Right to the City, Desire for the Suburb?




How to Cite

Flew, T. (2011). Right to the City, Desire for the Suburb?. M/C Journal, 14(4). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.368
Vol. 14 No. 4 (2011): suburbia
Published 2011-08-18
The 2000s have been a lively decade for cities. The Worldwatch Institute estimated that 2007 was the first year in human history that more people worldwide lived in cities than the countryside. Globalisation and new digital media technologies have generated the seemingly paradoxical outcome that spatial location came to be more rather than less important, as combinations of firms, industries, cultural activities and creative talents have increasingly clustered around a select node of what have been termed “creative cities,” that are in turn highly networked into global circuits of economic capital, political power and entertainment media. Intellectually, the period has seen what the UCLA geographer Ed Soja refers to as the spatial turn in social theory, where “whatever your interests may be, they can be significantly advanced by adopting a critical spatial perspective” (2). This is related to the dynamic properties of socially constructed space itself, or what Soja terms “the powerful forces that arise from socially produced spaces such as urban agglomerations and cohesive regional economies,” with the result that “what can be called the stimulus of socio-spatial agglomeration is today being assertively described as the primary cause of economic development, technological innovation, and cultural creativity” (14).

The demand for social justice in cities has, in recent years, taken the form of “Right to the City” movements. The “Right to the City” movement draws upon the long tradition of radical urbanism in which the Paris Commune of 1871 features prominently, and which has both its Marxist and anarchist variants, as well as the geographer Henri Lefebvre’s (1991) arguments that capitalism was fundamentally driven by the production of space, and that the citizens of a city possessed fundamental rights by virtue of being in a city, meaning that political struggle in capitalist societies would take an increasingly urban form. Manifestations of contemporary “Right to the City” movements have been seen in the development of a World Charter for the Right to the City, Right to the City alliances among progressive urban planners as well as urban activists, forums that bring together artists, architects, activists and urban geographers, and a variety of essays on the subject by radical geographers including David Harvey, whose work I wish to focus upon here.

In his 2008 essay "The Right to the City," Harvey presents a manifesto for 21st century radical politics that asserts that the struggle for collective control over cities marks the nodal point of anti-capitalist movements today. It draws together a range of strands of arguments recognizable to those familiar with Harvey’s work, including Marxist political economy, the critique of neoliberalism, the growth of social inequality in the U.S. in particular, and concerns about the rise of speculative finance capital and its broader socio-economic consequences. My interest in Harvey’s manifesto here arises not so much from his prognosis for urban radicalism, but from how he understands the suburban in relation to this urban class struggle. It is an important point to consider because, in many parts of the world, growing urbanisation is in fact growing suburbanisation. This is the case for U.S. cities (Cox), and it is also apparent in Australian cities, with the rise in particular of outer suburban Master Planned Communities as a feature of the “New Prosperity” Australia has been experiencing since the mid 1990s (Flew; Infrastructure Australia).

What we find in Harvey’s essay is that the suburban is clearly sub-urban, or an inferior form of city living. Suburbs are variously identified by Harvey as being:

  • Sites for the expenditure of surplus capital, as a safety valve for overheated finance capitalism (Harvey 27);
  • Places where working class militancy is pacified through the promotion of mortgage debt, which turns suburbanites into political conservatives primarily concerned with maintaining their property values;
  • Places where “the neoliberal ethic of intense possessive individualism, and its cognate of political withdrawal from collective forms of action” are actively promoted through the proliferation of shopping malls, multiplexes, franchise stores and fast-food outlets, leading to “pacification by cappuccino” (32);
  • Places where women are actively oppressed, so that “leading feminists … [would] proclaim the suburb as the locus of all their primary discontents” (28);
  • A source of anti-capitalist struggle, as “the soulless qualities of suburban living … played a critical role in the dramatic events of 1968 in the US [as] discontented white middle-class students went into a phase of revolt, sought alliances with marginalized groups claiming civil rights and rallied against American imperialism” (28).

