The Future of Australia’s Cities:
Making Space for Hope
Introduction: Beware the Seers
This lecture has the rather portentous sounding title, ‘The Future of Australia’s Cities’.And yet, I will say very little about the future state of Australia’s cities.The Grand Prediction is like the Grand National; the home province of mug punters.The pseudo-science of Futurology emerged in the 1960s offering new levels of enlightenment, but in reality rejecting reason in favour of alchemy.[i]On closer inspection, the history of Futurology is like any other history: a chronicle of the unexpected and the all too predictable.Futurology burdens our social debates with feverish visions of looming cataclysms and imminent utopias that tell us more about the anxieties of the present than the verities of the future.The one real service of Futurology is to render the Human Prospect a subject for serious discussion.
We know only two things about our future.First, that it will, as the philosopher, Louis Althusser observed, “last a long time”.This observation is not the logical simplism that it appears to be.It reminds us that humanity has already lived through countless futures – what we call the past or History – without ever finding a mechanism for loosening Old Father Time’s grip on our societies and their greatest artefacts, cities.[ii]What we build today will surely one day, like us, be dust.And yet most of the social and physical structures built today are intended to outlast their makers and will do so, at least for a time.Will future generations welcome this legacy?Or will they tear it down, cursing us for our inability to see that much of what we did would harm or compromise them?
This uncertain dialogue with the future, and its peoples and environments, goes right to the core of urban planning.It is frequently forgotten that planning’s birth was closely linked to the genesis of the other great civilising impulses of the nineteenth-century – notably, public health and labour regulation.These urban reform movements set out to rescue cities, the infernal crucibles of industrial capitalism, from environmental and social ruin.Together they formed an advance guard for modernisation, checking the self-destructive tendencies of industrialism and striving always to beat an orderly path to the future.Romantics complained that modernity had vanquished history: in reform of modernity planning sought to restore another temporal flow, a concern for the future.Other forces of modernity – notably Capital – continued to deny the existence of a human future – insisting, for example, that it was a discountable value.The eventual rise of the sustainability rubric forced the Future Eaters[iii] to adopt a lower profile, but, of course, they remain at large.
The second truth about the future is an equally simple and yet utterly profound formulation: it is shaped but not determined by what we do now.After Marx, we in the present make our own history but not in the conditions of our choosing.A history of futures already lived (Althusser) has created the societies and landscapes into which we are born and in which we must act.But there is no historical determination: humanity has proved marvellously adept at escaping the noose of fate, at least thus far.We have some power to determine the legacy that we leave for others.So why offer those who are to come a noose when we might leave them the keys to the city?[iv]
The Seeds Now Rising
Concern for the future is not then the sole preserve of Futurology.We may not be able to predict or determine the future now, but we can take it seriously and attempt to leave the best possible legacy for those who are to follow us.This suggests that we must elect not simply to be relaxed and comfortable in the present but to maintain a vigilant moral regard for who and what is to come.
The future lasts a long time – and it starts soon.Whilst it is not quite the time machine that futurists have long yearned for, enhanced longevity in the West means that many of us will have a power not possessed by our ancestors to travel to the future.Many of us will live long enough to have time to reflect in our twilight upon the decisions made by our generation.We will have time to assess whether or not these choices benefited the children and grandchildren who followed us.In short, we will witness the future we shaped for others.
In recent years, there has been a new consensus amongst the Health and Social Sciences on the critical significance of early childhood years for subsequent adult health and well-being and, ultimately, for social stability and harmony (Hart, Brinkman & Blackmore, 2003).Whilst human societies are able to escape the historical noose, individuals very often cannot. A sick and hateful childhood leads, almost inevitably, to a ruinous future.These fragments of the future are already manifesting themselves in the development of our young.We glimpse the future, therefore, when we assess how we are treating its next inhabitants now.
In what follows I offer a series of reflections about the future of Australia’s cities that focuses on the social and environmental legacy that we are already busily, if often unconsciously, designing and constructing in everyday urban life.My main concern is with the future already with us – our urban children and youth – whose life courses are being fashioned by contemporary political economic shifts in our cities.
To arrive at an informed discussion of urban futures for the young, I will first consider two contemporary changes in our cities that seem to have most significance for the nurturing of new generations.First, I survey transformations in urban communities that are producing a new socio-economic geography in our major metropolitan regions.This survey reveals what my colleagues, the geographers O’Connor, Stimson & Daly (2001) have termed, ‘a society dividing’.As Pusey (2003) and Hamilton (2003) 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 social scientific analysis has pointed to, and charted, the growth of socio-economic 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, especially within Australia’s principal metropolitan urban regions.Socio-spatial polarisation has been generally associated with the rise of new classes of ‘winners and losers’ from structural change: but from the vantage point of the young, these changes seem to produce mostly losers at both ends of the social scale.
The second domain of change I will consider is the urban public sphere.The public sphere for a healthy democracy represents the principal realm of socialisation: the place where we transcend the ordinary claims of individuality, kinship, and even community, to negotiate and affirm the social bonds that underscore citizenship, and thereby, nationhood.If a flourishing public sphere is critical to the healthy functioning of democracy, it is surely one of the most important legacies that we can leave for the future.In contemporary Australian cities, this ‘glue of democracy’ is weakening for two reasons: because we have allowed it to degrade and diminish in the face of political economic transformation; and because we have failed to locate and affirm the new forms of public domain that have emerged, as with any historical society, at the frontiers of social and technological change.
I close this lecture by pondering the contemporary struggle between hope and its evil twin, despair, which is quietly raging in our cities.The marks of this contest are registered in all of our principal spheres of urban transformation, including within communities, the public sphere and the lifeworlds of our young.In recent years, fear, the flag bearer of despair, has entered these arenas of change, seeking to unseat hope and install itself as the new Australian outlook.To serve the future and our young well we must tear the banner of fear down in our cities and replant hope’s standard in every urban domain, starting with the public realm, the incubator of goodwill and solidarity.The future starts now with this struggle: its outcome will determine whether or not we bequeath the conditions for a good life for our successors, including the present generation of young Australians.
