Adelaide’s Wakefield Experiment


One thing Australian cities have in common is the high price of real estate relative to wages. As a basic need, housing is perversely unaffordable.  But unlike the other cities, in Adelaide a disparity between wages and the cost of land was planned from the very beginning.

Before South Australia was even established, the English author, colonial promoter, and kidnapper of young heiresses Edward Gibbon Wakefield, was arguing persuasively for a new approach to economic development in the colonies.  While colonies like New South Wales had more or less been giving acres of land to anyone keen enough to work it, Wakefield managed to convince many of his peers that land should be sold off at a much higher price, high enough that new arrivals would have to work for several years before they could afford land of their own, with proceeds from the sale used to subsidise the passage of new migrants to the colony.

Wakefield’s ideas eventually influenced practices in NSW and Tasmania, but the failure to implement his plan appropriately in these locations only fed his desire to see the experiment properly carried out in the yet-to-be-created city of Adelaide:

Wakefield’s propaganda recognizably influenced the issue of several new regulations for the disposal of waste land in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, especially those that stipulated sale by auction at a minimum price of 5s. an acre, with the proceeds devoted to an immigration fund. Wakefield was unimpressed by such a token salute to his scheme and began to plan the systematic colonization of southern Australia.

While Wakefield always intended for his labourers to become landowners in time, it is an intriguing adjunct to Adelaide’s early history that the city and the state supposedly built by ‘free settlers’ in contrast to the convict past of the other colonies, were nonetheless the subjects of an experiment in social and economic engineering: a kind of indentured servitude by the standards of the time. Wakefield’s plan may not be responsible for the contemporary gap between income and house prices, but it does tell us something about the peculiar origins of this city, undoubtedly shaped to some degree by the influence of this unusual man for whom one of the city’s main streets is named.

But in many ways we are worse off than the new arrivals to Adelaide.  They were supposed to work three or four years before acquiring land; we go in for 25-30 year mortgages.  They were purchasing acreage which they farmed for self-sufficiency and profit; we purchase tiny blocks that we inhabit during the hours that we aren’t at work paying for them.  Their payments went to support new arrivals who helped to build this city and state; our payments go the banks, to vendors, to propping up what we are constantly told is a real estate bubble set to burst.

The likes of housing industry champion, local Adelaide businessman, and now Federal Senator Bob Day puts the blame for housing affordability on the high price of land and limited releases made available by State governments:

Raw land for new housing developments should be close to its agricultural value – in other words, around $10,000 per hectare. But land released for residential development fetches up to $1 million per hectare – 100 times the agricultural price.
Only when urban growth boundaries are removed will we know a piece of land’s true value. It will then be a trade-off between price and distance. People may be prepared to travel another 10 or 15 minutes by car (10 to 20 kilometres) to get a cheaper block.

Day’s plan would not turn homeowners into landowners, but it would give people the ability to meet their basic need of shelter, a home, at a much reduced cost. Yet the prospect of major new land releases raises the immediate fear of uncontrolled urban sprawl of the worst kind: low cost housing stretching out into rural areas purely for the sake of affordability.

Whatever the problems with Adelaide may be, I don’t think anyone has ever said it doesn’t sprawl enough, or that it would be vastly improved by being spread more thinly across an even larger swathe of land. We don’t really need ‘more’ of Adelaide in its current state. Like a bad-tasting drink, diluting it just prolongs the misery.

For better or worse, Adelaide owes its existence in part to Wakefield’s experimental plan to concentrate the colony and thereby manage its economic and physical development. This experimental character has shaped Adelaide profoundly, not only in specific qualities, but in the lack of qualities associated with more organic settlements. Adelaide is like an early, colonial version of a planned housing development: it exists solely in order to exist; its character is expressly utilitarian, undinted by either the force of geographic limitations or the peculiarities of an economic raison-d’etre such as mining, agriculture, or trade.

Perhaps Adelaide can be understood most sympathetically in this light: as an historic experiment that continues to run long after a result was obtained. Living in an outdated experiment is more bearable if you recognise it as such. As much as we might want it to be a real city with a real purpose and a real character, it will always bear the marks of its sterile, arbitrary origins, the functional design of an experimental ‘systematic colony’, the staid, impoverished feel that can only be achieved by replacing organic growth and movement with years of ‘careful planning’.

Adelaide Feng Shui

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The great Jesuit missionary to China Matteo Ricci was apparently not a fan of Feng Shui:

“What could be more absurd than their imagining that the safety of a family, honors, and their entire existence must depend upon such trifles as a door being opened from one side or another, as rain falling into a courtyard from the right or from the left, a window opened here or there, or one roof being higher than another?”

I’m not much of a geomancer myself, but as a hypervigilant person I appreciate the wisdom in, say, never sitting with your back to a window, or not having the front and rear doors of your house in alignment such that anyone standing at the front could see you running out the back.

But it’s not all about finding a position of strategic advantage in anticipation of violent attack; there’s also an aesthetic quality to the arrangement of buildings, furniture, and landscapes that is hard to ignore for all but the most insensitive people.

So I don’t know if it’s just aesthetics or something more deeply wrong with the arrangement of Adelaide, but coming back from interstate the dissonance is palpable.

First, there’s the plain.  Adelaide was built in the middle of a great, flat, seemingly featureless plain running between the hills and the sea.  It’s as if someone came in with a giant steamroller and rolled it all flat before settlement – though I’m yet to find such a myth in Aboriginal Dreamtime.

