What’s driving suburban Australia? Fear in the tank, hope on the horizon

MIKE MOORE'S RECENT Oscar-winning documentary, Bowling for Columbine, depicted an America in the thrall of fear, largely of itself. Ostensibly about the ravages of United States gun culture, Columbineexposed far deeper tensions within America's white suburban societies. A sequence of animated maps retold the story of white flight from the cities of America that began in the 1960s, propelled by deepening racial tensions, economic restructuring and mounting concern about "urban disorder". The exodus has continued in the decades since, fuelling the continuous and often haphazard expansion of largely white suburbs. This fear-driven sprawl has been accompanied by a rapid balkanization of the local political landscape as each new suburban community wraps itself in municipal armoury, ensuring that local taxes aren't redistributed back to the "undeserving" (and coloured) poor in the older cities.

Moore's thesis is that urban America remains in the grip of hysteria about racial crime that neglects the reality that whites are, and always have been, the main perpetrators of gun crime and non-whites the principal victims. For him, the myth of the ubiquitous coloured gun-toting criminal has been left quietly unchallenged, sometimes even inflamed, by corporations and others who realise that fear is good for business. Fear-fuelled sprawl has consumed vast amounts of land, materials and energy and has undoubtedly added significantly to US gross domestic product since its emergence four decades ago. Anxiety fuels consumption, as advertisers well know, and death and disaster are excellent growth stimulants: all such "ordinary" maladies are good for business and hence for the nation.

Mike Davis's celebrated explorations of growth and decline in fin de siècle Los Angeles, City of Quartz (Verso, 1990) and Ecology of Fear (Metropolitan Books, 1998), shaped Moore's theme of a suburban America literally terrified of itself, retreating into walled and economically autonomous enclaves as older cities spiral downwards into the economic and social abyss. "Fortress America" is now comprised of a myriad of largely white "privatopias" – gated estates, home-owner associations, buildings with doormen – people living in ever-increasing isolation from the dimly grasped sources of their original fear of urban disorder.

For Davis, the exclusionary white suburban community is a succubus that lurks on the edge of decaying coloured cities, draining out tax revenues and drawing off political attention and favour towards itself. The capturing and concentration of investment capital in the suburbs has been marked by the emergence of "edge cities", large urban centres located on major outer roadways, existing largely in isolation and antipathy to the older cities and their mouldering downtowns. Davis argues that the edge cities produced a new and unique crop of political conservatism in the 1980s, in the form of Newt Gingrich and other "Beltway" Republicans whose "Contract with America" program distilled to a fine essence the anxieties of suburban America about urban "welfarism" and disorder.


AUSTRALIANS HAVE LONG shared with Americans a deep love of suburban living. The motivations for suburban living – space, amenity and order – were largely shared from the late 19th century until the outbreak of fear in urban America in the 1960s. Since that time, the dynamics behind suburbanisation in both countries diverged, as Australians continued to pursue peace rather than security in the suburbs, largely free from the shadow of urban dread. Other factors, such as Australia's relatively vibrant planning system and its recent flirtation with inner-urban living, have shaped distinct development paths in both countries' cities.

Recently, however, a variety of commentary from academics, the media and development industry advocates, has heralded the arrival of the North American "privatopia" in Australia. The opening of Australia's first gated community, the Gold Coast's Sanctuary Cove in 1985, marked the arrival of a new residential development form that has gradually manifested in most of the nation's major cities and in nearby urban regions. For a range of reasons, including the absence of US-style provisions that allow ready secession of new residential enclaves from existing local government structures, the outright gated community remains a relative rarity in Australia.

This observation should not mask recognition that the exclusive, if not exclusionary, residential community is now a mainstream suburban product. Indeed, with the recent decline of the first-home-owner housing market in urban Australia, the exclusive lifestyle estate has emerged as the principal form of greenfield residential development. Less exclusive "traditional" estates continue to be produced, especially by public land developers, but are fewer in number, increasingly priced out by the rising costs of raw land in Australia's metropolitan areas. High-cost "master-planned" and gated estates are, by contrast, a far more financially attractive form of residential development.

