Smart Growth

Smart growth is the new buzz word for urban development.   This is understood by  the Adelaide City Council as a vibrant, populous and sustainable Capital City built upon Adelaide’s heritage and lifestyle. Behind it sits the UN's Agenda 21 that addresses sustainable development in the world’s cities.

This primarily takes the form of  a residential development that aims to bring more people into the city and to develop under-utilised land into medium to high density residential land uses. It is a reaction to a sprawling,  doughnut city;  and  it is designed to  both reduce car use and to intensively redevelop within established suburbs (greyfield areas) in order to  transform Australia's major cities into more sustainable environments.

The state government's 30 year Plan for Greater Adelaide  includes easing urban congestion, expanding public transport, preserving open space, bike lanes on public streets and smart meters on home appliances. It encourages redevelopment around public transportation hubs, valuing communities and neighbourhoods and promoting equitable and affordable housing.  

There is a lot of resistance to smart growth and the new urbanism's high density mixed use living.  This urban design  is seen as anti-suburban and  lefty green. Those opposed say that government should have no role in planning or shaping the built environment that in any way interferes with private property rights. 


The Situationist idea of psychogeography is structured around the interplay between the subjective imagination and feelings on the one hand and urban space and built environment on the other. One of psychogeographical  principle means of exploring an urnan space was dérive or drift. To drift was to notice the way in which certain areas, streets, or buildings resonates with  the walker's states of mind,  inclinations and desires, and to seek out 

I  often aimlessly stroll through the city to take photos. It is an an escape from daily routine  that  enables  me to look at my urban  environment in a fresh way.

During  my photowalks in the city I notice the empty offices and empty shops and  the newspaper headlines about the empty factories as manufacturing goes offshsore.  I shudder, and drift into a new car park.  This, along with the  freeway and ring road,  is an icon of  the automobile age. Cars are an object of desire; a status symbol for the wealthy, an aspiration for the poor.

In the carpark electronic music rings in my ears and  I hear the sound of heavy metal on a car radio as it races around the car park looking for a parking space. The music expresses  the starkness of the modernist conception of a city---a machine for machines to live in.  I remember Le Corbusier's  1925 "Plan Voisin," that was sponsored by a then famous automobile manufacturer.

Corbusier's  "Plan Voisin,"  was designed for a flat topography devoid of natural features such as hills and rivers. In it, Le Corbusier  proposed to bulldoze most of central Paris north of the Seine, and replace it with his sixty-story cruciform towers from the Contemporary City, placed in an orthogonal street grid and park-like green space. 

The carparks located on the street grid in Adelaide signify the city as a work and pleasure centre in a commercial culture.  Car parks are devoid of people and social hope. They are sites of surveillance and security guards, with wire netting across the bars of the open  edges to prevent people from jumping off the roof to the street below.  Their eerie silence suggests the clsoing  of the sprawling car-based  city of the late 20th century.


We walk amongst the changes to the city and accept them, but if you scratch beneath the surface of urban life you uncover different historical layers, oddities and particularities that are currently being erased by a global culture and market. 


Car park dreaming

I dream about carparks after I’ve spent time walking the city with a camera.  The dream is about Adelaide’s renewal coming from  the building  of carparks  in the CBD. If Adelaide in the past was known as the city of churches,  then its  future is to be known as the city of carparks. Such a bleak future. 

In the influential chapter “Walking in the City” of his  The Practice of Everyday Life  Michel de Certeau argues that ”the city” is generated by the strategies of governments, corporations, and other institutional bodies who produce things like maps that describe the city as a unified whole. Certeau uses the vantage from a skyscraper in New York to illustrate the idea of a unified view.

By contrast, the walker at the street level moves in ways that are tactical and never fully determined by the plans of organizing bodies, taking shortcuts in spite of the strategic grid of the streets laid down by the urban planner. As a walker/photographer  wandering  the streets of the city  by letting go of my habitual routes  I just stumble upon car park after carpark.

In drifting, like an unmoored ship caught in the undercurrents of the urban ocean,  I find my wandering in and out of car parks. Old ones, new ones half built ones. The car is everywhere. There is little urban diversity, few pockets of resistance to the car. The decisive transformation of everyday life is the intensification of  our car culture, not its roll back. The spin of  the developer-led urban regeneration says   ”Urban Energy”. 

