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Conversations about suburbs and communities: the new Griffith Review

By Graeme Davison - posted Monday, 12 January 2004

At the threshold of the 21st century Australia has suddenly come down to earth. For two centuries our national imagination was dominated by dreams of conquering and subduing a land we always perceived as somehow alien and hostile. We wanted to explore , clear, tame, cultivate and exploit it. We wanted to mould it to the purposes we had brought with us, rather than respond to those it suggested to us itself.

Of course we never quite made it. Australians have long realised that their land, to use Geoffrey Blainey’s evocative phrase, was only "half-won". Now, it seems, the land we have so long abused and taken for granted, is answering back. Never, at least in my lifetime, have events so powerfully reminded of our deep dependence on the land as the droughts and firestorms that have encircled our cities in the past half-decade. Earth, water, wind, and fire are not just natural elements: they are increasingly the great issues of the day. They are not just environmental or economic questions, but political and spiritual ones too.

We need new ways of thinking and talking about the land – "earth-speaking" as Melissa Lucashenko calls it in her fine introductory essay to this volume. Dreams of Land is just the second volume of Griffith Review.


One of the great missions of little magazines like Griffith Review is surely to promote the kind of conversation that transcends the academic specialisations and the in-talk that goes with them. "Earth-speaking" needs to somehow blend the language of poets and scientists, historians and sociologists, indigenous people and immigrants. That’s what this special thematic issue does so successfully.

During the first two centuries of European settlement cities were often imagined as standing somehow apart from the land. They were outposts of Europe, transplanted bits of London or Manchester, or more recently of Athens or Rome. "The cities we have built [are] plagiarisms", the essayist Walter Murdoch remarked in the 1930s. This was a way of speaking and thinking that not only diverted attention from what was distinctive about our urban civilisation, but from the ways in which the cities were both shaped by, and shaped, the land itself. Our cities were shaped, not only by the few thousand of hectares on which they stood, but by the vast hinterland on which they drew for water, fuel, food, raw materials, recreation and imaginative sustenance.

If we looked for a parable of our cities’ dependence on the land, there can surely be no more powerful one than the story of last summer’s Canberra bushfires. Julianne shrewdly places two vivid pieces of reportage at the centre of this issue: a deft, perceptive and often moving account of the fires and their impact on the city by Jack Waterford, long-time editor-in chief of the Canberra Times (the paper, you may have noticed a well-deserved winner in this year’s Walkley) and a photo essay by another prize-winner, The Age photographer Simon O’Dwyer. Canberra is a city I know well, but, like many others, have found hard to love. Waterford not only evokes our sympathies for the people of a place too often seen as comfortable and complacent; but by placing the story of the fire in the longer trajectory of Canberra’s history he helps us see what it might yet do for a city that, as one famous visitor remarked, seemed to lack a soul. The fires, Waterford suggests, did for Canberra what freeways did for many inner suburbs in the 1970s: by threatening their very existence they created a new sense of community.

Dreams of Land taps into several intersecting Australian conversations about the land. One is a conversation about the complex ways in which we Australians, post-Mabo and post-Wik, connect or reconnect with the land beyond the cities. Several writers recount experiments in returning to the land or of reconnecting with their home turf. Writer and broadcaster, Ramona Koval writes about turtle hunting among Aborigines on Elcho Island. Michael Wilding retires from university to become a farmer, as his father and grandfather had done, clearing land with his bare hands on the New South Wales-Queensland border. "As soon as I achieved my escape from the grove of academia nuts", Wilding writes, "I moved to the land of macadamia nuts". Not all these journeys home have happy endings. Andrew Belk goes back to Boolaroo, the small industrials slum created by Pasminco on the shores of Lake Macquarie, to find a community slowly dying of lead poisoning. Novelist Mathew Condon returns to the place of his childhood holidays on the Gold Coast to find that the straggle of fibro cottages has given way to rows of anonymous high-rise apartments. "Why am I here, back on the Gold Coast?’ he asks himself. ‘Have I been trying to reclaim a landscape of my imagination?".

Creating or reclaiming landscapes of the imagination – perhaps, in different ways, that’s what we are all doing. In his essay Poetics of Place Mark McKenna draws our attention to the way in which references to land have now worked their way into our national imaginings, specifically into the carious draft preambles to the Australian Constitution submitted by writers and politicians of all political persuasions. "Australians", McKenna concludes, "without knowing, have been engaged in something quite extraordinary and novel. They may well become the first nation to adopt a constitutional preamble that expresses the uniqueness of its land, the poetics of place, as a source of inspiration for national unity".

There’s more than a bit of paradox in this: land after all and especially land rights have also been perhaps the most divisive issue in recent Australian politics, though Noel Pearson is right, its value to Aboriginal people may have been over-sold. In one of the most provocative essays in the collection, Land Rights and Progressive Wrongs, Pearson accuses the left, with its myopic concern with rights and social disadvantage, of failing to meet the most urgent challenges for northern Aboriginal communities, of substance abuse and welfare dependency.


