What’s the problem?

More from the what-we-call-things-matters department:

Since the 1970s, we have known that the sprawl is ecologically, economically and socially damaging. Authors have written protests against the trend, objecting to the exorbitant cost of providing services and warning of the reliance on motor transport. Alas these monitory counsels have always fallen on deaf ears. The suburbs have grown consistently and inexorably.

This is in part due to the inner areas, which don’t want to accommodate more people. Protecting the low density of the inner suburbs of Australian cities, the outer suburbs have grown ever outward.

People use the phrase “voted with their feet”, as if an exodus to the outer suburbs is a consumer choice, and suburban growth its logical outcome. A house and garden 30kms out is more appealing than an inner suburban flat. By expressing this as a choice of lifestyle, we fail to acknowledge that many have been denied choice by established, inner suburbs. Inner suburbs have made the choice for the outer city by jealously protecting their own low-density living.

This much we know. But the point Robert Nelson wants to make is about what we do with this knowledge:

When inequity has a geographical expression, compensations are invoked as if by reflex. There is a compelling case to redress the terms of disadvantage. These calls to pour money into the outer city — a modest $10 billion — have great moral force, matching the positive discrimination that already operates in universities, where low socio-economic status is defined geographically.

People in the outer suburbs are generally less well-off and have far less access to services. This is a problem, but what sort of problem is it? The way we define the problem implicitly defines the solution. The problem of the outer suburbs is being defined as one of inequity, and we have a ready-made grab-bag of policies to throw at equity problems. It could also be understood as a problem of urban planning and strategic land use. The solution to that problem would look very different.

The accumulation of invisible decisions like this, day by day, are how things come to be the way they are.