These new estates are strongly distinguished from the traditional residential subdivisions of post-war Australia by their careful and often expensive design and by the timely provision of community infrastructure. In one sense, they represent an attempt to overcome the often haphazard development of public and community facilities that plagued the growth of earlier subdivisions. Unlike previous estate development the new master-planned communities are explicitly marketed to an exclusive and "discerning" clientele. The principal object of discernment is "community" – the compelling image that emblazons the billboards of new estates. The marketing trumpets community, expensively and quickly willed into existence through the creation of "urban villages": rapidly constructed residential stage sets that promise a return to the carefree and secure virtues of an older suburban Australia that is now supposedly vanishing from the older fabric of our cities.

Through this reconstitution of the suburbanisation process the concept of community, of suburban community, has itself become a commodity. Much more than house-and-land packages are now on offer via sales pitches that are suffused with giddily utopian promises of happy, wealthy and secure futures for all who take the chance to share the new suburban dreaming. The contemporary commodity of community takes two principal social geographic forms: a "greenfield" exclave separated from the tatty fabric of older urban areas and usually located in the outer metropolitan fringe, or a "brownfield" enclave bravely reinstating community within the urban fabric, sometimes with walls, gates and other filters so that the bonds of community don't escape or the corrosive influence of the public does not invade.

Home buyers are presumed to yearn for community. The sales evidence seems to support the thesis, with gated estates quickly snapped up by eager dreamers.

The promise of master-planned community evokes an impressive confidence in the power of design to create attractive social milieux; betraying strong derivative roots in the "new urbanism" cultivated by North American designers, dreamers and developers in the past decade. New urbanism invites a return to the happy "urban village" that was humanity's haven before it was swept aside by modernisation and its urban depredations. US developers, sensing a new zeitgeist – postmodern angst – washing across the substrate of middle-class fear, responded by turning the new urbanist niche development into a mass commodity. Just as Sea-Monkeys could be willed into life by adding water to a strange powdery substance in a mail-order packet, now community is willed into life by pouring money, lots of it, into nostalgic combinations of bricks and mortar. Millions have answered the call and now live in Truman Show stage sets across North America, though even Hollywood detected the underlying unease about the "cookie-cutter" communities created by new urbanism.


AUSTRALIA'S MASTER-PLANNED estates have not adopted the Jeffersonian picket-fence purity of North American new urbanism or the theme-park knavery of its niche spin-offs, such as the Walt Disney Company's traditional (circa 1996) mid-western township Celebration.[1] This may reflect sociologist Michael Pusey's observation that Australians "typically have cooler feelings about community" than Americans and view the ideal in aesthetic rather than moral terms. In Australia, the master-planners sense that lifestyle, not necessarily nostalgia, is the quality of community sought by the local discerning classes. It comes down to provision of high-quality facilities and outdoor amenity from the moment the gates open and the lots are sold off. However, the increasingly frequent use of community titling, in preference to publicly maintained space, to deliver the amenity and facilities marks a significant overlap with the North American privatopia. "Lifestyle" is, after all, not a public good like "life", but a quality that must be attained (earned/won) and maintained (cherished/guarded).

There is, however, evidence of another dynamic that is emerging in contemporary residential community creation in Australia that may provide another point of convergence with its American counterparts: the increasing evocation of "security" as a quality of lifestyle. The bare subtext of the marketing that sells the estate is the promise of security via social conformity and distance from unsettling cultural and socioeconomic differences. As a Sydney Morning Herald article put it, "the lifestyle estate is expressly not about diversity ... it's about living with people similarly inclined and with the funds to buy in".[2] Rarely, however, is the Australian master-planned estate walled; rather the quality of exclusiveness, and by extension exclusion, is assured by the expense of buying into such estates and the physical and social attributes that "design out" non-residents.

The apparent success of commodity community and its impacts on Australian suburbs may simply express middle Australia's expanding material appetites and its increasing social sophistication. But in my assessment it has less to do with such apparently simple choices. Rather, it has been shaped and directed by political, social and economic conditions that have limited the marketing of suburbs and developments that would be less exclusive or exclusionary.

These shifts, combined with cultural changes, have produced the new commodity community and stifled the possibilities for alternative, less exclusionary residential forms. Contemporary suburbanisation in Australia is shaped by the mounting anxiety and insecurity among Australia's urban middle classes, which have been well documented in recent studies by Pusey in The Experience of Middle Australia (Cambridge University Press, 2003) and Clive Hamilton in Growth Fetish (Allen & Unwin, 2003).

