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Density – must it be high-rise?

Prior to WW2, traditional big cities were very dense, much more so than now, mainly because people occupied much less space, they were denser than even modern Hong Kong. Housing was principally low-rise, terraces, courtyard houses and walk-up flats. The elevator facilitated the first towers, mainly for offices, but some apartments for the wealthy. The centre of town was expensive, both the land and the building cost.

With the post-WW2 reconstruction of Europe new ways of building arrived. The Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier was a big ideas man, he wanted to rebuild Paris as a city of towers in green space, with wider roads for cars. This became the dominant paradigm in this frantic period of re-building using industrialised building technologies. Some communities resisted this so-called slum clearing, both here and overseas. A similar debate was raging in Sydney over redevelopment in Waterloo and Woolloomooloo in the 1970s. Towers were abandoned in favour of new low- and medium-rise housing types.

Many studies and projects have demonstrated that big cities can work fine, better socially and environmentally with low-rise. Low- and medium-rise is greener, cheaper, and can achieve densities comparable with high-rise. Towers need to be spaced out to achieve acceptable sun, light and privacy; hence diminishing returns with height. Developers like high-rise in high-demand locations where they increase the yield and capture views, whilst externalising the impacts.

Most of the new urban world is low- to medium-rise, not lift dependent. A fine-grain renewal of Sydney at two storeys would accommodate its growth within the current urban area. This would require much more equitable sharing of space; the big houses on big blocks should go. With a better spread of jobs and facilities, a decent modern transport system and greatly reduced car use, this would produce a much more efficient and pleasant city than what we know. The vested interests against this are huge. As with many of our key issues, the technical solutions are evident but for an absence of political courage.

Our model in the last 20 years has been a political fix, not good planning. This model has entailed putting high density medium- and high-rise dwellings mostly into old centres allied to stations, as well as sucking up the former industrial areas. Established suburbs, which have mostly seen the replacement of small houses with larger ones, have been avoided. Decreasing household sizes have also resulted in such suburbs housing fewer people. This is a patchwork model mostly providing poor quality housing for renters and is hugely socially polarising.

Of course, variations in density related to location and transport are sensible, including some high-rise for the wealthy in the centres. But not this current highly distorted model, which is also not the route to affordable housing close to jobs and services.

Our exclusionary planning controls are a big part of the problem; swags of Sydney are quarantined for large detached houses on large lots. Swags of Sydney have poor quality obsolete housing that can readily take low-rise medium density, not the bulkier McMansions encouraged by our tax regime. The planning controls prevent this necessary transition. It is easier to pick off the cherries in the inner city.

This is because the taller the building, the broader the spacing required for sun, light and privacy as well as landscaping and recreation space – diminishing returns, unless marketing views is the drive. High-rise may be about twice as dense as a terraced suburb, but not much more than medium-rise such as the recent infill flats in Redfern demonstrate (see photo of Poets Corner).

Only about half the city is housing, excluding the roads. It would be easier to compact the city by reducing road and parking space than by a major jump in the density.

The selective, lumpy development of Sydney over the last 20 years is socially divisive: Sydney is running out of the politically easy options. We need to tackle the suburbs.

There are limited opportunities along transport corridors including the Eveleigh to Central belt. However the potential of Eveleigh to Central has been greatly exaggerated by the lobbyists. It presents a lot of technical and environmental challenges, and will be a minor player in the growth of the city. And this form of development will not be affordable; the suggestion that it may have to be up to 90 storeys to justify the costs of building over the railway is laughable, as costs escalate with height.

We cannot avoid re-thinking the established suburbs; this is a political not a planning issue. High-rise is not a significant solution to urban housing in Sydney. It is more expensive, much less green, and qualitatively inferior for the needs of most people compared with low-rise in the suburbs, with scope for medium-rise in our centres.

When people are consulted/participate they can make the hard choices (for their kids at least). A proper process can allow re-thinking the suburbs to occur. The inner city will continue to grow, but it will be a small part of the re-urbanisation that needs to happen.

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