Follow us

Reimagining the suburbs

By Mark Sheppard


“Suburb: a place that isn’t city, isn’t country, and isn’t tolerable.” Mignon McLaughlin, The Second Neurotic’s Notebook, 1966

“Have you ever lived in the suburbs? It’s sterile. It’s nothing. It’s wasting your life.”Ed Koch

Love ’em or hate ’em (and strong views are often heard either way), our suburbs are here to stay. They are where most of us live. They are also the source of our greatest urban planning and design challenges, and where the greatest opportunities exist to transform our cities for the better.

Yet, as illustrated by the quotes above, they have a vexed identity in popular culture and planning theory. Tarred as boring, ugly and unsustainable, suburbia is regularly cast in an unfavourable light.

Most urban commentators agree that the only sensible way to accommodate growth in our capital cities is by increasing density in the infrastructure-rich (but low-density) middle-ring suburbs. Research shows that development on the edge of Melbourne is creating a city of ‘haves and have-nots’, as the gap in income growth between the inner and middle suburbs and the fast-growing fringe widens[1]. Rather than spreading outwards, “Australian cities must shift towards high amenity, medium density, multi-polar metropolitan living supported by great public transport”, according to urbanist Professor Greg Clark[2]. In Breaking Point, former VPA CEO Peter Seamer asserts that we are on a path of increasing dysfunction and inequality that can only be addressed by ‘localising’ jobs and lifestyles in the suburbs.

Instead, however, we find ourselves pushing inner urban densities to breaking point and rezoning land on the distant fringe for 12 new suburbs, remote from public transport and where community infrastructure often lags far behind new housing[3]. All while most of our well-serviced suburbs remain a protected species zoned for low-density housing, favouring the haves (existing suburban homeowners), rather than the have-nots (those struggling to make ends meet).

Plan Melbourne, at least, directs 70% of Melbourne’s growth to established urban areas, in an attempt to limit urban sprawl. However, while we devote close attention to how our urban renewal and urban growth areas should be planned and designed, we give disproportionately little attention to how our established suburbs—the vast majority of Melbourne by area, population or jobs—should evolve. City shapers’ attention is drawn to sexy urban renewal and urban growth areas, while the suburbs languish in the too-hard basket.

Perhaps this is simply because it is hard. Greenfield and brownfield planning can be guided by widely-accepted theory and planning practice. Suburban change is much more constrained by existing conditions—highlighted by our obsession with neighbourhood character.

Or maybe it is because most Melburnians have an emotional investment in the suburbs. We can plan urban renewal and urban growth areas with an objective sense of idealism. But when it comes to the suburbs, our sound planning principles are clouded by fear that change will disrupt the lifestyle we have chosen.

Or is it simply that the suburbs are where the majority of voters live? At the policy level, planning is a political act. Irrespective of planning doctrine, our planning policies are driven more by a perception of ‘what the people want’ than good sense (as recently illustrated by NSW Labor’s announcement that they will scrap Sydney’s Medium Density Housing Code if elected in March). The suburbs have become a battleground between planning idealism, the property market and local politics.

Whatever the reason, it is beyond time that we removed the ‘cone of silence’ and had an objective discussion about what form our suburbs should take. As noted by Ross Elliot, “Cities policy needs to be redefined to include suburbs if it is to evolve and provide a more mature and equitable city-wide solution to enhancing people’s qualities of life.”[4]

This article is the first in a new series that seeks to redress this imbalance in our planning focus, by exploring the challenges and opportunities of suburban evolution. Future editions will investigate such topics as the merits of the polycentric form that our metropolitan strategies have sought since the early 2000s, whether we should decentralise jobs, what kind of transport system we need, where affordable housing can most easily be delivered, whether we need minimum densities, how we can foster independent and inclusive third places, and much more.

The aim of these articles is to promote debate. So please reply with comments!

This article was first published in Planning News, April 2019.

[1] and City Limits: Why Australia’s cities are broken and how we can fix them, Jane-Frances Kelly and Paul Donegan




Sign up