This is not the accidental consequence of deeper structural changes, though the architects of such change might not have envisaged their precise impacts on urban social life. At the broadest scale, the transformation of suburban Australia reflects the long-term project of neo-liberal restructuring that has been pursued by Australian governments since the early 1980s and which has led to new cleavages and tensions in the social and geographic fabric of the nation. In the past decade, a new intensive round of restructuring of state services has seen the contraction of the public sphere and a new political emphasis on self-provision (albeit some of it publicly subsidised, especially, and perversely, for the better off). This complex mix of successive structural changes has deepened social insecurities. These anxieties are distilled, along with yearnings for community, in the heady mix of dream weaving and dream believing that now frames the sale of commodity communities in suburban Australia.

It may not be too much to say that fear is one of the motive forces that propel urban development in Australia. As yet, however, this fear is not heavily racialised, as it has long been in the US, and is more directly the product of conscious political economic choices that Australian governments have taken in recent decades. It is therefore more amenable to change and revision, if the resources for social hope are reinstated in Australia's suburban landscapes.


AS PUSEY AND Hamilton both observe, the late 1990s and the early years of the new millennium saw a rapid growth in national wealth and new enrichment for sections of the upper and middle classes. Ironically, both also point to the simultaneous growth of unhappiness and stress within most social strata, including those benefiting from the new wealth. On the other side of the social ledger an increasing amount of empirically based social scientific analysis has pointed to, and charted, the growth of socioeconomic polarisation within suburban Australia in the past two decades. Polarisation has not simply reflected a growth in poverty but has been achieved through a twin process of rising wealth and strengthening deprivation in the region.

Australia's once famously "bland" – economically uniform – suburbs have decomposed into much more diverse and complex social landscapes. The shifting geography of western Sydney is a key instance of a relatively homogenous urban region undergoing a rapid social geographic transformation and becoming much more diverse economically. A report by National Economics in 2000 found: "The region includes some of the most dynamic and poorest areas of Sydney. In general, income and educational attainment is below average. On the other hand, some areas are booming and have high rates of income growth. It is no longer possible to discuss Greater Western Sydney as a homogenous region."

Western Sydney has reflected, in a strongly pronounced way, a national trend towards bipolar socio-structural change that registered in a variety of social scientific analyses in the 1990s. The era witnessed the simultaneous growth of wealth and of deprivation, a situation described in summary terms by one observer as "poverty in a decade of growth".

The growth of social polarisation in urban Australia has been accompanied by, and partly realised through, increasing spatial polarisation, notably a heightened tendency towards residential segregation of socioeconomic groups locally. New pockets of disadvantage have been forming in the past decade within the major cities in areas outside public housing estates, largely within older, ageing middle-ring suburbs. These new "private" worlds of disadvantage have emerged "off-stage", away from the traditional theatres of policy attention, the public housing estates. Further analysis of these areas confirms the association between high immigration levels, large amounts of (often ageing) medium-density housing and rental accommodation, together with significant numbers of older home owners. As a summary portrait, these new private concentrations of poverty are made up of households clustering in multi-unit housing, much of it in poor condition, in areas where the public realm is often stressed and decaying.

Many of the factors behind contemporary socio-spatial polarisation are well known and have been surveyed in the social scientific literature. What is much less understood and debated is the way in which government actions – particularly via deliberate reconstitutions of the public realm – have contributed to this change. The problem is not simply one of "policy neglect", though this is certainly a factor shaping social and economic outcomes in many of Australia's ageing suburbs. Many policy interventions and funding shifts in recent years have exacerbated the inequalities that ordinarily arise from market interactions, particularly reductions in the Commonwealth's funding and servicing of key aspects of the public realm, including education, welfare, health services and labour markets.


THE AMERICAN ECONOMIST J.K. Galbraith long ago noted the increasing qualitative divergences between the private and public spheres in market societies in his memorable depiction of "private affluence and public squalor". The observation resonates in many of Australia's suburban regions where degraded or neglected public facilities and infrastructure increasingly contrast with their well-resourced private equivalents whose use is confined to those with the ability to pay.