The Real Seachange
A century after Australia Felix disappeared into the jungles of Paraguay,[v] it seems that a new Antipodean paradise has been found – this time, most agreeably, very close to home.In recent years, a dawn chorus of social observers and media commentators has heralded the rise of another New Australia: a utopia for sceptical times, a postmodern paradise where sea glimpses not visions provide inspiration, and where all is built on sand.Salt (who else?) has announced ‘A Third Australian Culture’, a newly ascendant ‘Culture of the Beach’ that has ended the tiresome old city-bush contest and by establishing itself as the real Australian Idyll (Salt, 2001).
According to commentary, the new national penchant for surf, sand and rust has been made possible, not to say compulsory, by rising prosperity, technological change (telecommuting) and the discovery that ocean views are vital to happiness.Dream catchers (media) and dream weavers (advertisers) have joined in misty-eyed unison to praise the great national trek from the billabong to the beach.Bushballads, and other dusty landlubbery, give way to seashanties that promise buried treasures for those sensible enough to take to the sea(side).One must be moved by the infectious joy that seems to possess the Seachange choristers.Among them, the prophets doubtless rejoice in the (well remunerated) part that they themselves are playing in the great restyling of national life that is producing the Seachange Lifestyle ©.
Everywhere a chorusing of praise wherever dreams are confected and sold: TV drama, weekend colour supplements, real estate glossies…The Seachange anthem extols the Commonwealth of Coastlines, ringed now with superannuated surf communities that daily send forth legions of buffed, tanned beachwalkers in earnest observance of the new laws of freedom.These same desiderata insist that we must all join the New Age/Golden Age Pioneers of Paradise before the pearly masterplanned gates are shut to us.Or so the song goes…
Sand in Our Eyes
The reality of coastal urban change across Australia is much more complex, and a good deal more problematical socially and environmentally, than this simple hymn of praise would have us believe.I do not intend to essay the coastal shift in this lecture, which addresses Australia’s cities.[vi]It needs to be pointed out, however, that the so-called Big Shift to the coast has been overplayed, at least rhetorically.We have long been, and remain, a nation of city dwellers, as Hamilton (1976) described us with simple eloquence nearly three decades ago.Presently, nearly two out of every three Australians resides in one of the large urban regions that centre on our state capitals, and there is no sign that this proportion is diminishing.[vii]Most migrants, like the Australian born, prefer to live in the major metropolitan regions, which continue to offer the greatest opportunities for economic, social and cultural enrichment.Cities are still the ‘main game’ and occupy the centre fields of Australian life, though, curiously, they are relentlessly denied their proper significance in public discourse.
This public disavowal of our continuing deep commitment to city living is nothing new.Anti urbanism is a heart murmur that the nation was born with.It weakens us because it keeps us in constant denial about the true state of our settlement patterns, and reduces our willingness and capacity to understand the real shifts that are always transforming our cities.We rejoice in the Third Australia, because it promises release from a Second Australia that we never wanted to embrace.Seachange inspires rousing songs of liberation because it affirms our innate – though wholly rhetorical – anti-urbanism, celebrating the mass release of the citizenry from urban confinement.An intoxicating but deeply misleading vision of Australia as it enters the third millennium.
There is no mass urban entrapment: Australia’s long marriage to city living remains as faithful as ever, though nowadays more are prone to the Seven Year Itch, reflected by increases in holiday home purchasing, leisure travel and other getaways, including the budget escapism of free-to-airhead commercial television (lifestyle programming and ‘reality’ TV).Infidelities may be on the increase but the divorce rate remains extremely low.For most city dwellers, an oil change is a more pressing prospect than a seachange.This mass of ‘ordinary’ citizenry conduct lives that, as the Annalistes would have it, are ‘too uneventful’ to be recorded in social conversations, such as media commentary and often, regrettably, scholarly analysis.
And yet, it is within the domains of the ‘ordinary’ urban citizenry – the middle and outer suburbs of our metropolitan regions – that the future of our cities is being shaped.And a big shift is underway in these urban lifeworlds that is of far more consequence to the future of our cities, and therefore the nation, than the Sandrush currently afflicting the coast.In short, decades of relative social geographic stability in the major cities began to give way from the 1970s to much more dynamic and variegated class landscapes.The principal solvent for these seemingly fixed bonds of social position and regional landscape has surely been the neoliberal program of rapid structural adjustment that has been carried with bipartisan fervour across the Australian political horizon for nearly three decades by successive national governments.
The Rescaling of Urban Change
Cities, by their nature, are always in flux: they are the crucibles of social change.What is at issue here is a shift in the nature of urban change itself: the space of urban transformation is changing, moving from the regional to the local scale.A rescaling of change appears evident, which is submerging old subregional differences in a new, heterogeneous landscape marked by sharp socio economic distinctions at the local scale.The established subregional markers of social class are giving way to a much more fine grained and diffuse social geography.For example, regional class differences in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane for much of the post-war period were broadly compassed as ‘the West versus the Rest’.These well established cultural markers of social distinction now bear little relationship to the polyglot class geography of our contemporary cities.
Australia’s once famously ‘bland’ – i.e., economically uniform – suburban regions have decomposed into much more diverse and complex social landscapes.Poorer inner city areas have been transformed by decades of gentrification and by generous public investments in cultural and physical infrastructure that have greatly enhanced their ability to capture and hold social wealth.In the traditional working class subregions rising, if unevenly distributed, affluence is reflected in the growth of new privileged housing estates and high-end consumption spheres (shopping malls, recreation facilities).Newly affluent working class households have been joined in exclusive masterplanned estates on redevelopment sites (enclaves) and in new fringe locations (exclaves) by a mobile bourgeoisie fleeing the expensive monotony of urban consolidation.
The new master-planned estates are strongly distinguished from the ‘traditional’ residential subdivisions of post-war Australia by their careful and often expensive design and, importantly, by the manner in which they are 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.
