There are three things that drive me – I like to be a lonely voice; I enjoy being a stick in the mud (and grumpy about it) and I am always more interested in what people do rather than what they say.
This somewhat self-centred introduction is an attempt to explain why I keep banging on about the need to change our urban planning policies in this country. We need to accept the fact that most don't want to live in little air-conditioned boxes in the sky. I am not against high-density development – God knows my business has helped many of them come to fruition; it is just that the argument for anything else is losing its voice.
So, here I am again, shouting out for the detached, the semi-attached and townhomes.
A few years back, the United Nations announced, with much fanfare, an invisible yet momentous milestone – for the first time in history more than half of the world's human population was now living in urban areas.
This trend helped spark the "triumph of the urban", and the extolling of the virtues of high-density city living over almost all other dwelling forms. But such supposed triumph is fraught with ironies; the biggest of which is that rather than a simple rush of people from the hinterland into the high density city centre – and within almost every urban area (Australia included) in the world – the most significant movement of the population has been outward, from dense city centres into peripheral suburban areas....and beyond them into small, dispersed settlements.
The official geographic boundaries, such as those used by the ABS, cloud these trends, and hence they don't get the analysis and airplay they deserve.
Our analysis, which we do every second or third year (as it is a very time-consuming exercise), shows that more than half of the new urban development across Australia takes place on the fringe. This is up from 45% ten years ago. Inner city expansion is steady at around 15%, with redevelopment of our middle-ring suburbs falling behind.
Most Australians want to live in a dwelling with a close nexus to the ground. It is who we are – and most migrating to our shores want the same. The increase in household size suggests the demand for larger homes will increase and high land costs will force more development outwards.
The urban triumphant like to advocate that detached housing is bad for the environment and the denser living arrangements have less environmental impact. Yet, independent research suggest otherwise.
Our planning schemes are also failing us and in some cases, badly. Despite grand plans to have most of us live in very dense urban settings, the SEQ regional plan can, at best, only deliver two-thirds of the housing starts it needs on "infill" sites. Many municipalities across the south-east are struggling to hit the halfway mark.
Recent headlines announced that the balcony was replacing the backyard as the new Australian dream – poppycock. When you remove Melbourne's speculative boom in student-sized inner city apartments from the mix, there has been no real change in the proportion of attached dwellings built across the country in close to 20 years.
The vast majority simply cannot afford to live downtown.
It is time to accept the facts – and observe what people actually do and not what the "latte left" and political élites say the public want – and start really planning the redevelopment of our middle-ring suburbs and the continuation (even acceleration) of development on the city-fringe and beyond.
We might need to offer some serious incentives to help kick-start things across our middle suburbs. This, importantly, involves giving back credence to zonings – redevelopment should not be allowed to be stopped by local action groups if the land is already designated to hold higher density development.
Ironically, the continuing spread of the population could conceivably result in a more equitable and more sustainable pattern of living. This would definitely be the case if Australian management would join the rest of the world and treat white-collar workers like adults, allowing them to work wherever they wish, as long as they meet their KPIs. In addition, smaller-scaled energy systems – renewable or not – surely would consume less than the giant grids needed to maintain massive urban landscapes.
In any case, despite all the planning regulations put in place in cities throughout the western world to control (stop) growth at the edge, the periphery continues, inexorably, to expand.
Get over it. We have far more important battles to fight.
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