Why coronavirus will deepen the inequality of our suburbs

A mural by Amanda Newman in Northcote, Melbourne, depicts Ai Fen, a Wuhan Central Hospital doctor who was reprimanded for raising the alarm about COVID-19 in December 2019.
Photo: Carl Grodach, Author provided

Carl Grodach, Monash University

COVID-19 and the growing recession concentrated in the services sector will not just increase social inequality, but accelerate the growing spatial divide in our cities. As our new research report shows, the pandemic’s impacts reinforce the ongoing trend towards the suburbanisation of inequality.

There are two reasons for this. First, the industries vulnerable to the economic impacts of COVID-19 lockdowns rely heavily on low-wage, part-time employment. Second, the inner suburbs are home to the largest concentration of COVID-vulnerable workers.

Read more:
Rapid growth is widening Melbourne’s social and economic divide

If we do not act now, more people will get pushed out of inner areas rich in jobs and amenities to lower-cost outer suburbs with poor access to jobs and community services.

Which industries and workers are vulnerable?

Our research analyses where people employed in the industries most vulnerable to COVID-19 lockdowns live and the kind of work they do. We map vulnerable employment areas in all suburbs of Australia’s five largest capital cities. We then examine the characteristics of people in vulnerable employment living in all suburbs of Australia’s current coronavirus hotspot, metropolitan Melbourne.

We define vulnerable employment based on a detailed review of industries with one-third or more firms reporting reduced worker hours one week after the first COVID-19 lockdown (March 30 2020). These firms are mainly in the consumer, travel and community services sectors. They employ people working in accommodation and food, arts and entertainment, education, “non-essential” health care, retail and transport.

Read more:
How the coronavirus recession puts service workers at risk

We profile the characteristics of vulnerable workers in each of these sub-industries and by suburb. We classify suburbs (using SA2 level data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics) by share of vulnerable employment based on the worker’s place of usual residence.

Many at-risk workers live in inner suburbs

As the map below shows, the largest shares of vulnerable workers live in Melbourne’s inner suburbs.

Source: ABS (2016) Census data, by place of residence at SA2 level. Map by Declan Martin and Alexa Gower, Author provided

Vulnerability levels clearly diminish moving outward from the city centre. In other words, many vulnerable workers live in some of the highest-rent suburbs.

On average, the share of vulnerable workers in the very high vulnerability suburbs is 32.2% of employed residents. The figure exceeds 40% in some of these areas.

Workers likely to be forced to move

Living in the inner suburbs, combined with the nature of their jobs, puts many COVID-vulnerable workers at high risk of displacement.

In the very high vulnerability suburbs, 47% of vulnerable workers are on low or very low incomes. And 54.3% work part-time (less than 38 hours a week). A large proportion (41.9%) are aged under 30 and about one-third are 30-44.

In fact, over half (53.5%) of the vulnerable workforce living in very high-vulnerability suburbs hold jobs in the most precarious, low-wage consumer services industries – accommodation and food services and retail and personal services. Another 30% work in arts, entertainment and education.

Suppressed consumer demand will not only have short-run employment impacts, but might permanently alter consumption patterns. The result would be enduring business closures and job losses for workers who live in these areas.

To make ends meet, many of those facing job loss and other employment pressures such as reduced hours will seek more affordable housing in the middle and outer suburbs.

However, although the outer areas are now home to the smallest proportion of vulnerable workers, the vulnerable workers that live there tend to be worse off. Just over 66% are on low or very low incomes and 60% work part-time.

As a result, the migration of COVID-vulnerable workers to the outer areas will add to the existing concentration of spatial inequality in Greater Melbourne.

Table showing demographic breakdown of vulnerable employment communities for each level of vulnerability

Source: ABS 2016 Census data, by place of residence at the SA2 level, Author provided

Read more:
Private renters are doing it tough in outer suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne

What can be done about this?

COVID-19 puts people working in low-end service jobs and the creative and educational services at high risk of losing their jobs. Those who manage to live in the high-cost inner suburbs are now particularly vulnerable.

Read more:
Coronavirus: 3 in 4 Australians employed in the creative and performing arts could lose their jobs

It is therefore crucial to expand rather than retract the JobKeeper and JobSeeker programs. Proposed cuts to JobSeeker are estimated to push 370,000 Australians into poverty, 123,000 in Victoria alone. In tandem, we need interim policy in the rental housing market to defuse the impending “rent bomb” of tenants facing eviction if they can’t pay the accumulated debt of deferred rent.

Longer-term strategies are also needed. We must confront the reality that many service sector jobs will not return.

This requires investment in skills-building courses tied to strengthening the recovery of TAFEs and universities, particularly in areas like “essential manufacturing” – medical supplies, recycling, food – and communications technologies. JobTrainer is a good start.

