Life on the Fringe Part 1: A social data investigation into greenfields property development

Take a look under the hood at greenfield regions. We debunk the myths and see what is really happening on the ground, in Part One of this two-part series from Lucinda Hartley.

Rapid Growth in Greenfield Developments

Urban populations are surging. And no matter which way you look at it, Australian cities are growing out as well as up. If you’ve driven up the Hume Highway, looked at any recent population statics or if you’re looking to buy a new home, you would have seen a vast array of new masterplanned communities and homes.  

But what is life really like on the fringe? While the physical form of suburban neighbourhoods often looks very similar, what are the characteristics of buyers? where do people spend time, and what do they value?

We recently took a look under the hood, using social data to analyse the social life of greenfield neighbourhoods. The results were surprising.

Where do all the people go?

Melbourne is now five times wider than London with a population density five times less dense than Paris. Increasingly more Australians call greenfield suburbs home. These urban sprawl areas are among the fastest growing municipalities in the country. The City of Wyndham with its population of 250,000 is a prime example, it recently overtook Geelong in population and is set to almost double its growth by 2050. Meanwhile in the Melbourne suburb of Tarneit there are 17 babies born every week.

On the surface: Cranbourne, Taylors Hill, and Epping.

On the surface: Cranbourne, Taylors Hill, and Epping.

This rapid level of growth on the fringe of cities, particularly Australian cities, presents a number of challenges for developers, planners, councils, and residents. It begs the question, where do all the people go?

One more-publicised challenge has been that due to development often occurring in advance of transport, local jobs and community infrastructure, new residents can face longer commute times or fewer services. Additionally, Greenfield suburbs have the task of forming and growing new communities from scratch - the faster the better - yet they must do so in a way that sets them on the trajectory towards healthy maturity and connection as a neighbourhood.

What lies beneath: Social data views of Cranbourne, Taylors Hill, and Epping.

What lies beneath: Social data views of Cranbourne, Taylors Hill, and Epping.

Geography of fringe areas also presents difficulties. In Greater Western Sydney, for example, new suburbs are more susceptible to heat waves for example; Up to six degrees higher than their inner urban counterparts.

In short, greenfield suburbs are more vulnerable.  However, in recent decades, concerted masterplanning efforts have tackled these challenges to enable higher precedence of walkable neighbourhoods, a greater diversity of housing, new town centres, and large areas of parkland and wetlands.

But what is life really like in Australia’s outer suburbs? Are our traditional assumptions about these areas accurate, or is there perhaps more happening than immediately meets the eye?

What does the data say?

Social data sees greenfield suburbs in a different light, like putting them under an x-ray to reveal dynamic and distinctive local social and business life. Housing stock, which may all look similar from the outside, has a surprisingly varied amount of activity.

Housing stock, which may all look similar from the outside, has a surprisingly varied amount of activity.

Driving through Cranbourne or Epping, you would see many similarities between the physical form of the suburbs, even though they are located on opposite sides of Melbourne. Equally, Little Mountain and Pelican Waters on the Sunshine Coast have a lot of similar characteristics. However, their social data reveals a much more interesting picture.


From satellite, and on the surface: Little Mountain, Pelican Waters, and Buderim.

From satellite, and on the surface: Little Mountain, Pelican Waters, and Buderim.

  • The local business ecosystem is active

    These might look like quiet, residential neighbourhoods. But what we have observed in the social data is a dense array of home-based businesses.

    From baby sleep schools to photography studios, Etsy stores to start-ups, professional consultancies to services, we found an incredible density of work practices. Professional services made up the bulk of home-based businesses.

    This debunks the myth that greenfield suburbs are commuter suburbs or cater primarily for young families. Up to a third of data points were local businesses. Greenfield suburbs are active local business eco-systems.

What lies beneath: Social data perspectives of Little Mountain, Pelican Waters, and Buderim.

What lies beneath: Social data perspectives of Little Mountain, Pelican Waters, and Buderim.

  • Fewer destinations, but lots of things to do

Each neighbourhood demonstrates its different strengths, with a surprisingly wide offering of things to do.

Comparing suburbs across Melbourne, you can see a higher density of ‘destinations’ (places that are designed to attract people like restaurants, cafes, bars, museums, tourism, hotels) in inner suburbs than in outer suburbs. In inner suburbs, 40-60% all places are, on average, destinations while in greenfield suburbs 25 - 35% of all places are destinations. While fewer in number, there was nevertheless a wide diversity of destination offerings - from local pubs to meet up groups, dog parks and sports attractions.

Social chatter highlights key behaviours in real time.

Social chatter highlights key behaviours in real time.

  • Distinct local identity

One of the challenges in establishing new neighbourhoods is fostering a sense of belonging and identity. It is almost impossible to engineer what local identity looks like, it has to emerge over time. Social data shows each neighbourhood has a distinct local identity, even adjacent neighbourhoods can be surprisingly different. In some neighbourhoods people valued family and sport, while other suburbs valued pets and local gatherings, in still others, cooking and creative hobbies, still others, public spaces. Understanding what is important to locals is critical to shaping great places.

Social chatter imaging: Don’t be fooled by surface-level categories, the difference lies in the details.

Social chatter imaging: Don’t be fooled by surface-level categories, the difference lies in the details.

Understanding what is important to locals is critical to shaping great places.
— Lucinda Hartley

Lucinda Hartley

I’m an urban designer and social entrepreneur who has spent the past decade pioneering innovative methods to improve the social sustainability of cities, now being implemented around the world. 

As a co-founder at Neighbourlytics, I bring my social innovation and entrepreneurship strengths to harness big data, and deliver community insights that inform evidence-based urban development decisions. Neighbourlytics is backed by BlueChilli Group’s highly competitive She Starts program.