This report is one of a series drawing on an AHURI Multi-Year Research Project on addressing concentrations of disadvantage in Australia’s major cities. The project’s overall aim was to develop a more sophisticated understanding of how disadvantage is shifting across the urban landscape; what role housing markets and systems play in this process; and how policy-makers and communities might better respond to the forms of disadvantage that ensue. Conceptually, the project sought to advance previous understandings of spatially concentrated disadvantage as manifested in Australia. To date this has been largely informed by US and UK scholarly work, seeing disadvantage as located in inner city areas, especially those where large and problematic public housing estates could be found. Instead, through the development of a typology of spatial disadvantage in Australia, the project identified the diverse forms and urban settings in which concentrated disadvantage is now manifest.

The aim of this third stage of the research was to drill down into the experiences of, and responses to, disadvantage in a few localities selected as exemplars of the four disadvantaged suburb types already identified in Stage 2 (see below). Six sites were selected for detailed qualitative research; two each in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. These case studies served two purposes. First, an opportunity to ‘groundtruth’ the validity of the typology by assessing whether the category assigned to the suburb held explanatory power in accounting for the experiences of the places in question and/or held meaning for those familiar with the locality. Second, to assess the various policy and practice responses applied to different areas of disadvantage; to identify any variation in the kinds of interventions found across localities; and to determine whether any discernible variation could be accounted for in terms of the spatial typology.

Research approach and methods

The six areas selected for study were:

Type 1. ‘”isolate” suburbs’: high on young people and single-parent households; high on social renting—Emerton, NSW.
Type 2. ‘”lower priced” suburbs’: high on overseas movers; high on two-parent families—Auburn, NSW; Springvale, Victoria.
Type 3. ‘”marginal” suburbs’: high on residential mobility but low on overseas movers; high on older people; high on private rental; high on outright home ownership—Russell Island, Queensland.
Type 4. ‘”improver” suburbs’: high on overseas movers; high on reduced unemployment and on reduced incidence of low status jobs—Braybrook, Victoria; Logan Central, Queensland.

Primary data were generated mainly through in-depth interviews with local stakeholders and community representatives; interviews with state-level actors and policy-makers; and focus groups with residents in each site. In total, 69 stakeholder interviews were conducted for the project and 68 residents participated in focus groups across the six case study areas.

Conceptual framework

The project was informed by the goal of formulating a new way of thinking about disadvantage in Australia that reflected its contemporary spatial patterning. Most notably, it attempted to capture two key features of the current context:

  1. The suburbanisation of disadvantage.
  2. The cross-tenure nature of social disadvantage.

In considering how these two processes influence experiences of disadvantage in particular localities, the project identified two, potentially overlapping, ways of conceiving of disadvantage in a spatial manner. The first refers to disadvantage in terms of the spatial concentration in particular localities of disadvantaged people according to their socio-economic and socio-cultural circumstances (i.e. high levels of unemployment, low educational attainment, etc.). In short, this can be understood as places where disadvantaged people live. The second—locational or place disadvantage—arises when the characteristics of a particular neighbourhood put its residents at a disadvantage, often because the place is physically inaccessible or services are limited. Importantly, attention was focused on the ways that these two forms of disadvantage intersected, such as in cases where disadvantaged people found themselves spatially concentrated in particular areas that could compound the difficulties faced by individuals.

While reference to the operation of housing markets and ‘neighbourhood effects’ helped us understand the way this process works, it was a priority of the research to move beyond, and critique, pathologising discourses that embed the causes of poverty within the socio-cultural characteristics of residents themselves, as well as to avoid seeing residents as unwittingly trapped in places from which they might prefer to escape. Understanding different forms of mobility in and out of disadvantaged areas, and recognising their connectivity to other areas through economic, social and housing market linkages, thus required that local narratives of place and community were brought to the fore. Full report... (PDF, 1.2MB)