How Australia can build 'healthy, sustainable' high-density cities for its booming population

Importance of Proptech

With a growing population putting the squeeze on Australia’s cities, many are turning to higher density living to help provide for our housing needs.

Higher density means building up — more apartments and townhouses — and on smaller blocks of land.

But some experts say not enough thought has been put into the way housing stock is developed, both in the inner city and suburban fringe.

So what should we be thinking about when we plan for a Big Australia?

Getting around

One benefit put forward by supporters of higher density living is a reduction in cars and an increase in public transport use, as well as walking and cycling as modes of transport.

“But that depends on where the development is located,” Ian Woodcock from the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University counters.

“There’s an argument that in order to get more people to shift to sustainable mode of transport we need to have a higher density, that the reward, if you like, for higher density living is more public transport and more people walking.

“Even in the city, where the public transport is relatively good and it’s relatively walkable, you still need other things like your school and your shops and your doctor nearby.

“In many cities in Australia we don’t have the networks to match.”

In Australia, new higher density housing developments are, more often than not, built with car spaces.

They’re also not restricted to the inner city.

Dr Woodcock points out you can easily buy a seventh-floor apartment in the outer Melbourne growth suburb of Caroline Springs, despite the fact public transport and other amenities are limited.

People who live there will still rely on cars as their main method of transport, he said.

Dr Woodcock said many places overseas, such as in Europe or Japan, have stopped “knocking things down” to build more roads in an attempt to reduce congestion.

Boosting public transport, cycling and walking infrastructure is critical when housing density is increased.

Billie Giles-Corti, from the RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research, agrees.

She stressed the need to build new homes close to good public transport and jobs.

“If we build high-density housing where people continue to drive at the rate they do now, you can imagine the congestion that’s going to put on the road,” she said.

“That’s bad for the quality of air, it’s bad for people sitting in the car getting hostile, it’s bad for the productivity of the country and it’s bad for health.”

Building for people

If we build up, more and more Australians will likely raise their families in apartments, townhouses and smaller homes with smaller backyards.

But Professor Giles-Corti said larger scale projects are often built without this notion in mind.

“We need to be thinking very carefully here. We’ve got a golden opportunity and Australia’s population could double by 2050 and we need to do that in a sustainable and healthy way,” she said.

“You can have some [building] height in there but it needs to be designed for people, not for some flashy architectural experience. People have to live there.”

Professor Giles-Corti pointed to places like Sweden, where developments are built at a more “human scale” of three to five storeys.

“That’s where we will come unstuck in Australia,” she said.

“Families don’t want to live in six-storey-high buildings, and parents are not going to let their kids walk around neighbourhoods with big storey buildings, simply because there’s too many strangers.

Professor Giles-Corti said it was vital to include age-appropriate facilities for children within buildings so parents don’t have to constantly watch their children, and also the surrounding neighbourhood so older kids have some independence.

“If you go to New York for example, you’ll see all through the city there are basketball hoops, and you’ll always see kids out playing basketball. You see 13-year-olds going down to the park with their skateboards and coming back at dusk,” she said.

When it comes to planning for older people, the ability to have “selective interactions” is important, according to Professor Giles-Corti.

“You may not want to hang out with other people all the time, but in buildings there needs to be a place where people can interact with each other — a community garden, a men’s shed,” she said.

She said things like lap pools and gyms might look good, but they are often a waste of the limited shared space available.

Creativity on the fringe

It’s not just about apartments and high-rise developments.

Professor Giles-Corti said Australia also needs to think about building in a more “compact way” on the suburban fringes.

In Australia, she said, new suburbs or developments often come before amenities like schools, child care and employment opportunities.

“The danger with what we’re doing at the moment is we’re using the same model for low-density housing that we’ve always used, so big houses now on smaller lots, which means there’s no green space around the houses,” she said.

“I think that’s a real challenge for the development sector, to do a much better job with providing a different kind of housing stock.

“We could champion that in Australia, we need to be doing something differently and I don’t think development has really stepped up on this one.”

Out and about in green spaces

As small backyards, or no backyards, become more common, parks and public green spaces become critical in providing places for people of all ages to be active.

Jenny Veitch from the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Deakin University said with less space to move about at home there can be a reduction in incidental activity, like pottering around the yard or doing odd jobs.

“And if you’re not climbing the stairs, you’re using the lift in the apartment. And also if you’re [living] in a smaller space the activities within that space are much more likely to be a low-level activity,” she said.

Dr Veitch said encouraging people to get out and about came down to the way public and semi-private neighbourhood spaces are designed.

“It’s even more important than ever that our green spaces are preserved, and we’re not selling them off,” Dr Veitch said.

“We know that a lot of our open spaces are not designed to meet the needs and really provide what people need to be active.

“My latest research found most park visitors were either lying, sitting or standing and only about 29 per cent were engaging in even moderate physical activity. We also know they’re underutilised.”

She said more thought needs to be put into street design — for example, children are more likely to play in cul-de-sacs and courts — and amenities like quality lighting and traffic safety.

Making these areas attractive and easy for people to access can also encourage more social interaction.

“We have these public spaces that can attract people to gather and interact with others, which has huge [mental health] benefits as well as physical,” she said.

Learning to share

Dr Veitch said Australia can often get caught up in the “rules” around sharing private and semi-private property.

She said thinking creatively, like opening up space to the community after hours, or encouraging schools to share with nearby schools or the wider public, could help utilise existing space.

“Lots of schools, they close the gates and lock them up and they can’t be used. It’s being more open minded to making better use of the spaces and facilities we do have,” she said.

Professor Giles-Corti believes mixing new homes in with shopping centres and businesses was another way to use space efficiently.

“I look at these low-rise activity centres where you’ve got a big retail centre but no housing on top and you think ‘that’s a just a missed opportunity’. People could be living there or nearby.”

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