Given these negative associations, one could hardly imagine citizens demanding the right to the suburb, in the same way as Harvey projects the right to the city as a rallying cry for a more democratic social order. Instead, from an Australian perspective, one is reminded of the critiques of suburbia that have been a staple of radical theory from the turn of the 20th century to the present day (Collis et. al.). Demanding the “right to the suburb” would appear here as an inherently contradictory demand, that could only be desired by those who the Australian radical psychoanalytic theorist Douglas Kirsner described as living an alienated existence where:

Watching television, cleaning the car, unnecessary housework and spectator sports are instances of general life-patterns in our society: by adopting these patterns the individual submits to a uniform life fashioned from outside, a pseudo-life in which the question of individual self-realisation does not even figure. People live conditioned, unconscious lives, reproducing the values of the system as a whole (Kirsner 23).

The problem with this tradition of radical critique, which is perhaps reflective of the estrangement of a section of the Australian critical intelligentsia more generally, is that most Australians live in suburbs, and indeed seem (not surprisingly!) to like living in them. Indeed, each successive wave of migration to Australia has been marked by families seeking a home in the suburbs, regardless of the housing conditions of the place they came from: the demand among Singaporeans for large houses in Perth, or what has been termed “Singaperth,” is one of many manifestations of this desire (Lee). Australian suburban development has therefore been characterized by a recurring tension between the desire of large sections of the population to own their own home (the fabled quarter-acre block) in the suburbs, and the condemnation of suburban life from an assortment of intellectuals, political radicals and cultural critics. This was the point succinctly made by the economist and urban planner Hugh Stretton in his 1970 book Ideas for Australian Cities, where he observed that “Most Australians choose to live in suburbs, in reach of city centres and also of beaches or countryside. Many writers condemn this choice, and with especial anger or gloom they condemn the suburbs” (Stretton 7).

Sue Turnbull has observed that “suburbia has come to constitute a cultural fault-line in Australia over the last 100 years” (19), while Ian Craven has described suburbia as “a term of contention and a focus for fundamentally conflicting beliefs” in the Australian national imaginary “whose connotations continue to oscillate between dream and suburban nightmare” (48). The tensions between celebration and critique of suburban life play themselves out routinely in the Australian media, from the sun-lit suburbanism of Australia’s longest running television serial dramas, Neighbours and Home and Away, to the pointed observational critiques found in Australian comedy from Barry Humphries to Kath and Kim, to the dark visions of films such as The Boys and Animal Kingdom (Craven; Turnbull). Much as we may feel that the diagnosis of suburban life as a kind of neurotic condition had gone the way of the concept album or the tie-dye shirt, newspaper feature writers such as Catherine Deveny, writing in The Age, have offered the following as a description of the Chadstone shopping centre in Melbourne’s eastern suburb

Chadstone is a metastasised tumour of offensive proportions that's easy to find. You simply follow the line of dead-eyed wage slaves attracted to this cynical, hermetically sealed weatherless biosphere by the promise a new phone will fix their punctured soul and homewares and jumbo caramel mugachinos will fill their gaping cavern of disappointment … No one looks happy. Everyone looks anaesthetised. A day spent at Chadstone made me understand why they call these shopping centres complexes. Complex as in a psychological problem that's difficult to analyse, understand or solve. (Deveny)

