I was reading this story in The New Republic (subscription required, I think) about the problems of US cities and it struck me that little of the discussion would make sense in an Australian context, simply because Americans and Australians understand the city-suburb distinction quite differently. As noted here, in Australia , a suburb means “one of the units comprising a city”, corresponding roughly to the American “neighborhood”. By contrast, in the US the term is understood to mean “a district, especially a residential one, on the edge of a city or large town”. British usage is somewhere between the two, but closer to Australian.

This distinction is reinforced by the fiscal system in the US, where more tax is raised, at the local government level, and more functions, notably education are undertaken by local government, so the boundary between local governments makes a bigger difference. This seems to cause a lot of problems, with the result that US cities seem to be in difficulty most of the time. Perhaps the Australian setup produces different problems that aren’t so obvious or pressing.

Beyond this, though, I think there really is something to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis here. The fact that everyone in Australia regards the suburbs as part of the city to which they belong, regardless of local government boundaries, affects the way we think about all sorts of things. For example, even if inner-city suburbs are thought of as hipper and cooler than the outer suburbs, the distinction is one of degree rather than kind, since there is no sharp dividing line between the two, so we don’t really have an urban/suburban distinction in the way that Americans do.

19 thoughts on “Cities

  1. This is a very interesting point about how American’s view their cities and larger districts such as the tri-state area. John, are you one of these born again social environmentalists who regard much of SE QLD as a 200km city? This point is an extention on what you were talking about, where for instance the bronx, queens, manhattan and brooklyn are all regarded as seperate and then there is the real outer such as the unamed ‘suburb’ where Ray who everybody loves lives.

    Then there is ‘jersey’ which from an aussies point of view would be like Geelong or the Gold Coast, albiet with absolutely no geographic seperation. It’s all rather confusing really.

    I was very confused when I read that Boston’s population had hit a record 330,000, until the system, largely based on local government areas was explained to me. As you say it is a huge conceptual leap.

    Now me being me I will push my own agenda for a unitary government system with strenghtened and decentralised local governments based on city states with an overiding federal policy restricting population and geogrpahical size of citys, mainly the monsters.

    At the moment I would restrict Melbourne’s pop to 2.5-3 mill and restrict the geographic size slowly (over many decades) by government conversion of these slowly to be former outer suburbs to greenspace, economic policies would make these aquistions cheap and viable over the long run.

    I would cap adelaide at 1 mill because SA is the most centralised state (remember state governments are so much more centralised than the feds, Canberra’s small population being a small testament to that)

    Perth would be capped at 2.5 mill becaue unlike Adelaide it has an economy not reliant on social security. Brisbane would be capped at 1.5-2 million, ipswhich treated as a seperate city. Gold coast capped at no more than 400,000 and possibly less. Sunshine coast to be treated as seperate non-conected cities, but area population capped at probably 200,000 but I am not sure. Note that Sunshine coast pop wont include inland towns.

    Sydney would be capped at 3.5mill and that is game, all other cities not needing capping until further notice, the idea here is to promote urban decentralisation and reduce road and road traffic infrastructure and environmental and social costs. So apart from Perth, and SEQ for Victoria and NSW it is a huge boon for not longer so regional towns and cities. While with proper fast rail linking all cities over 10,000 it will not damage sydeny and melbourne.

    If you have the time anyone can criticise this as much as they like, not that you need my invitation of course. But keep in mind that I am a perfectionist social engineer wannabe who thinks that it is sad that vic park, waverly and optus oval have all disapered from the social atlas. Until next time comrades.

  2. In the US, reference to a ‘city’ is usually to an urban local government jurisdiction.

    City of New York-the five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queen’s, Bronx, Staten Is.), population 7.5m or so. NY metropolitan area, about 20m.

    City of Los Angeles, popn about 3.8m. Metro area, 16+m.

    City of Boston, popn 0.6m. Metro area, 4+m.

    City of Chicago popn 2.8m. Metro area, 9m or so.


    Commonly, a largish central core city (other than NY, usually smaller in area in the much older east; more generous in size towards newer mid-West & West, and South). Surrounded by a patchwork multiplicity of small local city, township jurisdictions-these are what Americans commonly refer to as ‘suburbs’-together with an array of locally-funded ‘special districts’.

    To confuse us, they also have ‘Counties’.

    City of LA is part of LA County. Orange County is part of LA metro area, and includes Cities such as Anaheim, Irvine, etc.

