Brisbane: Urban Construction, Suburban Dreaming




suburbanism, urbanism, discourse

How to Cite

Felton, E. (2011). Brisbane: Urban Construction, Suburban Dreaming. M/C Journal, 14(4).
Vol. 14 No. 4 (2011): suburbia
Published 2011-08-22

When historian Graeme Davison famously declared that “Australia was born urban and quickly grew suburban” (98), he was clearly referring to Melbourne or Sydney, but certainly not Brisbane. Although the Brisbane of 2011 might resemble a contemporary, thriving metropolis, its genealogy is not an urban one. For most of its history, as Gillian Whitlock has noted, Brisbane was “a place where urban industrial society is kept at bay” (80). What distinguishes Brisbane from Australia’s larger southern capital cities is its rapid morphology into a city from a provincial, suburban, town.  Indeed it is Brisbane’s distinctive regionalism, with its sub-tropical climate,   offering a steamy, fecund backdrop to narratives of the city that has produced a plethora of writing in literary accounts of the city, from author David Malouf through to contemporary writers such as Andrew McGahan, John Birmingham, Venero Armanno, Susan Johnson, and Nick Earls.

Brisbane’s lack of urban tradition makes its transformation unique among Australian cities. Its rapid population growth and urban development have changed the way that many people now live in the city.  Unlike the larger cities of Sydney or Melbourne, whose inner cities were established on the Victorian model of terrace-row housing on small lots, Brisbane’s early planners eschewed this approach. So, one of the features that gives the city its distinction is the languorous suburban quality of its inner-city areas, where many house blocks are the size of the suburban quarter-acre block, all within coo-ee of the city centre.  Other allotments are medium to small in size, and, until recently, housed single dwellings of varying sizes and grandeur. Add to this a sub-tropical climate in which ‘green and growth’ is abundant and the pretty but flimsy timber vernacular housing, and it’s easy to imagine that you might be many kilometres from a major metropolitan centre as you walk around Brisbane’s inner city areas. It is partly this feature that prompted demographer Bernard Salt to declare Brisbane “Australia’s most suburban city” (Salt 5). Prior to urban renewal in the early 1990s, Brisbane was a low-density town with very few apartment blocks; most people lived in standalone houses.

From the inception of the first Urban Renewal program in 1992, a joint initiative of the Federal government’s Building Better Cities Program and managed by the Brisbane City Council (BCC), Brisbane’s urban development has undergone significant  change. In particular, the city’s Central Business District (CBD) and inner city have experienced intense development and densification with a sharp rise in medium- to high-density apartment dwellings to accommodate the city’s swelling population. Population growth has added to the demand for increased density, and from the period 1995–2006 Brisbane was Australia’s fastest growing city (ABS).Today, parts of Brisbane’s inner city resembles the density of the larger cities of Melbourne and Sydney. Apartment blocks have mushroomed along the riverfront and throughout inner and middle ring suburbs. Brisbane’s population has enthusiastically embraced apartment living, with “empty nesters” leaving their suburban family homes for the city, and apartments have become the affordable option for renters and first home purchasers. A significant increase in urban amenities such as large-scale parklands and river side boardwalks, and a growth in service industries such as cafes, restaurants and bars—a feature of cities the world over—have contributed to the appeal of the city and the changing way that people live in Brisbane.

Urbanism demands specific techniques of living—life is different in medium- to high-density dwellings, in populous places, where people live in close proximity to one another. In many ways it’s the antithesis to suburban life, a way of living that, as Davison notes, was established around an ethos of privacy, health, and seclusion and is exemplified in the gated communities seen in the suburbs today. The suburbs are characterised by generosity of space and land, and developed as a refuge and escape from the city, a legacy of the nineteenth-century industrial city’s connection with overcrowding, disease, and disorder. Suburban living flourished in Australia from the eighteenth century and Davison notes how, when Governor Phillip drew up the first town plan for Sydney in 1789, it embodied the aspirations of “decency, good order, health and domestic privacy,” which lie at the heart of suburban ideals (100).

The health and moral impetus underpinning the establishment of suburban life—that is, to remove people from overcrowding and the unhygienic conditions of slums—for Davison meant that the suburban ethos was based on a “logic of avoidance” (110). Attempting to banish anything deemed dangerous and offensive, the suburbs were seen to offer a more natural, orderly, and healthy environment. A virtuous and happy life required plenty of room—thus, a garden and the expectation of privacy was paramount.

