US based urbanist Richard Florida - once described as an “intellectual Rockstar” – shot to fame with his 2002 book The Creative Class. He was on a global speaking tour that took in many Australian cities, arguing that the secrets to economic development lay in attracting legions of creatively motivated progressives working in new economy professions. This was best done by enhancing inner urban “hipsterness” measured by a “bohemian index” with investments in public space, recreation, culture, and various other “urban chic” accoutrements. Many city leaders rushed for the Florida gospel, applying its preaching in the hope of out-hipping competing urban centres for precious jobs in the new economy.
But Florida has since re-canted, admitting that the focus on inner urban “cool” may have worked for the wealthy and privileged but at the same time created city wide disadvantage. His latest book The New Urban Crisis suggests an alarming wealth divide is opening up between inner urban and suburban landscapes.
“Across nearly every metro area, middle-class neighborhoods are disappearing. Our cities and suburbs are being replaced by a patchwork metropolis, in which small areas of privilege are surrounded by vast swaths of poverty and disadvantage. The rise of a winner-take-all-urbanism, with a small group of winners and a much larger span of losers, signals a profound crisis of today’s urbanized knowledge economy that threatens our economic future and way of life,” he now says. Talk about a change of heart.
While much of this may be true for major cities in the USA (where hipster havens like San Francisco or New York are losing millennials to lower cost of living centres in flyover country) is it also true for Australian cities? Are we seeing a concentration of wealth in inner urban suburbs while suburban areas languish? Certainly, the infrastructure and policy focus in most Australian cities has, for the past 15 years, been very much on enhanced inner urban amenity. But has this been enough to draw more high-income residents to the inner city and cause professionals to abandon the suburbs?
The evidence is revealing. Here’s a quick wrap of the picture across Australia’s capitals as of the 2016 Census.
The household income difference between inner urban residents of Brisbane and those of the wider metro area have widened in the 2006-2016 period. Over that ten years, inner city residents (roughly within a 5 kilometre radius) have gone from enjoying incomes that were on average 13% higher than the wider metro average to now 23% more than the metro average. In dollar terms, inner Brisbane households earn on average $357 a week more than the metro average for the city.
However, the traditional patchwork quilt of high and low income suburbs remains a dominant feature. The suburb you live in still tends to define your household wealth status – be it high or low. Brisbane’s western suburbs (Fig Tree Pocket, Pinjarra Hills, Brookfield etc) are still among the highest income earners. South eastern suburbs (Carindale, Wakerley, Rochedale) are fast catching up. There are inner suburbs on the high income list (Bardon, Paddington, Bulimba etc) but there are others (like Kelvin Grove or Herston) which are well below the city wide average.
So while it is true the inner city is gentrifying, the preference among many high income households still appears to be for traditional suburban neighborhoods, many in middle to outer urban areas.
Sydney is different. In 2006, household incomes in the Sydney city and inner south region were roughly the same as the wider metro average. By 2016 they were only 8% more. The North Sydney-Mossman inner city region actually went from being 56% more than the metro average to 37% more by 2016, while the Eastern suburbs north region stayed roughly the same – from 37% more to 38% more ten years later.
In dollar terms however, the differences are more stark: the average North Sydney-Mossman household in 2016 was pulling in $642 a week more than the metro average; and it was $667 a week more in the Eastern suburbs North.
So inner city residents of Sydney earn a lot more than the metro average in both dollar and percentage terms but it’s been that way for some time – hardly any surprise. This is entirely consistent with Sydney’s long term role as financial and business centre for Australia, which has arguably been the case for some decades now. Research would need to look back to the 1990s or earlier to find a turning point where inner urban income disparity began to widen significantly from the metro wide average – if indeed it did (or has it been so since the 1960s?)
However, proximity to the core does not preclude a number of middle and outer suburbs from joining the high income household list. Rouse Hill to the north west or Port Hacking to the south are two of several examples. In Sydney’s case, proximity to the core appears to have a significant relationship to high income households, but this has probably been the case since long before Florida published his first book.
The household income gap in inner Melbourne compared with the greater Melbourne average widened from 5% more in 2006 to 10% more in 2016. The difference was greater in the Melbourne inner east area (14% more in 2016) but this was unchanged since 2006 (when it was 15%). In dollar terms, inner Melbourne households earn $155 more than the metro wide average and this rises to $213 a week more for the smaller Melbourne inner east area.
Overall, despite a widely reported acceleration of urban density programs in inner Melbourne over the past decade, this appears to have little impact on widening income disparity. In fact, it is possible to argue that Melbourne is more equitable in terms of inner urban versus wider metro household incomes than any other capital.
Melbourne also continues to exhibit a preference among high income households for a large number of middle and outer suburban areas. Any suggestion that high income professionals in Melbourne have abandoned the burbs for the inner city is not supported by the evidence.
Households in Adelaide’s inner city (essentially its CBD) earned roughly 1% less than the metro average for the city in 2016 – which was down from 11% more in 2006. However, inner urban pockets such as Burnside inner (36% more in 2016) or Prospect-Walkerville (27% more in 2016) showed more disparity - but these differences seem for the most part unchanged since 2006 (when Burnside inner was 32% higher than the metro average and Prospect-Walkerville 19%).
So suburbs immediately adjoining the inner urban core of Adelaide appear to show more income differential compared with the metro average than the core itself, and these differences – 36% more in the case of Burnside – are substantial. But like Sydney, it would seem that this has been the case for at least the period since 2006 and there is no strong evidence of a widening income gap between inner and broader metro Adelaide - where the Adelaide Hills and foothills continue to be the preferred (suburban) environment for higher income households.
The gap between inner city household incomes and the wider metro area in Perth are widening – rising from 13% more in inner Perth in 2006 to 24% more in 2016. In dollar terms, inner city Perth households are now earning on average $386 a week more than the metro average for the city. At the time of the Census (August 2016) Perth was in the midst of a downturn in economic fortunes linked to the slowing resources sector.
You could speculate whether this had greater financial impact on inner urban or middle and outer urban households but without further study, this remains a topic of conjecture. For now at least, it remains the beachside suburbs north of the city that are home to the higher income households, much as it has long been.
So, what’s this all mean?
First, the Australian evidence runs contrary to suggestions that higher income professionals are abandoning the suburbs for “cooler, inner urban hipster” markets. Indeed, middle and suburban locations are where you are just as likely to find pockets of high income earning households (with the possible exception of Sydney where wealth does some more concentrated). The same, of course also applies to low income households but the point being that proximity to the core is not yet a key determinant for most cities – at least on the evidence. Larger homes and leafier environs remain for many a more powerful lure than higher density inner urban environments. There is evidence this may be changing and the gap widening, but the pace of change is not what some boosters have suggested. The suburbs have certainly not fallen from favour and remain very much desirable in the eyes of the higher income households that many inner urban markets covet.
It’s also fair to suggest that the income and wealth disparity Florida is now alerted to in cities like San Francisco and New York is of a scale that we are yet to see in Australian cities (again with the possible exception of Sydney). The enhancement of urban cores in many Australian city centres as so far mostly been insufficient to lure legions of high income creative class workers into those cores as places to live. Some will argue by pointing to anecdotal evidence (much of it owed to gushy headlines manufactured by eager boosters) but on the whole, Australian cities have avoided the problems that Florida now warns about.
For the time being at least.
Footnote: The maps used in this story came from a handy online tool published by The Guardian. You can have your own fun via this link.