In the past decade, a new intensive round of restructuring of state services has seen a deterioration in the quality and extent of the public sphere, especially in older middle ring suburbs, 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 contributed to the mounting anxiety and insecurity amongst Australia’s urban middle classes that has been well documented in recent studies by Pusey (2003) and Hamilton (2003).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.The bare subtext of the marketing that sells many, if not most, contemporary master-planned estates is the promise of security via social conformity and distance from the unsettling cultural and socio-economic differences that manifest in older suburbs.As the Sydney Morning Herald 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”.[viii] Rarely, however, does the Australian master-planned estate wall itself; 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-economic decisions (of which more later) that have foreclosed on the possibility of producing less exclusive or exclusionary residential developments.
At the same time, the ageing middle ring suburbs within traditionally poorer subregions host increasing concentrations of an expanding postmodern pauper class.The growth machine of modernity brought great riches: leaving aside, of course, the impoverishment of Nature that attended the Great Accumulation of the last two centuries.And yet infuriatingly, indeed biblically, the poor remain with us; not the starving masses of Victorian industrialism, but the excluded, ill-humoured, ‘spectres at the feast’, who must watch from the sidelines the consumption orgy that animates contemporary urban life.The ‘sidelines’ are the hardening pockets of exclusion and disadvantage that have been forming in the past decade in areas outside public housing estates, including:
- Interstitial urban spaces haunted by the homeless, the mentally ill and the drug dependent;
- Decrepit suburban caravan parks which function as post-welfare concentration camps for the poor; and
- New poverty clusters centred in concentrations of poor quality private rental housing in ageing middle ring areas and in tawdry outer suburban subdivisions.
Archaeology of the Storm
If a compass is no guide now to social cleavages in Australian cities, a calendar might be of more assistance.Our cities have been socially and geographically restructured during the past three decades by the progressive localisation of difference.[ix]The new suburban geography comprises a diverse set of historical overlays formed in response to successive political economic shifts and shocks registered at the local level.Cities, always in transformation, are inevitably museums of human social history, comprised of artefact buildings, places and landscapes that recall the course of change.Now, however, the recently added exhibits, while certainly distinct, seem less separated by time of origin: produced seemingly through a ‘fury of change’, the storm of structural adjustment that has raged relentlessly across Australia’s cities and regions since the late 1970s.
The tide lines of change in the older working class subregions are closely studded with the flotsam and jetsam of furious structural transformation.The result is what the Dutch analysts Hajer & Reijndorp (2001) term ‘an archipelago of enclaves’.Consider two such subregions whose mosaic residential landscapes are littered with evidence of the structural storm: Adelaide’s North retains established working class neighbourhoods, together with ‘post-public’ housing estates,[x] new pockets of dereliction and disadvantage and award winning masterplanned enclaves; Western Sydney possesses robust but ageing proletarian swathes, residualised (post 1970s) public housing estates, the ‘non places’ (urban interstices) where roam endlessly the junkies and the homeless, netherworld caravan parks of the poor, backblock encampments of migrant farmers, stockbrokers and misfits, together with the gleaming (sometimes walled) suburban estates and the middle ring dystopias that emerged simultaneously during the 1990s.
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.
Siege of the Realm
Charting the Realm
The public realm is a multidimensional phenomenon that embraces those spaces, places and events that affirm social relations over other forms of interaction (market) and identity (e.g., self, family, community).Importantly, the public realm does not reduce to government space, but extends to include those spaces and places and moments where the real or assumed possession of citizenship guarantees entry or presence.Importantly, some historical and contemporary state spaces and places cannot easily be reconciled with this idea of ‘the public’.For example, state asylums for mentally ill people in the past acted often to deny rather than affirm citizenship.Similarly, the contemporary federally run detention camps for asylum seekers act to restrain not enhance the terms of citizenship.
Pursuing this logic, and considering its contemporary context in Australia’s contemporary urban regions, implies that the public realm could extend to include a major concentration of land uses that is predominantly in private ownership, such as a shopping centre where there is no prospect of exclusion and where there are strongly formed and culturally embedded social expectations of right of entry and presence.However, many of these non-state public spaces and places have been transformed in recent years by desocialising forces, notably privatisation and ‘securitisation’.Geographers and other social scientists have exposed the increasing trend towards the privatisation of major shopping and other principal activity centres, and the heightened regulation of entry to and presence within such spaces (Hajer & Reijndorp, 2002).
In this conception, the public realm is distinguished from something that we might term the communal realm, the latter being an associative order based on more exclusive notions of membership.For example, communal realms are provided by homeowner associations which now govern 80 percent of new housing development in the USA.Instances closer to home include the bodies corporate[xi] that regulate life in multi-unit developments and the residents associations which manage community title land in masterplanned estates.The communal here is not necessarily coextensive with the private realm, an associative order based on market and affective (e.g., family) relations.The communal intersects with the private, gaining some purchase on affective relations and projecting these into a partly socialised realm beyond the confines of the household.An exclusive associative order may be either progressive or regressive or reflect both political tendencies in different ways.For example, the suburban scouts and guides movement is a communal realm founded on exclusive membership.Some have lauded the movement’s capacity to aid the healthy development of the young, whilst others have decried its values as militarised and conformist.
In plural, multicultural nations, the presence of a flourishing public realm is the guarantor of social solidarity and cultural tolerance, both defining ingredients of radical democracy (Iveson, 2000).Hajer & Reijndorp (2001:89) describe it as “a sphere of exchange and confrontation in society” – a place for the constant interrogation of conventional wisdom, “where one’s own causal view of reality gets some competition from other views and lifestyles”.Without the insistently socialising force of the public, the possibilities for ‘safe’ and mutually enriching forms of encounter between different groups are greatly diminished or even removed; in the void, the conditions for human interaction are determined by exclusive, not to say exclusionary, modalities, such as markets, cultures and kinship ties.