The suburbs as a site of lived experience and cultural meaning is significant for understanding the shift from suburban living to the adoption of medium- to high-density inner-city living in Brisbane. I suggest that the ways in which this shift is captured discursively, particularly in promotional material, are indicative of the suburbs' stronghold on the collective imagination. Reinforcing this perception of Brisbane as a suburban city is a history of literary narratives that have cast Brisbane in ways that set it apart from other Australian cities, and that are to do with its non-urban characteristics. Imaginative and symbolic discourses of place have real and material consequences (Lefebvre), as advertisers are only too well aware. Discursively, city life has been imagined oppositionally from life in the suburbs: the two sites embody different cultural meanings and values. In Australia, the suburbs are frequently a site of derision and satire, characterized as bastions of conformity and materialism (Horne), offering little of value in contrast to the city’s many enchantments and diverse pleasures. In the well-established tradition of satire, “suburban bashing is replete in literature, film and popular culture” (Felton et al xx). From Barry Humphries’s characterisation of Dame Edna Everage, housewife superstar, who first appeared in the 1960s, to the recent television comedy series Kath and Kim, suburbia and its inhabitants are represented as dull-witted, obsessed with trivia, and unworldly. This article does not intend to rehearse the tradition of suburban lampooning; rather, it seeks to illustrate how ideas about suburban living are hard held and how the suburban ethos maintains its grip, particularly in relation to notions of privacy and peace, despite the celebratory discourse around the emerging forms of urbanism in Brisbane.

As Brisbane morphed rapidly from a provincial, suburban town to a metropolis throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, a set of metropolitan discourses developed in the local media that presented new ways of inhabiting and imagining the city and offered new affiliations and identifications with the city. In establishing Brisbane’s distinction as a city, marketing material relied heavily on the opposition between the city and the suburbs, implying that urban vitality and diversity rules triumphant over the suburbs’ apparent dullness and homogeneity. In a billboard advertisement for apartments in the urban renewal area of Newstead (2004), images of architectural renderings of the apartments were anchored by the words—“Urban living NOT suburban”—leaving little room for doubt. It is not the design qualities of the apartments or the building itself being promoted here, but a way of life that alludes to utopian ideas of urban life, of enchantment with the city, and implies, with the heavy emphasis of “NOT suburban,” the inferiority of suburban living.

The cultural commodification of the late twentieth- and twenty-first-century city has been well documented (Evans; Dear; Zukin; Harvey) and its symbolic value as a commodity is expressed in marketing literature via familiar metropolitan tropes that are frequently amorphous and international. The malleability of such images makes them easily transportable and transposable, and they provided a useful stockpile for promoting a city such as Brisbane that lacked its own urban resources with which to construct a new identity. In the early days of urban renewal, the iconic images and references to powerhouse cities such as New York, London, and even Venice were heavily relied upon. In the latter example, an advertisement promoting Brisbane appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald colour magazine (May 2005). This advertisement represented Brisbane as an antipodean Venice, showing a large reach of the Brisbane river replete with gondolas flanked by the city’s only nineteenth-century riverside building, the Custom’s House. The allusion to traditional European culture is a departure from the usual tropes of “fun and sun” associated with promotions of Queensland, including Brisbane, while the new  approach to promoting Brisbane is cognizant of the value of culture in the symbolic and economic hierarchy of the contemporary city. Perhaps equally, the advertisement could be read as ironic, a postmodern self-parodying statement about the city in general. In a nod to the centrality of the spectacle, the advertisement might be a salute to idea of the city as theme park, a pleasure playground and a collective fantasy of escape. Nonetheless, either interpretation presents Brisbane as somewhere else.

In other promotional literature for apartment dwellings, suburban living maintains its imaginative grip, evident in a brochure advertising  Petrie Point apartments in Brisbane’s urban renewal area of inner-city New Farm (2000). In the brochure, the promise of peace and calm—ideals that have their basis in suburban living—are imposed and promoted as a feature of inner-city living. Paradoxically, while suggesting that a wholesale evacuation and rejection of suburban life is occurring presumably because it is dull, the brochure simultaneously upholds the values of suburbia:

Discerning baby boomers and generation X’ers who prefer lounging over latte rather than mowing the quarter acre block, are abandoning suburban living in droves. Instead, hankering after a more cosmopolitan lifestyle without the mind numbing drive to work, they are retreating to the residential mecca, the inner city, for chic shops and a lively dining, arts and theatre culture. (my italics)

