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The Sponge City Hypothesis: does it hold water?

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The notion of sponge cities has attracted considerable attention in the media, in the policy arena, and in academia. It rests on the notion that some regional centres 'soak up' population and business from a 'pool' of surrounding areas, thereby appearing as 'oases' of growth in areas of population decline. Specifically, the notion of sponge cities rests on two premises and a deduction: some large towns and provincial cities are growing; surroundings areas are losing population; therefore, the growth results from the relocation of people from outlying farms and smaller towns to the nearby growing centres. Despite its popularity, the notion has largely gone untested. Investigation of migration trends in Dubbo and Tamworth (New South Wales, Australia), frequently cited as sponge cities, over the period 1986-2001 shows that the reality is much more complex than the simple metaphor suggests. The contribution made by the 'pool' to the growth of the regional 'sponges' is relatively minor. This calls into question the value of the notion of a sponge city—and the use of metaphors in social science more generally.

Keywords: Australia; Sponge city; metaphor; migration; regional centre

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of New England, Australia

Publication date: June 1, 2008

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