Why Australia beats the US with dynamic downtowns

Visting Australia I was struck by the similarities with the United States — only a few hundred years old, a shared language and much shared (British) heritage, prosperous, lands of immigrants – both historically and currently. Plus, the different Australian landscapes remind me so much of the different parts of the Western United States. Of course, there are many differences – my impression is that Australia is more “English” in some ways, and more liberal – they are extremely fortunate to not have to deal with a *large* radical minority of extreme religious fundamentalists trying to turn back the clock to the Middle Ages. It also doesn’t have to deal with the painful after-effects (poverty, broken families, and embedded anger) that we Americans still can feel as the wake of the most inhuman system of all, slavery.

Another notable difference is the downtowns, or as Australians would say their “CBDs” (Central Business Districts). In Australia these are pulsating, dynamic places where people come to work, shop, study, sightsee, visit service providers and government offices, and eat, drink, and go out.

By contrast most American large cities have downtowns that have died, though many are resurrecting to different degrees. With the exception of Manhattan, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston, the story of America’s downtowns mostly goes like this:

The average income for the middle classes allowed many families to afford a car – some already in the 1920s, and many more in the postwar boom of the 1950s. This level of income was much, much higher than Western Europe at the time. If we look at Atlanta, which had 1 million people in the metro area in 1950, we see that by the 1950s most of the middle to upper middle class was living in commuter suburbs about 5 to 8 miles from the city center.

Shopping and services were still in downtown Atlanta – a congested, tiny grid of streets built to serve a town one tenth its size. It didn’t take long before developers figured out that shoppers would gladly come to a suburban shopping mall to do all their shopping. Cinemas followed. Places of employment followed.

This happened in most US cities. In Atlanta it was exacerbated by racial integration. As black Atlantans found ways to move into neighborhoods with better housing; and as parks and restaurants removed barriers to black patrons, some whites reacted by abandoning the city altogether – “white flight”.

On top of this, city streetcar networks were systematically ripped up in a conspiracy by vehicle manufacturers and tire companies, and these were replaced by buses. (In Atlanta, exceptionally, they were first replaced by trolleybuses – electric buses with overhead wires. Only later were these replaced by buses).  Over the long term this represented a serious degradation of public transportation. Serious attempts at more efficient public transit made little headway in most cities – for example Atlanta did get a subway in the 1970s; actually the truncated remains of what was supposed to be a fast regional railway system like Paris’s RER.

Only now are American cities starting to revive mostly due to changes in lifestyle. Some Americans are tired of long commutes, driving miles in a car to get to a grocery store, and the lack of diversity and cultural opportunities in the suburbs and exurbs. Some fall in love with the charm of the older houses. And as more middle class people move back into the city, the better the neighborhoods become, and the safer they become.

Melbourne public transportation – Metro Melbourne is about the same size as Metro Phoenix, a bit larger than the Twin Cities MN

So why does Australia have – and why did it never lose its dynamic city centers? I am curious.

My theory goes as follows. *I have no idea if these ideas are valid* In any case, the situation in Australia would be due to a combination of factors:

1. Incomes in Australia were not high enough for the majority of the population to own cars until much later than the United States – therefore most people remained dependent on public transit

2. Planning occurs at the level of the entire metropolitan area – unlike the US where zoning and planning power rests at the city level – and the city only controls a small percentage of the total metro area. This allows for regional power for planning in Australia – and if this means an emphasis on public transport, the Australian region can effectively implement it. In the US regional planning is dependent on multiple power centers (counties, etc.)

3. The Australian city governments – by the time most people could afford cars – had learned from the lessons of the US – and emphasized centralization of the city and public transport.

3a. What I am not sure about is if cities zone against large-scale malls and/or big box stores in suburbs. I do know these exist, and perhaps the CBD shopping “holds its own” against suburban shopping due to all the other factors mentioned here, i.e. that people are in the city center anyway for work, services, study, and leisure.

3b. I am also not sure if Australian governments zone against large employers establishing themselves in the suburbs. For example in Atlanta, downtown is for conventions, tourism, lawyers, government, utilities and a couple corporate HQs – Coke, the old BellSouth, and Georgia Pacific. But the large corporate HQs like UPS, NCR, Delta, and Home Depot are all in the ‘burbs. I wonder to what extent this is zones against in Australia.

4. In the case of Melbourne, there was a strong leader of the tram company who saved the tram system, one of the world’s largest. Sydney did however (sadly) go over to buses. But both Sydney and Melbourne have extensive commuter rail networks.

Food for thought. Lucky Melbourne and Sydney that they do not have to rebuild their city centers, and what dynamic, energetic, wonderful places they are. But also, I do enjoy watching the American city centers get better and better with time – intown Atlanta included.



Australia was never high on my list because it’s one of the least different places from the US culturally but wow! Sydney is truly awesome, what a quality of life. Seems to combine the best of San Diego (weather, beaches), Portland (coffee, coffee, and more coffee) and San Francisco (vibrant downtown and cozy late-Victorian neighborhoods) in one, with friendliness, health, social welfare and a great attitude to life. It seems very prosperous here right now. Plus they are getting all the good immigrants due to sensible immigration policies. Only downside so far: strong currency, so very expensive for us.