Australia, the Blank Slate

Colonization, not environment, keeps Australia’s utopian cities in short supply.  Policy is suppressing a continent…

From space Australia is almost invisible at night.  With approximately 24 million people, it is a continent as populous as Seoul.  Vast swathes of the interior are harsh environments.  Few rivers and lakes render Australia an ancient, sunbaked rock.  Despite it’s unquestionably raw nature, urbanisation on this blank slate is complicated.  Australia warrants close inspection.

What follows is an examination of Australian urbanization.  Familiar with oft cited reasons why Australia lacks more cities, readers may be surprised that Australia is not as constrained by environment as popularly imagined.  The environment plays a role, but subtle post-colonial baggage imposes a profound limitation.  Specifically, Australian urbanization is constrained by the fact that colonial capitals retained capital city status at independence.

Urban Anatomy
To examine urbanization, adopt a mega-economic perspective of cities.  Satellite images and maps display cities in their entirety and allow us to examine urban sprawls like organisms or plants. From this vantage consider the sprawl as an economic unit.

Earth City Lights 2012
Earth City Lights 2012 – Courtesy of NASA (click to expand)

Literally, an urban sprawl is the mass concentration of many discrete and integrated units of infrastructure.  Every piece of infrastructure is predicated by money, usually taxes.  M
oney plays a fundamental role in the growth of a city and urbanization in general.  

Cities rarely mature without robust financial support from government (e.g. via infrastructure provision).  It is therefore interesting to observe that the spatial provision of infrastructure within a territory is frequently unfair and unbalanced.  In keeping with their nature as human beings, cities exhibit inequality; many cities and settlements are being held down by greedy, wealthy giants.

From Space: Eastern portions of the American/Canadian urban system demonstrate a decentralized structure (left). The western portion of the Russian urban system is a textbook centralized system (right). Both images are the same scale and are courtesy of NASA.
From Space: Eastern portions of the US and Canada demonstrate a decentralized urban system (left). The western portion of Russia demonstrates sprawl dominance (right). Both images are the same scale and are courtesy of Earth at Night 2012.

Satellite images make it possible to observe where inequality exists.  For example, the images above juxtapose an even city hierarchy (left) with sprawl dominance, where the urban system is dominated by one sprawl. Sprawl dominance (called “urban primacy”) is what inequality among cities looks like.

Is one form better? Research of sprawl dominance associates it with corporate exploitation, foreign penetration, small/limited economies of scale, rural neglect, instability, higher relative poverty and sometimes secession of sub-national members. Most important, sprawl dominance represents untapped mega-economic potential.  That is, cities are missing.

What causes sprawl dominance?  Usually status.  Specifically, when a territory’s capital is also the largest city this dual status has a king-making impact giving the capital undue magnetic advantage.  A plethora of published research supports that capital dominance has a limiting impact on urbanization (Keyword: “urban primacy” at  See Authors: Henderson, Pinet-Peralta).

Capital dominance originates in policy and is perpetuated psychologically.  Born and raised in a system dominated by one city, locals do not anticipate new or great urban frontiers that could outdo the capital.  Dominant capitals enjoy unquestioned status; their singularity is woven into cultural imagination. Government officials are not immune and plan infrastructure with capital-centric assumptions; the territory is literally engineered to serve the capital.

Satellite photographs don’t lie. Viewed from above, dominant capitals are the core of funnel shaped urban systems.  The funnel is no analogy but a post-colonial relic illustrating the original purpose of the colony – extraction. 

In contrast, decentralized urbanization is characterized by small, subservient capital cities which replace self-aggrandizement with territorial strategy supporting the development of multiple large cities.  Usually these capitals do not originate as economic centers and are instead post-colonial advents explicitly planned to house government administration.    

Painting by George Wilkinson

Island of Princes
As a country, Australia is a great example of decentralized urbanization supported by a small capital.  The creation of it’s “bush capital,” Canberra, is exactly what big territories should do and as a result Australia boasts one of the most even urban hierarchies in the world.  Unfortunately, this reverses sub-nationally; Australian states exhibit some of the most extreme examples of capital dominance in the world.

The dominance of an urban sprawl is measured by dividing the largest city’s population by the second and third largest city populations combined.  Measurements over 3.0 signify dominance.  Australian scores are featured below:

By the Numbers: Australian Urban Primacy

Nearly all of Australia’s enormous states score above 3.0, some are in double digits. Thus, the continent is subject to extreme capital dominance. Why?

Australian independence was a peaceful affair that federated a continent. This quiet, monumental achievement gave no compelling reasons to justify the relocation of state capitals.  This is contrary to the American experience where a traumatic revolution largely driven by farmers earned Americans’ distrust of cities as locations for government. New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston and Savannah were all colonial capitals dethroned in favor of rural sites following independence (Albany, Harrisburg, Annapolis, Columbia, Atlanta respectively).  