Community Affluence, Public Squalor
The American economist J.K. Gailbraith 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.
There has been a marked decline in Australia’s urban public realm – especially in the quality and capacity of its social infrastructure.In many instances state governments have undermined public realms, both through wholesale privatisation and asset sell offs, and through an ever increasing reliance on privately provided infrastructure in new urban development.Major urban renewal projects, for example the redevelopment of public institutional lands (asylums, hospitals, defence facilities), have often produced a net loss of public domain.Popular concern about the privatisation of the urban public domain recently manifested with the establishment in Victoria and New South Wales of two community lobbies which both bear the name, The Protectors of Public Lands Coalition (Heinrichs & Reddy, 2003).
The Commonwealth’s progressive withdrawal from support for urban development has contributed to the withering of the public realm in our cities.On top of this, the decline in federal support for public collective consumption services (of which more later), notably, health and education, represents a broad scale attack on the public realm.The state of public education is a key barometer of health in the public realm.And public education is withering: in 1970, about 77 percent of Australian children attended government schools, but by 2002 this figure had shrunk to 68 percent.Proportionately, Australia has one of the largest private school sectors in the developed world – even the US, the global beacon of free enterprise – educates only 10 percent of its children outside the state sector (Russell, 2003).Moreover, as Russell (2003) points out, our high public subsidisation of private education is not matched by high levels of regulation.Australia’s private schools are subject to a very weak level of public control by international standards, furthering underscoring their distance from the public realm, where the fundaments of citizenship are maintained.
The growth of private schools therefore represents a straightforward contraction in the public realm.National debates abound with what must be termed the ‘substitution fallacy’: the assumption that private schools can supplant the role of public education and perform their function within the public realm.Private schools exist expressly to mitigate and/or obviate civic values: the broader ideals that unite all Australians and which underpin the existence of civil society.It may be a democratic right to receive education with particular value overlays (religious, cultural, pedagogical), but it is a category error to assert that private education can operate within and contribute to the public realm.
Murmurs in a Heartland: the Case of Western Sydney
Western Sydney is an Australian urban heartland that is home to nearly one in ten Australians.Its principal political advocate, the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils, has noted the deterioration in the region’s public realm 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” (WSROC, 2003:33).Money may not ultimately be the problem.The Commonwealth is presently 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 (2002), 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 relocate 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.[xii]
Gwyther’s findings reveal an increasingly assertive mood of privatism amongst 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 – shape and support these new communities.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.
At face value, the new estates of privilege seem 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 south of Liverpool/near Camden 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 motorway 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”.
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 involved.The socio-spatial analyses of recent intercensal population change by Randolph (2000) and Birrell & Seol (1998) have shown a subtler, but nonetheless powerful, shift underway 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.Whilst US style racialised fear does not appear to be driving the outwards migration of the relatively affluent, Gwyther’s surveys suggest that anxiety about crime and the decay of the public realm is now a motivating force for suburban growth in Australia.
In attempting to explain the exodus of Australian Born from the middle ring suburbs of Western Sydney, Birrell & Seol point to a stressed public realm:
We can only speculate about the factors shaping the Australia-born exodus from Sydney’s south-west. It may be that the concentration of low-income NESB [Non English Speaking Background] families occurring in the south-western suburbs presents problems of accumulated disadvantage, straining the provision of government services in the area (1998, emphasis added).
National governments have championed the contribution of high immigration levels to economic growth and to socio-cultural enrichment in Australia.There is incontrovertible social scientific evidence to support these claims.And yet successive national governments have not been prepared to invest sufficiently in the maintenance, let alone the enhancement, of the urban public realms – especially, the education and training spheres – that provide new migrants with the cultural and material resources needed to attain and practise citizenship.These ‘receptor’ public domains in the urban areas favoured for settlement by newer migrants should function to support and nurture both new arrivals and their host communities.These domains, however, are under immense pressure and we must doubt their capacity to safeguard one of the nation’s most enduring and valuable assets: an orderly and peaceful migration program that has been the envy of the world for many decades.
The Commonwealth – the principal national migration agent – regards these middle ring public domains as the exclusive concern of state and local governments.The effective abandonment of new migrants who must negotiate stressed and degraded public domains as part of their settlement experience is hardly consistent with the idea of a responsible migration program.National governments, and the business lobbies that cheer them on, seem prepared to accept the migrants’ currency – their profound and manifest contribution to the national economy – without returning in exchange the basic resources for citizenship.We grab the cash and give little in return, leaving migrants to fend for themselves amidst a wider population that sometimes resents the social ‘stress’ generated by laissez-faire population growth and change.Sounds like people smuggling.
Tollway Tories and the Politics of ‘Choice’
The inequitable allocation of state government services and infrastructure to different socio-economic communities is strongly reinforced by federal policies and programs that have shifted large amounts of public resources into privately provided health and education services.[xiii]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 – which assumes that behaviour is driven, ineluctably by self-interest.
In the US, much contemporary suburbanisation is driven by an outright antipathy for the public sphere, including the principle of universal entitlement to basic social and economic resources.Political sentiment on the right counter poses the decaying ‘city’, and its failed welfarism and dysfunctional public realm, with a flourishing ‘suburbia’, and its robust and responsible communal realms, including the privatised municipal function provided by homeowner associations.The capturing and concentration of investment capital in the suburbs has been marked by the emergence of ‘edge cities’, large congregate 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.