In the above extract, the  rhetoric used to promote and uphold the virtues of a cosmopolitan inner-city life is sabotaged by a language that in many respects capitulates to the ideals of suburban living, and evokes the health and retreat ethos of suburbia. “Lounging” over lattes and “retreating to a residential mecca”[i]  allude to precisely the type of suburban living the brochure purports to eschew. Privacy, relaxation, and health is a discourse and, more importantly, a way of living that is in many ways anathema to life in the city. It is a dream-wish that those features most valued about suburban life, can and should somehow be transplanted to the city. In its promotion of urban amenity, the brochure draws upon a somewhat bourgeois collection of cultural amenities and activities such as a (presumably traditional) arts and theatre culture, “lively dining,” and “chic” shops. The appeal to “discerning baby boomers and generation X’ers” has more than a whiff of status and class, an appeal that disavows the contemporary city’s attention to diversity and inclusivity, and frequently the source of promotion of many international cities. In contrast to the suburban sub-text of exclusivity and seclusion in the Petrie Point Apartment’s brochure, is a promotion of Sydney’s inner-city Newtown as a tourist site and spectacle, which makes an appeal to suburban antipathy clear from the outset. The brochure, distributed by NSW Tourism (2000) displays a strong emphasis on Newtown’s cultural and ethnic diversity, and the various forms of cultural consumption on offer. The inner-city suburb’s appeal is based on its re-framing as a site of tourist consumption of diversity and difference in which diversity is central to its performance as a tourist site. It relies on the distinction between “ordinary” suburbs and “cosmopolitan” places:

Some cities are cursed with suburbs, but Sydney’s blessed with Newtown — a cosmopolitan neighbourhood of more than 600 stores, 70 restaurants, 42 cafes, theatres, pubs, and entertainment venues, all trading in two streets whose origins lie in the nineteenth century … Newtown is the Catwalk for those with more style than money … a parade where Yves St Laurent meets Saint Vincent de Paul, where Milano meets post-punk bohemia, where Max Mara meets Doc Marten, a stage where a petticoat is more likely to be your grandma’s than a Colette Dinnigan designer original (From Sydney Marketing brochure)

Its opening oppositional gambit—“some cities are cursed with suburbs”—conveniently elides the fact that like all Australian cities, Sydney is largely suburban and many of Sydney’s suburbs are more ethnically diverse than its inner-city areas. Cabramatta, Fairfield, and most other suburbs have characteristically high numbers of ethnic groups such as Vietnamese, Korean, Lebanese, and so forth. Recent events, however, have helped to reframe these places as problem areas, rather than epicentres of diversity.

The mingling of social groups invites the tourist-flâneur to a performance of difference, “a parade where Yves St Laurent meets Saint Vincent de Paul (my italics), where Milano meets post-punk bohemia,” and where “the upwardly mobile and down at heel” appear in what is presented as something of a theatrical extravaganza.  Newtown is a product, its diversity a commodity. Consumed visually and corporeally via its divergent sights, sounds, smells and tastes (the brochure goes on to state that 70 restaurants offer cuisine from all over the globe), Newtown is a “successful neighbourhood experiment in the new globalism.” The area’s social inequities—which are implicit in the text, referred to as the “down at heel”—are vanquished and celebrated, incorporated into the rhetoric of difference.

Brisbane’s lack of urban tradition and culture, as well as its lack of diversity in comparison to Sydney, reveals itself in the first brochure while the Newtown brochure appeals to the idea of a consumer-based cosmopolitanism. As a sociological concept, cosmopolitanism refers to a set of "subjective attitudes, outlooks and practices" broadly characterized as “disposition of openness towards others, people, things and experiences whose origin is non local” (Skrbis and Woodward 1). Clearly cosmopolitan attitudes do not have to be geographically located, but frequently the city is promoted as the site of these values, with the suburbs, apparently, forever looking inward.

In the realm of marketing, appeals to the imagination are ubiquitous, but discursive practices can become embedded in everyday life. Despite the growth of urbanism, the increasing take up of metropolitan life and the enduring disdain among some for the suburbs, the hard-held suburban values of peace and privacy have pragmatic implications for the ways in which those values are embedded in people’s expectations of life in the inner city.

