have fuelled the pressures to change the form of development in large areas of all major cities. Increasing prices of housing appear to be leading to rapid increases in mortgage burdens that in turn may lead to further downward pressures on family size. They may also lead to emigration of families with children or householders of childbearing age seeking to reduce housing costs by moving to lower-cost towns. The consequences of falling family size and such migration for changes in city form and structure are yet to be revealed.

The paradox is that as pressures mount for housing to be made more energy– and water-independent and as communication systems have less need for a “wired” network, Australian cities could become less dependent on highly centralised systems.  The path dependency of the conventional form of housing thus may well be the saving of the city in terms of reduction in environmental stress because its adaptability and flexibility gives it the capacity to adapt to new approaches to the delivery of urban services.

The virtues of suburbia may yet turn out to be the saving of our cities. 

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About the author

Patrick Troy

Professor Patrick Troy AO is a sometime engineer, town-planner, transport planner and public servant, visiting fellow at the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies,...

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