    Metro Miami FL is in Miami-Dade Co. and Brouward Co.

    Suburban Washington spreads from DC (inter alia) across Fairfax Co. VA.

    And so on.

    Some metro areas spill over adjacent State jurisdictions, as well. New York-NY, NJ, Conn. Washington DC, VA, ML. Kansas City-KA, MO.


    Ditto, cities/counties in Canada-where there are also ‘4th tier’ Metro jurisdictions, eg Metro Toronto (cf City of Brisbane, Aust.) similar to US counties.

    And overlap of Provinces: Ottawa-Ontario, Quebec (two languages, as well).

    Education (schools), by the way, is mostly carried out in US/Canada by ‘special districts’ (schools boards) as distinct from city governments, or by counties (esp in rural areas).

    Australian metropolitan areas (except Brisbane) are made up of a patchwork of small ‘city’ and ‘shire jurisdictions (40 to 100k popn)-one of which usually covers the central business area and inner neighbourhoods out to a couple of kms. These entities are responsible for a far more limited range of services than the US/Canadian urban cities/counties-eg they don’t run police forces or fire brigades, or transit systems or waterworks.

    In Australia, we commonly describe as ‘suburbs’ the neighbourhoods that make up the local jurisdictions outside the central business area

    Odd how, in Australia, we bemoan our multiple jurisdictions. Why can’t we have one final school certificate? One industrial relations system? One police force (heaven help us!)? One body to regulate ports? Run hospitals nationally? Etc. This sort of thing isn’t even on the radar in the US and Canada, where people understand that fragmentation of authority and acceptance of ‘subsidiarity’ is fundamental to preserving their democratic freedoms and well worth the ‘cost’ of its ‘inefficiencies’.

  3. An aside:

    Dear John,

    There are times we argue that a government deficit that is larger than household saving will have to produce a deficit in the trade balance. Then, what of Australia? Australia has a government surplus and positive household saving, but a trade deficit. Why the lack of symmetry? Should Australia worry about a trade deficit that is proportionate in size to ours?

    Though I have answered the question many times, yet I am bothered.

  4. What am I missing John? Why the lack of symmetry? Japan can balance a government deficit with household saving, and run a trade surplus. What of Australia?

  5. Anne, according to the standard measures, we have negative household savings.

    More importantly, the current account balance is savings net of investment, so you need large positive savings to avoid a deficit.

    BTW, comments like this are best posted in the open threads (Monday Message Board and Weekend Reflections).

  6. Historically, there was also a racial aspect to US city government entities. It is notorious that some cities and towns encouraged or allowed covenants forbidding or penalising realtors who permitted the sale of property to the “wrong” sort of person.

    Afro-Americans suffered this treatment all over the US. And I know Jews who suffered it in parts of New Jersey.

    When this discriminatory practice was reinforced by local policing policies and schooling policies, both administered by City or County government, it is little wonder that the US evolved into a mosaic rather than a melting pot.

    Until the Kennett reforms of the 1990s, Melbourne was a patchwork of tiny local government areas. It would be possible for me to cycle past at least 10 inner-suburban town halls in an hour of riding. Six or seven of those are now defunct.

    However, the local government area in Victoria had relatively little impact on the lives of people, beyond setting the framework for the patterns of residential development. And even in the poorer suburbs of inner Melbourne, the rare elevated areas attracted mansions and/or large Catholic Churches. So, until the advent of the automobile the toffs never sought entirely to escape working-class Melbourne.

  7. Aside from the language and tax differences are there other difference that make US cities different. When JQ notes that we don’t really have an urban/suburban distinction in the way that the US does, was there in fact a type of inner/outer distinction in Australia which has changed and hence mitigated against the sharper differences in the US. In my youth the inner city in Adelaide for example was the first port of call for many immigrants, aside from the particularly built migrant centres, Elizabeth. And that was ethnically focused. On the other hand the inner city that I live in was one of those that developed the very large houses surrounded by very small workers cottages as against later developments of affluent larger blocked and housed suburbs, now considered inner city.

