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Urban disadvantage study presents challenge for new Minister

Posted by on September 26th, 2015 · Uncategorized

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Many in the policy community were taken unawares by the Australian Government’s recently announced intent to re-engage with matters urban. In creating a ministry for Cities and the Built Environment, the new Prime Minister has refreshingly acknowledged that ‘liveable cities, efficient, productive cities, the environment of cities, are economic assets’. This development has coincided neatly with the publication of a hefty research-based overview on the geography and impacts of concentrated disadvantage in Australia’s major cities demonstrating that:

  • The increased clustering of disadvantaged neighbourhoods evident in recent years extends a tendency ongoing since the 1980s and compounds other evidence of growing economic marginalisation of lower status suburbs in Australia’s major cities.
  • While first highlighted in Australia, the suburbanisation of socially disadvantaged populations is an international trend—increasingly also recognised in Europe and North America. However, by comparison with the UK and the US, it is in Australia’s major cities where the process has impacted most decisively.
  • As the least mobile component of the workforce has been increasingly consigned to areas remote from the inner city epicentre of the recently burgeoning ‘knowledge economy’, the economic exclusion of lower income urban Australians is likely to be compounded.

These findings emerge from a four-year AHURI-funded research program encompassing Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and which has already generated a series of published reports revealing, among other things, that:

  • Disadvantaged places in urban Australia encompass significant diversity, with affected suburbs separable into four socio-economically distinct types. These discrete archetypes are also distinctive in terms of housing market structures and characteristics
  • As quantified by the research, the spatial distribution of housing-related government expenditure is profoundly regressive—proportionately far greater ‘housing subsidies’ flow to advantaged postcodes than to disadvantaged postcodes.
  • Despite their problems, Australia’s disadvantaged suburbs are not unmitigated concentrations of alienation. While a third of residents of Sydney’s most disadvantaged areas would exit their neighbourhood if possible, locals in such areas generally identify positively with their home area. And those seeing their suburb as ‘going downhill’ are easily outnumbered by those seeing it as ‘on the up’.

From a metropolitan planning perspective, the study highlights the need for:

  • City-scale strategies to encourage growth nodes (including employment, public facilities and services, cultural institutions) in outer suburban locations, and
  • Effective measures to expand and protect affordable housing in existing well-located areas and localities proximate to new decentralised employment nodes where, in the absence of intervention to counter market processes, housing costs will be bid up to the detriment of low-income groups.

Viewed optimistically, the new Prime Minister’s cited words may reflect a dawning official orthodoxy that growing spatial polarisation of our major cities impairs overall urban productivity, thus imposing costs on all. Will the freshly-minted Minister for Cities and the Built Environment recognise and rise to this challenge? Albeit without ‘bated breath’, we are watching this space.



Pawson, H., Hulse, K. & Cheshire, L. (2015) Addressing Concentrations of Disadvantage in Urban Australia; Final Report no 247; Melbourne: AHURI

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