THE DENSITY QUESTION:
The Compact City in Australia
The concept of the ‘Compact City’ has been around for decades in one form or another, often influencing government infrastructure choices, zoning decisions and construction imperatives. And with over 60% of Australians living in only 5 population centres, these underpinning concepts affect the lives and wellbeing of most Australians. Yet how have the principles and assumptions of the Compact Cities model actually fared in reality, and is it time to have another look at how we shape the environments in which we live?
Over the years, the concept of the compact city has become formally codified into three general principles: 1) dense and contiguous development, 2) linked by good public transport systems, and 3) providing good accessibility to services and jobs. But this characterisation
1 took some time to develop and had a number of sources.
In Australia the idea of ‘urban consolidation' developed in the 1980s, arguing for higher densities in initial development, and seeking opportunities for
renewal and redevelopment across the existing urban fabric.
There were two main reasons for this. The first was the assumed saving in infrastructure costs that had been such a heavy charge on state governments in the rapid expansion of cities during the long boom. The second was the need to provide a wider variety of dwelling types and tenures for an increasingly diverse range of household types.
Sustainability had become a hot topic by the 1980s and a green paper by the European Commission on the urban environment in 1990 argued that the compact city provided both environmental and quality-of-life benefits.
2 Another powerful input into the development of the concept was the publication in 1989, by two Australians, of a book drawing a simplistic correlation between overall urban density and car use, showing that higher density cities around the world had much more use of public transport. 3
With these new drivers, a full-blooded application of the principle of increased density to the total form and structure of the city took place, and the term ‘compact city' was in international use by the early 1990s. However its specific 4 and detailed character took time to develop and has significant differences between countries and between the cities within them.
Australian cities are among the lowest density in the world, but accurate comparisons are difficult to make because of different definitions both of density and the area used to calculate them. However a recent study painstakingly calculated comparable densities for three Australian, and three overseas, cities for 2011 ( Table 1).
Australian cities are among the lowest density in the world.
The 1990s saw the shift from a social-democratic to a neoliberal form of governance in Australia. A National Competition Policy was adopted by the Council of Australian Governments in 1995 whose key principle was that competitive markets would generally best serve the interests of consumers and the wider community.
This led to the privatisation of much of the infrastructure supporting the cities, and the outsourcing of some of their services. Neoliberalism and the compact city began to feed one on the other, as the compact city was seen as more efficient and competitive.
The shaping of the compact city
The 1980s and 1990s were a period when metropolitan strategies were in an experimental form, as planners tried to articulate what a compact city meant in terms of social, economic, environmental and physical attributes. Two seminal plans established this new genre. They were the 2002 plan for Melbourne and the 2005 plan for Sydney.
These were quite detailed and prescriptive strategies. As time went on, their forecasts of future population and employment growth and its detailed distribution proved to be increasingly wrong, and they were superseded
by later long- long-term term plans which were couched in more general and realistic terms. Similar plans of this kind were prepared for all capital cities. 5
To address the complexities of the compact city in short form, this paper proceeds by outlining the assumptions behind compact city planning and how they have fared in practice. A general pattern is that the assumptions supposed simple outcomes and benefits benefits from increased density, while experience has indicated a much more complex picture.
1. Economic development and synergies would be promoted by a denser city
Australian cities are low density, and with globalisation and the evolution of advanced industries depending on knowledge, information and connection, denser cities with good internal and external links will promote economic development.
Denser development allows workers to live closer to jobs, reducing commuting costs and increasing the ability of employers, especially in central cities, to attract staffff. staff. Denser cities are moreare more attractive, vibrant and familiar for many skilled migrants and for foreign tertiary students.
Verdict: In recent years the inner and central areas of the major cities, particularly Sydney and Melbourne, have made an increasing contribution to GDP. There is some evidence that Sydney and Melbourne have advanced in the rankings of global cities.
However this growth of ‘knowledge' and ‘experience' industries has been concentrated in central and inner areas, while outer suburban areas have seen employment decline in the manufacturing industries that had located there.
