Rethinking communal open space will catalyse an improvement in the liveability of our cities.

The issues associated with affordability, sustainability and suitability of the housing stock being provided in our capital cities are leaving many people unsatisfied. The traditional single detached houses on the metropolitan fringe are too far from jobs and opportunities for recreation and culture.

In response, the rates of construction of semi-detached or non-detached dwellings (townhouses, units, flats and apartments) are increasing. However, there has been criticism about the quality and suitability of this housing, especially for families.

The types of housing units being provided by the development industry are not well-suited to the range of people who are looking to buy them. They are all too often sold into the market to be consumed by investors who rent them out to a transient population. This does not reflect the reality of what has been described as a crisis in affordability and liveability.

However, new models for the delivery of quality and affordable housing that meets the needs of a range of people are emerging. It could be said that these models are an inverse to the Tragedy of the Commons as the cost of providing quality communal space is much less than the value that is generated by it over time.

The parallel here is that the shared resource of quality open space is under threat from increasing development. Public open space cannot meet all the needs of people due to its location and configuration. People also need access to quality private open space for a range of uses ranging from quiet contemplation to entertaining, growing food, and simply overlooking greenery to improve well-being.

Traditional developments in Melbourne and Sydney do not provide much in the way of quality private open space, as it is viewed as a luxurious expense that would price the development out of the market. This is changing, however, with the inclusion of shared communal open space into some developments.

arden park

Arden Park
Image source: PDG Group

There is an increasing willingness to pay for this amenity through the body corporate fees. The spaces need to be well-designed, however, to respond to the needs and diversities of use people want to put them to.

An example where this has been done well is The Commons by Breathe Architecture. This project exemplifies what is possible in the configuration of communal open space. It has a variety of rooftop and ground level open spaces, which offer a range of uses. This extends from an entertaining roof deck to a communal vegetable patch roof garden. There is also a beehive with the produce distributed to residents, who receive up to 50 kilograms of honey a year.

The Commons by Breathe Architecture - Image source- Andrew Wuttke

The Commons by Breathe Architecture
Image source: Andrew Wuttke

Jeremy McLeod, director of Breathe Architecture, says the objective of providing these spaces was intimately woven into the philosophy behind the project as a whole.

“We wanted to create a building that embodied our ideas of liveability and sustainability. This extended from the design of the apartments themselves which are based on passive sustainable design principles, right through to the provision of parking for bikes rather than cars,” he said. “We also wanted the roof garden to be a focal point for the residents where they could interact, and entertain. The (vegetable) garden plots are an important part of this, as is the deck with its views across Brunswick to the CBD.”

One of the striking aspects of the Commons rooftop garden is its views of the underutilised expanse of rooftops of other buildings. It piques the imagination of what would be possible if these rooftops could be inhabited.

The Commons

The Commons by Breathe Architecture
Image source: Andrew Wuttke

The greening of the northern façade is also part of the triumph of the Commons. This element provides the occupants with a view of greenery and helps shade the rooms, assisting with the passive cooling of the building. The contribution to human comfort and reduction in energy demand are factors that are now able to be quantified. This will lead to the increased inclusion of green facades and roof gardens in more projects.

This approach to communal open space and shared resources could be replicated and expanded upon. There is increasing willingness to provide this kind of amenity, and certainly people are asking for it.

It is interesting that the next project akin to the Commons, Nightingale across the street, was recently turned down at VCAT due to the inability of the tribunal to come to terms with a changing demographic and car ownership patterns. Their decision to overturn planning approval from the Moreland City Council for the Nightingale development based on the perceived necessity for car spaces to be provided to every unit that is developed, exemplifies the shifts that are underway in the provision of housing.

“The reality is that not everyone needs or wants to own a car.” McLeod said. “There are a myriad of transport options available in the inner city including train, trams and shared cars. If people want to buy a unit with a car space, then there are plenty out there. We are offering something different to improve liveability, and offer diversity of needs.”

The Nightingale

The Nightingale

The same diversity of offering can be said of rooftop communal open space. There are plenty of developments where this is not provided, but it will be the ones where there are rooftop garden spaces with a range of uses, both for active entertainment and quiet contemplation, that will make those developments endure in the apartment market.

It is a tragedy that the development industry and planning policy have not evolved sufficiently to encourage this.

Cover image by Andrew Wuttke