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 Penrith.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.”[xiv]
Public choice theory is a freeze-dried by-product of neo-classical 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.[xv]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 whilst the poor receive ‘life-support’ aid that does little to improve their life chances.Across urban regions, these forms of assistance are spatially patterned: the former captured by the residents of newer homeowner areas, and the latter supporting growing concentrations of the needy in older localities.The Commonwealth’s First Homeowner Grant Scheme provided a vast public subsidy to the construction of new ‘model’ communities.[xvi]Perversely, the receipt of such housing support will help recipients qualify for further subsidies.Having been supported into homeownership, 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 childcare — largely a result of Commonwealth cuts since 1996 — meant women in the Fairfield-Liverpool area were less likely to work (Smith & Ewer 2001).By contrast, women in the wealthier northern Sydney suburbs were less likely to succumb to rising cost pressures by leaving work.Whilst Jackie Kelly M.P. 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 consequences for democracy of the changes described above are surely profound.Similar, if not identical, shifts have been observed in Britain and the USA.In Britain, Anthony Giddens has characterised the phenomenon as the “voluntary exclusion of the elites” and the “involuntary exclusion of the excluded” (cited in Minton, 2002:3).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” (2002:3).
The mounting evidence is that new and established Commonwealth Government policies have tended to powerfully reinforce this process of residential social segregation.These policies have clearly aimed to erode social support for 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 of one ‘typical’ middle class Western Sydney family, the Clancys.[xvii]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” (emphasis added).
Toxic Cities: Urban Australia and the Young:
Modernity’s Paradox: Fatter, Sicker and Sadder
And what of the young?The foregoing analysis suggests that there are great shifts underway within their home worlds and within the policy areas that structure their lives, especially education, health, and childcare.These shifts – summarised earlier as polarisation and the contraction of the public domain – threaten to reduce the life chances of the poor, and their young, and to entrench their exclusion from society in degraded urban realms.Meanwhile, in the new spaces of affluence, the relative absence of a public domain impoverishes the young in a different way, excluding them from the principal civic resources and social experiences that nourish the development of strong citizenship values.
The growing endangerment to our children represented by these and other shifts is surely reflected in the accumulating social scientific evidence which tells us that they are getting fatter, sicker and sadder.Australia has become an immensely wealthier country over the past three decades, but this material enrichment has been accompanied by a startling decline in the health and well-being our children.A similar pattern of simultaneously rising rates of wealth and morbidity has been registered in other developed countries – the Canadians Keating & Hertzman (1999) have described this as ‘Modernity’s Paradox’.
Fiona Stanley, Epidemiologist and Australian of the Year (2003), reports an exhaustive review of physical and mental health indicators which shows that “whilst death rates are low and life expectancy is terrific, trends in almost all other outcomes [for children] have got worse” (2003a:2, emphasis added).Consider just some of the indicators that have registered declines for children: birth weight, post neonatal mortality (Aboriginal children), asthma and diabetes, obesity, intellectual disability, depression, anxiety, behavioural problems, drug use and child abuse.
What happened to the great promise of Modernity?Why has escalating wealth not lifted also the prospects for our young?How can it be in the first years of the new millennium, two centuries after the Industrial Revolution, that Australia’s leading scholar of the young could declare, “…childhood is rapidly vanishing” (Stanley, 2003a:8)?Stanley writes:
Clearly, our nation’s economic prosperity has failed to deliver the social dividend that was promised.While Australia prospers economically, alarm bells have been sounding in the suburbs – witness increases in divorce, family violence, child abuse, homelessness, working hours and social isolation (2003b: emphasis added)
Could it be that the centuries long Growth Fetish (Hamilton, 2003) has produced cities and communities that are environmentally and socially injurious to their most vulnerable human inhabitants, the children and the poor?In explanation, Stanley speaks of the shattering consequences of growth and the social changes partly engendered by this: unprecedented levels of family breakdown and discord; ever longer working hours, cultural alienation, and rising wealth inequality.The weakening and withdrawal of the public domain from many urban communities has also left children vulnerable:
What’s been decreasing are some of the protective factors for these things [morbidity levels]: community cohesion and participation, neighbourhood trust, and I think, children’s services and facilities in many communities…have you talked to any child health nurses lately to see how angry and worried they are about support..?..there has been a decrease in facilities at a time when parents actually need them more than ever…(Stanley, 2003a:11).
Macro indicators mask how vulnerability affects young Australians in different ways.Wealth polarisation – what Stanley terms the ‘toxic social divide’ – produces distinct forms of endangerment for the young.In our new urban poverty spaces, the endangerment is real, even life threatening.
The Undeserving: Sites of Desertion
One Saturday in early November 2003, the lifeless body of five-year-old Chloe Hoson was found discarded amidst refuse in the reserve opposite her home, Lansdowne Caravan Park, in southwestern Sydney.Chloe had been raped, strangled and cast aside like rubbish by her killer – a young man resident in Lansdowne Park was later charged with her murder.
In a moving and insightful piece of journalism, The Australian’s Christine Jackman, took readers beyond the monstrous crime that ended Chloe’s life into the lifeworld that she had inhabited all too briefly (Jackman, 2003).Her essay recalls the higher forms of Victorian era slum journalism, which explored the realms of urban abjection and recorded them with humanity and empathy.Jackman enters the Lansdowne netherworld to find and interview Chloe’s playmates; just some of the many children that live with their parents in the tightly packed poorly ventilated trailers and cabins that crowd the caravan park.The children knew well the tawdry reserve where Chloe had been found because their parents had declared it off limits: a magnet for prostitution and drug dealing where Council workers would regularly find up to 150 syringes a week buried in the sand beneath the children’s swings.
‘Dave’, a father of three children under the age of three, is interviewed: he fumes with helpless rage about the impossibility of keeping kids safe in a sinkhole of drugs, pollution and quietly smouldering rage.Jackman observes: “…beneath this father’s fury is a deeper, brooding resentment at the powerlessness of life on the fringes of Australia’s wealthiest city”.Dave speaks of entrapment, of not being able to access even the scruffier private rental market that thrives in parts of Sydney’s middle west.He and his family have been told that they will wait at least six years for public housing in the area.The heartless contradictions of contemporary post-welfare Australia are revealed when his partner, ‘Cara’, informs Jackman that the family could move almost immediately to a public dwelling in Dubbo, but the move would send them even further backwards: “…Centrelink will cut our (unemployment) payments because you can’t move to an area with less jobs”.The long shadows of Victorian poor laws and their brutish prosecution of the ‘undeserving’ continue to darken the lives of Australia’s urban poor.
