Relocating disadvantage in Australian cities: the case of suburban Sydney

By Bill Randolph and Andy Tice

What do the Pope, the President of the United States and the head of the IMF have in common?  They have all recently spoken out against rising inequality which has now become a widely recognised global trend over the last thirty years (OECD, 2011; The Economist, 2012). With Oxfam (2016) reporting that the richest 62 people in the world had accumulated wealth equal to that of the poorest half of the world’s population put together, and the top 1% being worth more than the rest of the world’s population combined, the emergence of levels of inequality not seen since before the 1st World War has clearly started to penetrate political discourse.  Thomas Piketty (2014) has driven the point home even among hard-nosed economists.  Suddenly, inequality is back with a vengeance.  What has been discovered, of course, is the outcome of 30 years of neo-liberalism, which has more or less explicitly favoured those with capital and disadvantaged many of the rest.  Especially in the advanced economies, politicians across the globe are having to come to terms with increasingly restless populations who are showing their collective displeasure with this state of affairs at the polling booth.

But as urbanists know, social inequality has a spatial dimension.  Brenner and Theodore (2002) have argued that the impacts of neo-liberalism are arguably most evident in our cities where urban processes have been characterised by a distinctive shift in the locale of key socio-economic drivers.  The “Great Inversion” (Ehrenhalt, 2013) has reorientated the focus of economic growth back towards the centre of major cities as the emergent ‘knowledge economy’ has transformed the fortunes of once failing inner cities, often stimulated by major public policy intervention.  But the urban poor who were once concentrated in inner city areas have not simply disappeared.  They have found themselves increasingly displaced into older and more marginal suburbs beyond the inner city, many of which were developed in the period shortly before or in the three decades after the Second World War.

This shift has changed the nature of the debates on urban socio-spatial inequality, especially in the United States, where the emergence of suburban poverty (Kneebone & Berube, 2013; Semuels, 2015) has been associated with a strong local political response from the “First Suburb” coalition of financially challenged suburban local authorities in many American cities (Lucy & Phillips, 2000; Puentes & Orfield, 2002).  But similar trends have been identified in Canada (Hulchanski et al., 2010) and the UK (Lupton, 2011; Hunter, 2014).

Australia has not escaped this process.  The recent Oxfam report referred to above showed Australia to be only second to America in terms of the percentage increase in the share of national income received by the richest 1% of its citizens.  As a result, rising inequality is also a fact of life in Australia.  Our analysis of the spatial impact of these tends is based on a comparison of data for Sydney, Australia’s largest city, for 1986 and 2006 using the well-established Index of Socio-Economic Disadvantage produced by the Australia Bureau of Statistics for each Census.  The analysis confirms conclusively that there was a clear tendency for disadvantage to become increasingly suburbanised during this period, a period synonymous with the introduction of neo-liberal principles in the economic reforms of mid-1980’s and succeeding policy directions.  While the number of suburbs containing at least one census tract deemed to be highly disadvantaged had fallen marginally, suburbs with high concentrations of disadvantage (those where disadvantaged tracts accounted for 80% or more of that suburb’s population) increased significantly in number, indicating an increase in the geographic concentration of disadvantage.  Accompanying these changes was a dramatic reversal of the earlier geographical patterns of income distribution across the city with the almost total disappearance of the concentration of disadvantaged tracts evident in Sydney’s inner city in the 1980s.  There was also clear evidence of a widening gap between the wealthiest and poorest households in the city.  In the process, the income differential across the city deepened, with a loss of “middling” incomes across much of the city as the income profile has stretched both upwards and downwards.

That thirty years of “structural adjustment” in those countries at the forefront of the neo-liberal counterrevolution should have led to the deepening of social fault lines and the associated spatial restructuring of our cities in line with this should therefore not be surprising.  What remains to be seen is how far these adjustments will continue or whether an emerging political reaction to the predicable outcomes of untrammelled markets and policy-induced inequality will lead to a new consensus that will seek to address these new geographies of suburban disadvantage in advanced neo-liberal economies.