The decline of the public realm – especially in the quality and capacity of its social infrastructure – has been especially marked in western Sydney. The region's main political advocate, Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils, has responded with alarm, calling on governments, especially the Commonwealth, to embark upon "... a rebuilding of the public domain" in western Sydney, involving, inter alia, "... a major program of upgrading and/or reconstruction of social infrastructure facilities". The Commonwealth is pouring enormous financial resources into the region, only it is doing so in a manner that is undermining, not enhancing, the public sphere.

A constellation of private 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 necessarily rich but are willing to put themselves under considerable financial pressure to avoid using public services and facilities. Doubtless, it 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. Together, these new patterns of anxiety help to perpetuate the decline of the public sphere as schools struggle to fill enrolments, health services are left to treat a marginalised population and public transport services are left to the excluded and the angry.

The sociologist Gabrielle Gwyther has surveyed social attitudes in several of the region's newer master-planned estates. A high proportion of her respondents confided that their decision to move to the estates was driven by fears about personal security and a desire to put as much social distance as possible between themselves and the welfare-dependent poor. Many had previously lived near public housing estates and developed negative views about welfare recipients based upon their observations of the poor and dependent.

Gwyther's findings reveal an increasingly assertive mood of privatism among the residents of these new estates. The pleasures of order, homogeneity and amenity are celebrated; the provision of high-quality social and urban services acknowledged as the rightful reward for individual effort. But the reality is often quite different.

The paradox is that this private retreat is induced, and in some instances explicitly encouraged, by publicly funded endeavour. The role of policy decisions in creating these new "aspirational communities" is neither acknowledged nor understood. A complex and expensive matrix of public initiatives – financing, regulation and service provision – shapes and supports these new communities. Long-term planning and investment by public agencies have 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 on direct and indirect government subvention and risk sharing.


AT FACE VALUE, the new estates of privilege to offer buyers a chance to opt out of a degraded and insecure public realm in favour of new user-pays fiefdoms where access to "community" facilities is strictly rationed. In Horningsea Park in Sydney's south-west, the signs in Peppercorn Place warn outsiders that the park "is a privately owned and maintained facility for the use of Peppercorn Place residents only".

On closer inspection it is clear that niche security developments like Peppercorn Place benefit enormously from co-location with major public facilities and investments, including regional parks, major roads, railways and sporting facilities. Indeed, some of the new enclaves seem to have been carefully positioned to capture the benefits of major public investments in regional infrastructure. Macquarie Links sits alongside the Hume Highway, now linked directly to Sydney CBD by the new M5 East extension. The promotional material for Liberty Grove in Concord notes that this secure estate "puts you right next door to the best recreational facilities in Australia". The blurb goes further to note that the "New South Wales Government has invested well over $1 billion in facilities for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, which are a short walk or bike ride from Liberty Grove". Now even the public land developers are getting in on the master-planning act, with NSW Landcom producing exclusive enclaves with names such as ‘Garden Gates', ‘Domain Gardens' and ‘Lakeview Heights'.

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.

In the 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, Australian patterns of urban decline contrast with those in US and some European cities where depopulation is a key dimension of change. Neither is "white flight" of the US variety, implying a clear racial segregation, involved. Analyses of population movements by the urban geographer Bill Randolph have shown a more subtle, but nonetheless powerful, shift under way in the middle areas of western Sydney. It involves an exodus of wealthier, mostly (but not exclusively) Australian-born residents for newer residential estates and their replacement by relatively poorer households, with a high proportion of private tenants, younger people, recent migrants, Centrelink "clients" and people with high support needs. These latter groups join those left behind, increasingly elderly Anglo-Australians, the original "westies", and the less economically or socially upwardly mobile. This twin process of cultural and economic segregation is reinforced by uneven and frequently inequitable patterns of service provision and infrastructure development.


THE MISALLOCATION OF services and infrastructure to different communities is both complicated by and powerfully reinforced by federal policies and programs that have shifted large amounts of public resources into privately provided health and education services.[3] The massive shift of federal funding to support the subsidised provision of privately provided health and education is claimed to enhance individual choices but powerfully diminishes the appeal of state and communal services. The policy is rooted in an influential neo-liberal ideology – public-choice theory – that assumes behaviour is driven, ineluctably, by self-interest.