Lansdowne, like many other similar urban welfare camps, is the last stop before outright homelessness.It provides none of the conditions for a healthy and happy life.In Dave’s words: “There’s nothing here, mate”.The politics of choice seem to have side-stepped Lansdowne’s 1000 residents: “…we’ve got no choice”, laments Dave.Jackman writes: “The only shopping centre within walking distance boasts a liquor store, a Chinese takeaway and a McDonald’s – but the fruit and vegetable shop has closed down”.The problem of transport poverty is highlighted: “Those without cars must rely on the local service stations for ready supplies – but often must dodge another sort of trade on their way to pick up milk”.Jackman inscribes her sad portrait of Chloe’s life and death with this epitaph:
She was an innocent battling to thrive in a world where the fresh and the natural are constantly under siege from the jaded and foul.
Australia’s cities are peppered with ‘jaded and foul’ places that are home to countless numbers of children and youth.The little we do know about these new urban poverty spaces was powerfully summarised recently in a study by researchers at the Urban Frontiers Program at the University of Western Sydney (Wensing, Holloway & Wood, 2003).In 2001, 62 percent of households in caravan parks earned less than $500 a week, compared with an Australian average of 29 percent.More than 4 in 10 park residents were in rental stress, paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent.Some 80 percent of residents had no post-school qualifications.
We do not yet properly know the extent or precise character of these new urban netherworlds: our social scientific understanding of them is poor because such knowledge seems to attract little political or policy interest.It seems you can know too much in the Clever Country.
Epilogue?The problem of Lansdowne, at least, might soon be dealt with.Development behemoth, Meriton, long term owner of the caravan park, recently lodged an application to rezone the park from ‘private recreation’ to ‘residential’, potentially paving the way for a lucrative redevelopment.Meriton has announced that it is “considering options for the best use of the land occupied by the park. At this time, it is considered that a traditional, low density, residential subdivision is the most appropriate use”.[xviii]A masterplanned enclave estate might be just what is needed to sanctify the haunted grounds of Lansdowne Caravan Park.But who will calm its ghosts?
The Deserving: Too Much Dessert
What about the other end of the social scale?Let’s imagine the situation of the children and youth who might live in the master planned estate that might one day soon replace Lansdowne Caravan Park.It is also likely to look very crowded, in a middle class way: lots of large houses, many of them two stories, packed into small lots, separated by narrow streets and pocket parks – it may or may not have footpaths.
Some commentators have derisively called such estates ‘McMansion Land’: perhaps because their contents seem steroid ‘enhanced’.In truth, the observation is condescending and rather unfair: the large structures reflect a growth in the national appetite for more housing space that has been a feature of Australian life for much of the twentieth century and now beyond.[xix]At the same time, the plots on which they are set have been dramatically compacted as the Urban Consolidation Diktat has been applied in various ways to new subdivisions by state and local governments.Hawley, resorting to mild hyperbole, describes contemporary project homes on the newer Sydney masterplanned estates:
…four bedroom, spiral staircase, open-plan, kitchen-family-dining-lounge, multiple bathroom, rumpus room, big-screen media room, barbecue, spa, multi-garage bigger-is-beautiful-is-better houses (2003:25).
Whilst condescension is unwise, there are growing reasons for disquiet about McMansion Land.The growth in housing girth is an environmental concern – the suburban palazzos are energy guzzlers – and also, perhaps, a health concern.Evidence on the national epidemic in childhood obesity points to a relationship between the expanding girth of dwellings and the growing waistlines of their inhabitants.
The contemporary suburban mega house internalises activity, allocating large amounts of space to passive recreation: home theatres, lounges, rumpus and computer rooms, courtyards, and monster garages for the storage of (rarely used) toys.Gwyther explains: “They love cocooning inside their McMansions, which are like castles, fun factories and mini resorts in one” (cited in Hawley, 2003:25).These relatively sedentary residential landscapes contrast with older suburban forms that were premised on far greater levels of outdoor activity, especially for children.
The traditional backyard has gone, along with its trees, garden veggie patch, often pool, washing line and shed, where children could let their bodies and imaginations run free and build tree houses, cubbyhouses, billycarts, dig in the dirt and invent games.Now, it’s indoor computer games, and, given there’s no room for a decent run-up in most McMansion courtyards, children are driven to sport and formally organised activities most days of the week (Hawley, 2003:25).
Those ‘McKids’ who actually do participate in organised sport – a chore for parents working long hours on the mortgage treadmill – will experience at least some level of physical activity.But missing from these new suburban landscapes are the opportunities for spontaneous, constant free play available to children of previous generations, and those lucky enough still to have backyards.As Hawley (2003) observes, many parents cite space as the principal reason for rejecting ‘inner city shoe boxes’ in favour of the new masterplanned estates.And yet free, permeable space seems to be almost absent from the new residential landscapes.
The freedom and permeability of activity space is further reduced by the highly routinised and supervised lives imposed on contemporary middle class urban children.The Geographer, Paul Tranter, believes that Australian children are subjected to unprecedented levels of surveillance and control, driven by an epidemic of parental and institutional concern about environmental risk and crime (in Cadzow, 2004).Many now live highly scripted lives, marked by pervasive anxiety and the absence of free and independent play.Cadzow writes of the ‘Bubble Wrap Generation’:
So reluctant are we to let our offspring out of our sight that we drive them to the playground and everywhere else rather than allow them to walk or ride their bikes.Strapped into the backseat of the family sedan, chauffeured to and from school, soccer practice and piano lessons, middle-class Australian boys and girls are like pampered prisoners – cosseted, constrained and constantly nagged (2004:18).
