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NGAA 2023 Symposium Summary: “The Suburban Economic Challenge in Australia” Presented by Ross Elliott, Suburban Futures. Click here to watch the full presentation.

In the midst of a housing crisis, Australia stands at a crossroads with the potential to create vibrant and resilient communities. One solution lies in reimagining our suburbs by developing well-planned urban centres, where housing supply is matched with employment opportunities. Ross Elliott’s presentation on “The Suburban Economic Challenge in Australia” at NGAA’s recent Symposium demonstrated what that could look like and how we can work towards it.

In his opening statement, Ross challenged the prevailing sentiment about outer suburbs, which are often discussed with derision and occasional ridicule. The prevailing sentiment of "build up – not out" dominates conversations on solving the housing crisis, with the term "urban sprawl" carrying negative connotations. “Suburbia is not a condition that we need to be apologetic about,” he commented.

Ross provided context on how, historically, popularity for suburbs grew, especially with the introduction of cars, allowing the traditional model where high-density commercial cores house workplaces, and the workforce commutes from middle and outer suburbs.  

Yet, the landscape is evolving. While data shows population growth in capital cities, Ross suggested that the data doesn’t present the full story and “much, if not all, of that growth is taking place in the suburbs” attached to those large cities. Ross showed that similarly, employment growth is happening in suburbs. Data shows that CBDs in Australian capital cities only make up between 10-20% of metropolitan employment. This means that 80% of our jobs are located outside of our cities. Ross reflected that this data demonstrates the importance of ensuring our suburbs have good quality transport connectivity, not just focusing on improving access to CBDs.

“The economy is changing,” Ross stated, presenting data which showed the jobs that were driving our economy from 1991 – 2018 are different to the current growth industries. Information technology, professional services and banking, typically based in CBDs, are no longer the norm. In the last 5 years, industries such as 'health care and social assistance' and 'education and training' are gaining in economic significance. Ross explained that this data is good news for suburbs as these sectors are predominantly suburban or regional in nature, driving a lot of opportunity for our growth areas “if we are ready for it”.

To leverage economic growth, a shift in perspective is essential. Ross stated “we are still faced with an ongoing policy challenge which reflects a lot of legacy thinking.” Where population growth is predicted, Ross explained that decision makers must also consider where jobs will be. To be ready for growth, Ross stated “we need to provide the infrastructure from the get go.”

Finally, Ross painted a vision of what success can look like, using Nundah Village in Brisbane as an example. Demonstrating that it is possible to reimagine our suburbs, transforming them into well-planned urban centres with active transport, employment spaces for growth industries and green spaces. Nundah Village was made possible with funding from the State government, resources from local council including land use zoning changes and private investment.

Ross concluded his presentation with recommendations on how we can rethink the way we approach strategic planning, which include:

  • Planning for, and supporting, the establishment of growth industries (education and health)
  • Importance of working with developers
  • Planners need partners; a wide variety of perspectives need to be taken into account when planning for growth.
  • Leverage owned assets, for example rethink how libraries or government offices could be utilised in a bigger way.
  • Strive for cross governmental cooperation. Each level of government needs to be part of the solution.

Watch Ross Elliott’s full presentation here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80VW8psu60c

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