By Robin Mellon, Green Building Council of Australia

4 July 2012 ­ During June I was fortunate enough to spend a few weeks in some of Europe’s great cities, including Berlin, Milan and Paris. Many of these are considered “old” cities, particularly when compared to Australian cities, and so have developed and evolved in very different ways to our own.

Many European cities developed in rings of density and space use, radiating outwards from the most densely-populated areas in the centre. Transport options – on foot, by horse and cart, then later by tram, train or bus – dictated the distances between work and home, and thus the density as well. Other influences, such as the system of sewage disposal in the case of Paris, dictated the layout of development around the city. In Milan, the shape of the city grew according to the different gates and trading posts around the city’s edge. In other cities, the natural geography, rivers and valleys created the shape and the character.

The density of population has, in many cases, dictated the way that space can be used; in Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, a northeastern suburb of Paris, the population density is one of the highest in Europe. Paris itself has more than two million people within one hundred and five square kilometres; a far cry from Manila’s 43,000 people per square kilometre but a figure which in turn limits and affects the redevelopment of suburbs.

In Australia, we have borrowed much from Europe in the evolution of our cities, not least some of the names. But the majority of Australia’s urban development has occurred during the era of the motor car, and so our towns and cities are much less dense and much more sprawled. And with that broad expanse of country on which to build have come larger and larger homes.

Australians now build the largest new homes in the world – overtaking the Americans in the wake of the global financial crisis.  Our typical new home – replete with parents’ retreat, home cinema and triple garage – is now around 215 square metres, up 10 per cent in a decade.  The typical new home in America is 202 square metres, and new homes built in the UK are an average of just 76 square metres – almost a third the size of Australian mansions. And the bigger they are, the more they will cost.

Green space in a European city

But are we still “the lucky country”, making best use of our huge expanses of land, or, as Donald Horne implied, are we merely using our mineral resources to make up for showing “less enterprise than almost any other prosperous industrial society”? Can we even afford to run these huge homes on huge plots of land that we have built for ourselves?

We currently have several factors coming together to force us to re-examine this model that we’ve build for ourselves, including the global financial crisis (and the way in which it will affect us despite our mineral wealth), the rising prices of utilities including energy, water and waste disposal, and the newly-introduced carbon price.

On a worldwide scale, Australia already has five of the 20 least affordable cities, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2012 Worldwide Cost of Living survey. Energy prices are rising fast, mostly due to under-investment in infrastructure over the past 25 years, and water and landfill charges will be tracking in a similar direction.

Europe is similarly undergoing its own financial worries, with significantly higher levels of unemployment, inflation and national debts than Australia. But can we learn from our European cities? What have I taken away from the last few weeks? The lessons I’ve learned can be grouped into four areas:

  • It’s not the size that counts. First and foremost is the question of building size – it really isn’t how much you’ve got, it’s what you do with it that counts. Many of the offices, houses and apartments I saw were simply smaller – there was less space available and a much greater demand for what there was, and so small apartments were the rule rather than the exception. There were also many more good design and good technology solutions for coping with small spaces – whether new development or retrofits. The bottom line is that smaller homes are cheaper to run – how much less would a 100 square metre apartment cost to operate than a 150 square metre apartment?
  • Small equals savings. The cars you see in European capital cities are also smaller on average than those in Australia. Whole days would go by without me seeing a big 4WD or people-mover, with everyone using bicycle share schemes, public transport or chic little cars (many of which were, in turn, either car share schemes or rechargeable cars). Small cars are just cheaper to run, and often have a comparable safety rating to larger cars, especially when considering where and how they are most often driven.
  • Old world ideas for a new age. Most of Europe’s older buildings were built at a time when ‘sustainability’ was not a buzz-word – they depended upon natural ventilation and natural daylight, shading from the sun, eaves, shutters, balconies on which to grow plants, dry washing and sit outside, and thick walls and insulated roofs to keep the buildings cool in summer and warm in winter. Many of these older buildings, therefore, have good opportunities for retrofitting, now that we can combine good passive design with good technologies and good behaviour.
  • Adjusting expectations. Because smaller apartments and cars, and often older buildings, are the norm, people have different expectations. Sure, they might want the latest in modern convenience, but what was most readily available was small and traditional and so the expectations were lower. Certainly the dreams of a European first-time home owner do not equal a 250 square metre house and land package with double garage thrown in, but a small apartment in a walk-up block close to public transport. In Europe I heard many times that the percentage deposit needed for a mortgage was much higher; in turn this helps to keep expectations lower because the smaller the purchase, the smaller the deposit needed.

So what do we do about all this?

We need to make “small’ sexy again. We know that Australia can change fast – we’ve seen it most recently in Brisbane’s reduction in potable water use over a short time period, or in the banning of smoking from many public places – transformations which many would have thought impossible in this country. With such a small population across our vast continent, innovation and change travels lightning-fast.

So now is the time for us to realise that small can be cool. Small can be affordable.  Small can be more rewarding.  Small can be sexy.

Robin Mellon is executive director – advocacy and business services, Green Building Council of Australia