Progressives clearly feel a need to delegitimise suburban life. This stems from their barely suppressed rage against people they can’t control. Like Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, suburban people have strayed too far from civilisation, they contend, and will lose their minds. Yet they fail to explain why surveys indicate an overwhelming preference for detached housing on sizeable blocks, or why the latest Australian Unity Wellbeing Index registers higher rates of happiness amongst suburban people than their inner-city counterparts.
I'm a self-loathing suburbanite. I suspect that I have a lot of company. We must be careful that this spatial fetish doesn't weigh too heavily on economic development. The pro-suburb camp is making a class argument. In the context of the urban geography of globalization (i.e. Spiky World), they have a strong case:
Some world cities are distinguished by vast disparities in wealth and economic opportunity - between such globally oriented zones, sucking up the region’s capital, infrastructure capacity, skills base and government services, and stagnant hinterlands inhabited by struggling workers in declining, marginal industries or masses of unemployed. But that was not Sydney’s fate.
Why and how did a viable economy develop in the middle to outer suburbs of the city? To answer this question it is necessary to recall some of the constants of Sydney’s recent history. The gradual emergence of global Sydney generated higher land values throughout the inner-city. Consequently, many inner-city land uses associated with nineteenth century transport nodes, such as the light industrial plants, depots and warehouses clustered near the railway junction south of the CBD or along the harbour foreshores of the inner-west were no longer sustainable in the face of escalating demands for office space and gentrification.
The not-so-subtle subtext is that market forces are more working class friendly. Suburbs are a spatial technology that allows more people access to the windfalls of density (i.e. innovation). I'm reminded of the journey-to-work maps I viewed at university. Regional geographic mobility correlates with gender. Typically, women are "stuck" and thus exploited as cheap labor.
Richard Florida struggles with the density paradox. The cost of creativity is dear. Yet people continue to cram into Manhattan or Moscow, ignoring the high price of real estate. Globalization is spiky. How many people can afford access to this world?
On the other hand, the migration to a greenfield rides on the back of subsidy. Moving on up and then out, leaves your former residence holding the bag of entitlements. Suburban school districts inevitably run into the same problem, but economic nomads can always find another greenfield. That's just the tip of the public iceberg that supports suburban fetishism.
I'm reminded of the challenges facing environmental economists. How do we marketize the costs of global warming? We are still struggling to figure out how to better marketize surbanization/urbanization, two sides of the same coin.