These are characteristics that are shared with other global cities like London and New York. Higher density development in the inner areas of cities provides more familiar environments for many immigrants and foreign students.
2. Infrastructure savings
States faced with budget stress sought savings by by minimising minimising the extension of infrastructure into the urban fringe, and assumed spare capacity in inner areas that were, in the 1980s, experiencing population loss. Studies calculated cost savings through taking up spare capacity, and assumed small ‘replacement’ demands above then existing levels. 6
At that time state agencies did not require developers to make signifificant significant contributions to new regional-level infrastructure such as mainas main roads and water and sewerage headworks, which increased the incentive to save public costs through increased densities.
Verdict: Infrastructure has had to be provided for continuing strong greenfields fields development, with an increasing share of costs passed on to developers and ultimately to new homebuyers. The experience of infrastructure provision in renewed areas has been mixed and depends, to a considerable extent, on the particular locality.
There are often savings in energy and telecommunications services and hydraulic services where mains do not need to be re- re-laid. laid. Stormwater management is often an issue because of more runoff from increased hard surfaces.
One feature has been the sale of school sites where it was assumed that not many children would live in higher density dwellings. This has often proved to be incorrect and new school sites, sometimes with ‘ ‘schools schools in towers', have had to be provided.
Local roads and parking were often insufficient to handle increased traffic with most households still owning a car. Local open space was often insufficient,
Neoliberalism and the compact city began to feed one on the other, as the compact city was seen as more efficient and competitive.
There has been over-investment in motorways, the states’ default solution to city population increases because they can be funded from private investment.
and difficult to purchase.
3. Increased densities will encourage travel by public transport
The case for denser cities was powerfully strengthened by the impact of Newman and Kenworthy, in their Cities and Automobile Dependence, to which previous reference has been made. Their data suggested that if Australian city densities increased toward those of Europe and Asia, per capita car use would decline and public transport use would increase, with resulting road construction and equity benefits.
As the global warming debate intensified, this argument took on extra importance because such a change in transport use would lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions. However policy-makers did not recognise the importance of other mediating variables governing choice of travel mode, most importantly the availability of effective alternative public transport services.
Verdict: Travel by public transport has increased as a proportion of tripmaking. But this is a complex picture with several variables affecting choice of mode, particularly level, cost and convenience of public transport. Investment in public transport has been laggardly, insufficient and confused, with state treasuries reluctant to add to debt by borrowing the capital costs, and also reluctant to support ongoing subsidies for public transport.
Most major cities are now playing catchup with overstrained rail transport systems. There has been a noticeable policy failure in providing adequate transport augmentation to reflect land use intensification, common to all cities.
By contrast, there has been overinvestment in motorways, the states' default solution to city population increases because they can be funded from private investment. But the fortunes of resulting public-private partnerships have been mixed, with four such inner-middle city motorway projects becoming bankrupt because traffic estimates were too high.
4. More choice in housing
As mentioned above, the stereotype of the nuclear family in a three bedroomed house on a quarter acre lot with a high level of home ownership, had dominated suburban growth during the long boom. The introduction of legislation giving title to multi-unit dwellings, and the consequent availability of finance for their purchase, removed impediments to the building of medium- and high-density housing.
During the 1980s, loss of population in inner city localities led state governments to plan for higher density renewal of these areas. This would provide a much wider variety of housing stock, and increased housing for rent in critical localities.
Verdict: This increased building of multi-unit dwellings, as exemplified for Sydney and Melbourne and shown in Table 2, has provided much more variety of dwellings in favoured areas, nearly all of them in strata schemes and offering much more stock available
In many renewal areas, there has been an assumption that new dwellings would house couples or singles, and there has been little recognition of children's needs in their design and layout.
for rent. This could be seen as responding to the growth of a wider range of living arrangements and a need for increased mobility in a much more dynamic and changing economy and society.