The presence of relatively robust planning systems, combined with the continued centralisation of urban governance and investment, has tended to stymie the development of edge cities in Australia. And yet there are broad ideological similarities between the "anti-welfarism" championed in the mid-1990s by US Beltway Republicans and the "politics of choice" trumpeted by the crop of tollway tories who have won seats for conservative parties in Australia's outer suburbs. The absence of "edge cities" may be masking the emergence of a new form of urban-edge conservatism in Australia, reflecting the growth of new residential areas with weak public spheres and a high degree of cultural homogeneity.

In western Sydney, public-choice theory has been openly advocated by Federal Government representatives, including Jackie Kelly, member for Lindsay. Kelly recently spoke out against public child-care services using rhetoric that could have been lifted straight from a public-choice textbook: "[I] ... wonder why, as a ratepayer, I am paying a portion of my rates to operate council centres and then paying unsubsidised fees to the private provider of my choice."

Public-choice theory is an intellectual by-product of neoclassical economics, and its adherents tend to happily neglect the social geographic consequences of policies founded on its principles. Private health and education services are strongly spatially patterned: their provision relies on and relates to catchments 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. These forms of federal public subsidies are likely to be largely diverted to recently developed outer-suburban residential communities where new and existing private education establishments and health-fund supported facilities are flourishing.[4] The transfer of resources from public to private schools effects a geographic, not merely a social, shift of wealth and opportunities.

Many Australian households receive federal housing assistance, not just the poor. The wealthy, however, tend to receive asset-, and therefore, wealth-enhancing assistance while the poor receive "life-support" aid 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 captured by the residents of newer home-owner areas and the latter supporting growing concentrations of the needy in older localities. The Commonwealth's First Home Owner Grant scheme provided a vast $2.5 billion public subsidy much of it directed to the construction of new "model" communities.[5] Perversely, the receipt of such housing support will help recipients qualify for further subsidies. Having been supported into home ownership, many will in time access taxation-related wealth subsidies – notably negative gearing – to further enhance their wealth and thereby increase their "social distance" from the poorer households that will never qualify for major forms of public financial assistance.

Apart from new subsidies and policy shifts, Commonwealth funding cuts to human services and labour market programs have driven social differentiation in western Sydney. A study commissioned by Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils in 2001 found that the rising cost of child care – largely a result of Commonwealth cuts since 1996 – meant women in the Fairfield-Liverpool area were less likely to work. By contrast, women in the wealthier northern Sydney suburbs were less likely to succumb to rising cost pressures by leaving work. While Jackie Kelly may continue to exercise choice in her use of child-care services, many women who stayed in the labour force were forced to make informal and inferior arrangements for the supervision of their children during work hours.

The mounting evidence is that new and established Federal Government policies have tended to powerfully reinforce this process of residential social segregation. These policies have eroded social support for the role of the public realm. There is, however, evidence that some people resent this active reframing of "choice" over collective consumption services and desire the reinstatement of a strong public sphere. As part of its reportage on the national budget in 2002, The Australian newspaper provided a cameo story on the attitudes towards federal spending priorities by one "typical" middle-class western Sydney family. The Clancys believe that the "... increasing deterioration of public services is pushing them into expensive private-sector education and health ...". The wife and husband put the point succinctly: "We have no choice. The Government doesn't put any money into the public sector so if you want better and you have the money then you pay your way."


THE CONSEQUENCES FOR democracy of the changes described above are surely profound. Similar, if not identical, shifts have been observed in Britain and the US. In Britain, sociologist Anthony Giddens has characterised the phenomenon as the "voluntary exclusion of the elites" and the "involuntary exclusion of the excluded". Again, socio-spatial polarisation is linked to a withering of the public realm. The British commentator Anna Minton writes: "The result is that mainstream institutions – schools, hospitals and local government – become increasingly marginalised, with the consequent impact on the public-sector services and local government and local democracy."

In suburban Australia these same contemporary geographic shifts register in new polarities of outlook and morale. The strengthening moods of separatism and privatism among the growing number of affluent communities are mirrored by the deepening gloom and ill humour of its excluded and poorer peoples. The quietly eroding possibilities for integrated social development signal in turn the decline of "social solidarity". Social solidarity is a result of social wholeness and neither means nor requires homogeneity and mechanical uniformity.

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. Cultural critic, Guy Rundle, points out that the development of "communal and collective forms of life" are the preconditions for, not the antitheses of, a flourishing "selfhood and individuality".

