Sunday, 10 March 2013

Sustainability and the suburbs

It's received wisdom that urban sprawl is unsustainable.  This is the message of an article in The Conversation, an Australian website dedicated to op-ed pieces by academics to bring ideas and research to the general public.

In "The Grass isn't greener in the outer 'burbs" Robert Nelson takes a historical analogy of court life concentrated on the palaces of Paris or other imperial capitals, and from it sets out a model of the Australian city – where, in his view, "power and privilege are concentrated within 10km of the city centre".  This leads him straight into a thesis that sprawl is singularly the product of the poorer segments of the population being forced outwards, by the reluctance of the privileged to allow inner areas of the city to be consolidated to greater density – and that those in the outer suburbs are thereby forever doomed to various inequities, which now require ongoing remedial compensations and subsidies.

Even if we accept some kernel of observed truth in this probable, but not uncontested key idea, Nelson comprehensively buries it with an overburden of stereotype and misconceptions.

His description of the development of the Australian city appears ignorant of its actual history.  Perhaps there are key differences between Melbourne (where Nelson is based), and Sydney which I know much better.  But the story of suburban expansion in Sydney is dominated from the earliest times by cycles of the wealthy moving outwards to Arcadian enclaves, while the walking distance to the centre is dominated by the growth of more humble, and denser dwellings of the working class.  As transport takes the pressure off walking, some of the original leafy fringe in turn succumbs to speculative subdivision,  and the wave of the wealthy moves outwards.  Thus the names of many of the mean, but picturesque streets of Balmain mark the grand driveways of the original estates, Newtown still hides the odd neo-Georgian square within its crust of much smaller terrace housing, and the grand federation subdivisions of Strathfield are reminders that the suburb was not always of humbler quarter acre blocks.  Even the far-flung expansion to the west beyond Parramatta was pioneered in the 1970's at least in part by members of the upper middle class, looking for sites big enough for the tennis court and perhaps the stables.  In this they repeated the earlier settlement of the upper North Shore, far beyond Nelson's imagined 10km limit.  Not surprisingly, the detail of Nelson's evidence is also deficient.  Australia's oldest private school for boys, the very exclusive Kings, is beyond Parramatta, hardly in the inner ring.

If there is now a marked pattern of concentration of money, power and privilege, or rather a diffusion towards the edges, it is the product of more complex factors – for instance, the development of the post-war settlement areas, very similar in outcome to the infamous 'little boxes on a hilltop' of Levittown NY.  My purpose here is not to describe those more complex dynamics; they are far too broad to attempt in a blog post.  I am merely upset that even in the supposedly high end of critical commentary, we succumb to the 30-second grab of glib over-simplification.

The venerable Pat Troy long ago pointed out alternative issues we must consider in the comparison of sprawl and urban consolidation.  Amongst other factors to contemplate is the insidious way that developers of higher density infill externalize the cost of expensively augmenting infrastructure – where governments categorize it as maintenance (in comparison to the cheaper capital works in the new subdivisions).  And we should not dismiss the possible resilience of the older quarter acre block suburbs, in the face of climate change and altered patterns of food availability. 

I am particularly upset that under the banner of championing sustainability, Nelson shrilly demonizes the urban fringe, while misrepresenting the actual situation of the inner areas.  I do, however, agree with him that overall, we have significant problems with urban sprawl, that they are a product of deficiencies in planning, and that those deficiencies are the product of willful ignorance and political expediency.

Read the original article here.


Anonymous said...

As a resident of these outer suburban fringes I agree that the process of urban sprawl is unsustainable in a comparison to densification within established areas, with major concern on transport and greater building resources required. However nelsons article “the grass isn’t greener in the outer burbs” seems an extravagant misrepresentation of what is actually taking place in the suburbs and his privileged inner city locale does not lend support from the majority whom live outside this imagined 10km limit.

It is disappointing that Nelson’s article shifts focus from the significance of the challenges faced by urban sprawl and planning solutions to passing the blame of who is responsible. More stringent regulations, particularly in the post war period, could have prevented the “creeping tide of houses” described by Freeland in Architecture in Australia (1972) which is seen nation-wide, and this is the lesson that should be taken from this. Planning and zoning regulations could be the most viable tool in limiting further outward growth of cities, and discussing whose fault it may be is simply counterproductive. My experience is people move outwards in quest of a lifestyle that is not achievable with inner city prices, the cost of sustainability is not often a factor that weighs on people’s minds.

Looking forward to the Metropolitan strategy for Sydney2031 it proposes an increase of population by 1.3 million including 545,000 new homes and 625,000 new jobs in key locations between Parramatta and Penrith. The recent images of the 90 storey residential Aspire Tower imagined for Parramatta show a crude idea of achieving these results with a density completely insensitive to the context. Efforts could be placed in with success in wider urban planning throughout the region rather than a misguided quest for an icon that will struggle to get approval.

Population growth is an inevitable challenge faced within every city, it is important to respect the reasons residential movement is traditionally outward and funnel these into providing guidelines for the construction of a sustainable future city.

Anonymous said...

Sydney’s urban sprawl and its patterns of suburb development can be directly linked to the development of a societal phenomenon known as the “Great Australian Dream” In the post-war years of the 50s and 60s. Characterized by a firm belief in the security and success provided by individual home ownership, this trend spread in Australia’s flourishing economy in the decades after WWII. The dream of a detached house on a suburban block, surrounded by a garden saw the proportion of Australian home ownership jump from 50 to 70% in the 20 years to 1965. Despite changes to planning policies, increases in house prices, developing demographic and migration patterns, in a culture of capitalism and consumption, independent home ownership remains a symbol of financial independence even today. Developments in transport and infrastructure have enabled suburbs to expand outwards from the pricey inner-suburbs, ensuring that the Australian Dream remains accessible even to lower income groups.

There is no question that continued urban sprawl is an unsustainable process. Indeed, it is more economically and environmentally viable to focus development where infrastructure already exists. The extent to which this rate of sprawl is damaging the environment is currently a matter of debate in urban planning. Robert Gleeson, firmly states in his article, “Urban Sprawl Isn’t to Blame, Unsustainable Cities are the Result of a Growth Fetish”:

“High density development in inner areas performs very poorly in terms of resource consumption and greenhouse emissions. The idea that outer suburbs are inherently less sustainable than inner ones doesn’t bear scrutiny.”

Indeed, Gleeson suggests that the question of growth does not lie in where it occurs, but rather, our “slavish pursuit of growth itself” That is the main problem rather than where that growth occurs. In an increasingly capitalized society informed, according to Gleeson, by senseless accumulation, it is our culture of overproduction that will lead to our ecological demise. In many ways, Gleeson’s views align with those of Nelson. Indeed, in his article, “The Grass Isn’t Greener in the Outer ‘Burbs,” Nelson snubs urban sprawl as an “exodus” based on “consumer choice” leading to the geographical expression of inequity in our cities, propagating ecological and social problems.

To both Gleeson and Nelson urban sprawl is nothing short of a question of real estate and economics. Politicizing and rationalizing architecture with economics and sociological theories, the writers’ cynical outlooks ignore the advantages, close access to facilities (contradictory to Nelson’s view) and opportunities for interaction within communities that low-density urbanism provides. With both its benefits and its downfalls the Australian Dream has been engrained in a greater part of our society over the last 60 years and continues to inform patterns of urban sprawl.