Where the suburban poor live: Typical low income housing in suburban Sydney. (Photo by Bill Randolph)


The full article, Suburbanizing Disadvantage in Australian Cities: Sociospatial Change in an Era of Neoliberalism, is accessible without a JUA subscription for a limited time as part of the May 2016 Virtual Issue on Global Urban Change.


Bill Randolph is a Professor and Director of the City Futures Research Centre in the Faculty of the Built Environment at The University of New South Wales, Australia.

Andrew Tice is a Senior Demographer in the New South Wales Department of Planning and Environment. 


Brenner, N.& Theodore, N. Eds. (2002). Spaces of neoliberalism: Urban restructuring in North America and Western Europe. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Economist.(2012). For richer, for poorer: Special report on inequality, 13 October.

Ehrenhalt, A. (2013). The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. New York, New York: Vintage (Random House, Inc).

Hulchanski, J. D., with Bourne, L. S.Egan, R., Fair, M., Maaranen, R., Murdie, R. A., & Walks, R.A. (2010). The three cities within Toronto: Income polarization among Toronto’s neighbourhoods, 1970–2005. Toronto, Canada: Cities Centre and Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto.

Hunter, P. (2014) Poverty in Suburbia: A Smith Institute study into the growth of poverty in the suburbs of England and Wales (London:  The Smith Institute).

Kneebone, E., & Berube, A. (2013). Confronting suburban poverty in America. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Lucy, W. H., & Phillips, D. L. (2000). Confronting suburban decline: Strategic planning for metropolitan renewal. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Lupton, R.(2011). Poverty and inequality in London: Anticipating the effects of tax and benefit reforms. London: London School of Economics. Retrieved August 11, 2013, from

OECD. (2011). Divided we stand: Why inequality keeps rising. Country Note: Australia. Paris: OECD. Retrieved June 3, 2012, from

OXFAM (2016). An Economy for the 1%: How privilege and power in the economy drive extreme inequality and how this can be stopped. OXFAM International.

Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the 21st Century. Cambridge, Massachusetts: President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Puentes, R., & Orfield, M. (2002). Valuing America’s first suburbs: A policy agenda for old suburbs in the Midwest. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Semuels, A. (2015) Suburbs and the New American Poverty.  The Atlantic, 7 Jan. 2015.

Final Reflections on Jerusalem: The Spatial Politics of a Divided Metropolis

This is the fifth and final blog post in our series on the book Jerusalem: The Spatial Politics of a Divided Metropolis. The series was inspired by a panel discussion at UAA. Previous posts were written by Anne Shlay, Zachary Neal, Deirdre Oakley, and Rachel Garshick Kleit.

By Elena Vesselinov

It was a great privilege to participate in the Author Meets Critics panel about “Jerusalem: The Spatial Politics of a Divided Metropolis,” by Anne B. Shlay and Gillad Rosen, at the Urban Affairs Association meeting in San Diego. I enjoyed very much our discussion and am happy we have a chance to continue the conversation online, through this blog.

I would like to make three points here: one, as someone who has conducted comparative urban research, I would like to remind all of us that it takes real gumption to embark on a new territory – physically and intellectually. It is not easy being an outsider looking in, asking questions, always on the verge of offending someone just by being yourself.

Secondly, the book resonated with me on a very personal level, because one of the very strong messages is about the making of a place through the process of claiming it as your own. As an immigrant, I continue to struggle to find ways to fit in, often uncertain of my own rights to cities and places. After reading the book I now have a better understanding about why different groups make such vocal claims to Jerusalem as a place. The cognition of these claims is helped on theoretical level by Shlay and Rosen’s interrogation of the production of space through Lefebvre’s notion of the Rights to the City.