Australia, like America, applied small government nationally (Canberra and Washington, DC respectively), however America went one step further applying rural government subnationally to states.  30 American states have small capital cities most people have never heard of.  This difference helps explain why the two countries have experienced divergent urbanization.

Painting by George Wilkinson III
Painting by George Wilkinson III

Untapped Australia
“There’s no water” is a common Australian refrain used to explain its few large cities.  Indeed, absent of infrastructure, Australia is inhospitable.  Yet, using water to justify Australia’s few cities discounts global reference and comparison.

For example, in 2005 during Western Australia’s state election, candidate Colin Barnett lost his bid for Premier after proposing the construction of a Kimberley-Perth Canal, a canal that would have brought water from Australia’s soaking wet north to the bone dry south, irrigating everything in between. Given the state’s constant water shortages, one might assume West Australians supported the canal.  No, the public felt the canal would constitute financial waste and wreak havoc on the environment.  The, capital-centric mindset prevailed.

By comparison, similar projects have been proposed and completed in comparably harsh environments throughout the southwest of the United States.  For example, California boasts a vast irrigation system (see image below) that transformed California’s Central Valley and Southern California from deserts into massive economic compliments hosting cities such  as Los Angeles, San Diego, Palm Springs and Santa Barbara.  Not surprisingly, California’s capital, Sacramento, is not a major commercial center.

The Californian Irrigation System. Source: National Geographic, April 2010

Beyond California, the southwest of the United States (e.g. Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson), owes its modern existence to peripheral capital cities (federal and state) that support transformational infrastructure in regions previously considered to be wastelands by Mexico (which held the lands until 1848). The same experience has been repeated in locations such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile In Australia, the ever present myth of inhospitability and the unquestioned success of the state capitals make alternative realities seem unreasonable.  

In The Origins of Australia’s Capital CitiesPamela Statham chronicles the founding of Australia’s cities, describes state capital dominance and urges readers to question: Do the state capitals possess superior natural and economic advantages?  According to Statham, this would be quite something given each was planned in London, site hardly seen.  Did the founders possess psychic foresight, correctly choosing the only pockets capable of supporting millions on a continent they barely understood?  Statham was on to something.

Fact: The cities that have prospered in Australia aren’t environmental oases, but heavily engineered settlements that have secured generous government favor.  How?  Dominant capitals wrest government favor because they are the government.

Australia’s shortage of cities can best be understood in terms of its states being structurally unchanged at independence.  Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide maintained capital city status.  As a result few other locations are subject to same transformational infrastructure that enables these cities to house >1 million Australians.

Should there be doubt about the oppressive influence of Australia’s state captitals, consider Canberra, the continent’s newest urban sprawl independent of a state capital.  Canberra doesn’t occupy a bush reservoir suitable for a city but a policy environment transformed in 1901 when it was carved out of New South Wales.  The fundamental ingredient is a law that transformed how infrastructure is imagined and funded in a specific territory.

The existence of Canberra’s approximately 500,000 people also counters those who suggest Australia has few cities because it is young and has few people.  Were this the case, we should expect to see other similarly sized non-capital cities emerging in the north and periphery (e.g. not within 1-2 hours drive of a state capital).  This is not occurring at all.

Art by George Wilkinson III
Art by George Wilkinson III

Advance Australia Fair
In the context of civilization, Australian cities are Utopian.  The problem is that they are in short supply.  This is the world’s loss and it is rooted in inequality.

Big capitals like Australia’s state capitals juxtapose government and big business (literally across the street).  The resulting allure is too close for comfort.  Studies of urbanization suggests this dynamic undermines economic development. 

Capital dominance has been with Australia since colonization. The prospect of change may seem slim but it’s worth admitting how the capitals themselves defy yesterday’s limitations. For example, each state capital is rapidly extending into environments formerly considered unsuitable to urbanization (e.g. Mandurah, WA, Gold Coast, QLD and Central Coast, NSW).  Perhaps if these revisions are more consciously recognized, Australians will start questioning what really is possible on their island nation.

Should Australians someday take issue with state capital dominance they are fortunate the solution is familiar.  Each state must apply the Canberra model and dethrone state capitals in favor of bush locations.  Should the beneficiaries of capital dominance resist such action, again Australia is lucky to have Canberra, a national advocate to push the issue.

The above stated, it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  The state capitals serve regions poorly but run good metropolitan areas, a level of government many urbanists suggest should exist throughout the world.  Instead of closing existing state Parliaments, their charters should be reigned in to focus on what they do well.

Finally, rural government is not a one-off solution; the torch is passed, not extinguished.  Capital cities, no matter their size, have a magnetic knack for gradual ascension even in times of depression.  The fundamental problem is not the city, but status alone.  Enshrining perpetual and strategic management of capital city status is part of the solution, not just Australia’s, but the world over.