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Are Australia’s suburbs ready for post COVID-19 opportunities?

There’s no shortage of speculation about how the global Coronavirus pandemic, which has seen cities the world over in partial or full lockdown, might impact city planning and development in years to come.

Suburb2Much of that speculation falls into the category of what USA President John F Kennedy once described as “the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

Whatever your opinions and however well thought through, it does seem likely that sufficient sections of the community will have developed a lasting aversion to crowding and will have formed a renewed attachment to the suburbs in which they live.

This won’t apply to everyone, but it will only take a proportion of the populace to change their behaviours to have city wide implications.

If that happens, it looks as if the winds of opportunity may blow more strongly in a suburban direction than before.

Hopefully, public policy will follow the people and their preferences will be supported where possible.

This would mark a turning point in many decades of urban policy which have favoured the inner city over middle and outer suburbs.

But one of the questions that needs to be asked is: “Are the suburbs ready?”

]If what may be about to happen is a drift of jobs and opportunity to suburban and regional business centres in response to the Coronavirus impacts on society and business, the answer in many cases would be “no.”

It is hard to turn around 30 years of focus on the inner city and suddenly flick a suburban or regional light switch on.

You might find the cabling lacking, the bulb blown and the switch no longer compliant.

Our suburban business centres across Australia have largely been overlooked and their needs underfunded for a long time.

Our love affair with all things inner city permitted a distorted approach to planning and to the funding of city-wide infrastructure – much of which was concentrated within a couple of kilometres of various CBDs.

Inner city amenity has improved no end, while many of Australia’s suburban centres resemble their unfashionable and now daggy 1980s (or worse, 1970s) selves.

To be attractive as potential suburban collaboration hubs for some former CBD office workers, or to support revitalised high street retail, or growth in professional services, the sciences, technology, or to facilitate the inevitable expansion of health and education opportunities, suburban centres need the very things that the inner cities now take for granted.

In simple terms, the once run-down inner-city areas were renewed with a combination of public and private capital to make them attractive places to live, to work, and to play.

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That investment was initially led by public policy and public capital, but private capital quickly followed, ultimately dwarfing the initial public stimulus.

It worked.

We have created a lasting legacy of inner urban renewal across many of Australia’s major cities such that it’s world class, without question.

The same can happen to suburban centres.

High on the priority list must be transport connectivity.

Rail level crossings, highly congested suburban road arteries, pedestrian-unfriendly intersections or high streets – remedying these are initiatives that public investment needs to lead because they are public assets and public issues.

Often, they are State or Federal Government responsibilities.

Additional investment in the public domain with streetscaping, landscaping, pedestrianisation, the addition of cycling friendly routes, enhanced parklands and open space are also public responsibilities needed to enhance the appeal of suburban business centres across the country.

Transport

The private sector’s role will follow as demand returns – with the creation of new or improved suburban commercial buildings, improved cafes, shops, and upgraded buildings – all of which support future jobs growth in suburban centres.

The Suburban Alliance recently ran a community survey via Facebook and 400 people responded.

The questions asked what they most wanted to see happen in their suburban centres.

Without giving the results away too much, the responses read like a checklist of what the inner city already enjoys: quality infrastructure, quality buildings, quality places and ample parking (the latter more a required feature of suburban centres which unlike the inner city are not well served by public transport).

The benefits of supporting the appeal and infrastructure capacity of suburban business centres are many:

  • They can support multiple work options for different occupations, closer to where people actually live
  • Being closer, they can lead to less congestion and more active local commuters (such as walking or cycling to work)
  • Being closer, they can save commuting time (and costs) meaning more family or personal time
  • Middle or outer suburban areas of our major cities offer typically more affordable housing than inner areas
  • They encourage and nurture a sense of local community and neighbourhood
  • They can be more affordable for multiple business types with lower cost rents, lower regulatory fees and charges, and cheaper more accessible parking
  • They can mean more health, education and community services closer to the communities that require them
  • By encouraging a more dispersed economic model, we gift ourselves a more resilient urban model – one that is potentially less prone to localised natural disasters (like floods or severe storms) that can have big impacts if they occur in highly concentrated economies
  • They deliver a lot more bang for the buck: $100 million spent in a suburban precinct goes a long way and has a major impact, with much of the value going to local professionals and contractors or suppliers.

CoronaAs Governments around the country crunch their numbers on post Coronavirus recovery measures, we can only hope that we are wise enough to recognise an opportunity when we see one.

Renewal of the suburban and regional centres of Australia is that opportunity.

While much of this responsibility has traditionally fallen to local government shoulders, we can also hope that State Governments – and the Federal Government – are alert to their capacity to help shape our cities for the benefit of the wider community, and to the more prosperous suburban future that quite possibly beckons.

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About Ross Elliott has spent close to 30 years in real estate and property roles, including as a State Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer of the Property Council of Australia, as well a national executive director of the Residential Development Council. He has authored and edited a large number of research and policy papers and spoken at numerous conferences and industry events. Visit www.rosselliott.com.au
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