Children need autonomy from adults for their psychic and social development: little wonder then that the ‘pampered prisoners’ flee the bounds of their suburban cells for the horizonless expanses of computer generated worlds where freeplay is always possible.They may not be permitted to climb trees, ride their bikes to the shops or go unaccompanied to parks, but here they can wage global, even intergalactic, wars, build cities and even build the perfect family.The problem with simulated worlds, however, is that they are pretty poor training grounds for real life: a tour of duty in SimCity can never emulate the brute materiality and sensuous splendour of urban life; life with the Sims is unlikely to help a child to cope with any family dysfunctionality or prepare them for the joys and strains of adult life.The ‘ordinary maladies’ of life come, then, as insurmountable shocks to bubble wrap kids.Melbourne clinical psychologist, Andrew Fuller, tells Cadzow, “when bad things do happen, they’re just thrown for six.They end up in my bloody therapy room and I’m sick of it” (in Cadzow, 2004:19).
Despite evidence which shows Australia to be a greatly safer place for children than it was three decades ago,[xx] an obdurate culture of fear drives the ever increasing parental colonisation of children’s lifeworlds.The colonisation project seems strangely disconnected to real social evidence, including, for example, a recent, and hardly reported, Australian Bureau of Statistics survey that shows a significant drop in crime in New South Wales between 2001-3 and an increase in the number of people who reported that their neighbourhoods were crime free.[xxi]Fear, the potent flag bearer for Despair, is a difficult wraith to banish, especially when the popular media and contemporary ‘law and order’ politics give it the free pedestal that it so desperately craves.The rising numbers of kids in therapy and the epidemic of child obesity are two potent markers of extent to which fear rules our cities and communities.
Conclusion: Ideals for Australian Cities
Alarm Bells Have Been Sounding in the Suburbs…[xxii]
Spatial polarisation, registered largely at the local/neighbourhood level, is recasting the landscape of Australia’s cities.In suburban Australia these same contemporary geographic shifts register in new polarities of outlook and morale.The strengthening moods of separatism and privatism amongst 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 not the dreary bogey portrayed by zealots of the Right: it requires neither homogeneity and nor mechanical uniformity.As the Australian writer, David Malouf observes, “wholeness does not necessarily mean uniformity, though that is how we have generally taken it.Nor does diversity always lead to fragmentation” (2001:11).
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.Rundle (2002) points out, the development of “communal and collective forms of life” are the preconditions for, not the antitheses of, a flourishing “selfhood and individuality”.
Postmodern nihilism[xxiii] aside, 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 which govern decisions about schooling, healthcare, 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 whilst 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” (WSROC, 2002:35).
Macken, observing the strengthening preference of many outer suburban households for exclusive residential communities, observes that “many are opting for a life surrounded by people like themselves” (2002:33).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 socio-political 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 falls 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).From this and other analyses we learn that the micro-economic reforms of the 1990s produced labour productivity gains by clawing back household leisure time, literally sucking the social lifeforce from communities in the process.
In Search of the New Public Domain
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.Huxley (2002) notes Cabramatta High’s widely acclaimed success as an educative institution and the harmony of its diverse student body.His essay describes the school as “A garden of peace and cultural tolerance”.In this example, a fragment of the public realm is functioning quietly to nurture solidarity in an area enduring considerable socio-economic and cultural tensions (some of them externally imposed).
Australia’s urban public realm must be rebuilt and remoralised – viz., given new political and ethical purpose – if the conditions for a democratic future are to be bequeathed by this generation to the next.This means, however, not just restoring integrity to what has been lost – the spaces and places that fit the conventional notion of ‘public’ – but locating the new civic forms that emerge inevitably at the frontiers of technological and socio-cultural change.History discards elements of the public domain and absorbs new forms in a process of continuous transformation.It is vital that societies identify and embrace new public domain forms as they manifest and not regret too deeply the need to let ageing fragments dwindle and die.The Dutch commentators, Hajer & Reijndorp (2001), have entitled this task: In Search of the New Public Domain.The obvious starting point in the new millennium for this task is the realm of new information technologies, including the Internet, pay television and other innovative electronic media.
Access to the Internet may now be a necessity for the practice of citizenship and consequently there are compelling grounds for the establishment of national public realms within the world wide web.A Commonwealth Domain that provided access to a continuously growing reservoir of civic resources would greatly enhance the public sphere.It would be important to make this a stimulating, interactive resource, not simply a warehouse of official data.This, of course, is only the half the task: it would be necessary to provide unlimited and ready access to the web and especially to the Commonwealth Domain to ensure that this initiative complemented the public sphere.It would be preferable from a public domain perspective to provide this access in public as well as private (homes, workplaces) spaces.A starting point would be suburban shopping malls – the arrival of a Commonwealth Domain centre would help to transform these uncertain ‘public spaces’ into real civic centres.Australia’s cities are also littered with small backstreet and ‘High Street’ strip shopping centres, most of which are deeply embedded in neighbourhoods and therefore highly accessible.Many of these are dying or have died economically: they would provide cheap, highly accessible points from which to deliver the Commonwealth Domain.
Spaces of Hope
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 anti-social communalism and opting out in Australian cities has been one of the nation’s quiet, though largely unacknowledged, social and economic strengths.
If twentieth century sociology resolved anything, it was surely the problem of ‘anomie’ and its remedies.All 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 multi-cultural 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.
Amongst 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 socio-economic 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.
Hope in the Tank
US-style urban social fear is a new additive in the tank fuelling the engine of Australian suburban growth, evidenced by the contemporary masterplanned estate where ‘security’ is a lifestyle necessity.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 United States.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 may 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 who 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 twentieth century as a matter or 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 Mark Latham’s recent (2003), From the Suburbs, 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.A new politics of urban hope will take time to form.There is, however, no reason to delay the struggle against the urban fear that is undermining the public domain and the fraying bonds of social solidarity.An immediate task for the defence of hope is to assert what is not acceptable in a humane and democratic Australia, and which surely erodes the life prospects of our young.From the vantage point of hope, these intolerable outposts of fear are surely obvious and would include:
- The new sinkholes of urban poverty where children know only the ‘jaded and the foul’ (Jackman, 2003);
- The fortified camps of affluence that eschew the public sphere and which amount to open acts of secession;
- The ‘pampered prisons’ of mega-house estates that deny their young the basic resources for healthy development;
- The ‘non-places’ of suburbia where the drug dependent, the angry and the homeless are forced to range, out of mind, if not out of sight.