But some forms of difference are entirely antithetical to solidarity. The new exclusive – and exclusionary – residential communities are one such form. Does the expression of "choice" here – in this instance about location – mask a deeper opting out of the "social"? Is the same true of all the other publicly subsidised realms of private choice that govern decisions about schooling, health care and other collective services? Do such subsidies animate and make possible the expression of anxieties and misperceptions about social reality and cultural change? Finally, has the erosion of the public realm in suburban Australia reduced the possibilities for mutually enriching social interaction while increasing the risks of cultural segmentation and misunderstanding? Western Sydney's regional governance body thinks so, expressing its deepening concern that "...‘gated' communities (or similar elite developments) are promoted as the way to escape from ethnic conflict perceived to be endemic to the middle-ring suburbs of Sydney".

Julie Macken, observing the strengthening preference of many outer suburban households for exclusive residential communities, observes in the Australian Financial Review that "... many are opting for a life surrounded by people like themselves". It is highly doubtful that these encampments of a broader "Fortress Australia" will provide tolerant, well-integrated communities where differences are understood and respected and where diversity is celebrated. A consequence of this taxpayer-supported narcissism is the further erosion of both the public realm and social solidarity in urban regions as they evolve into increasingly Balkanised sociopolitical landscapes.

An obvious conclusion is that the withering of the public realm observed in Australia's cities is progressively undermining the preconditions for national democracy and social harmony in this most urban of nations. What follows from this is an obvious and most urgent need for a resocialisation of urban space, requiring a conscious rebuilding of the possibilities for flourishing social space and social time. The latter consideration is as equally important as the former: Pusey's Middle Australia documents clearly how decline in the public sphere reflects a twin erosion of social space (privatisation) and social time (overwork). The economist John Quiggan, in a recent Australian Financial Review article, confirms the diagnosis, arguing that micro-economic reforms of the 1990s have produced labour productivity gains by clawing back household leisure time, literally sucking the social life force from communities in the process.

The possibilities for hope that emerge from a flourishing public realm are vividly illustrated by the socialising role played by a major public secondary school in Cabramatta, a western Sydney suburb that has been the focus of popular anxiety, much of it fomented by the mass media, about ethnic tension, poverty and crime.Sydney Morning Herald writer John Huxley notes Cabramatta High's widely acclaimed success as an educative institution and the harmony of its diverse student body. His article depicts the school as a centre of peace and cultural tolerance in an urban region fraught with stress and anxiety. In this example, a fragment of the public realm is functioning quietly to nurture solidarity in an area enduring considerable socioeconomic and cultural tensions (some of them externally imposed).


ALLIED TO THE task of reviving the public realm is the need to prevent the further segregation of residential communities along economic and/or cultural lines. A substantial international literature now recognises the need to achieve socio-cultural balance – meaning a socially representative heterogeneity – in new urban developments and further to restore it in areas that have been residualised by change. This same literature recognises that a flourishing public realm is a keystone for any "balanced community".

The growing socio-spatial imbalances in Australian cities are a major issue that will need to be addressed soon if they are not to worsen, especially when the current national economic growth cycle begins to taper off. The idea of balance – of socio-economic opportunities (especially employment), of access to valued cultural and environmental goods and mobility – is a crucial guiding value. This does not mean prescribing the detail of social and environmental balance but rather ensuring that public and private investment is shared to ensure equality of opportunity for all urban inhabitants. Balance should also be a guiding principle in planning the new communities that will emerge on the urban fringe, particularly in terms of ensuring a better mix of housing choices and therefore a more sustainable social structure. This principle must also be adopted in the major task of redeveloping the older middle-suburb areas.

The rise of the homogenous lifestyle estate will very soon present problems for governance and democracy. The instant, master-planned community – walled and willed back into history via new urbanism – does not easily provide the inclusive social base that is necessary for urban democracy. And urban democracy must have a social base – that is an urban citizenry – if it is to exist at all. If the urban community dissolves into a Balkanised landscape of inward-looking communities, urban leaders will find it very difficult to manage the cities that are reconstituted by such changes. Heightened communal insularity and fiscal opting out at the local scale are likely to make the task of sound resource management of cities very difficult.

