Australia’s East Coast Exopolis – the Post-Sustainable Sprawl?

Sociologists have tackled with the idea of urban alienation for well over a hundred years. Key theorists such as Ferdinand Toennies, Emile Durkheim and Georg Simmel each identified confronting aspects of city life. Simmel in particular, in the “Metropolis and Mental Life said that the city dweller becomes intellectual, blase’ and reserved because of the influence of money and calculation, and also because of the great press of people and sensations. However, modernist architects such as LeCorbusier took a counter position, and proffered a great enthusiasm for the speed and excitement of city life, and for the destruction of the old to make way for the new. Many, contemporary cities would offer both sensations; the intense excitement of the new, combined with social disconnection strong enough to force some people to ‘rent a cuddle’ in order to secure any kind of intimacy in their urban lives.

However, a key part to understanding urban alienation is to understand that not all cities are the same, and that the shape, size and interconnectivity of the city can isolate people. As Benjamin Ross notes, since governments in the USA started sponsoring the expansion of suburbs after both World Wars – as part of the New Deal, and later as part of the Post WWII Housing boom and the subsidising of interstate highways through gas taxes – suburban sprawl and the highway have become the defining features of contemporary cities. This has had many adverse effects, including the demolition and building over of existing urban natural spaces, heritage areas, and cohesive ethnic villages. It was the kind of technocratic, top-down development that Jane Jacobs fought against in the 1960s, oblivious to the existence of street level communities and multi-use urban design.

It also lead to the rise of Los Angeles style ‘post-modern cities, characterised by large expanses of suburban sprawl spanning several, disconnected urban centres or nodes (rather than around one central CBD). Edward Soja describes six qualities that characterise cities of this type in his book “Postmetropolis’, including i) post-Fordist cities shifting to post-industrial modes of production; ii) the cosmopolis characterised by globalised flows of urban capital, labour and culture; the iii) turning of the city inside out as the sprawl creates suburban ‘exopolises, (exurbias) lacking natural social centres within which people can connect and socialise, and sometimes built around the junction of highways as ‘Edge Cities’; iv) the fractal city, characterized by new polarizations, inequalities and stratifications, instead of the old capital-labour and black-white divide (e.g now have the urban working poor); v) the Carceral archipelago, the institution of ‘hard control’ processes, such as fortress cities, surveillance technologies, and the substitution of police for private security guards, and vi) Simcities, ‘soft-control’ hyper real cities and neighbourhoods oriented to ‘lifestyle communities’. Many of these features can be seen in the major Australian cities today (just Google the controversy over Westconnex, or an image of the intersection of the M5 and M7 in Sydney’s west, to see these points).

However, the final piece the suburban sprawl puzzle, particularly in Australia. is the suburban obsession with the automobile. Peter Newman notes that Australian cities were amongst the first in the world (Perth perhaps the very first) to transform from Walkable Cities into Automobile cities. He notes Marchetti’s Constant; the rule that spending more than an hour a day commuting creates dissonance, reduces personal wellbeing, and will push people to seek other work-life arrangements. However, he argues that instead of enabling us to accord with this rule, our car culture has undermined it. He notes that the freeway lanes we have invested in so heavily can move a maximum of 2,500 people an hour, compared to heavy rail which can move up to 50,000 people an hour, so it is no wonder that highways have created gridlock more than freedom. There are now few opportunities to avoid this debilitating commute; after all, the jobs are in the centre of cities like Melbourne and Sydney, where very few people can afford to live (and certainly not live the Australian suburban dream). Newman argues for the need for more infill and urban renewal, public transport, high speed rail, and value capture to fund these activities.

We need to plan carefully to preserve and create social, sustainable communities with integrated public transport and high-speed rail (not highways) connecting (rather than gutting) cities. Otherwise we could be looking at the spread of car-locked McMansions as far as we can see north and south along the coastline, and the rise of Australia’s East Coast Exopolis – a post-sustainable sprawl?