Suburbanism has been actively promoted throughout Australia’s history since European settlement. Graeme Davison has observed that “Australia’s founders anticipated a sprawl of homes and gardens rather than a clumping of terraces and alleys,” and quotes Governor Arthur Phillip’s instructions to the first urban developers of the Sydney Cove colony in 1790 that streets shall be “laid out in such a manner as to afford free circulation of air, and where the houses are built … the land will be granted with a clause that will prevent more than one house being built on the allotment” (Davison 43). Louise Johnson (2006) argued that the main features of 20th century Australian suburbanisation were very much in place by the 1920s, particularly land-based capitalism and the bucolic ideal of home as a retreat from the dirt, dangers and density of the city. At the same time, anti-suburbanism has been a significant influence in Australian public thought. Alan Gilbert (1988) drew attention to the argument that Australia’s suburbs combined the worst elements of the city and country, with the absence of both the grounded community associated with small towns, and the mental stimuli and personal freedom associated with the city. Australian suburbs have been associated with spiritual emptiness, the promotion of an ersatz, one-dimensional consumer culture, the embourgeoisment of the working-class, and more generally criticised for being “too pleasant, too trivial, too domestic and far too insulated from … ‘real’ life” (Gilbert 41).  There is also an extensive feminist literature critiquing suburbanization, seeing it as promoting the alienation of women and the unequal sexual division of labour (Game and Pringle). More recently, critiques of suburbanization have focused on the large outer-suburban homes developed on new housing estates—colloquially known as McMansions—that are seen as being environmentally unsustainable and emblematic of middle-class over-consumption. Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss’s Affluenza (2005) is a locus classicus of this type of argument, and organizations such as the Australia Institute—which Hamilton and Denniss have both headed—have regularly published papers making such arguments.

Can the Suburbs Make You Creative?

In such a context, championing the Australian suburb can feel somewhat like being an advocate for Dan Brown novels, David Williamson plays, Will Ferrell comedies, or TV shows such as Two and a Half Men. While it may put you on the side of majority opinion, you can certainly hear the critical axe grinding and possibly aimed at your head, not least because of the association of such cultural forms with mass popular culture, or the pseudo-life of an alienated existence.

The art of a program such as Kath and Kim is that, as Sue Turnbull so astutely notes, it walks both sides of the street, both laughing with and laughing at Australian suburban culture, with its celebrity gossip magazines, gourmet butcher shops, McManisons and sales at Officeworks. Gina Riley and Jane Turner’s inspirations for the show can be seen with the presence of such suburban icons as Shane Warne, Kylie Minogue and Barry Humphries as guests on the program. Others are less nuanced in their satire. The website Things Bogans Like relentlessly pillories those who live in McMansions, wear Ed Hardy t-shirts and watch early evening current affairs television, making much of the lack of self-awareness of those who would simultaneously acquire Buddhist statues for their homes and take budget holidays in Bali and Phuket while denouncing immigration and multiculturalism. It also jokes about the propensity of “bogans” to loudly proclaim that those who question their views on such matters are demonstrating “political correctness gone mad,” appealing to the intellectual and moral authority of writers such as the Melbourne Herald-Sun columnist Andrew Bolt.

There is also the “company you keep” question. Critics of over-consuming middle-class suburbia such as Clive Hamilton are strongly associated with the Greens, whose political stocks have been soaring in Australia’s inner cities, where the majority of Australia’s cultural and intellectual critics live and work. By contrast, the Liberal party under John Howard and now Tony Abbott has taken strongly to what could be termed suburban realism over the 1990s and 2000s. Examples of suburban realism during the Howard years included the former Member for Lindsay Jackie Kelly proclaiming that the voters of her electorate were not concerned with funding for their local university (University of Western Sydney) as the electorate was “pram city” and “no one in my electorate goes to uni” (Gibson and Brennan-Horley), and the former Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Garry Hardgrave, holding citizenship ceremonies at Bunnings hardware stores, so that allegiance to the Australian nation could co-exist with a sausage sizzle (Gleeson).

Academically, a focus on the suburbs is at odds with Richard Florida’s highly influential creative class thesis, which stresses inner urban cultural amenity and “buzz” as the drivers of a creative economy. Unfortunately, it is also at odds with many of Florida’s critics, who champion inner city activism as the antidote to the ersatz culture of “hipsterisation” that they associate with Florida (Peck; Slater). A championing of suburban life and culture is associated with writers such as Joel Kotkin and the New Geography group, who also tend to be suspicious of claims made about the creative industries and the creative economy. It is worth noting, however, that there has been a rich vein of work on Australian suburbs among cultural geographers, that has got past urban/suburban binaries and considered the extent to which critiques of suburban Australia are filtered through pre-existing discursive categories rather than empirical research findings (Dowling and Mee; McGuirk and Dowling; Davies (this volume).

