Are the suburbs like the inner city?

Shweeb human-powered monorail - winner of Google's $1 million 10^100 environment project. Google chose Shweeb because of its transit potential, but there seem to be a few obvious questions they didn't ask!

Australian suburbs are commonly thought of as low density, single-use dormitories offering residents spacious lots, detached houses, quiet streets and a good measure of “leafy” amenity. Since it is assumed residents commute to the city centre, the suburbs are unsullied by the noise and grind of daily commerce.

It’s also commonly implied that the suburbs are homogeneous, alienating and unauthentic. As Graeme Davison says, suburbanites have variously been accused of conformity, philistinism, apathy and wowserism.

But it seems this stereotype is outdated. Housing densities are rising in the suburbs, whether through large developments like this 13 storey, 520 unit development on a redundant government site at Coburg in Melbourne (10 km from the CBD), or via numerous dual occupancy and small-scale infill town house developments in middle ring suburbs and the older parts of outer suburbs.

Even new suburbs on the suburban fringe are getting denser. The structure plan for Toolern – a massive new residential development near Melton in outer suburban Melbourne – envisages that 46% of dwellings will be built at higher densities than what we’re used to in fringe estates. Moreover, they’ll be within walkable distance of local activity centres. The Financial Review recently reported that Stockland is offering 213 m2 lots in its new Highlands development at outer suburban Craigieburn in Melbourne, giving a $269,000 price for a three bedroom, six-star energy rated, house and land package.

The great majority of jobs are also now in the suburbs. In Melbourne, for example, 72% of jobs are located more than five kilometres from the CBD and the median job is 13.9 km away. This reflects US experience, where a study of 150 large metropolitan areas by Edward Glaeser and Matthew Kahn found that only 26% of jobs are located within five kilometres of the CBD, while the median job is eleven kilometres from the centre.

The idea that there is only a handful of jobs in the suburbs hasn’t been true for at least half a century. Working class suburbs like Sunshine in Melbourne’s west, for example, developed in close proximity to the new manufacturing estates that began replacing inner city factories from the 1950s.

It’s true that suburban employment areas and residential areas are generally physically separated, in line with common zoning practice. But this is also true of most inner areas. Older suburbs like Fairfield and Alphington are almost exclusively residential. Even the greater part of inner city North Carlton and North Fitzroy are comprised of relatively unbroken rows of terraces, most of them single storey.

The idea that suburbanites commute to the city centre is out-moded. Fewer than 20% of workers from the Monash/Whitehorse area commute to the city centre (City of Melbourne) and fewer than 10% from the Dandenong/Knox/Maroondah area.

The vast majority of high human capital residents – those with university degrees, or higher – have always lived in the suburbs. Now the majority of jobs occupied by a graduate are also located in the suburbs. In Melbourne’s case, the suburbs have 58% of all graduate jobs.

The task of defining the suburbs is getting harder for another reason – the inner city is becoming more like the suburbs. Originally, lower cost transport technologies such as trams and trains enabled upright middle class (and later working class) Melbourne households to escape the very real pollution, risk of disease, stink, noise, overcrowding and moral and physical danger of the city centre for the greater amenity of the suburbs.

Now gentrification is giving rise to amenity improvements in the inner city. Factories and warehouses were the first to go and more lately many pubs have given way to restaurants or stylish cafes. Traffic calming, road closures, tree planting, bike paths and development of green space are some of the ways that living in the inner city has been made more amenable.

Like the early suburbanites, the inner city population is also becoming more socioeconomically homogeneous, although rather than families, it tends to be young, well educated and professional. Where once the inner city was a melting pot of different ethnic and religious groups, now that diversity is found in the suburbs.

Wider social changes have also reduced the distinction between the inner city and the suburbs. For example, greater female workforce participation and wider car ownership have effectively scotched the stereotype of the bored suburban housewife.

Peak oil and climate change are likely to have serious impacts on the suburbs. But the suburbs won’t simply go away, as they currently accommodate more than 90% of Melbourne’s population. It is probable that higher job and population densities both within established suburbs and on the periphery will further undermine the stereotype of the suburbs as “broad lawns, narrow minds”.

Of course there are still differences between the two regions. For example, the inner city remains far more walkable than the suburbs (although the range of opportunities may be narrowing) and has a much higher proportion of residents who work in the CBD than the suburbs.

But apart from a relatively arbitrary definition like distance from the CBD (which I admit is what I use), it’s getting harder to pin down what it is that defines the suburbs and what distinguishes them from the inner city. That’s an intriguing question that I intend to consider in the near future.

4 Comments on “Are the suburbs like the inner city?”

  1. Matthew says:


    Chanelling Serendib I rode the Shweeb on the day I found out about their Google win.

    What are those obvious questions Google didn’t ask?

    My impression is that it will be “interesting” to see what the Shweeb will be like in an urban setting. I am supportive, not because it is the answer, but because it will pose questions that don’t get asked enough.

    Any thoughts?

    • Alan Davies says:

      Matthew, I agree its interesting and I’d love to have a go on it….but…Google chose it for the prize because the company see it as “a concept for short to medium distance, urban personal transport, using human-powered vehicles on a monorail”.

      The problems I see with it as a real-life transport system are (a) you can’t overtake, so it’s limited to the speed of the slowest rider (b) you can’t have any intermediate stops (not easily anyway) so you’re limited to a start and an end station, (c) it will get congested very quickly (d) it’s hard to expand capacity, and (e) you have to have equal numbers of riders going in both directions otherwise you’ll get a build up at one end and hence have to resort to the expense of returning them by some means such as a truck (apparently they have this problem in Paris too).

      All these problems are not of equal magnitude and there might be technical solutions to some (e.g. passing “lanes”?) but it sounds pretty impractical compared to that vastly more flexible and valuable invention – pushbikes on paths or the existing network of roads.

      Doesn’t really live up to the Google reputation for smarts and innovation in my view. Looks more like Google “spinning” its environmental credentials.

      However it makes a great leisure activity and an exciting sport. I would love to try it. Incidentally, what time did you do?

  2. Matthew says:

    a,b,c, d and e all valid points

    a – they are proposing a buffering system where a faster rider hits the buffer of the rider in front and the energy goes from one to the other and then it becomes a train and all riders’ energy pushes the whole train, so a fast rider helps a slow rider. Also with slipstreaming the rider behind will generally be faster anyway.

    b – steering on a rail network with control from inside the pod will fix that, but not sure how that would have a cheap solution

    c – yes even their two pod race track was congested with only a modicum of us tourists. Very little throughput for a sideshow ride.

    d – yes, capacity very limited

    e – it’s in someway the same as a bike share with unbalanced load, but harder in that the pods would be hard to get onto a truck and easier in that one rider could ride 4 or 5 of them in a train. Unless there was some kind of automonous return system and then we are really in PRT lalaland.

    And I totally agree that an improved (read paved off-road) cycleway network is way better bang for the buck, simpler technology (shades of pencils versus’s NASAs works in space astronaut pen), and compatible with the world’s 2 billion bicycles, with the only downsides being rain and the fact that it seems beyond most cities to build the stuff well.

    I did 1:06, 10 secs below the record, but I claim the first two laps I was learning how it worked and hence need to have another go. It was fun.

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