#S208UOW17 #Tut9

The McMansion – the small idea with the big cost

Australian houses are very big. Since overtaking the US in the 1990s, Australian house sizes have consistently outpaced those of every other country: in 2009, one average Australian house (214m2) could fit almost three average UK houses (76m2) inside of it. Whilst we may have been recently overtaken by the US, and now have only the second-largest houses in the world, over-sized houses – rather than large lot-sizes – have become characteristic of Australian suburbia. The rise of the big, multi-roomed house in Australia – or the ‘McMansion’ to use the American term – has changed the landscape of our suburbs, and the quality of suburban family life.

McMansions are not just maligned for their size, as US sociologist Brian Miller notes in reviewing McMansion descriptions in the popular US media. Miller finds that since the term became popularised in the 1990s, it has been commonly used to imply three additional criticisms beyond simply large dimensions. First, the relative size of the house matters. Replacing a ‘teardown’ with a house disproportionately bigger than those around it “appears to dwarf its land footprint,” and can ruin an existing community’s character, devalue older homes, and simply look wrong “like steroid-stoked biceps on a skinny teen.” Second, McMansions are characterised as aesthetically ugly. On the one hand they are criticised for too little diversity when they are churned out as standardised mass-produced housing: “Instead of stimulating your imagination, the typical McMansion simply deadens your senses.” On the other, they are criticised for too much diversity when the architectural styles on a given street, or even on a single house, are haphazard, incoherent, and jumbled: “Because of its architectural pastiche, the McMansion can be seen as not being “authentic” or is viewed as a caricature.” Third, they are seen as a symbol for more complex issues, including urban sprawl, status-seeking, and excessive consumption. When linked to the proliferation of mega shopping malls, fast-food restaurants, and big cars, their excessiveness has been equated to fast-food: “These stores offer the gastronomic equivalent of McMansions, and show our kids that wasting food (and blowing cash) is all part of family fun.”

This last quality in particular raises the issue of how McMansions change the social landscape: as one of Miller’s paper’s quips: “The McMansion is both pretentious and isolated, an island in a sea of strangers and cars.” Is the rise of such big houses reflecting a desire for private space in an increasingly paranoid suburbia? As captured in the recent ABC documentary ‘Streets of your Town’, voluminous houses now serve as place for our kids to play ‘safely’ inside rather than on the street. Decks and pizza ovens are replacing grassy backyards, traditionally oriented to gardening and child play, and are increasingly used for entertaining select friends privately at home (rather than having to meet our neighbours publicly in the street). And an increasing number of people, particularly retirees, live in gated communities. Jacek Tittenbrun notes that gated communities now comprise 1/3 of all housing construction in the US, and house 1/6 of the US population.

The pursuit of bigger, more private houses has almost certainly impacted on what is arguably the biggest social issue for mainstream middle-class Australia today – housing affordability. With house prices sky rocketing in Australia, and housing debt steadily rising, a report by Jean-Frances Kelly of the Grattan Institute shows that younger people are less likely to own a home than at any time in the last twenty years. At the same time, the proportion of renters in Australia is rising, though legal protections for Australian renters are amongst the most basic of any OECD countries.

It seems a large gap is opening up between the older owners of the large McMansions on the city fringes, and the younger renters clustered in the inner city, working to save an increasingly unrealistic deposit for the most basic of houses. The Grattan Institute report identifies that house size IS a factor in unaffordability in advocating (amongst a host of other changes) for the replacement of stamp duty with land taxThey argue that the former policy encourages people to buy big and then never downsize, while the latter encourages people to use the space they have, or else move without penalty.

Maybe its time for big ideas about thinking small?

#S208UOW17 #Tut8

Flexible Work and Gender Inequities in Work and Care – Let’s Fix the Incentives!

As Australian society shifts towards a service driven economy, the nature of work is changing, and with it, the balance of work and family life.

