Adopting the middle ground
This article by David Lock Associates' Associate Planner, Danny Hahesy, was recently published in The PIA's Planning News.
‘Housing diversity’ is a term often used in Strategic Plans and Planning Schemes across the country. The aim is to increase housing choice so that we all have access to a range of different housing types to suit our tastes or circumstances throughout our lives. Coupled with this is the desire to increase residential densities within the existing metropolitan area to make more efficient use of current infrastructure and minimise outward growth of our cities (amongst other things).
I think most people would agree that these are sound policy positions in terms of managing the future growth of our cities, but what about implementation?
Planners, policy makers and politicians have a range of options available to them to increase housing choice and facilitate growth to meet the objectives of the policy. Through the implementation of various zones available, we can choose to influence different housing types, including:
- Low-scale, low density detached housing;
- Low-to-medium rise apartments;
- Medium-to-high rise apartments.
Implementation of the various zones is guided by the State Planning Policies that encourage increased densities around activity centres, in mixed-use areas and major transport routes - since these places have the best access to services and transport. This is all very logical.
So, what are the impacts of policy implementation on housing choice?
My observations of the physical form of Melbourne over recent times, together with discussions with members of the public generally, suggests that housing choice for new dwellings is primarily limited to traditional ‘suburban’ detached housing or very dense ‘urban’ apartment development located in commercial/mixed use areas or on major transport routes.
In reality, the choice is primarily limited to:
- Living in a suburban context in a detached home with a backyard in a relatively quiet leafy street and relatively lower access to services and public transport; or
- Living in an urban context in a relatively small apartment on a main road or in a mixed use/commercial area with lower internal amenity and higher levels of vehicle pollution (air borne and noise from cars, trucks and fixed rail) but with excellent access to public transport and other services.
So what happened to the middle ground? Where did the townhouses and low to medium rise, 3 to 4 storey, apartments off the main transport corridors go?
In my view, this middle ground is where many people fear to tread. It’s the place just at the edge of the activity centres and a few allotments behind the main roads where planners, policy makers and politics collide. In terms of ‘selling’ higher density housing, it’s much easier to follow the path of least resistance by focusing on areas such as commercial/mixed use areas and along lower amenity transport corridors while ‘protecting the suburbs’.
However, this approach only provides one alternative type of housing from the typical low density suburban model and increases the potential exposure of a greater proportion of the population to impacts associated with transport noise, including health impacts related to sleep disturbance and air pollution.
Focusing higher density housing of 5 to 6 storeys in a linear fashion along transport corridors also results in:
- a very abrupt transition between higher density housing and traditional low-scale detached housing, which can be difficult to manage;
- a larger number of low-scale detached homes with an immediate abuttal to 5 to 6 storey developments (relative to a precinct based approach);
- a wall of taller, higher density development at the edge of low-density precincts;
- in some instances, the erosion of the character and identity of some of Melbourne’s most notable and enjoyed strip shopping centres in order to protect the low-scale suburban character enjoyed by a select few.
There is greater opportunity than currently realised to identify well located precincts with currently low-valued suburban character that can be more efficiently and economically developed for townhouse and low-scale (3-4 storey) apartment development, supported by implementation of the Residential Growth Zone. These precincts will assist in the delivery of housing diversity, with potential for higher amenity, high-density housing, bridging the current gap between low-density suburban and high-density urban housing options.
It is not really surprising that we have collectively chosen the ‘path of least resistance’ to increase housing densities in the early years of urban consolidation. It is human nature to try to please most of the people most of the time. The middle ground in the suburbs is a difficult place to venture, and it is guaranteed that not everyone will be happy with the outcome. However, if we are to grow smarter, more efficiently and in a more sustainable way, we will need to facilitate a greater range of housing choice. We have the tools to do this, we just need the time and determination to achieve it.