Dame Edna, who satirised suburbia, (mercilessly), by Barry Humphries

2 April 2013 – The recent article by Wendy Sarkissian in The Fifth Estate is a very good one as it questions conventional “wisdom”. We seem to be obsessed by density and numbers, rather than creating contemporary and authentic “homes” and communities that attract people to cities. Perhaps we are overly reliant on density to solve our housing and transport problems?

  • See the article by Wendy Sarkissian here

Some research seems to point that way. Mees, Dodson and others[1] suggest that density may be an independent variable. It may be the case that density is the result, being dependant on things like better transport. While we may associate denser places with more activity and vibrancy, it does not necessarily follow that density is the driver.

Perhaps this is why attempts to increase density by increasing floor space provisions so often fail to deliver – in fact, in the absence of other strategies it may result in the opposite, as land values may rise, making development less viable. The evidence for Mees is that there are examples of relatively low-density cities have excellent, viable transport. Dodson notes that the intent of rail in metropolitan cities like Sydney was to create access to the lower density suburb, not to constrain housing within a “compact city”. Herein lies the confusion.

What is Home in the 21st century city?

When we talk about housing in Australia we don’t actually talk about homes or housing, we talk about growth and density. No wonder the community scratches their heads wondering what on earth the profession is on about. No wonder also that the community doesn’t trust government or developers.

According to Witold Rybczynski, our contemporary understanding of “home” is probably 400 years old. In his 1989 book, “Home”[2], Rybczynski identified three notions as being key to our sense of “home” –  “comfort, privacy, and intimacy”.

He traces the origins of “home” to the Middle Ages where an emerging middle class lived. Comfortable, private, or intimate it was not. With very few public places such as bars or restaurants or even separate places to work, the dwelling fulfilled all these functions. Furniture was moved around depending on the function – the word for furniture is still “mobili” in Italian.

A fundamental change occurred only in the 17th Century, first in Holland and then in England, where the home became exclusively the private domain of the family.

“Home” is not a particular building type – it could be an apartment or a terrace – “home” did not and still does not necessarily mean “house”. Home for Australians has been terraces and houses for over 180 years, and flats for over 120. Flats like the Astor in Sydney’s Macquarie Street were homes.

The best of them were private, intimate and comfortable.

Perhaps for us today in Australia, re establishing, or expanding the idea of Home to other building types other than the detached house is the challenge we face if we want to develop more sustainable cities.

21st century communities

There is a common preconception amongst our profession that the suburb lacks community – that it is density that delivers vibrancy and community. This view is not just propagated by architects, but extends through literature. Those who paint our history of housing simply as suburban sprawl are quite wrong according to  novelist Geraldine Brooks. In the 2012 Boyer lectures

Home, Brooks noted that “The vast sprawl of red roof and liver brick that comprises the Australian suburb was despised by novelist Patrick White and satirised by comedian Barry Humphries – even Dame Leone Cramer described the suburbs as a “cultural wasteland”!

What they did not grasp, Brooks goes onto say, “was that the bedrock value of the time and place was an enduring and defining sense of community…. I don’t ever remember Patrick White making reference to the Sarsaparilla public library, yet the local library stood at the heart of our life”.

Community is not a function of density. The “City versus the Suburb” debate is not a helpful one. Modern sustainable metropolises will increasingly need to encompass and better connect their inner and outer areas. Let’s forget about arguing about which is better – they are both here. In the next decades we will need to infill, connect and revitalise both of them. Let density be the result, not the driver.

[1] Mees, Paul, Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age, Earthscan, 2010.

Dodson Jago, Chapter 2, Australia’s Unintended Cities (ed Tomlinson), CSIRO, 2012

[2] Rybczynski, Witold, Home: A Short History of an Idea, Viking Penguin, 1986

Philip Graus is a director, Cox Richardson architects


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  1. In Australia the term ‘high-density’ is often used interchangeably with ‘high-rise’. We forget that high-density also includes other options- terrace housing, 2-6 storey buildings etc. There is a lot we can do to densify the suburbs before we start talking about high-rise but developers push high-rise because the higher they go, the bigger their profits. And yes, I agree- we need to talk about building sustainable, liveable communities, rather than just increasing density.

  2. Lets not read too much into the musings of an entertainer such as Dame Edna about suburbia. Suburbia has come a long way over recent years and now offers all sorts of cultural opportunities.

    In my view this debate about density also misses the opportunity of a rural lifestyle far from the madding crowd with fresh air, lakes and valleys to explore yet serviced by quaint little towns with familiar pubs and clubs and improving commercial services.

    With the internet comes the possibility to live almost anywhere within easy distance of a regional centre and this will only be improved by the NBN.

    So rather than focusing only on highrise apartment living in my view governments interested in solving traffic congestion problems should focus on better rail and bus services into country areas.

  3. Very interesting. Reading it I reflected on Chapel St, Melbourne.
    While it has had a bad reputation in the past, it is now an excellent urban area by many measures.
    Calm streets, vibrant throughout the week and weekends, and a large variety of shops and entertainment. Additionally, it contains the more bohemian Windsor end, functional Prahran section and up market Toorak Rd section. Something for everyone with shops and bars spilling down the side streets also.
    But it is not a dense area in terms of tall buildings. They are coming up, but a lot of the street and surrounds have 2-3 levels of buildings.
    It is however, surrounded by public transport. 3 train stations, 4 trams crossing it and 1 going up it.
    As new apartment buildings are being developed, the density is following the activity.
    But over time, the Chapel st area has been built not for density, but as a good place first, and great home to many.