The Courier Mail reported the death of a son and his elderly mother in their Brisbane home earlier this month under the headline “Left to die a lonely death in the suburbs”. Their bodies were not discovered for at least a week. The paper said that “at some point before Mark Thomas died in his suburban home, possibly of a heart attack, he had confined his elderly mother Irene to her room for her own safety”.
Note the repetition of the word ‘suburbs’. It’s a tragic story but the suburbs – which get a good going over in the way the story is framed – have nothing to do with it. The family lived in suburban Enoggera, but it would’ve made no difference if they lived in inner city New Farm, West End or Red Hill.
It’s clear from the full story that this was a household that kept to itself. Mrs Thomas suffered acute dementia and her son was her primary carer. The reporter says “neighbours told of a pair who kept to themselves – a self-imposed solitude that contributed to the fact no one had noticed there was a problem”. Some quotes from the neighbours:
He wouldn’t answer the door and never mixed with anyone.
She couldn’t speak very well because of her dementia but she tried.
She never seemed to get out and you’d see him occasionally driving past. It’s very sad but I didn’t know them.
There might be an issue here about the adequacy of support for carers, but this family’s separation from neighbours wasn’t a function of the housing type, the location, or indeed anything physical. They would very likely have behaved in the same way if they lived in a Kangaroo Point high-rise or a Paddington walk-up.
I can’t see that inner city neighbours would’ve been any more solicitous of their well-being either. If anything, perhaps less interested since it’s more likely they’d be younger and out working or partying than neighbours in Enoggera.
The Courier Mail’s report illustrates the long-standing antipathy of the media and elites towards the suburbs. As QUT’s Professor Terry Flew contends, suburban life in Australia is diagnosed as if it’s a kind of neurotic condition. There’s a long history of hostility towards suburbia in Australia, characterised by:
a recurring tension between the desire of large sections of the population to own their own home (the fabled quarter-acre block) in the suburbs, and the condemnation of suburban life from an assortment of intellectuals, political radicals and cultural critics. This was the point succinctly made by the economist and urban planner Hugh Stretton in his 1970 book Ideas for Australian Cities, where he observed that “Most Australians choose to live in suburbs, in reach of city centres and also of beaches or countryside. Many writers condemn this choice, and with especial anger or gloom they condemn the suburbs”
We’re familiar with the criticism that suburbia promotes unsustainable, car-dependent lifestyles. Marxist geographer David Harvey goes further and censures suburbia for a range of other sins.
Professor Flew observes that Harvey’s widely-read 2008 attack on suburbia, The right to the city, includes its role as a site “for the expenditure of surplus capital, as a safety valve for overheated finance capitalism”; as a place “where working class militancy is pacified through the promotion of mortgage debt”; as a place where “intensive possessive individualism……(is) actively promoted through the proliferation of shopping malls, multiplexes, franchise stores and fast-food outlets, leading to pacification by cappuccino”; and as a place “where women are actively oppressed”.
He goes on to note Sue Turnbull’s observation that “suburbia has come to constitute a cultural fault-line in Australia over the last 100 years”, and Ian Craven’s description of suburbia as “a term of contention and a focus for fundamentally conflicting beliefs……whose connotations continue to oscillate between dream and suburban nightmare”. The tensions between celebration and critique of suburban life, he says, play themselves out routinely in the Australian media,
from the sun-lit suburbanism of Australia’s longest running television serial dramas, Neighbours and Home and Away, to the pointed observational critiques found in Australian comedy from Barry Humphries to Kath and Kim, to the dark visions of films such as The Boys and Animal Kingdom
The trouble with portrayals of suburbia and suburbanites like this is they apply to the vast majority of city dwellers. Around 90% of residents of Australia’s capital cities live more than 5 km from the CBD. In other worlds, nearly all of us are suburbanites!
These sorts of criticisms effectively amount to disapproval of the choices made by the vast bulk of the population of Australia’s big cities. When the criticisms are made by the 10% who live in the inner city – the cognitive elite – they invite the suspicion they’re implicitly class-based, whether consciously so or otherwise.
The fact is even if the broader metropolitan population want to live in the inner city where they too can be closer to all those high paying jobs and recreation and cultural facilities – and I suspect most would love to – they simply can’t afford it. The 90% don’t have a choice about whether to live in suburbia or not.
It’s perfectly reasonable to criticise the suburbs for their many failings in transport, services and land use. But it’s something else entirely to demean the people who live in the suburbs simply for living there (unless it’s with good humour). Denigration of suburbanites should be seen for what it is – a criticism of most Australians – not dressed up as a “neutral” criticism of low density living.
The Courier Mail’s subtle insinuation that the suburbs are socially disconnected and alienating – but by implication everywhere else (the inner city?) must be better – is especially obnoxious.
The irony is suburban residents have a lower ecological footprint than inner city residents, notwithstanding the latter have better access to public transport and live in more walkable communities. Research by the Australian Conservation Foundation (here and here) found that’s primarily because inner city residents are richer and therefore consume more, generating more waste and emissions in the process.
P.S. Is there an expert on Hugh Stretton anywhere? The Wiki entry is disgracefully short – our planning schools should’ve been on to this years ago.