This sort of militant local communalism plagues urban management in US cities. What the US calls cities are often confusing jumbles of jurisdictions, many of which have been created by communities opting out from county structures. The difficulty of finding agreed urban management structures in this context helps to drive relentless, sprawling and costly growth at the urban fringe, in rural/semi-rural counties where urban management questions can be delayed or simply ignored. The relative absence of antisocial communalism and opting out in Australian cities has been one of the nation's quiet, though largely unacknowledged, social and economic strengths.

If 20th-century sociology resolved anything, it was surely the problem of anomie. And the remedies, it seems, are premised on the need for continuous meaningful human contact at a personal and daily level as the principal means for ensuring tolerance, harmony and contentment in dynamic multicultural societies. The anomic "culture of anxiety" that pervades communal discourses and private behaviour in suburban Australia might well be dissipated if we were to re-establish public spaces, facilities and services that invite inclusive participation and interaction by all.

Among current governments, culpability for the current erosion of the public domain in urban Australia lies principally with the Commonwealth, which is at least partly responsible for rising socioeconomic stresses and widening geographical cleavages in our suburban heartlands. It is therefore not possible to argue that their amelioration is simply a state responsibility, although there are many things that the states can do to arrest the trend towards increased urban segregation, including prohibition, through state planning policy, of gated residential developments. Alternative Commonwealth policy settings that reinforce the public sphere and public services instead of undermining them would do much to arrest the drift to suburban social segregation. Most urgently, the policy settings – especially the federal service subsidies – that have contributed to social segregation need to be replaced by alternative programs that fund and renew public and communal spaces, facilities and services.


US-STYLED URBAN social fear is a new additive in the tank fuelling the engine of Australian suburban growth. The coughing and spluttering – the new sounds of social discordance and anxiety – evident in contemporary suburban life betray its uneasy mixing with older sources of change. What then are the prospects for hope and for a more harmonious suburban civil society? Obviously, the additive needs to be shown up for what it is – a politics of despair whose only possible conclusion has already been starkly revealed in the broken, violent cities and paranoid, defensive suburbs of the US. As I have indicated earlier, a reanimation of the suburban public sphere will be critical to countering any descent into a US-style dystopian urban future.

But neither perhaps will the old ways of remaking our cities suffice. The confidence in ever-expanding material wealth that has been the traditional stimulant for suburban growth in Australia might well have run its ecological and psychological course. There is no need to be misty-eyed about the traditional Australian suburb, which had its own peculiar depredations, as well as its strengths. We need new suburbs for our diverse and growing population which can never be adequately or happily housed in inner-city high-rises or dreary villa units. And we need to renew the suburbs that we constructed in the 20th century as a matter of urgency so that their decline does not become a negative stimulus for wasteful and divisive outward urban expansion. The Left has failed utterly to forward a new vision for suburban hope and has in the past decade been outflanked by the Right, notably the tollway tories, whose seductive politics of privatism and generous subsidies have proved attractive to the reform-fatigued working and middle classes.

One note of optimism is sounded in politician Mark Latham's recent book, From the Suburbs (Pluto Press, 2003), which attempts at least to provoke a discussion about suburban life ("the love that dare not speak its name"?) within social democratic quarters. A broad constituency will, however, have to be reawakened and reassembled before new debate and new politics can be contemplated. Right now, the workers prefer the lure of effortless lifestyle in the master-planned estate, while the chattering classes opt for the mute stupefaction of inner-city latte land. Lonely bowlers? Let's hope not. 

[1] Although, ominously, one major developer has announced plans to construct a "Celebration" in south-east Queensland. If constructed, the development, with its assumed US-style artless nostalgia, would mark the arrival of a new form of post-modern urbanism in Australia: what French theorists, such as Baudrillard, have termed the "simulacra", a copy for which there is no original.

[2] The Sydney Morning Herald's Domain section, 15-21 March 2001, p.7.

[3] Currently, the federal health rebate subsidy alone amounts to about $2.4 billion a year.

[4] The Commonwealth now spends more than $4 billion a year on private schooling (The Canberra Times, 21.02.02:7). Private-school enrolments in NSW have been growing sharply for the past seven years. In 2001 an extra 4000 children attended private schools, while public schools registered a decline of 10,000 (The Sydney Morning Herald, 28.02.02:5).

[5] The scheme cost the taxpayer $1.76 billion in 2001-02 and has been forecast to cost $784 million in 2002-03.

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