The exponential growth in apartment living in Brisbane offers different ways of living to the suburban house. For a sub-tropical city where "life on the verandah" is a significant feature of the Queenslander house with its front and exterior verandahs, in the suburbs, a reasonable degree of privacy is assured. Much of Brisbane’s vernacular and contemporary housing is sensitive to this indoor-outdoor style of living, a distinct feature and appeal of everyday life in many suburbs.  When "life on the verandah" is adapted to inner-city apartment buildings, expectations that indoor-outdoor living can be maintained in the same way can be problematic. In the inner city, life on the verandah may challenge expectations about privacy, noise and visual elements. While the Brisbane City Plan 2000 attempts to deal with privacy issues by mandating privacy screenings on verandahs, and the side screening of windows to prevent overlooking neighbours, there is ample evidence that attitudinal change is difficult. The exchange of a suburban lifestyle for an urban one, with the exposure to urbanity’s complexity, potential chaos and noise, can be confronting. In the Urban Renewal area and entertainment precinct of Fortitude Valley, during the late 1990s, several newly arrived residents mounted a vigorous campaign to the Brisbane City Council (BCC) and State government to have noise levels reduced from local nightclubs and bars. Fortitude Valley—the Valley, as it is known locally—had long been Brisbane’s main area for nightclubs, bars and brothels. A small precinct bounded by two major one-way roads, it was the locus of the infamous ABC 4 Corners “Moonlight State” report, which exposed the lines of corruption between politicians, police, and the judiciary of the former Bjelke-Petersen government (1974–1987) and who met in the Valley’s bars and brothels. The Valley was notorious for Brisbanites as the only place in a provincial, suburban town that resembled the seedy side of life associated with big cities. The BCC’s Urban Renewal Task Force and associated developers initially had a tough task convincing people that the area had been transformed. But as more amenity was established, and old buildings were converted to warehouse-style living in the pattern of gentrification the world over, people started moving in to the area from the suburbs and interstate (Felton). One of the resident campaigners against noise had purchased an apartment in the Sun Building, a former newspaper house and in which one of the apartment walls directly abutted the adjoining and popular nightclub, The Press Club. The Valley’s location as a music venue was supported by the BCC, who initially responded to residents’ noise complaints with its “loud and proud” campaign (Valley Metro). The focus of the campaign was to alert people moving into the newly converted apartments in the Valley to the existing use of the neighbourhood by musicians and music clubs. In another iteration of this campaign, the BCC worked with owners of music venues to ensure the area remains a viable music precinct while implementing restrictions on noise levels. Residents who objected to nightclub noise clearly failed to consider the impact of moving into an area that was already well known, even a decade ago, as the city’s premier precinct for music and entertainment venues. Since that time, the Valley has become Australia’s only regulated and promoted music precinct.

The shift from suburban to urban living requires people to live in very different ways. Thrust into close proximity with strangers amongst a diverse population, residents can be confronted with a myriad of sensory inputs—to a cacophony of noise, sights, smells (Allon and Anderson). Expectations of order, retreat, and privacy inevitably come into conflict with urbanism’s inherent messiness. The contested nature of urban space is expressed in neighbour disputes, complaints about noise and visual amenity, and sometimes in eruptions of street violence. There is no shortage of examples in the Brisbane’s Urban Renewal areas such as Fortitude Valley, where acts of homophobia, racism, and other less destructive conflicts continue to be a frequent occurrence. While the refashioned discursive Brisbane is re-presented as cool, cultured, and creative, the tensions of urbanism and tests to civility remain in a process of constant negotiation. This is the way the city’s past disrupts and resists its cool new surface.

[i] The use of the word mecca in the brochure occurred prior to 11 September 2001.


Allon, Fiona, and Kay Anderson. "Sentient Sydney." In Passionate City: An International Symposium. Melbourne: RMIT, School of Media Communication, 2004. 89–97.

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Regional Population Growth, Australia, 1996-2006.

Birmingham, John. "The Lost City of Vegas: David Malouf’s Old Brisbane." Hot Iron Corrugated Sky. Ed. R. Sheahan-Bright and S. Glover. St Lucia: U of Queensland P, 2002. xx–xx.

Davison, Graeme. "The Past and Future of the Australian Suburb." Suburban Dreaming: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Australian Cities. Ed. L. Johnson. Geelong: Deakin University Press, 1994. xx–xx.

Dear, Michael. The Postmodern Urban Condition. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

Evans, Graeme. “Hard-Branding the Cultural City—From Prado to Prada.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 27.2 (2003): 417–40.

Evans, Raymond, and Carole Ferrier, eds. Radical Brisbane. Melbourne: The Vulgar Press, 2004.

Felton, Emma, Christy Collis, and Phil Graham. “Making Connections: Creative Industries Networks in Outer Urban Locations.” Australian Geographer 14.1 (Mar. 2010): 57–70.

Felton, Emma. Emerging Urbanism: A Social and Cultural Study of Urban Change in Brisbane. PhD thesis. Brisbane: Griffith University, 2007.

Glover, Stuart, and Stuart Cunningham. "The New Brisbane." Artlink 23.2 (2003): 16–23.  

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990.

Horne, Donald. The Lucky Country: Australia in the Sixties. Ringwood: Penguin, 1964.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991.

Malouf, David.  Johnno. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1975.

---. 12 Edmondstone Street. London: Penguin, 1986.

NSW Tourism. Sydney City 2000. Sydney, 2000.

Salt, Bernard. Cinderella City: A Vision of Brisbane’s Rise to Prominence. Sydney: Austcorp, 2005.

Skrbis, Zlatko, and Ian Woodward. “The Ambivalence of Ordinary Cosmopolitanism: Investigating the Limits of Cosmopolitanism Openness.” Sociological Review (2007): 1-14.

Valley Metro. 1 May 2011 < >.

Whitlock, Gillian. “Queensland: The State of the Art on the 'Last Frontier.’" Westerly 29.2 (1984): 85–90.

Zukin, Sharon. The Culture of Cities. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1995.

Author Biography

Emma Felton, QUT

Creative Industries Faculty, Senior Research Associate