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The CBD and the Suburbs

Monday, 1 July 2013
Author: John Spoehr, The Adelaide Review

For decades the prosperity and wellbeing of our suburbs was sustained by great post-war investments in social and physical infrastructure - much of this to support the burgeoning defence, white-goods and automotive industries in the suburbs. These industries fuelled the growth of other sectors, creating complex webs of interlinked firms that we call industry networks and clusters today.

There is a view prevailing in some policy in academic circles today that the CBD is the motor force of the modern economy and that much industrial development in suburban Australia cannot be sustained in the face of globalisation. The Grattan Institute's recent 'Productive Cities' report is a case in point, reinforcing without acknowledging the critical role that our suburbs have played and continue to play in economic development.

The reality is that our suburban landscapes remain centrally important to national prosperity. The benefits of industrial agglomeration (networks and clusters of firms, education and research facilities) are evident not only in our city centres but also in our suburbs. What these places lack in large measure is sufficient investment to more rapidly modernise aged housing, transport and social infrastructure. Without this, great areas of our urban landscape will not share the productivity growth and improvements needed to sustain vibrant and prosperous communities and economies. Every 50 years or so we need to rejuvenate our suburban infrastructure - that time has come again. As the Federal Government's Population Policy reminds us, the well-being of residents and the prosperity and productivity of regions demands 21st century infrastructure, technology, housing and jobs.

While South Australia is no stranger to integrated approaches to industry, workforce and urban development, the challenge of building more sustainable suburbs requires revisiting some well-established principles. In his landmark book, Ideas for Australian Cities, first published in 1971, Hugh Stretton captured the imagination of a generation of urban policymakers and practitioners looking for insights into the complexity and richness of Australian suburban life.

Stretton not only wrote with great compassion about suburban Australia, he engaged in the policy process himself, putting progressive ideas into practice through his role as Deputy Chair of the Housing Trust of SA. Many have looked to his work for inspiration in their attempts to design cities that respond to complex human needs. We would do well to do so again.

Stretton understood more than most the important relationship that exists between industry and urban development. He was a close observer of history and knew how powerful industry development could be a motor force for sustainable suburban development. The Global Financial Crisis, a high Australian dollar and the rise of Asia as an economic superpower have combined to challenge this once dominant model, requiring a radical rethink of how urban, economic and industry policy intersect in Australian suburban areas. We are left in little doubt that transformation of manufacturing must proceed at a much faster pace than it is, a reality acknowledged in the South Australian Government's 'Manufacturing Works' strategy, which has injected a new sense of urgency into the need to support the growth of high value advanced manufacturing.

To view the full article see the latest edition of The Adelaide Review at:


Associate Professor John Spoehr (email)
Executive Director
Australian Workplace Innovation and Social Research Centre (WISeR)
The University of Adelaide
Business: (08) 8313 3350