The plans are there, so where are the developers?

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Sydney’s population is expected to hit 5.6 million in two decades and the city will need to accommodate 80,000 more dwellings than originally thought. It’s predicted Melbourne will be home to seven million people by 2030.

Where will all these extra people live? How will our capital cities look after their populations increase so substantially? What style of housing will accommodate that residence boom and the ones that’ll inevitably follow it?

These are all questions planners grapple with on a daily basis, as they strive for a balance between sustainability and sufficient housing supply for burgeoning populations. You only need to cast your mind back to how cities like Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne looked a decade ago to understand the enormity of a planner’s job.

Planning policies in many areas have evolved in recent times to encourage and even designate greater density. Hubs around public transport nodes like railway lines and bus corridors, known as transit-oriented developments, are the model du jour.

But consultancy Urbis, which specialises in town planning, social research, valuations, economics and urban design, doesn’t think this greater planning emphasis has led to any significant uplift in development.

It cites a series of new Victorian residential planning zones, including one expressly designating medium-density development around activity centres, as an example of a fairly thorough framework. However, it says the new special zone “isn’t yet generating substantial activity in the expected areas”.

In fact, Urbis says there are few examples elsewhere of these planning regimes being embraced in the ways intended. It cites one large-scale development in Cockburn in Perth that’s near a rail link and close to a new health precinct. Apartments are selling well, it says, but “this development is a rarity”.

“Ideally, residential development would increase in activity centres such as Ringwood in Melbourne’s east and Castle Hill in Sydney’s northwest, which are slated as major centres, yet neither are showing substantial increases in residential density, despite these aspirations,” a report prepared by Urbis says.

Getting this type of development right is about more than simply whacking up an apartment tower next to a train station. For one, they’ve got to be in locations that act as mini-hubs with services, entertainment facilities and other lifestyle amenities to attract residents.

Secondly, there’s a wealth of research to show that specialist design principles are key to fostering a harmonious vertical community. These include generous communal spaces, lots of natural light and fresh air, pleasing outlooks, environmental sustainability and a decent amount of space in each dwelling (as in, not shoeboxes).

An analysis of Census data by Urbis found the medium and high-density dwelling market has quite a clear profile. Half of these residents are likely to be renters on high incomes and aged between 25 and 39 years old. They’re not likely to have many kids, if any at all.

An overwhelming 80 per cent work in white-collar jobs, so ease of access or proximity to these types of employment hubs would be advantageous. Clusters of mid-rise apartment blocks off the transport grid, isolated from where people work and nowhere near the places we want to spend our time will quickly become urban ghettos, universally despised and destined to become stains on our city landscapes.

If our cities are to stand a chance of meeting their individual and daunting population challenges, there must be a stronger emphasis by government, some incentive for developers and smarter cooperation between the two. Increasing density and doing it well isn’t easy – both sides need to work together so they don’t stuff it up.

How do you picture our cities looking in 15 or 20 years’ time? Will we even recognise them?

Shannon Molloy is the deputy editor of Australian Property Investor magazine