One prominent example of competing territorial claims in Jerusalem is The Kotel, also known as the “Wailing Wall.” This is the Western Wall (the HaKotel), a retaining wall of the temple built by Herod, located within the Old City. Between 1947-1967 it was a part of Jordan, and then Israel annexed it after the 1967 war. As one of the most significant religious and national symbols, access to The Kotel was secured by demolishing over a hundred Arab homes. “Each spatial expansion has been viewed as an incursion upon Palestinian territory, a form of Israeli imperialism akin to the occupation of the West Bank” argue Rosen and Shlay (2014).

In order to further legitimize the rights to this site, the Israeli government established a Heritage Foundation, registered as a non-profit organization in 1988. It is tasked to excavate tunnels underneath the Kotel, which tunnels are considered by some to be the holiest aspect of the Kotel. At the same time, the Israeli government left control of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif (where Islamic holy places are located, e.g. the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock) in the hands of the Wakf, the Islamic trust responsible for administering the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. This led to a divided sovereignty arrangement, although formally Israel controls the entire area. In practice, the Wakf controls the Temple Mount while the Western Wall and access to the Temple Mount is under rabbinical control. Therefore, this area appears to be a major contested ethno-national political space, claimed by Palestinians, Orthodox Jews, non-Orthodox Jews, as well as by newer organizations like Women of the Wall, seeking equality of access for men and women.

Even in this brief example, we can have a glimpse into the many competing claims – is the Kotel a historical site, operated by the Israeli government, where the national history is continuously remade with the help of archeological discoveries? Is it a religious holy site, with a determination to remain under rabbinical control? Is it a site, where perhaps new progressive claims are going to be made, of equal access to it by various social groups? Is it all of the above and more?

The growth machine framework, as also employed by Shlay and Rosen, gives us some further insight into the intense and powerful production of space in Jerusalem. And this is my third point, because in the final count most claims to places, sacred or not, are driven by a combination of political and economic interests. In the specific case of Jerusalem, the political and economic interests in urban development are interwoven with the building of the Israeli nation-state. Thus, unlike the more local presence of the urban growth coalitions in the U.S., in Israel the national government is actively involved in the redevelopment of urban and supra-urban areas. The interplay of private interests in urban growth is further transformed into ethno-national coalitions. The specificity of spatial politics notwithstanding, Shlay and Rosen also show that many common urban processes envelop everyday residential lives: urban sprawl, housing shortages, infrastructure investments, gentrification, securitization of place, which has taken place along two major pathways: through the building of security wall/barrier, as well as the proliferation of fortified, gated communities (Rosen and Grant, 2011). The book accomplishes a very important goal in revealing the constant interaction between the uniqueness of the historical ethno-national conflicts on the one hand, and the universal urban processes, on the other.

In conclusion, let me briefly recount another example from the book, the Safdie Plan, tying it back to the Rights to the City. As Shlay and Rosen point out, the Safdie plan set an urban agenda of expanding Jerusalem westward, towards lands already part of Israel, by way of new housing construction, commercial and industrial development. Undoubtedly, this decade-long urban strategizing had gone through various stages, with many political actors and groups being involved. But what stood out for me was the fact that over 16,000 objections were filed against the plan. While several environmental groups worked against the project, it also seems that in 2007 the project was cancelled because of the sustained public opposition to it. It is hard to write about Jerusalem without recognizing the increasing violence in the Middle East, related to ISIS, the threats against the Israeli state, and the continuous state of warfare. While the book does not deal with the larger quite grim geo-political context, it does provide, I think, a glimmer of hope, that in such mundane, everyday actions, as in the Safdie plan, successful peaceful coalitions could be formed – coalitions that can, perhaps only on a small scale, cut across ethnic, national and religious boundaries.

Elena Vesselinov is Associate Professor of Sociology at Queens College, City University of New York


Rosen, G. and J. Grant. 2011. “Reproducing difference: Gated communities in Canada and Israel.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 35(4):778-793.

Rosen, G. and A. Shlay. 2014. “Whose Right to Jerusalem?” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38(3):935-950.

Shlay, A. and G. Rosen. 2015. Jerusalem: The Spatial Politics of a Divided Metropolis. Polity Press.