Another kind of "earth-speaking", closer to the themes of this conference, is about the problems and prospects of that most characteristic Australian human environment, the suburbs. In the week that the member of Werriwa, and author of From the Suburbs becomes the leader of the federal opposition, I’d like to think that the launch of this special issue of Griffith Review might be catching the wave of something bigger. Could the suburbs actually become the basis of a new political agenda, this time focused on issues of sustainability as well as equality? While the real estate boom continued, too many people had an interest in avoiding these troubling questions. They were too preoccupied, as Peter Spearritt and Jim Forbes observe, with the Australian’s favourite hobby of land speculation. Could the end of the boom prompt some serious reflection? Spearritt and Forbes don’t seem too hopeful: "Whether it ends with a long hiss or a sharp pop, history suggests that we are unlikely to break our addiction to bricks and mortar, personally, I’m not so sure. As we have already seen this last week or so, in the vigorous responses to the remarks of the Governor of the Reserve Bank, there is a good deal of latent resentment about the intergenerational and class inequalities that have emerged from the gyrations of urban and coastal property over the past decade".

Leftists have long been suspicious of the suburbs. "Anti-suburbanism", as Alan Gilbert showed many years ago, has a longish history in Australia, though not quite as long as pro-suburbanism. A generation ago Hugh Stretton’s Ideas for Australian Cities tackled the prejudice head-on, and for a while it seemed to recede, but it has a way of re-emerging again every now and then. Dame Edna has been reincarnated as the indominable Kath of Kath and Kim and perhaps you noticed the Good Weekend’s feature on Mac Mansions, a good example of the way in which the terrace-owning class now put down the stylistic pretensions of the new suburbs. In his essay in Dreams of Land, Mark Wakely, producer of the excellent ABC program The Comfort Zone, wonders why so many suburbanites build neo-Federation villas instead of the risky urbanistic design that the arbiters of good architecture taste would prefer them to build. "The impact of this nostalgia on new housing has left architects frustrated", he observes. "What drives this yearning to recapture the past, an unwillingness to let go and move on? . . "Risk-taking architecture", he concludes, "is about the city; in the suburbs they want surety".

Forward-looking, progressive, confident city’ backward-looking, reactionary, fearful suburbs: this is a new variation on an old Australian theme. It has always surprised me how so many urban scholars repudiate the physical determinism implied in the idea of the slum, but succumb to blanket condemnations of the blandness, boredom, conventionality and insularity of the suburbs. I enjoyed Alistair Greig’s attack on some new manifestation of this hoary fallacy – notably McKenzie Wark’s claim of an "information gap" between the rich, inquiry cyber-culture of the inner cities and the digital desert of outer suburbia, and Mark Latham’s equally questionable contrast between the abstract and rarefied politics of the inner city elites and the pragmatic politics of the aspirational suburban working class. He could have added another, subtler, form of anti-suburbanism, attacked here by Patrick Troy, namely the accusation of the urban consolidationists that the suburbs are environmentally wasteful. So far from being environmentally wasteful, Troy suggests, low-density, decentralised urban settlements potentially offer the best prospects of environmental self-sufficiency. "The virtues of suburbia," he concludes, "may yet turn out to be the saving of our cities".

As often happens, Australian social and political discourse, on the left as well as the right, tends to draw often with lag, and always with too little recognition of cultural differences on that of the United States. For more than two decades now, "the suburbs" (or the "burbs") has been code in political discourse for a distinct set of uniquely American racial, fiscal and political issues. As Brendan Gleeson shows, Australian suburbs have seldom been shaped by quite the same levels of racial fear or adopted exclusionary practices quite as extreme as the edge cities and gated communities of most American cities. That’s not to say, however, that we haven’t been quite active in instituting spatial inequalities of our own. Already the nineteenth century, I’ve argued, states Australian suburbs were able to develop under a distinctively Australian set of fiscal and political arrangements. Long before the former member for Werriwa launched his program of urban reform, in the late 1960s, Australian colonial governments had assumed the responsibility of supplying our suburbs with transport, education, roads and – to the extent that they existed them – hospitals. Unlike American suburbanites who had to pay for these services from local rates, we paid for them from central government revenues. This had two important consequences – our suburbs could grow faster and farther, and retreat of central governments form the direct provision of services and infrastructure is producing new inequalities between city and suburbs. It’s not that the Commonwealth is not spending funds in the suburbs; but the mechanisms by which those funds are now distributed, for example to private schools, private health services and – I could perhaps add private tollways – are reinforcing inequalities rather than redressing them. It’s in this explicitly political sense that I think that differences between the city and the suburbs should become a legitimate focus or political agenda.

Editing a quarterly is no easy job, and editing a thematic issue, as I know from experience, is even harder. If, in the twenty or so items you publish, you get a dozen that people will read right through, seven or eight that they read with real pleasure, and one or two that really change their minds, you a doing really well. By that hard rule of thumb, Dreams of Land scores very highly indeed. I will certainly be recommending several of the essays to students and colleagues. One last suggestion: could someone please send a copy ASAP to the office of the leader of the Opposition, Parliament House, Canberra?

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This is an edited extract of the launch speech for Dreams of Land edition of Griffith Review, no. 2003, given at Parramatta on December 3, 2003.

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About the Author

Professor Graeme Davison is a Head of the School of Historical Studies, Faculty of Arts, Monash University.

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