    Now the affluent live in these areas and many of the regulation changes they establish serve indirectly to further exclude the immigrant groups. Eg, historical preservation which dictates certain tastes and drives up price. This hick from inner Adelaide has been fascinated by the site of what appear to be young Asian women ironing away at 7 in the evening in tiny laundries on Darlinghurst Street for example. And wondered how people providing such services managed to live within Cooee of their workplaces. I have a memory of moves to provide groups such as police, teachers or nurses with purchaseable properties in London in order that the inner city livers can have them on hand to provide their services. In Adelaide there is a big problem with the pulling down of the boarding houses driven by the value of the land. My understanding is that the immigrants and poor still move into inner city in the US.
    This preservation importance in Europe and to a lesser extent here, is that less prominent in the US

    And the leisure versus personal wealth between Europe and the US, and the different total tax take between the two. There appears to be a different feeling about how much private versus public space is desirable between the US and European or Australian cities. Are Americans as inclined to fence off those public spaces to certain classes also, as we do in Australia? An example would be in Adelaide that it was considered undesirable for Aborigines to sit under a tree and drink wine in Victoria Square whereas the development of alfresco dining in the public park lands of the city, including Victoria Square, is assisted. Do factors such as these also serve to change the nature of city living for the different socio-economic groups and thus result in a much greater distinction between inner and outer, and the city suburb occupants sense of where they live. We are doomed here, the baby boomers have moved into city apartments and are doing there best to close down the longstanding music venues. They certainly don’t see any difference between the city and the suburbs.

    This US newspaper proposition in 1998 seems to match JQ’s consideration of the different attitudes and choices in the US.
    More and more, “suburban residents see their fate decoupled from the city,” he says. “The middle class are voting with their feet and with their ballots by not supporting [tax-revenue] transfers into cities.

  8. I have two points :

    1) Perhaps it might be true that some cities in Australia have no dividing line between suburburbia and inner city areas, but are you seriously trying to say that there is no division between, say, Chatswood and some outer Sydney suburb (say Emu plains) or say, Carlton, and some outer Melbourne suburb (say, Melton) ? I’m sure there are differences between people’s mentalities in these places too, which is reflected in the various stereotypes people believe in “I’m a Westy..”, “North sure yuppies” etc., and indeed the tendency to use different accents in different areas (I don’t remember hearing too much broad Australian in Chatswood).

    2) There are lost of cities in Europe (like Paris) where people say they are from that certain city, even if they live in the outer suburbs, and where the local governements do even less than in Australia. This doesn’t stop the same type of inner city problems occuring (except that the problems are moved to the outskirts in some of those cities).

  9. Bill: fragmentation of authority isn’t freedom. It sounds like more paperwork. It’s good to have control of your child’s school curriculum… but it’s not so good when your creationist fundie next-door neighbour also has control.

    Australia is unusual in that the majority of land is incorporated in a Shire, Municipality or City. It’s not like the U.S., where the cities are sliced off all the time from the various counties. The result could be something like Atlanta, which has more that 100 little cities doing their own thing. I think the profusion is driven by property development, which in turn is enabled by easy credit. But you’re probably going to have to drive everywhere, especially if you’re in one of those many cities without public transport. Howard Kunstler is pretty scathing about the result. Oh, it’s a good city if you like malls, but if you’re happy with Westfield Shoppingtown, why build another one?


  10. Addendum: I should admit that Atlanta – despite its sprawl – does not sound as bad as Sài Gòn. In some areas, you’re talking densities of 100,000 people per square kilometre. According to a friend (a local architect), a lot of this was caused by squatters coming into town during the war, and setting up shanties whereever they could. The piss-weak government couldn’t do much to stop them. The later Communist government expelled a few people, but basically left the sub-divisions as they were. leading to a profusion of alleys, sub-alleys and sub-sub-alleys. It doesn’t help that one peculiarity of local real estate is that land is priced by the length of the boundary facing the road, rather than the actual area. As a result, Sài Gòn looks like Lego city from the air, with lots of thin little house build next to each other.

    The shanties didn’t dissapear. Instead, most got spruced up with added bricks and decent levels. In such circumstances, suburbia doesn’t arise. You either have the city, or you have the countryside.

    I might try to add more to this on my blog.

  11. Conrad: Anyone who describes Melton as a suburb of (Greater) Melbourne
    knows little about Melbourne. Melton is a small town a short freeway
    drive NW of the city. Its’ inclusion in the Melway doesn’t make it
    a suburb of Melbourne anymore than Portsea’s or Geelong’s inclusion does.
    Carlton is an inner suburb.
    Perhaps a bettr example might have been Roxburgh Park, a newiish
    housing development on the northern fringe of Melbourne.

    Of course, in Melbourne, Frankston used to be a distinct city, but is
    now more properly countted as just a distant sw suburb. Urban sprawl
    and all that.