I often feel that,  in wandering through the urban renewal in the context of the aftermath of the global financial crisis,  I am experiencing the new ruins when peak oil arrives and  the oil start to run out. I start looking for the weeds that might be growing out of the new ruins. 

Renewing urban life

Adelaide is a doughnut city growing ever outwards. The suburban sprawl  primarily runs north and south as the city  is hedged in between the sea and the hills on its west and east sides. A doughnut city is one where growth is faster on the edge of the city than it is in the centre; where businesses and people start to abandon the downtown core; where, just like a doughnut, the centre is empty. The suburbs were designed as a refuge from the bustle of inner city life.

It is a "doughnut" because it has nothing in the centre outside of the 9-5 work hours.   There is not much inner city life in Adelaide.  Often the streets are empty.   What inner city life there is clusters around the shopping precinct in Rundle Mall or the restaurant precincts in Rundle  and Gouger Streets. Elsewhere the streets are  empty. So much for  "the community" appealed to by urban planners and politicians, or the talk of the  transition to a cafe society. 

If I want to include people in the 'urban view' along the lines of the nineteenth  century  photographer's trade views, then I hang out on Hindley Street, early in the morning. This is  when it is not jammed with cars and it is recovering from a night  out in  the alcohol focused late night economy. 

 By definition, liveable cities are where people want to live. The Adelaide City Council is committed to renewing Adelaide by  encouraging people to return to  living in the the  inner city --its goal is a vibrant, populous and sustainable city. Similarly with the state government, as stated in its  30 Year Plan for Greater Adelaide.  Urban renewal means city-centre regeneration.

The assumption of this new urbanism for both appears to be that if you push enough people into the city, it’ll become  ‘vibrant’ and ‘diverse’.  Another assumption is that those living in the city seek the sight of emptiness as it means order and quiet that is ensured by a strong administration that controls urban life. 

What  the policy of renewing Adelaide needs is actively trying to develop a cultural economy  that helps cultural producers  create  financially sustainable enterprises.They would then stay in the city rather than migrate to Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne. Underpinning this is the idea of a European city, proposed as counter-model to the  modernist idea of the city.

Instead of redevelopment projects that swept away everything in their path, urban motorways, brutalist concrete estates and segregated commercial centres, the European city model is built around density, mixed use areas and protecting the historic built fabric.

Urban views + urban design

We have to turn back to  the nineteenth century photographers working with their large format cameras if we want to reconnect  with the photographic explorations of  the cityscape in  Adelaide. This style of photography--urban large format--- is a niche in the  digital world of today.

The fashion in the mid-nineteenth century  was urban panoramas.   In 1865 Townsend Duryea, using the wet plate process,  took a 360 degrees bird's eye view of the capital city of South Australia from  the scaffolding of the nearly completed Albert Tower of the Adelaide Town hall. It was a snapshot that celebrated  the development of the state's  capital business district and its  public buildings.

I know very little about urban photography in colonial South Australia apart from Duryea's panorama and what has been called trade views of the built environment.  Trade views refers to the commercial trade in views and the work is of a topographic nature. It  documents the city , its developing urban environment and its civic events. The photographs were produced to be sold as documents and records. 

Despite photography being very influential in the visual culture of the late twentieth century 19th century photography  has, until recently, been  mostly been ignored by art historians. So I am researching the books that have published on 19th century photography in settler Australia to become familiar with  the work of the  photographers of this period.

What urban views like this one don't show  is the lack of pedestrian through ways in this East End precinct that would help to revitalize the area. The apartments go up in the CBD without the  urban design that would allow people to wander the alleyways and through ways. Adelaide is not a people-friendly city,  and it needs an urban design that  would make the CBD an inviting and desirable place to live.

In the Globe apartments case the building is situated  are just off Rundle Street,  and the possible throughways to both  North Terrace and  Frome Rd remain  blocked by fences and carparks respectively. Private property stands in the way of the public good.

This is an issue  because the shoebox student apartments bring an enormous amount of street life, cafe/pub life that luxury apartments don't and so invigorate the precincts urban life. The urban design is not aiming at a redevelopment that will  prioritise people, cyclists and public transport, there by making the precinct a more inviting place to live and socialise.

