SUBURBS | Hierarchy Vs Network

Posted on 04/09/2011

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As someone who exerts significant influence in political and policy-making spheres, I sometimes wish demographer Bernard Salt would be more careful in his choice of words. I am particularly concerned about a growing conflictual and accusatory tone in discussions about suburban Australia or ‘the suburbs’. The patronising references to Western Sydney seem to overlook that is one of the fastest growing (sub)urban populations in Australia.

As mentioned in the previous post, Salt’s comments introducing the book Place Making for People set a scene for shifting urban strategy that establishes multiple lifestyle/work hubs, attracting residents from suburbs to relocate to those inner city sanctums. He further states that this process will be replicated in major centres like Chermside and Mr Gravatt. Among the drivers of these changes will be “the formation of social tribes with an aversion to, as opposed to affinity for, the suburbs”.

That may well be true, but I tend to think that’s a comment that overlooks some significant demographic shifts and, ultimately, spatial inequality. Change of this scale won’t happen seamlessly and won’t happen without causing social harm. It’s not surprising that this ‘aversion’ to suburbs seems to rise in the same period where they are becoming more culturally diverse, where transport costs are rising and where disadvantage is not just pooling but clotting. In other words, this transition might well result in another kind of ‘white flight’ from the suburbs to those fortified and overdesigned urban centres, where inner urban lifestyle is propped up by free cultural and social experiences and opportunities not made available to other parts of the city. As they flock back to the cities, there is a need to keep asking about where the ‘others’ who are priced out of inner city housing have gone only to be hit with those rising transport costs. Is being ‘left behind’ a choice? Suburbs, in my experience these last few years, are actually quite difficult to live in. The transition that Salt writes of wreaks of spatial inequality and results in a kind of city fortification despite some limited allowance for affordable housing and rapid transit, with economists ever concerned about the ‘opportunity cost’.

In the last couple of weeks I have heard references to ‘hierarchies of centres’, a rudiment of spatial planning, a few too many times. It’s an idea that continues to have currency in planning and continues to provide the basis for decision making. Every major city in Australia is planned on the basis of a hierarchy of centres. I tend to find ideas of hierarchies rather unsatisfying, preferring to think through ideas of networks, plurality and difference. Hierarchies offers a way of thinking about cities, suburbs and places in ways that focuses on whatthey are not rather than what they can be. It’s not about constraining or containing, as some planning tends to do. In the diverse works of Peter Calthorpe and Manuel Castells, network thinking promotes flexibility and inclusion as well as specialisation.

We know planning is ideological and current planning designations tend to exclude, disconnect and isolate suburbs. In my example of Chermside, I make the observation that the area is afflicted by a suburban plan that reflects suburban values and generates suburban decisions. A question there is not so much about ‘urbanising the suburban’, but strengthening an urban or regional network. However, network thinking can seem to have an equalising influence by which the city is strengthened as flows and spatial equity are unleashed. Diffusion as distinct from regionalisation – that includes the diffusion of ideas, memes, culture and choice – warrants extrapolation (even in the context of regionalism) to promote connections between spatial and network thinking. Having just written a review of the publication associated with C3West (ie The Art of Engagement: Culture, Collaboration & Innovation edited by Elaine lally, Ien Ang and Kay Anderson), it appears that this could be the kind of approach to cultural projects and cultural planning that gives this idea of diffusion some agency and impetus.

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