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’.