A smart city

Adelaide is not a smart  or hip city, even though it desperately wants to be, given the emergence of the National Broadband Network. The high speed fibre broadband technology  would allow  a rustbelt Adelaide  to reinvent itself as a hub for high tech and advanced manufacturing. The City of Chattanooga in the US  is a model of what could be.

Adelaide  struggles to reshape its old  doughnut structure,  to embrace experimental urban design, become  more people friendly or even make itself more sustainable. But it just doesn’t have the vibe. Melbourne has it. Adelaide has the appearance of a backwater.

Despite its extensive free Wi-Fi coverage and being home to three  public universities,  Adelaide is stuck in a stasis between what it once was—a rustbelt city—  and what it could be—-a smart European style city. There is a  desire to have  cosmopolitan lifestyle with an inner city full of young creative professionals and a white-hot arts/design scene; but it cannot deliver. 

The rustbelt is manifest in  the region of the  northern suburbs of Adelaide.I t is similar to the postwar industrial cities like Newcastle, Wollongong, Geelong and Whyalla and the traditional industrial parts of our cities such as within the central and south-western sub-regions of Sydney, the central-west and northern suburbs of Melbourne.  

These areas have the highest concentrations of workers displaced by job loss in australia’s manufacturing industry; and while unemployment rates have improved in these areas over the last decade, higher than average numbers of disability support pension recipients and lower than average employment ratios across all age groups, male and female. Compounding the problem of the old industrial regions has been the migration of welfare dependent families into these regions, chiefly in search of cheap housing. 

Adelaide talks about the revitalization  of the doughnut centre a lot with its extensive thinkers-in-residence programme. These experts come up with lots of wonderful and interesting ideas to make Adelaide a more exciting and vibrant place,  and these place-based ideas are then  widely discussed through various  community forums. Nothing happens. Another thinker-in-residence arrives, studies the place,  comes  up with more great ideas, and then shares them in public forums. Nothing much happens after the talking.

The cycle repeats itself. 

An optimistic interpretation of the stasis is that it feels like two steps forward, one and half steps backwards. All the energy and money appears to go into subsidizing Rundle Mall—the departmental shopping precinct. This emphasis on commercial  boosterism results in a “with us or against us” mentality; a knee jerk defensiveness in which  the critics of boosterism are dismissed as anti-development and the critics outside the state (eg., in Melbourne) are deemed to be misinformed and pushing an agenda.

So we have a rigid defensiveness  of the status quo.  Stasis. 

High Rise

Australian capital cities are going high rise in their CBD areas as part of the shift back to the city from the suburbs. Melbourne, especially the Docklands,  comes to mind. 

In his 1975 novel  High-Rise the English novelist  J. G. Ballard suggested that the nature of the modernist high rise  buildings produces a “new social type.”  

 His argument is that high-rise flats incite maniacal aggression and perversion in ordinary people. High-Rise is about a 40-storey apartment block, and how from innocent beginnings it reduces people to murder, incest and above all a passionate love for chaos.

Geoff  Manaugh, a writer and essayist who runs the BLDG blog,   argues  that Ballard’s sarcastic over reaction to the modernist high rise urban development is iilluminating. He says:

Ballard…realised — and articulated, in brilliant ways — what constructing huge high-rise apartment blocks, surrounded by empty parkland, would actually accomplish: domestic violence, race-based social segregation, and utterly pointless rivalries between makeshift gangs over everyday services.

The idea that buildings are innocent shells that can do no harm to anyone is a total intellectual failure.

While tower blocks in reality were mostly associated with social housing, often provided to the very poor, the High-Rise tower is a private development populated by the wealthy middle class  probably comes closest to matching Ballard’s creation in real life. Despite its glossy, hopeful origins, things go rapidly wrong in the high-rise.

To overcome the isolation and boredom of tower block life, residents form clans amongst their neighbours and the block divides itself into three ‘classes’ – upper, middle and lower – based not on income but on how high or low people are within the building.The groups battle for control of the shared facilities, raiding rival floors.