Our late modern economy is characterised by more targeted consumption of niche (rather than standardized mass produced) goods, and consequently by more flexible production. Workers, contractors and entrepreneurs are moving away from the 9 to 5, 5 day week routine towards more casual, part-time, contract work at all hours in a 24-7 economy. And they are producing these services in increasingly de-centralised workplaces, working in cafes rather than offices, and working from home in greater numbers than ever before. All of this is, of course, facilitated by the rise of the digital economy and online social networking, blurring the boundaries between private friendship and public business in a way that would put Amway to shame! There has seemingly never been a better, and easier time to start a business and work for ourselves, and the flexibility inherent in such arrangements should enable workers to better balance work and family life.

However, there is conjecture and evidence that structuring our modern working lives this way is having a severe impact on our family lives and connections. It is important to acknowledge that the ‘flexibility’ in our arrangements is often imposed upon us by bosses and the market, rather than chosen by us in a way that suits us and our family lives. Richard Sennett argues that work today is increasingly temporary and fractious, requiring that we commute to a multiplicity of locations (local, metropolitan, interstate, international), work all sorts of hours (including shiftwork), and live with an increasing precarity that disrupts our family lives and relationships.

The impacts of these changes fall disproportionately upon women. Women’s increasing movement into the workforce – rightly celebrated as emancipatory – has now become a necessity to pay the exorbitant cost of skyrocketing mortgages and rents in the never-ending Australian house price boom. Women are more likely to work multiple jobs, single mothers are moving into work in ever-greater number (thanks to recent changes in welfare payments), and yet they are still under-represented in senior business and management roles and suffer a gender wage gap of approximately $27,000 a year.

In tandem with these inequities, the greater burden of unpaid work and childcare still falls on women. Women spend more hours working in every type of unpaid labour than men (except for gardening and outdoor tasks), and do more unpaid work even when they are the main breadwinner in a household.

These trends suggest that while a more flexible economy and work practices open up new opportunities for business and friendly working arrangement, there is need to redress structural problems that make these arrangements work against – rather than for – many of us. Addressing gender inequities in paid and unpaid work is paramount, and this involves not only a culture shift amongst men, but removing the incentives to keep men in paid work to a greater degree than women – close the Gender Wage Gap, and improve the system of paid parental leave to encourage equal take-up by men. As a start – let’s fix the incentives!

#S208UOW17 #Tut6

Is the ‘Australian Suburban Nuclear Family Dream’ too strong to die?

Whilst we often hold up the suburban nuclear family as ‘typical’ of Australian society, it is becoming increasingly clear that this form of co-habitation was a ‘special’ constellation that characterised the era of the 1950s and 1960s. Several trends mark its evident decline. The average Australian household is shrinking and ageing, and while specific historical factors are often held up to explain this shift – the sexual revolution, the advent of contraception and the rise in family planning – a broader social movement towards greater ‘individualisation’ plays a great part in this story.

The British sociologist Anthony Giddens describes the ‘transformation of intimacy’ in the later 20th century ‘late modern’ period, which continues today. We have so much more independence now from the constraints of traditional family and gender roles, that we can (and do) seek emotionally driven, egalitarian ‘pure relationships’ over traditional bonds such as marriage. This can be seen in the decline in marriage rates in Australia, and in the rising proportion of defacto couples.

Giddens’ theory goes further than marriage. It implies that human relations have become so individualised that we have lost (or can afford to lose) interest in traditional forms of cohabitation – such as the nuclear family – of any kind. This is evidenced in media concerns about the rise in childless couples, single parent families, and in particular, lone person households. However, a close examination of ABS statistics reveals a more complex picture.

The proportion of single parents, childless couples, and lone-person households in Australia increased substantially up to just past the turn of the millennium, but then slowed to almost no change. Research from the Australian Institute of Family Studies shows that while the proportion of childless couple families is projected to overtake child couple families by 2036, there is almost no projected increase in the proportion of single parent families. ABS data also shows only a very small increase in lone-person households to 2036, which is much lower than the large increases seen in countries overseas, particularly in Scandinavia and Western Europe.

Evidently, Giddens’ transformation is taking place to some degree, but seemingly at a lesser rate in Australia than in other countries. Perhaps that raises the question – what makes our families and us so special? Is the ‘Australian Suburban Nuclear Family Dream’ too strong to die?