A politics that laid siege to such outposts of fear would begin to rekindle the prospects for hope.Plans for post war reconstruction – designs for new public domains and for inclusive communities – must necessarily follow.But the war on fear must be waged immediately if there is to be a peace and a future for our young.
Postscript: A Battle Quietly Rages
Like most advanced capitalist nations, Australia has long craved greater wealth, more freedom to use it, and more stimulating ways to expend it.Before the neo-liberal revolution three decades ago, the lust for gold was restrained by a diverse set of moderating influences with deep cultural roots (conservatism, religion, socialism, conservationism).The manipulated panic about ‘state fiscal crisis’ that brought neo-liberalism to power throughout the English speaking world in the late 1970s saw the suspension of these moderating orders.The ‘growth machine’ economy unleashed by neo-liberals promised to drive whole nations to heaven through the eye of the materialist pin.
The health assessment I have offered for our urban societies suggests that the Growth Fetish is a morbid desire whose indulgence has generated material enrichment at the cost of great civic and human impoverishment.A nation that denies the chance for health and happiness to many of its young is not a rich society, because it is brutish by nature and because it thieves from its own future.The attack on the young suggests that we have, as a society, lost the (re)generative impulse that is a precondition for a national future worth having.Further, the open disregard of successive national and state governments and business elites for the highly apparent, indeed blatant, polarisation of our cities reeks of doom.The steady, nihilistic progress towards an Australia Divided is surely a Death March.Finally, the attack on the public domain represents another way in which Australia has campaigned against its own future, producing urban communities and cities that cannot undertake the task of nurturing and constantly modernising the civic values that underscore nationhood.
The polyglot and increasingly fractious social landscape of the contemporary Australian city registers the marks of a battle that quietly rages between Hope and Despair.Those who cheer on anxiety and fear have set themselves in opposition to the future and its inhabitants.Against them are those who retain hope, and struggle to maintain the inclusive values and institutions that are the only soil in which a healthy future can thrive.Recalling Breughel’s Battle Between Carnival and Lent, the urban field is crowded with a wrestling mass of knaves, saints and sinners.Despair’s Captains are visible and voluble, holding the high grounds of power, conquering through dissection.Hope’s scattered legions struggle on, awaiting new leadership and a remoralisation of will and purpose.
Amidst this ruckus, ordinary things are happening that will shape the future.Children and youth are trying to live and grow, everywhere quietly in the shadows of Great Events.The glowing structures erected around them, and the riches piled up in their sight, provide no shelter it seems from a Nature enraged by human perfidy.Our misshapen young must pay the debts that we accumulate.Fatter, sicker and sadder they face the future of furious miserable change that we are shaping for them.
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[i]The soothsayers, of course, have always been with us.Some escaped Enlightenment by cloaking themselves in reason, and crafting a science of the future.High modernity brought new confidence and an enhanced level of organisation to the futurists, who founded leagues dedicated to the art of prediction (e.g., World Future Society established in Washington, D.C., USA in 1966).
[ii] Suitably, Althusser (1993) employed the injunction, The Future Lasts a Long Time, as the title of a history, his autobiography.
[iii] Tim Flannery’s (1994) felicitous description of modernity’s anti-ecological agents.
[iv] Not meaning, of course, that they are free from history altogether but that they must encounter and resolve problems of their making, not ours.
[v] Recalling the utopian collectivist communities – ‘New Australia’ – founded by William Lane and his followers in the 1890s.
[vi] Nearly all of which are located by the sea – we have always been a nation of coast watchers.
[vii] Capital cities presently contain almost two-thirds (64%) of Australia’s population and their growth accounted for almost three-quarters of Australia’s population increase in the 2000–2001 period.Between 1996 and 2001, the capital cities collectively grew by 1.3% while the balance of the States and Territories grew by 0.9% (ABS, 2003).
[viii] Domain section, 15-21 March 2001, p.7
[ix] Leaving aside the phenomenon of Old Money, a class fraction that is, by its nature, geographically immobile and which arrogates to itself status through the conspicuous and obdurate occupation of space.
[x] Former public housing estates where ‘tenure mix’ and ‘social diversity’ have been created through the disposal of public housing stock.A key dimension of the ‘new diversity’ is the arrival of private landlords in previously uniform state housing estates.
[xi] Known in NSW as the ‘investor corporation’.
[xii] I cite an early paper by Gwyther in evidence of these claims.I have, however, as joint supervisor had the privilege of reading draft chapters of her doctoral thesis which detail andfurther substantiate these findings.
[xiii] Currently, the federal health rebate subsidy alone amounts to about $2.4 billion per annum.
[xiv] Letters, Sydney Morning Herald, 14.11.02:16.
[xv] The Commonwealth now spends over $4 billion per annum 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, whilst public schools registered a decline of 10,000 (Sydney Morning Herald, 28.02.02:5).
[xvi] The scheme cost the taxpayer $1.76 billion in 2001/02 and has been forecast to cost $784 million in 2002/03.
[xvii] The Australian, 15.3.02:3
[xviii] Letter cited by Paul Lynch, M.P., state member for Liverpool, NSW Legislative Assembly Hansard Article No.32 of 01/05/2003
[xix] The average floor area of new houses in Australia grew by over 40 percent between 1984/5 and 2002/3.In NSW and Qld, growth for the same period was over 50 percent (Perinotto & Murphy, 2004).
[xx] Cadzow (2004) presents Australian Bureau of Statistics data which demonstrates a marked decline in the amount of deaths of children aged five to 14 between 1972 and 2002.
[xxi] Sydney Morning Herald, 6.12.03:3
[xxiii] Philosophical Fool’s Gold
Professor, Griffith University, Australia