As facilities like the elevators, rubbish chutes and electricity begin to fail, people leave their jobs, give up washing and shaving and are reduced to eating pet food and then their pets themselves. Indiscriminate, violent sex and eventually murder spread through the building as people indulge their every random instinct. Eventually the residents enter a kind of primal state where they begin to forget their own and each other’s original identities and in some cases even lose the use of language.

What makes High-Rise stand out is the way this outbreak of seemingly regressive energies is directly made possible by the modern developments that were supposed to improve society: utopia flips into dystopia. 

Living in cities

Despite the mythic outback imagery that Australia has vigorously exported and exploited Australia is a suburban nation. It became a suburban nation during the long boom that ended in the 1970s with the  suburbs  built around the car.   In our  contemporary era of globalisation and rapid social and economic change most of us in Australia live in cities, which are increasingly being shaped by a  neo-liberal market economy.  

Australian cities are characterised by (sub)urban sprawl with doughnut centres,  with the outer edge of the "doughnut"  as uninviting, in its own way, as the "hollow centre". Sea change means no change in urban living as it is really more suburbia, only in new places, such as Victor Harbor. 

 It is only gradually being accepted that the inner city can be a place where people could happily live as well as work, if the conditions are right. If you get it right you can live in the city and have the advantages of a city lifestyle without cutting yourself off from the outdoors--the green spaces such as parks, gardens and playing facilities.  

The problem is that the conditions need to be made right if cites could be places of community as well economic spaces. With good urban design Adelaide could limit the spread of urban sprawl and  become a European-style,  people-orientated city. It could transform itself into  a more sustainable city. 

With de-industrialization, or the decline in manufacturing since the 1970s, we’ve realised that our economy is increasingly a services economy,  and that much of the strong growth  of Australia’s economy is being driven by the increasingly important roles of the big cities as the dominant places of population growth and the creation of new jobs, particularly in the information and knowledge sectors.  

If much of the economic activity in the country takes place in the cities – particularly in the services sector, then  how our cities work is really important to the economy. Most of our cities have got suburban rail networks – rail networks that are designed to take people from the outer suburbs to the inner-city, whether it’s for work or for leisure.

Unless we have urban rail networks (ie., trains and trams)  as well as surburban rail networks, the inner-cities won’t work properly,  and they’ll be a lot less pleasant places to live and work. Unless the rail networks are appropriate the cities just won’t work for communities or the economy. 

Unless we think of the rail issues, as well as the road issues, congestion, particularly in the inner-city, becomes a huge problem. In-spite of the inner city revival and the  emergence of  the cafe society out of the doughnut centre,  the inner city  then becomes an unpleasant place to live in.   Community is sacrificed to the economy.

Unfortunately, though  plans for new suburbs talk of denser development around mass transit corridors, most developers still build big houses at low density. And politicians still extol the 'right to drive' as a cherished Australian value.  


Fortress Australia

(Non-white) asylum seekers arriving by boat from war torn countries (eg., Afghanistan) are meet with hostility by conservative Australians in Adelaide and elsewhere.  They want the boats turned back (“Stop the boats!” is the rhetoric),  or the asylum seekers  locked up in offshore mandatory detention, or forcibly returned to the country of origin.  In contrast, asylum seekers arriving by plane are readily accepted. 

The populist conservative's basically deny that the global movement of people and aslyum seekers is a humanitiarian one, which in Australia's case is   in part caused by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan  that Australia has been, and is, involved in. The conservative's idea of Australia is that of Fortress Australia and One Nation, and they talk in terms of Australia opening a sea lane  for asylum seekers or building a bridge to Indonesia.  

Theirs is the politics of fear that exploits the insularity of Australians and the lack of  an informed historical perspective in our public discourse and it is one that makes national sovereignty an absolute. In John Howard’s words “We have the right to decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come.”He implied that his government was in control of events and that Australians were entitled to feel relaxed and comfortable. 

The  tabloid media are engaged in a campaign that reduces asylum seekers to invaders about to flood working class suburbs, take their jobs,  and form ghettos of ethnic difference.   The tabloid media exploit feelings of fear and insecurity to scapegoat foreigners, to try to force the adoption of restrictive policies and they  hold that Australia should abandon the 1951 Refugee Convention. 