#S208UOW17 #Tut5

Industrial Sydney – A Snapshot from Philippa Barr

The shape and development of industrial cities like Sydney was not just driven by house prices and factory conditions, but by random occurrences such as the arrival of a bubonic plague epidemic in 1901, and government/citizen response to this plague. As noted by Philippa Barr, government planning and people-power shape cities, for better and worse.

In her SOC208 UOW lecture this week, Barr relates how the Sydney plague created contestation between migrant and Anglo-Australian groups over issues of pollution and sanitation. Despite a poor understanding of the epidemiology behind the spread of plague (i.e. from rats, not airborne vectors), Barr notes that the 1901 arrival lead to the widespread instigation of quarantine on many communities in and around the upper Sydney CBD and Darling Harbour, because of the perceived poor quality of the ‘infected’ air in these regions. Many people, including large groups of Chinese ethnic migrants, were removed to quarantine stations, whole streets were closed, washed, and many hundreds of ‘unsanitary’ houses were demolished. Suspected quarantine persons were subject to public avoidance on streets and public transport (i.e. trams), and ‘citizen vigilant committees’ were formed to go around and identify suspect practices of poor hygiene (often identifying great ‘failures’ along ethnic/racial lines).

Barr notes, channeling ideas from Foucault and Elias, how these instances can be viewed as an example of historical governments exercising greater control over where and how people lived, and of the citizenry at the time exercising greater control over the standards of personal hygiene of their fellow (often non-white) citizens.

#S208UOW17 #Tut4

‘The most suburban nation in the world’ – origins and influences for the Australian nuclear-family suburban model

Australians were amongst the first to claim the space between city and country as sites to raise nuclear families, and laid the foundation for a way of life that would see Australia become the world’s most suburbanized country in the 20th century. They were inspired by religious interests in purer lives and European/American movements to create and live in healthier, greener environments. The English Garden City movement started by Ebenezzer Howard encouraged an interest in creating new communities in places like Northern and Western Sydney.

American innovations had even more to offer us. The Chicago School of Sociology provided a model for the rise of the suburbs in most countries, with the movement of wealthier families into these outer regions as a natural progression away from the poverty, ill health and poor sanitation in the cities. American experiments also influenced the design and spread of our cities, from the proto-suburban model communities of Llwellyn Park near New York – featuring set-back houses, fixed blocks, contoured streets, and shared gardens funded by private owners’ association levies – to the back to front design of Radburn houses that were incorporated into Australia’s large scale, post-war, public housing projects.

And critical to the development of American and Australian suburbs was the taxpayer-subsidised ascension of the automobile over pedestrians and streetcars. Motor cars enabled longer commutes, ‘easy’ movement in and out of suburban spaces, and the creation of shopping plazas with large car-parks built around highway junctions – precursors to our modern, Westfields, mega-shopping malls.

All of this lead to the rise of the ‘special’ 1950s, and the dominance of the ‘quarter acre block’ suburban nuclear family in Australia at this time and for several decades thereafter. Families had never seemed tighter, smaller, younger, or more specialised, with most adults married (only 22% single), an absence of grandparents and extended kin, a median marriage age of 23, and with less than a third of mothers working in some form of paid employment.

However, these movements were already laying the seeds of their own undoing. The unsustainable sprawl of houses, the congestion of cars, and the stifling, mono-cultural and patriarchal nature of the suburban nuclear family, would all become apparent features of suburban life within a few short decades.

#S208UOW17 #Tut3

Industrial cities and families – the seeds of suburbia?

For many of us who grew up in suburban families, we take their existence for granted as a normal, ahistorical way of life. Few of us might be aware of the history of the suburb and the family, and the Industrial and agricultural/ feudal ways of life that preceded it.

Pre-industrial society was comprised of families in a variety of extended and nuclear forms. People lived and worked amongst extended kinship groups in communal villages and towns, and both men and women had a role in the localised, small-scale, production that characterized this time.