  12. Conrad, I’m not asserting that Chatswood is the same as Emu Plains, but it’s certainly a suburb. In fact, back in the 30s, Lennie Lower satirised it as the epitome of suburbia, and while there’s been a fair bit of redevelopment since then, it’s still a pretty good representation of the suburban dream.

  13. It is interesting that when the US Federal Communications Commission was auctioning mobile phone spectrum licences (starting from 1994), they divided the country into 51 so-called Metropolitan Trading Areas, drawing on a classification made by a commercial map publisher. Thus, New York City, Connecticut and eastern New Jersey were in the one MTA. Upstate New York was in a different MTA. The MTAs were assumed to reflect communities of economic interest. Certainly people commute into NYC from Connecticut and from New Jersey, but not from upstate New York.

    If you used the same commuting test in Australia, then the Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast and Brisbane would be in the one zone. If I live in a peri-urban area with 5-acre plots, and I commute into the centre of Brisbane each day, do I live in a suburb?

  14. Thus, New York City, Connecticut and eastern New Jersey were in the one MTA.

    It’s not the same as South East Queensland. It’s not the same at all. New York City is BIG. (It’s not just Manhattan, y’know?) You almost have to drive three quarters of the way to the end of Long Island to escape the sprawl. The area you mentioned is pretty much one continuous mass of housing. Look up “New York” under Google Maps, and then zoom out two clicks. By comparison, there’s still a 15 km gap between Helensvale and Yatala… and the “link” between the the Sunshine Coast and Caboolture is a series of small towns like the Glasshouse Mountains.

    Our ABS still classifies the SC, GC and Brisvegas as three seperate regions for statistical purposes. For good reason.

  15. You are mistaken, Down and Out: The area I mentioned (the NY MTA) is not one continuous mass of housing at all. If it was, mobile network operators would have an easier time of building out their networks. Instead, they struggled.

    Note that the New York MTA is not the same as New York City, which was my precise point.

  16. I’m a native of Chicago, which recently lost its “Second [largest] City” status to Los Angeles. Which we call two hundred suburbs in search of a city. Which loops back to the original topic.
    I had the good fortune to spend three months in Australia in 1975. I rememver my utter confusion at being told that the population of Melbourne was about 2,000 (IIRC). Chicago recently slid below three million, and the metro area is more like seven million.

    One of the key elements which doesn’t seem to have entered the conversation yet is that “American” “suburbanites” subscribe passionately to the pretense that they have nothing to do with the city which spawned them. Thus you get the feedback effect of the more affluent moving out of “the city” to “the suburbs” and taking the tax base with them. As the city grows less able to pay its expenses, it becomes less desireable a place to live, and more of those who can move “out”.

    Right now, the enormous shopping mall (“Woodfield”) northwest of Chicago, past O’Hare airpoart, is trying to figure out a better slogan for itself than the place with the great big mall.

  17. Not to go on and on about it, but the population of Chatswood is 250,000 — which is similar to Newcastle. It also has many characteristics of a big city (particularily like some of Asia) which places like Newcastle don’t have, where you have huge densities of people living close to the railway stations, decent industries, large ugly shopping malls, and medium density stuff a bit further away (and some remnants of suburbia further out). Phenomenologically, according to some friends from Asia who visited it “we don’t like it because it reminds us too much of Hong Kong” (I agree)

    If I dug Chatswood up and stuck it, say, between Canberra and Sydney, it seems reasonable to suspect that people would treat it like a city in its own right, in the same way Newcastle or Wollongong are (probably better). Alternatively, if I dug Emu plains up and stuck it there, I doubt people would notice the difference.

    More importantly, if I dug the stuff between Chatswood and Central Sydney up (say, Greenwich), and stuck it in the same place, I don’t think people would say that Greenwhich is a city. So the stuff between Central Sydney and Chatswood is a suburb. I think it therefore seems reasonable to think that Sydney city has at least two urban centers that would qualify as city (urban) status given a reasonable definition of city. Alternatively, I presume that people in Chatswood (including the thousands that live in the huge skyscrapers recently constructed) consider themselves Sydneysiders mentally. Thus there are separte urban areas to be found in Sydney, but not mentally.

    A very similar thing occurs in Paris. People living around the ugly skysraper section (La Defense) still consider themselves Parisian, despite the fact that it is clearly a separate urban area compared to inner-city Paris.

  18. Let us destroy it all and live like the Abos did. Our happiness index would shoot through the roof. Down with urbanity.

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