What Do Australians Fear about Density?

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Friday, January 8th, 2016
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As the population continues to grow, residents in major cities around Australia are increasingly being confronted with questions about the concept of greater urban density and higher levels of multi-residential development.

By and large, Australians are far from hostile toward density as an overall concept – especially the low to medium rise variety. In a recent study of inner urban residents in Melbourne conducted by public policy and stakeholder communication practice The Civic Group for the Victorian division Property Council of Australia, for example, the number of participants who agreed that low-rise, medium density housing provided a good opportunity for new home-buyers to enter the market without having to move to outer suburbs outnumbered those who disagreed by a factor of three to one.

Likewise, those who agree that medium density housing creates opportunities for older people to stay within their own neighbourhood outnumbered those who disagreed by a factor of nearly two to one. When asked on an unprompted basis, only 12 per cent nominated over-development or high density as an issue of concern within their own neighbourhood.

Similar attitudes were reflected in other research. In an AECOM survey last year, 35 per cent of Sydney residents said they wanted a wider range of housing choice and for the city to consider new types of housing. A Grattan Institute study published earlier this year found that given a range of trade-offs (such as cost and proximity to employment), four in 10 Sydney and Melbourne residents nominated low to medium rise non-detached housing in the middle suburbs as their preferred living option.

Yet developments which increase density frequently meet local resistance. In 2009-10, objections were lodged in respect of 26 per cent of all planning permit applications across Melbourne or 37 per cent of applications which were open to objection and appeal, according to an analysis by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute. Where the relevant applications relate to developments involving 10 or more dwellings (i.e. higher density), these numbers rise to 35 per cent and 50 per cent respectively.

Opposition can also come from municipal authorities. In 2013, Glen Eira City Council in Melbourne’s inner south-east banned development of more than two stories or eight metres in height across 78 per cent of its shire. Recently, the Council wrote to residents about what it was doing to limit the impact of the apartment boom on the community within its borders. These measures included refusing to provide on-street residential parking permits to residents of multi-residential developments and slugging developers with “the highest Open Space Levy on multi-unit developments of any suburban council.” Council was “managing the boom with the limited powers given to us by state authorities,” the letter said.

So where are the concerns, and how can these be addressed?

While participants in the aforementioned Property Council survey were not hostile to multi-residential development overall, a significant portion did indicate high levels of concern about specific issues, such as traffic congestion and local parking availability.

Furthermore, while the ‘character of the area’ is a frequent concern raised in objections to development applications, so too are location specific issues such as the impact upon pedestrian and traffic flows within certain specified streets. This tends to suggest that many concerns relating to individual developments are specific in nature and can be overcome in cases where the particular issues in question can be addressed.

Conversely, in many cases, developers suggest underlying causes of resistance go deeper, and include not-in-my-backyard type fears about impacts on property values and having new people move into their area as well as more fundamental sentiments about simply not wanting ‘change’ or disruption in their lives or their surrounding environment.

At a localised level, meanwhile, The Civic Group director Jason Aldworth says attitudes can be influenced by the quality or otherwise of existing building stock. All else being equal, residents in areas where previous developments had worked well are more likely to be amenable to further development, he said. Conversely, unsuccessful or disruptive developments will make residents more sceptical of other new planned projects.

Further angst is created by complex council processes for communication, feedback and objection as well as a ‘top down’ approach toward promoting the benefits of development, Aldworth says. In many cases, he says, concerns can be eased where residents are given a clear picture of what is envisaged via fly-throughs and artistic impressions at the start of the process.

Negative sentiment can be further addressed in cases where residents are shown some of the ways in which the local community will benefit from a development. These benefits may include developer contributions and greater local housing choice for younger adults who do not wish to move far from home or older residents who may which to downsize yet remain within their existing community.

Aldworth says developers recognise the challenges in this area.

“Developers see what’s happening on the ground and there are significant numbers of objections, so no one’s pretending that there isn’t a problem here,” he said. “There is a problem – there are a lot of objections to medium density housing.”

To cater for a growing population without adding to urban sprawl, Australia must find ways to unlock a greater supply of medium density housing in the middle suburbs.

Our ability to do that, however, will depend on how well we design and deliver housing of a more compact nature and communicate the benefits low-rise density can deliver in a meaningful way.

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