This populist conservatism  is a long way from, and a deep reaction to,  the  social liberalism of 1970's Adelaide: that  of Don Dunstan, social democracy and extravagent  pink shorts. The Dunstan Decade put Adelaide on the map in terms of political reform and the quality of urban life and it ruptured  Adelaide as  a dreary, conservative and genteel cultural backwater with  rigid sexual and dress  codes. 

What populist conservatism  does not accept is that asylum seekers are not terrorists, a threat to national security,  to suburban lifestyles or national identity.  The majority of asylum seekers  are refugees trying to flee persecution in Country A by knocking on the door of country B, and they are entitled to seek asylum under international law. Instead of locking them up in mandatory detention  and punishing them, they should be able to live in the local community whilst their asylum claims are being assessed.  

an old armchair

 Adelaide's inner city area is slowly being turned around from a long period of population decline as people left for the suburbs to  modest  levels of growth, albeit often from a small base.  High rise apartments and townhouses are replacing the old industrial sites and the  empty lots. The CBD is being filled in, or more accurately, it is undergoing redevelopment and renewal.  

There are still a lot of grungy areas around the CBD of Adelaide if you look closely.  You don't need to explore the decayed and grimey back alleyways  to see them, as many of the grungy areas are empty lots or holes in the ground,  waiting to be developed. Many of these have been there for a long time, ever since the boom in office buildings came to a crashing halt.  

These empty  lots  in the CBD were starting to be re-developed as inner city apartments,  then the global financial crisis happened in 2008,  and everything just ground to a halt.  We are learning to  live with  the booms and busts in the global economy, and we realize that it is going to be a rough ride and a tough experience. We know that the  policy discourse of the two speed economy means that  there will be winners and losers,  and we fear that those of us living in Adelaide  will be amongst the losers despite a booming China's  demand for Australia's iron ore. 

Adelaide  continues to lag badly economically. It is still suffering from the abrupt  ending of  the  post 1945 boom  in industrial capitalism boom in the 1980s.  Paul Kelly in his The End of Certainity  argued that the 1980s  shift to deregulation and the free market by the Hawke/Keating Labor government effectively dismantled the pillars of the Australian settlement that had been put in place at the time of federation in 1901.

These pillars were: White Australia, industry protection, wage arbitration, state paternalism and imperial benevolence. The habits, the structures of feeling such as the sense of entitlement and the assumed  expectations of government protection  of that disappearing world  are being pulverized by the global economy. The structural adjustments imposed by the economic forces of globalization are giving rise to a deep anger, and an in-your-face style of politics.

This anger and hostility has coalesced around a populist conservatism that dosen't want to change anything, desires to be relaxed and comfortable, expects the national government to be in control of events, and instinctively opposes those reforms that will help make Australia more sustainable through ecological modernization. The consequences are an ever deepening polarization in the body politic.

 The rise in the prosperity and redevelopment of the inner city area in Adelaide, and the other capital cities in Australia,  is associated with the economic restructuring to a service economy  that has seen the concentration of the tertiary educated workers in professional and managerial occupations in the central city. Though Adelaide is dismissed as a cultural backwater whose bright young university people keep leaving for Sydney and Melbourne, the inner city professionals also include artists and their culture  values creativity, individuality, difference and merit. 

The so called creative class are often referred to in the tabloid media as the cosmopolitan  ‘Latte Set’  who are held to be out of touch with the aspirational, honest and partriotic values of hard-working Australian families living in the suburbs of the capital cities and the regional cities.  The assumption in this conception of urban development is the continuing strength of consumer preference for lower density suburban development, for the use of the private car, and for investment in providing freeways, arterial road systems, and river crossings and tunnels.

It is a case for suburbanisation and against urban consolidation. It basically means more suburban sprawl on the fringes of the city with its low residential densities, increased  car dependency, isolation from services, separation of home and work and  people traveling long distances from home to work in peak hour traffic. Many of the outer suburbs are working class enclaves with 50 per cent or more of their workforce in the traditional industrial occupations.4

 As the Urban 45 document highlights these different conceptions of the city raise questions about what kind of city do we want to live and work in. The problem that Adelaide faces is both to place limits around its suburban sprawl and to attract and retain creative people so that the inner city can prosper.