As such, Adelaide was built without any real limits on its expansion, offering our forbears the kind of absolute freedom that only dampens creativity.  The Adelaide plains are like an immense blank canvas, freedom without inspiration, growth without a corresponding challenge.  As such, what you get in the bulk of Adelaide is not real development but just ‘more of the same’, suburbs replicated without end, their limited character distinguished only by minor variations in age and more significant variations in socio-economic status.

What is lacking is a sense of proportion.  The plain would ‘work’ if there were something more significant to offset it: if the hills were more like mountains, if the city centre was a hive of overbearing towers and economic activity.

Better still if the plain were not a plain at all, if the city were forced to bend and blend into a range of natural undulations and contours, if the land itself had demanded more of its inhabitants, drawn from them some creativity, some ingenuity in response to genuine limitations of space and shape.

The founders of Adelaide responded to the lack of limitations by putting aside imagination, planning the city in an immense grid of parallel and perpendicular roads, thus proving for all time that the geometric elegance of a habitation is inversely proportional to its innate human character.

As Adelaideans will attest, it’s impossible to lose yourself in Adelaide since 99% of the major roads, not to mention the smaller streets, run either North-South or East-West.  Roads that run otherwise are the exceptions that prove the rule, at least one of which having thereby earned itself the moniker ‘Diagonal Road’.

Entering Adelaide via the hills, the grid-like feel is subtle yet all-encompassing. Look North up Portrush Rd, or West down Cross Rd and its as though you can see to the farthest reaches of the city.  The front door and the back are very much in alignment.

Such flat, uniform geometry is unnatural, and if there were some other profound redemptive feature it might not matter so much. Yet in a city that struggles to find a reason for being, Adelaide could hardly afford to be so regular, so unforgiving, so clear and up-front.

This unnatural arrangement is just one of the small yet significant contributors to the strangeness of Adelaide, a strangeness I am intent on unravelling as we ponder the mysteries of my adopted home, this uncanny city with no reason for existing.


Adelaide and the uncanny valley

The city of Adelaide was built on a plain, a fact of immense geomantic significance that will feature heavily in a future post.  But for now we are interested in a different geographic feature – the metaphor of the uncanny valley.

The uncanny valley is a theory devised by a Japanese robotics professor to explain an odd feature of human emotional responses to robots as they become increasingly human-like in appearance.  Basically, the more a robot looks like a human, the more humans will empathise with it.  However, at a certain point our response to the robot will switch from empathy to revulsion, as the robot becomes human enough to elicit some part of our normal response to other humans, but not human enough to trigger this response fully or completely.  In effect, we are revulsed because instead of looking like a humanoid robot, the robot now looks like a human with something unspeakably wrong with it.

This sense of unspeakable wrongness is the ‘uncanny’ component of the uncanny valley: a trough of human ‘familiarity’ or empathy, as depicted in the graph above.

What does this have to do with Adelaide?

Q: What is wrong with Adelaide ?
A: They didn’t build it close enough to a major city.

The standard joke or critique of Adelaide as more of a large town than a small city represents an ‘uncanny valley’ scenario in which visitors and residents alike are conscious of something not quite right in the South Australian capital.  As far as I know I’m the first to suggest this application of the uncanny valley to the city of Adelaide, but it has promise.

Basically, in its evolution from a settlement to a city, Adelaide is analogous to a robot gradually becoming more and more human in appearance.  We’ve arrived at a point where Adelaide looks like a city, has most of the things other cities have, but still is not yet an actual city.  It sits at an awkward point between ‘big country town’ and ‘major city’, leaving us with the uncanny sense of something deeply askew.  Adelaide is a very big country town with a few peculiarities all of its own, yet we look at it and see a major city – a major city that has something unspeakably wrong with it.

For many people the ‘wrongness’ is deeply hidden, overshadowed by day-to-day concerns.  Even if we can sense that something is amiss, it’s still a challenge to identify and put into words the precise nature of the problem. Future posts will address these peculiarities in greater detail.



Adelaide Contingent

.: Adelaide Contingent :.

Because if we lived in Sydney we might have jobs.

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I’m challenging a couple of friends to get their act together and start producing something creative.  Like me, they’re melancholics, Arts graduates, un/under-employed, and, in the best way possible: totally useless.

They’re both capable writers, but as melancholics they struggle to find motivation until they’re 100% confident in the path ahead.  I can’t fault them for that, but if we’re ever going to build the unlikely animal of an Adelaide-based intellectual or creative movement, we’re going to have to get moving.

Adelaide is an unusual city.  While it has many positive points and features, none seems sufficient to justify the city’s existence.  At the same time there’s no single thing that explains the city’s strangeness.

As the mining boom slows down and the car industry disappears, even useful Adelaideans are expressing concern for the city’s economic future.  Accordingly, it’s surely time for us, the useless denizens of Australia’s most uncanny city to share our own take on the place we call ‘home’ in the same tone with which we explain our lack of job prospects and our dubious higher-education choices.

One of the first principles of writing is to “write what you know”, and while most would not consider Adelaide a source of creative inspiration, it is for that very reason something worth writing about.  People write about New York, or London, or any number of other famous and historically significant places. Adelaide has none of that history or fame. It is the most unlikely place about which one might write.  There is no real reason for it to exist, yet it does, and may, with this touch of ‘uselessness’ be worthy of study.

The newest theme of this blog is therefore ‘Adelaide Contingent’, as in: “if we lived anywhere else, things might have turned out differently”. For better or worse, our lives are shaped by the unspectacular mystery of Adelaide; and while others flee interstate or overseas for work, ambition, and adventure, it’s time for those of us who remain to make something of our ambivalent locale, to accept the obscure challenge implicit in this dry, comfortable, ageing city-of-limited-prospects.