An Australian Perspective on Urban-Suburban Politics

It says a lot about the state of politics in this country that the health of America’s cities has become a political wedge issue. Particularly in this latest round of budget debates, we saw program after program of particular importance in urban centers get the ax.

Investment in cities isn't a divisive political issue in Australia. They have the livability awards to prove it. Photo: ##http://www.flightcentre.com.au/world-travel/australia/adelaide-city/information## Fight Centre##

How did this happen? How can America “win the future” without consensus about the importance of healthy cities?

Jarrett Walker at Human Transit has been thinking about this issue. In a post today he points to the relative lack of urban-suburban political conflict in Australia, where the conservative party recently announced its support for the national transit investment program:

It’s interesting to think about why urban issues that are bipartisan in Australia seem to become Democratic concerns in the US.  In both countries, most of the population lives in urban areas, but there is a crucial difference in language that creates a difference in habits of thought. Americans think of big “cities” as separate from their “suburbs,” and often use these terms as shorthand or euphemism for a range of other oppositions.  (Only in America, for example, would a style of music associated with black people be called “Urban.”)  Americans also have the idea of a suburban center (what Joel Garreau calls an “Edge City’) that clings to the outer orbit of a big city but can think of itself as unrelated to it. Hence someone in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, say, may be happier thinking of their metro area as “Northern Virginia” rather than “greater Washington DC.”

Those word choices lead to a US political reality in which big cities — narrowly defined in exclusion of their suburbs — represent a minority of the population and thus attract the interest of only one side of the political divide.

By contrast, when Australians say “Sydney” or “Melbourne” they usually mean the entire urban area — the continuous patch of lights that you see from an airplane.  So people who live in what Americans would call the suburbs of Sydney think of themselves as living in Sydney. This way of speaking encourages them to accept that the problems of Sydney are their problems, whereas a resident of Tyson’s Corner may feel quite removed from the problems of “Washington.” When cities are understood in that inclusive way, it follows that most Australians live in cities, so naturally both sides of the political divide must care about them.

Thanks to Jarrett for the reminder that we’re more competitive as a nation when our cities and suburbs aren’t in competition with each other.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Matt Yglesias says Washington’s refusal to consider a gas tax increase will put the country on a path to disaster. The Austin Contrarian ponders the inverse relationship between bus driver’s wages and the breadth of service in Austin. And Transit Miami reports that an SUV driver’s assault on a cyclist led to arrest thanks to a handlebar-mounted camera.

  • I think you can appreciate the interconnectedness of urban and suburban areas without denying that they have different characteristics and need different types of infrastructure.

    The reality of political boundaries and land use controls in the U.S. often means that urban and suburban areas are separate municipal entities. In “Los Angeles”, which can refer to a City a County or to a metropolitan urban-suburban region, people tend to have a very localized sense of identity.

    I’d say the inability to fund transportation infrastructure nationally at present has more to do with the economic downturn, expensive gasoline reducing gas tax revenue, and conservative anti-tax ideology than with a failure to appreciate the interconnectedness of different urban forms.

  • Some of this difference is also because of differences in governmental models between the United States and Australia.

    I have first hand experience with Canberra, which is, admittedly, an odd arrangement by any standard. There, the only governing body is the territorial government. There is no city government.

    For Sydney, Wikipedia indicates that many of the services Americans would consider city services, such as mass transit, police, and education, are provided by the state. Also, council boundaries are fluid, and have been changed through time for various administrative and political reasons. These both serve to de-emphasize local governments and local control, where American politics seems to be about increasing local control and differentiating my small suburb from your small suburb.

  • Anonymous

    There is a definitions gap at work here. Sydney calls any neighborhood out of the central business district a ‘suburb’. Using Australian nomenclature, the Tenderloin, Hayes Valley, and the Lower Haight (etc.) would be called suburbs. SOMA would be a suburb.

  • Bluehale

    The recently elected Liberal/National Coalition government in New South Wales (where Sydney is) has committed to finishing the South West railway line started under the previous Labor (Labour) government and recently began the preliminary planning on a railway line to Sydney’s North west. But they axed two railway lines Labor had been planning to build.

    Definitely interesting how Australian conservatives don’t automatically consider investing in public transportation throwing good money at bad like in this country. But at the same time Sydney’s rail system runs through a whole bunch of marginal electorates and safe conservative electorates so there’s a political factor to this.

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