To a large degree, this has been undermined by increasing unaffordability of housing in inner and middle suburbs particularly, forcing low-income households to outer suburbs where services and employment prospects are much poorer.
In many renewal areas, there has been an assumption that new dwellings would house couples or singles, and there has been little recognition of children's needs in their design and layout. The consequent repopulation 7 of these areas by many families has led to less than optimal living conditions. The provision of schools is another issue dealt with above.
5. Adding more attached dwellings to the housing stock would offer cheaper housing
Not only would medium- and highdensity housing offer more variety and choice in dwelling type, but there was an early contention that building more dwellings on a small area of land would provide cheaper housing options.
This relied on a comparison of separate housing with the then three-storey walk-up flats arranged in six-pack form in a low density suburban setting, taking into account the land and construction costs at that time.
Verdict: These assumptions have proved incorrect. Dwelling prices have risen sharply and housing has become less affordable. Higher land prices have accompanied rezoning to higher density in established urban areas, and also in more stable areas where wealthier and well-organised communities resisted upzoning.
Higher land prices have also occurred in greenfields locations where unrealistic assumptions in early plans assumed lower rates of population growth – fuelled by increasing migrant numbers – and housing demand, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney.
Construction costs for higher density dwellings with lifts are high – as are their operating costs. Greater labor unionisation in higher density dwelling construction also adds to costs.
6. Save valuable land at the fringe
Increasing densities were argued to save land at the suburban frontier. This was seen as not only advantageous in terms of infrastructure saving, but also in conserving good land used for farming and market gardening.
The sustainability arguments for conserving fringe land for this purpose gained traction with increasing concern about the need to replace agricultural production displaced by urban growth here, as transport from more distant sources would incur many more ‘food miles’.
The conservation of significant natural habitats was also seen as important, together with the use of fringe land for broad-acre recreational activities. All these
retained uses meant the preservation of carbon sinks.
Verdict: This assumption also reflected early conclusions (1980s) that ample land was already available for greenfields expansion. But high population growth and growing housing unaffordability has led to more consumption of greenfields land than envisaged in later strategies, especially in Melbourne, South East Queensland and Perth.
This has required the relaxation of Urban Growth Boundaries, while targets for infill and renewal have proved to be unrealistic.
7. Energy and water use would be less in medium- and high-density dwellings
It may seem obvious that water consumption would be higher in separate houses, town houses and terrace houses where there is watering of the garden, car washing and sometimes swimming pools. Similarly less energy could be needed in denser dwelling forms for heating and cooling.
Verdict: This is a complicated issue, with energy and water use tending to be determined more by household type, size, demography and income than by dwelling type. One study has
shown that on an average per capita basis, residents in houses in Sydney do not use significantly more water than those living in flats.
Much embodied energy is used in the construction of attached dwelling configurations, and where this necessitates lifts, demands substantial operational energy use.
In New South Wales, proposed residential developments have to comply with BASIX targets for sustainable water and energy use against a state benchmark. It also establishes minimum performance and comfort levels of the dwelling expressed as the annual amount of energy required to heat and cool the dwelling. The targets vary with type of dwelling and locality and can be changed.
This is a much more effective policy for conserving energy and water use, rather than relying on assumed indirect performance at different densities.
8. New institutions and processes of governance would be needed, together with the adaptation of planning processes and metropolitan strategies to address changing requirements.
An essential need of the compact city was adequate legislation to manage living in, and the functioning and operation of attached dwellings arranged in complexes of medium- or high-density form. Strata legislation has been enacted in all states to do this.
With compact city ambitions pursued by neoliberal means, governments needed to take more control over development. This has led to new concentrations, connections and configurations of power. The executive power of state government has been strengthened, and its connections and interactions with business, investors and the property development industry extended and invigorated.
‘Unsolicited proposals’ can be generated by developers and considered by state agencies of one kind or another.
But high population growth and growing housing unaffordability has led to more consumption of greenfields land than envisaged in later strategies.
Competition policy maintains that the planning, development assessment and control system restricts competition, through its complexity, uncertainty and delay.