Given the spatial dimensions of the crisis, place-based programs are crucial too. Preserving inner suburban industrial land can play a significant role in small enterprise start-ups, firm expansion and job creation. Inner industrial districts provide a flexible mix of space that allows businesses to grow and add quality jobs in place.

Read more:
Three ways to fix the problems caused by rezoning inner-city industrial land for mixed-use apartments

At the same time, policymakers can better develop community infrastructure and employment hubs in the outer suburbs. Community hubs provide flexible, multipurpose spaces that cater to various community needs. These services range from youth, aged care and health facilities to collaborative workspaces and settings for workforce training providers.

While COVID-19 is clearly taking an immediate toll on the health and economies of our cities, we need a conversation about the longer-term impacts and responses.The Conversation

Carl Grodach, Professor and Director of Urban Planning & Design, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Farming the suburbs – why can’t we grow food wherever we want?

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Some local councils are more tolerant than others in allowing residents to grow food where they want.

Jennifer Kent, University of Sydney

Food provides the foundations for human flourishing and the fabric of sustainability. It lies at the heart of conflict and diversity, yet presents opportunities for cultural acceptance and respect. It can define neighbourhoods, shape communities, and make places.

In parts of our cities, residents have embraced suburban agriculture as a way to improve access to healthier and more sustainably produced food. Farming our street edges and verges, vacant land, parks, rooftops and backyards is a great way to encourage an appreciation of locally grown food and increase consumption of fresh produce.

Despite these benefits, regulations, as well as some cultural opposition, continue to constrain suburban agriculture. We can’t grow and market food wherever we like, even if it is the sustainable production of relatively healthy options.

While good planning will be key to a healthier, more sustainable food system, planning’s role in allocating land for different uses across the city also constrains suburban agriculture.

Two steps towards healthier food systems

Making our food systems healthier and more sustainable requires a two-step approach.

  • First, we need to fortify the parts of the system that enable access to healthy food options.

  • Second, we need to disempower elements that continuously expose us to unhealthy foods.

Although food is a basic human need, the way we consume food in many countries, including Australia, is harmful to the environment and ourselves. Many of us don’t eat enough fresh and unprocessed foods. The foods we do eat are often produced and supplied in carbon-intensive and wasteful ways.

Primarily through land-use zoning, town planners can help to shape sustainable and healthy food systems. For example, good planning can:

  • protect peri-urban agricultural lands;

  • encourage farmers’ markets, roadside stalls and community gardens;

  • prevent the location of fast-food outlets near schools; and

  • even help regulate food advertising environments.

Why have land-use zones?

Modern town planning originated in the 19th century out of the need and ability to separate unhealthy, polluting uses from the places where people lived.

This was a direct response to the Industrial Revolution, which brought with it both an upscaling of the noisy, smelly and dirty uses to be avoided, and the emergence of new ways to travel relatively long distances away from these uses.

As a result, our urban areas are made up of a mosaic of what we call zones. Within each zone, certain uses are permitted and others are prohibited. If a piece of land is zoned as commercial, for example, that land can be used for a shop, but not for a house.

While this might seem logical to us today, to those living in housing scattered among the factories and tanneries of Manchester in the 1800s it would have been quite radical.

It is this function of planning that means we cannot grow food anywhere in the city. Instead, we have regulations that attempt to ensure related activities occur only in areas where such a use is compatible with the surrounding uses.

Where food gardens are next to roads these should not carry heavy traffic, which could be a source of contamination.

Incompatibility might relate to safety. For example, in some cities it is prohibited to locate a community garden on a main traffic-generating road due to concerns about contamination of produce.

It could also be related to amenity. For example, in some areas local produce cannot be sold on the roadside due to concerns about creating additional traffic and parking.

These are two fairly obvious examples, but problems arise when definitions of what is safe and amenable differ within the community. Does a verge planted with an over-enthusiastic pumpkin vine detract from or enhance the visual appeal of the street? Should a locality embrace a roadside produce stall even if it means traffic is slowed and parking is less available?

How do we resolve planning conflicts?

Town planners attempt to grapple with these issues by developing new policies and regulations to respond to changing demands, or by assessing applications for food growing and distribution on a case-by-case basis.

In cities that are rapidly densifying, and in a cultural environment where growing one’s own produce is enjoying a renaissance, it’s not surprising some local authorities are struggling to keep up.

This struggle is ostensibly the result of local authorities failing to recognise and prioritise their role in supporting sustainable and healthy food systems. There are immense benefits – biophysical, economic and social – to be gained from local government giving priority to urban agriculture.

Yet a recent study of the content of local community strategic plans across New South Wales found that only 10% of strategies mentioned anything about food systems as a community priority. In this sense, Australia is part of an international trend.

The ConversationSurprisingly, the local authorities in New South Wales doing the most for better food systems were regional councils. These saw food security and the opportunities presented by local food production as urgent issues. There is obviously room for our metropolitan councils to catch up and capitalise on increased cultural interest in farming our suburbs.

Jennifer Kent, Research Fellow, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.