Urban Renewal in Australia, What’s Next?


Contributed by Ross Elliott

Urban renewal in Australia has a proud record. It started with the Building Better Cities program, initiated during the term of the Hawke Labor government, in 1991.

The program had cross-governmental support with the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments agreeing to cooperate in a program focused on improving urban development processes and the quality of urban life.

My good friend Lyndsay Neilson, who effectively ran the program, said that Better Cities “can be credited with leading the revival of Australian inner cities, the most significant change in urban Australia since the introduction of consumer credit post World War II". He was not overstating it.

The initial emphasis was on fixing inner-urban infrastructure defects – mostly water and sewerage – via a federal funding program. It sought to prevent the “doughnut effect” of US cities where the cores had hollowed out as people moved away, leaving empty schools and other social infrastructure behind.

Better Cities also sought to provide affordable inner-city housing for working class Australians – which was probably its only “fail” (affordable inner-city housing is now an oxymoron).

In every other respect, Better Cities unleashed new interest in our inner-urban areas and spawned three decades of private and public investment, transforming our urban cores and economies in the process. The outcomes in many cases are world’s best practice.

Mission Australia Housing, Frasers Property
Ivanhoe East

But after turning over every inner-city rock and shaking every inner-city tree for three decades, what’s next? Many inner-urban areas, while not exhausted of opportunity, are now bursting at the seams. Inner-city schools we once worried would be empty are overflowing.

Inner-city streets we once worried would be vacated are now heavily congested. Public transport we once worried would find no passengers is now (in many cases) over capacity. Housing we once worried could be abandoned is now a preferred address of the wealthiest among us.

The answer seems simple: Australia could take its experience and knowledge of urban renewal and apply it to the next frontier. A program of suburban renewal is both logical and compelling.

Like many of our inner-city regions in the 1980s which were showing signs of neglect, many of our suburban centres today are similarly neglected. Many have been largely untouched in thirty or forty years. Some of the cognoscenti who have lavished adulation on the supposed miracle powers of inner-urban development to cure a host of social and economic sins, not only ignored the suburban domain but even derided it.

Houston, Texas
Houston, Texas

Yet the social and economic winds suggest change is upon us. In the USA, millennials who once flocked to downtowns are returning to suburban areas as they enter family formation stage.

Many Fortune 500 companies are trading expensive, congested inner city offices for new locations across the US, making cities like Austin, Salt Lake City, Orlando, Raleigh, Houston, San Antonio, Nashville and Denver some of the fastest growing economies.

Here in Australia, the Census reveals that overwhelmingly we continue to live in suburban homes if given the choice. Equally, there are strong signs that the industries and occupations that will drive future jobs growth – particularly health and education but also scientific, technical and professional occupations – will overwhelmingly search for premises in suburban centres.

Suburban housing

How we plan for and accommodate that growth, how we retrofit our suburbs for more sustainable outcomes, how we promote suburban renewal in any number of existing suburban centres and how we plan for and create entirely new suburban centres is the focus of a conference I am proud to be involved with.

“The Future of Suburbia” puts the opportunities in suburban development – property, economic and community – into sharp focus. It brings together not only one of the world’s leading thinkers from MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism, but also a host of private and public industry leaders who are committed to opportunities in suburbia.

Urban renewal and the story of urban development in Australia is, I think, poised to enter a new chapter: That of suburban renewal, where we will understand that better suburbs equals better cities, and that the suburban landscape offers an even bigger canvass of opportunity.

It will reveal that our story of urban renewal has only just begun as we lift our eyes to the next horizon.

The “Future of Suburbia” is on Wednesday, 18 April 2018.

Further details here.

Ross Elliot

Ross Elliott is Regional General Manager for property & infrastructure consultants, APP. He has 30 years’ experience in the industry and has worked in leading national advocacy roles for the industry along with advising a large number of businesses active in the sector.

An author, speaker and public policy analyst, he was last year published in a global study into suburbia by MIT and Chapman University (USA) entitled “Infinite Suburbia.”

The Urban Developer will occasionally publish opinion pieces written by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints.

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