11 September 2012 – Today’s greenfield residential developments lack the flexibility needed for them to survive as successful suburbs of tomorrow, a Grattan Institute report has found.

The report, Tomorrow’s suburbs: Building flexible neighbourhoods, canvasses options such as laying bigger water pipes, creating more flexible buildings that can be adapted and frameworks that enable home owners to band together and sell their properties for redevelpment at a later date.

Authors of the report, Grattan Cities program director Jane-Frances Kelly and senior associate Peter Breadon, say as greenfield sites mature and stabilise they need to become more flexible

“Australian cities are expanding rapidly. Streets, houses, parks and shops are appearing where recently all was paddocks and cows,” the report says.

“Within a generation, these brand new communities will become a solid part of the urban fabric rather than its fluid fringe.

“The irony is that as these greenfield areas mature and stabilise, they will also need to become more flexible. No matter how well they serve their initial residents – and they do so better today than in the recent past – suburbs must adapt over time to the shifting needs and preferences of changing populations.”

The report says the capacity to change has proved enormously valuable in existing urban areas, especially the older core of cities, as residents from the suburbs, in recent decades, were drawn back into the inner city.

“By pure chance, certain characteristics of these older areas made renewal easier. The interweaving of residential buildings and commercial premises created mixed-use neighbourhoods that gave residents easy access to a range of shops and services,” the report says.

“A diverse range of building types, including former factories and warehouses, enabled the conversion of existing structures to new uses. Rich public transport networks and proximity to jobs lifted land values and made redevelopment viable.”

The report says communities in greenfield areas lack those qualities with different activities largely kept separate and detached housing the norm. Transport networks can be weak and jobs often involve a long commute.

“There are consequences for residents and for a city as a whole. If greenfield suburbs are dominated by dwellings of a similar size it can be difficult for residents to move house – into a smaller home, for example – as their needs change over time.

“If a suburb cannot change to meet the needs of new residents, development is more likely to expand into new greenfield sites even further from the city centre. Congestion will grow, commuting journeys will lengthen, and greater investment in new infrastructure will be required.”

The report offers five recommendations:

  • a joint sale option that lets owners sell their land together if at least 90 per cent of them agree, starting 25 years after the initial purchase
  • town centres that can grow and change, surrounded by a variety of buildings that face the street
  • a 15-year limit on restrictive covenants
  • broader, mixed-use zones, with regular reviews of zoning across the city
  • new standards for connectivity based on how long it takes residents to get to a mix of jobs, shops and services.

The report also found it made financial sense for the national Livable Housing Australia guidelines, on how to incorporate accessible features into housing, to be adopted as the industry standard sooner rather than later.

An accessible building can be visited by someone with a disability with enough space to manoeuvre a wheelchair, baby pram or someone on crutches. It has switches, taps, and toilets that all people can easily access. Bathroom walls are built so a handrail can be added, when needed, without expensive retrofitting.

The guidelines describe seven core elements of a Livable House, with a further nine elements that lead to increased levels of access. The seven core elements relate to minimum dimensions for entrances, hallways and internal doors, and specifications for a ground floor toilet and bathroom.

“Every year that their (the guidelines) implementation is delayed tens of thousands of new homes in growth areas will be built without accessibility and adaptability. Because the costs of not being accessible are so high – to people, households and government – the progress of Livable Housing Australia should be reviewed before their 2020 deadline.”