The untouchable suburbs of Australia's cities

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Every city proudly shows off its newly revitalised downtown as if it were their jewel in their crown yet the suburbs remain untouched and seemingly untouchable and therefore remain much as they were when originally designed back in the 1950s and ’60s.

Regular readers of my articles for Business Insider know that I study cities and the very cool part of my research is that I get to travel to across the developed world (yes, I confess to having the very best job going).

Working out where to go is a large research effort in its own right. I want to see liveable cities; cities with a population size of between 2 million to 5 million; cities that have grown faster than the national average; west coast cities; cities that are isolated from the national capital; and cities underpinned by a resources economy – a broad scope that can help to plan Perth’s future.

Once I have decided where to go, my research is real world. I get out and about on my feet and walk the streets day and night. I ride all forms of public transport and take taxis or private cars as well.

Aside from finding or rediscovering a city on my own I also take guided tours, meet with experts in their field as well as the key individuals who are shaping the future of their city. People are very generous with their time and advice and I think that is because they don’t seriously consider Perth as a competitor.

But in real terms all cities are playing a competitive game. Each is chasing major brands, knowledge workers, investment dollars and high-value tourists. Every city wants to be more liveable than the next, many want to be in first place.

There is no question that the inner core of cities has been a point of focus over the past decade or so. What has emerged is the large scale urban renewal of downtown areas. They are the places where more people are choosing to live, work and play. Urban hipsters have embraced city living forgoing cars and long commutes while the rest of us, suburbanites, have stayed on the fringes complaining that our quality of life is being eroded as the time commuting between work and home takes longer and longer.

Revitalised downtowns are like a good meal — they are exciting and delicious causing you to want to linger. Perhaps suburbs are more of a standard fare offering meat and three veg which is familiar and comforting.

As I travel, I am told by locals about the must dos and sees. Typically this involves wandering around the downtown to admire the architecture. The one upmanship that is underway is impressive yet slightly disturbing. It seems you aren’t a city on the map unless you have been Gehry’d meaning that you have a prominent building designed by US based architect Frank Gehry. I am directed to cultural infrastructure that is “the best in the world” and sometimes in places that you wouldn’t expect. I remain enchanted by the Sage in Gateshead which I visited in 2010. A new build multipurpose music venue located in one of the most impoverished areas in Britain.

In every city I ask: “What don’t you want me to see?” Unilaterally the answer is: “The suburbs.” In most cities they have not changed since the 1950s and 60s when they were designed for family living as home to mum, dad, two kids and a dog. A form of urban design with the car is king firmly in mind where often buying a loaf of bread requires a trip in the family car.

When asked why they don’t want me to see their suburbs the answer is because they are “untouchable” – physically and politically.

The revitalisation of downtown areas has created the jewel in every city’s crown. It has been years since they were cast aside in favour of life in ‘burbs and they are enjoying a renaissance. Yet our suburbs cannot remain untouchable, they too must move forward and find ways to respond to changing demographics lest they become the wastelands of the future.

Marion Fulker

Marion Fulker is the CEO of the Committee for Perth, a private sector funded think tank and an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at The University of Western Australia. Her research has taken her to cities across Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States of America. Marion is not an urban hipster and instead chooses to continue to reside the family home on a small block in one of Perth’s riverside suburbs as a one car household.

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