I have been part of a team engaged in a three-year study of creative industries workers in outer suburban areas, known as the Creative Suburbia project.[i] The project sought to understand how those working in creative industries who lived and worked in the outer suburbs maintained networks, interacted with clients and their peers, and made a success of their creative occupations: it focused on six suburbs in the cities of Brisbane (Redcliffe, Springfield, Forest Lake) and Melbourne (Frankston, Dandenong, Caroline Springs). It was premised upon what has been an inescapable empirical fact: however much talk there is about the “return to the city,” the fastest rates of population growth are in the outer suburbs of Australia’s major cities (Infrastructure Australia), and this is as true for those working in creative industries occupations as it is for those in virtually all other industry and occupational sectors (Flew; Gibson and Brennan-Horley; Davies). While there is a much rehearsed imagined geography of the creative industries that points to creative talents clustering in dense, highly agglomerated inner city precincts, incubating their unique networks of trust and sociality through random encounters in the city, it is actually at odds with the reality of where people in these sectors choose to live and work, which is as often as not in the suburbs, where the citizenry are as likely to meet in their cars at traffic intersections than walking in city boulevards.

There is of course a “yes, but” response that one could have to such empirical findings, which is to accept that the creative workforce is more suburbanised than is commonly acknowledged, but to attribute this to people being driven out of the inner city by high house prices and rents, which may or may not be by-products of a Richard Florida-style strategy to attract the creative class. In other words, people live in the outer suburbs because they are driven out of the inner city. From our interviews with 130 people across these six suburban locations, the unequivocal finding was that this was not the case. While a fair number of our respondents had indeed moved from the inner city, just as many would—if given the choice—move even further away from the city towards a more rural setting as they would move closer to it. While there are clearly differences between suburbs, with creative people in Redcliffe being generally happier than those in Springfield, for example, it was quite clear that for many of these people a suburban location helped them in their creative practice, in ways that included:

  • the aesthetic qualities of the location;
  • the availability of “headspace” arising from having more time to devote to creative work rather than other activities such as travelling and meeting people;
  • less pressure to conform to a stereotyped image of how one should look and act;
  • financial savings from having access to lower-cost locations; and
  • time saved by less commuting between locations.

These creative workers generally did not see having access to the “buzz” associated with the inner city as being essential for pursuing work in their creative field, and they were just as likely to establish hardware stores and shopping centres as networking hubs as they were cafes and bars. While being located in the suburbs was disadvantageous in terms of access to markets and clients, but this was often seen in terms of a trade-off for better quality of life. Indeed, contrary to the presumptions of those such as Clive Hamilton and Catherine Deveny, they could draw creative inspiration from creative locations themselves, without feeling subjected to “pacification by cappuccino.” The bigger problem was that so many of the professional associations they dealt with would hold events in the inner city in the late afternoon or early evening, presuming people living close by and/or not having domestic or family responsibilities at such times. The role played by suburban locales such as hardware stores as sites for professional networking and as elements of creative industries value chains has also been documented in studies undertaken of Darwin as a creative city in Australia’s tropical north (Brennan-Horley and Gibson; Brennan-Horley et al.).

Such a revised sequence in the cultural geography of the creative industries has potentially great implications for how urban cultural policy is being approached. The assumption that the creative industries are best developed in cities by investing heavily in inner urban cultural amenity runs the risk of simply bypassing those areas where the bulk of the nation’s artists, musicians, filmmakers and other cultural workers actually are, which is in the suburbs. Moreover, by further concentrating resources among already culturally rich sections of the urban population, such policies run the risk of further accentuating spatial inequalities in the cultural realm, and achieving the opposite of what is sought by those seeking spatial justice or the right to the city. An interest in broadband infrastructure or suburban university campuses is certainly far more prosaic than a battle for control of the nation’s cultural institutions or guerilla actions to reclaim the city’s streets. Indeed, it may suggest aspirations no higher than those displayed by Kath and Kim or by the characters of Barry Humphries’ satirical comedy. But however modest or utilitarian a focus on developing cultural resources in Australian suburbs may seem, it is in fact the most effective way of enabling the forms of spatial justice in the cultural sphere that many progressive people seek.


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