State governments find an enthusiastic ally in the property development industry in imposing standard provisions for the wide variety of previous local planning arrangements, and the part-replacement of local government development control committees by professional panels.
Verdict: State governments have increasingly cemented mutually beneficial relations and outcomes with business, investors, and property interests. The compact city is attractive to developers because it offers the possibility of more large-scale projects. Negotiations with government can yield high profits where upzoning takes place, or floor space bonuses are obtained over existing limits.
There is a general failure in value capture by governments. This has been in part due to the reluctance of governments to risk new housing supply by reducing developers' profitability, reinforced by strong developer
lobbying. A recent calculation has estimated that landowners' gains from rezoning and other planning decisions are $11 billion across Australia each year. The development sector has itself
10 become a significant component of the urban economy, and governments are reluctant to impose many of the costs of growth on them.
Strata legislation has been updated to reflect experience and new circumstances. Strata legislation in New South Wales has recently been comprehensively revised and, for example provides for 75% agreement by owners in the strata corporation for its redevelopment, replacing the previous requirement for a unanimous approval.
Metropolitan strategies have not adapted to the new challenges of the compact city and have continued the path dependency established in organising suburban expansion during the long boom. Accordingly, definitive longterm plans are issued every few years. Yet there is a paradox in imposing long-term visions in prescriptive terms for such dynamic, changing and resilient cities.
There is a general failure in value capture by governments. This has been in part due to the reluctance of governments to risk new housing supply by reducing developers' profitability, reinforced by strong developer lobbying.
Related to this is a final effect – the lack of local input into these top-down processes. This is exacerbated by the lack of experience in planning authorities to deal with these dramatic redevelopment processes that require comprehensive attention and tight coordination. There is much local concern about the lack of attention to important detail.
The result is that local streets become congested and choked by ribbons of parking. More stormwater runoff is a consequence of the increase in hard surfaces. Open space diminishes despite it often being inadequate already. New higher blocks of housing overlook surrounding dwellings. Street character is destroyed. The actual impact on the ground is the crucible of compact city policies and is often unsatisfactory.
The outcomes of Australian compact city policies summarised here point to policy shortcomings concerning the provision of sufficient and well-located
higher density zones that would contain prices; adequate and timely transport infrastructure to support renewal processes in these zones; apartments and places that cater for families; sensitive management in the renewal of localities in respecting and enhancing their character; and conservation of valuable peri-urban green lands.
The solutions are not easy. Continuous monitoring and flexible response to relevant and up-to-date data and information is essential to the substantial transformation of areas.
This must include full community involvement in planning decisions about where higher density zones are to be located; value capture from developers who benefit from windfall zoning decisions, to fund better public transport and more open space; tighter planning codes that mandate minimum amounts of affordable housing; and passing on most or all of the environmental costs of development where greenfields land is used.
AUTHOR: Raymond Bunker is semi-retired and is Senior Visiting Fellow at the City Futures Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. His career in town planning and urban policy has included both university teaching and research in Sydney and Adelaide, and senior policy positions in the Commonwealth government and the state government of South Australia. He has a particular interest in metropolitan planning.
AUTHOR: Glen Searle is Honorary Associate Professor in Planning at the University of Sydney and at the University of Queensland. He was Director of the Planning Program at both universities. Prior to that he held urban planning and policy positions in the NSW departments of Decentralisation and Development, Treasury, and Planning, and in the UK Department of Environment. His main research focus is metropolitan strategic planning.
Local streets become congested and choked by ribbons of parking…open space diminishes…higher blocks of housing frequently overlook surrounding dwellings.
Street character is destroyed.
Table 1. ‘Conventional’ average, and population weighted average density of selected cities in 2011. Conventional density is that of the average place, while the weighted average removes the influence of large areas with small populations on the overall average.
Table 2: Changes in population and dwelling profile 2001-2016 for Sydney and Melbourne
IMAGE: © Lynne BETTS-USDA