These forms changed in the Industrial Revolution. Middle class families became more nuclear-oriented in form, with a clearer gender divide of labour into male wage-workers and female child carers. Meanwhile, working class men, women and children worked long hours in urban factories and lived in over-crowded urban cottages and apartments. This created the terrible mix of poverty, disease, and pollution that was captured so vividly in the writing of Frederick Engels on the Great Towns of England.

In Australia, the 19th middle classes arriving from England and the working-classes families renting the cramped terraces that dominated the cities of Sydney and Melbourne dreamed of a better life. They were to find it, for the most part, in the role out of 20th century suburbia.

#S208UOW17 #Tut2

SOC327 2017 Tut4 – Mon 1330

How do you know if you’re a boy or girl, straight or gay, or something else altogether? Is it just obvious biology, something you’ve always known instinctively? Or is it something you’ve learned? What about your sexuality? Or what about your image of yourself as a sexual person?

While conventional perspectives focus on a hetero-normative image of men and women accompanied by prescribed male and female behaviours, and other perspectives gave range to a number of alternative conceptions – gay, lesbian, queer, transgender etc – the origins and repercussions of our sex, gender and sexuality are contested.

Some say that sexuality is fluid and eroticism is plastic, changing over the life course and in different contexts. Others point out that ‘obvious biological’ parts of our existence – our bodies – are increasingly altered to confirm to socially derived gendered stereotypes. Many women continue to alter themselves in ways ranging ‘beach ready body dieting to labiaplasty in pursuit of the perfect female form. Similarly, eating disorders, cosmetic surgery, and sales of protein enhancement and grooming products are steadily increasing amongst men.

What do you think? How much of our sex, gender and sexuality is innate and biological, and how much is environmental and social?

#S327UOW17 #Tut4 #Mon1330

SOC327 2017 Tut4 – Wed 1530

How do you know if you’re a boy or girl, straight or gay, or something else altogether? Is it just obvious biology, something you’ve always known instinctively? Or is it something you’ve learned? What about your sexuality? Or what about your image of yourself as a sexual person?

While conventional perspectives focus on a hetero-normative image of men and women accompanied by prescribed male and female behaviours, and other perspectives gave range to a number of alternative conceptions – gay, lesbian, queer, transgender etc – the origins and repercussions of our sex, gender and sexuality are contested.

Some say that sexuality is fluid and eroticism is plastic, changing over the life course and in different contexts. Others point out that ‘obvious biological’ parts of our existence – our bodies – are increasingly altered to confirm to socially derived gendered stereotypes. Many women continue to alter themselves in ways ranging ‘beach ready body dieting to labiaplasty in pursuit of the perfect female form. Similarly, eating disorders, cosmetic surgery, and sales of protein enhancement and grooming products are steadily increasing amongst men.

What do you think? How much of our sex, gender and sexuality is innate and biological, and how much is environmental and social?

#S327UOW17 #Tut4 #Wed1530

SOC327 2017 Tut4 – Wed 1730

How do you know if you’re a boy or girl, straight or gay, or something else altogether? Is it just obvious biology, something you’ve always known instinctively? Or is it something you’ve learned? What about your sexuality? Or what about your image of yourself as a sexual person?

While conventional perspectives focus on a hetero-normative image of men and women accompanied by prescribed male and female behaviours, and other perspectives gave range to a number of alternative conceptions – gay, lesbian, queer, transgender etc – the origins and repercussions of our sex, gender and sexuality are contested.

Some say that sexuality is fluid and eroticism is plastic, changing over the life course and in different contexts. Others point out that ‘obvious biological’ parts of our existence – our bodies – are increasingly altered to confirm to socially derived gendered stereotypes. Many women continue to alter themselves in ways ranging ‘beach ready body dieting to labiaplasty in pursuit of the perfect female form. Similarly, eating disorders, cosmetic surgery, and sales of protein enhancement and grooming products are steadily increasing amongst men.

What do you think? How much of our sex, gender and sexuality is innate and biological, and how much is environmental and social?

#S327UOW17 #Tut4 # Wed1730