Laila Mehrpour

13 March 2013 — Sydney’s “growing pains” are caused by its denizens’ continuing preference for detached housing, thanks to “fear driven policy and media induced panic”, says Laila Mehrpour, National Women in Construction 2012 International Women’s Day Scholarship winner.

She also reported on a drop in quality of living and an increased environmental footprint for Sydney, despite both being strategic goals in the NSW Government’s 25-year metropolitan strategy, City of Cities: A Plan for Sydney’s Future, released in 2005.

Ms Mehrpour recently delivered a white paper, The Great Australian Dream: Density and Aspirations in Sydney. A global assessment of the relevance of aspirations in influencing spatial planning in cities, with the results of her research undertaken from her award.

Following are highlights from the paper.

The danger for Sydney is that fear driven policy and media induced panic about the implications of higher density development will continue to drive the demand for detached housing and subsequently, sprawl, to well beyond what the city can service.

The majority of Sydney’s growing pains can be attributed to its sprawling size, a direct result of the prevalence of the detached housing paradigm as the predominant form of development.

There is an inherent dichotomy in the desires of Sydneysiders and in their micro and macro aspirations for the city.

While there is a desire for a continued low density profile for the city, and large suburban homes, there is also a desire for Sydney to take its place amongst the global powerhouses and to secure global opportunities for the continued prosperity of the city.

With the aging of the population, and a general trend towards smaller households the largest of the compromises households have been prepared to make have tended to be in the actual features of the dwelling, traditionally most important to young families.

There has been a hitherto disproportionate focus on young families as the dominant household type. This focus will need to shift as there is already a significant shortage of appropriately priced and sized housing across the city in a variety of densities, and not just on the urban fringes.

These findings are in stark contrast to the widely publicised and sensationalist figures published annually in the mass media in Australia. A brief interrogation of the figures published indicates them to be neither comprehensive nor rigorous in their assessments.

The widely publicised findings of reports such as Demographia’s Annual International Housing Affordability Survey has had a negative impact on the image of higher density housing, and has succeeded in ensuring that land releases continue to form a part of any housing strategy proposed for the city in fear of alienating the ‘Aussie battler’ and ‘aspirational’ electorates.

(The 9th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey covers 337 metropolitan markets in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. It found the most unaffordable major market was Hong Kong, followed by Vancouver and then Sydney.)

Furthermore, housing in Australia has traditionally been associated with detached home ownership and supported by an incentivised taxation system that made any other choice difficult.

Ms Mehrpour found that to meet Sydney’s macro aspirations of growth on a global scale, it was important for the strategic planning of the city to address the unchecked sprawl that has become a burden on the provision of infrastructure to the city.

While this may mean that Sydneysiders will have to adapt to living in higher density dwellings, it will ensure that those for whom living close to the city centre is an important factor will continue to live in the city and will readily make the sacrifice of living in smaller better designed dwellings, should more of this type of housing become available.

The main problem in Sydney is one of supply – there simply isn’t enough affordable choice with regard to housing types in the suburbs in which people want to live.

It is for these reasons that it can also be surmised that the days of allowing the Great Australian Dream to drive development are long since gone – not simply because the city can no longer bear this burden, though this is an important driver, but because with the changing needs of the population, it is simply not aligned with the complex desires of the people anymore.

The days of allowing the Great Australian Dream to drive development

are long since gone

For this very reason it is important to assess and interrogate the available market data using geodemography tools and consumer segregation data, as the needs of the population of cities are no longer as simple as they once were.

Developers and private enterprises have already started to use this information to drive solutions tailored to their desired outcomes, and it is important for public policy drivers and strategists to make use of all of the available information to make informed choices for the city.

This does not mean that the Australian egalitarian cultural ideals of opportunities for all, inherent in the concept of the Great Australian Dream, should be abandoned, rather that the new Great Australian Dream should be redefined to embrace the true meaning of sustainable development to ensure that equitable access to quality housing opportunities are available to future generations of Sydneysiders and that current generations assume responsibility and stewardship of the city for their own development activities to allow future generations of Australians the ability to realise their own Great Australian Dream.

Ms Mehrpour also commented on the NSW Government’s 25-year metropolitan strategy, City of Cities: A Plan for Sydney’s Future, released in 2005.

The strategic target date for the implementation of the plan was 2031. Forecast growth for Sydney at the time for this year was a growth in population of 1.1 million to 5.3 million in 2031. In 2010 a revised Metropolitan Strategy Review was released with a revised end date of 2036.

This was partially due to the fact that little headway had been made in the last five years in achieving the targeted outcomes. Indeed the new metropolitan plan laid out the aims, measures and benchmarks of 2005 against their performance by 2010 indicating that out of the six key areas of improvement, only one had improved, while the other five areas had worsened.

Of those measures, Sydney’s had dropped from a ranking, in 2005, of 8 out of 260 cities in the Quality of Living Survey with an index of 105 to, in 2009, a ranking of 10 out of 215 cities in the Quality of Living Survey, with an index of 106.3.

Sydney’s environmental footprint has increased from 6.67 hectares per person

in 2004 to 7.21 hectares per person

Sydney’s environmental footprint per capita had also increased. In 1999, the environmental footprint of Sydney’s residents was 6.67 hectares per person (adjusted). In 2004 Sydney’s environmental footprint had increased to 7.21 hectares per person.

One reply on “NAWIC winner Laila Mehrpour on density and aspirations in housing”

  1. “While there is a desire for a continued low density profile for the city, and large suburban homes, there is also a desire for Sydney to take its place amongst the global powerhouses and to secure global opportunities for the continued prosperity of the city.”

    Why are these two objectives presented as if they are mutually exclusive?

    “Ms Mehrpour found that to meet Sydney’s macro aspirations of growth on a global scale, it was important for the strategic planning of the city to address the unchecked sprawl that has become a burden on the provision of infrastructure to the city.”

    Presumably the paper provides some empirical evidence to support the contention that ‘macro aspirations of growth on a global scale’ must involve stopping ‘unchecked sprawl’?

    Also – where has been the ‘unchecked sprawl’ in Sydney in the last 5 years? Greenfield housing production is at record lows.

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