A number of seniors living in the inner Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy are outraged over the prospect of a 16-storey complex involving 476 new apartments being built in their neighbourhood.
Indeed, several hundred lodged objections to the Queens Parade development, claiming it was out of step with the heritage nature of the suburb and would tower over neighbouring houses. In response, the City of Yarra wrote to the state planning minister asking for an amendment to the local planning scheme to limit development within mixed-use and general residential zones to no more than 13 metres (four storeys) and require setbacks of ten metres.
The property sector is up in arms. More housing within inner Melbourne is in fact necessary, the Urban Development Institute of Australia argued, in order to cater for a growing population and house more people closer to transport and employment opportunities. For his part, developer Tim Gurner counters that his proposal embraces an innovative design which cascades inward in such a way that only four storeys are in fact visible from street level.
This highlights a dilemma. As the population of Australian cities grows, some argue that greater density is needed to cater for more residents, and to house more people closer to transport links, jobs, education, recreation and cultural enjoyment.
Yet many existing residents fear that greater density will in fact produce more overcrowding, overshadowing and congestion at a localised level. This creates a resistance amongst some that is not always unjustified.
That raises important questions about how we can make density work for everyone as well as how we can break down resistance to the idea of a more compact city.
According to Jenny Officer, a senior lecturer in the School of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts at the University of Western Australia, the question is complex and involves action on multiple fronts.
First, Officer said, it is important to demonstrate that density can in fact be done well. This, she said, is done through being put in the right place, done by the right people and done with sensible policy settings. Policy and industry leaders, she said, need to be able to demonstrate the benefits of density and to execute clever and responsible developments as well as to drive good development. Good design is critical, and the concept of good design outcomes must be recognised and advocated for by planning authorities and supported by flexible policy settings. Industry, too, must promote and sell the benefits of good architectural design.
On a related note, Officer says it is important to demonstrate that compact cities can indeed be comfortable. Bedrooms, she says, should have windows as opposed to borrowed light. Kitchens should be places in which residents can cook properly. Indoor and outdoor relationships need to be much as they would be in the case of single storey dwellings. Character, Officer said, need not be lost in a vertical environment.
Second, Officer said, it is important to engage people and bring the community along. This can be done through promoting some of the social benefits which greater density enables, such as how having additional people in the area underpins a greater ability to create more social infrastructure such as additional schools, libraries and hospitals as well as to hold more community events and enhance street life. It is also important to show residents some of the ways in which a more diverse range of housing options could provide them with opportunities to downsize and for family members to live close by.
In this regard, it is also key to engage the community and to bestow upon them a degree of empowerment in shaping density rather than having density foisted upon them, Officer said.
Finally, we need to be anticipate the future and start planning for that now. Private cars, for example, might evolve, and Officer says we need to be thinking about how we might be approaching city design now in order to facilitate that.
Veteran property observer Ross Elliott views things differently.
With density in many cases having delivered greater congestion at a local level, he says residents in many cases are simply responding to feelings that life for them was in fact better when their surrounding environment was less dense. He says they are not unjustified in doing so.
Elliott says notions about everyone necessarily wanting to live closer to the city are not well supported by evidence and decries the large number of tiny and poorly designed inner city apartments which have gone up in recent years. These, he says, are financial products targeted at overseas investors and do not in fact offer genuine housing solutions.
Density, Elliott says, is not an end in itself but a potential means to an end. Rather than necessarily assuming that all development close to the inner city is desirable, he says we should ask ourselves what we are trying to achieve through density and whether or not in fact density as it has been done in the past has in fact delivered upon those objectives.
The Better Cities Program of the early 1990s, he says, was successful in generating urban renewal projects and delivering quality urban space but failed to deliver greater levels of affordable housing in desirable inner urban locations. Indeed, whilst density in fact promised many benefits, that which has been focused around inner urban areas has created some localised congestion and has fundamentally failed to deliver on promises of greater affordability.
Rather than bringing everyone in close to the CBD, Elliott advocates for more of a decentralised approach involving where localised density is in fact delivered in outer urban and regional areas and jobs growth is promoted in these areas. He says negative perceptions about greenfield development as simply creating longer commutes to the work are erroneous as many people who live in outer urban areas are in fact inclined to work locally.
Officer, meanwhile, says there are examples of density being done well overseas from which Australia could learn.
Some high-density housing schemes in Singapore, for example have been designed with buildings that are so well draft insulated so as to not be reliant upon air conditioning notwithstanding their tropical setting. Despite the density of the environment, one major scheme has achieved a 750 per cent green plot ratio where any greenery which is destroyed in order to make way for buildings is replaced 7.5 times over.
In Denmark, a 476-unit mixed use project known as the eight house near Copenhagen forms a figure eight shape around two courtyards in which bicycles can be ridden up to the 10th floor. The courtyards are carved in in such a way that no one side of gets better sunlight than the other and the building is cut in such a way as to maximise privacy.
Density, it is argued, promotes more opportunities for people to live closer to social and employment opportunities.
The ability or otherwise to break down resistance to the concept depends on our ability to deliver it well and adopt a sensible approach toward the concept.