Laila Mehrpour

7 March 2013 — Laila Mehrpour, National Women in Construction 2012 International Women’s Day Scholarship winner, recently delivered the results of her research undertaken from her award with a thesis on density and housing.

The 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, aims to determine whether the notion of the Great Australian Dream is still a relevant development and strategic planning driver for the future of Sydney.

The following is an edited summary of the paper:

“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 (not unique to Australia and observed in all of the cities subject to this study) 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.

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. The Mosaic profile for Sydney indicates that the control group forms over 40 per cent of the overall population of the city and tend to live over 20km from the city centre. When aligned with the same groups globally, it was found that in London, New York and Copenhagen, the majority of the control group, to whom the housing features characterised by an abundance of space inside the home and out are most important, tended mostly not to live in the confines of the city at all but to live in surrounding towns with their own sets of local amenities and infrastructure, and where required, commuting to centralised services in the city. This has had the effect of maintaining the confines of the city and ensuring that the area of the city remains sustainable for the provision of infrastructure of services. A few factors have contributed to this outcome.

“In Detroit, however, the percentage of aspirational equivalents in the failing city was found to be an astounding 65.37 per cent of the total population of the city. While this is mainly due to the legacy of the city as one of the heartland of the American Dream (and American industry), it is also due to the shortage of available housing stock in forms that allow for any other kind of lifestyle, and the influence of current stock on the aspirations of its residents. As with Sydney, the physical area that the city covers is so large, residents can be living in semi-rural areas many miles from the city and still be considered to be living in Detroit, due to the city’s ill-defined boundaries.

The lesson from London, New York and Copenhagen is that defining the boundaries of the city, and prioritising the maintenance of those boundaries is the first step in ensuring that service provision for the city remains at a manageable and sustainable level. While a gift of the New York topography is its peninsular form which naturally confines the limitations of the city, in London and Copenhagen, this confinement was achieved by instating and strictly maintaining a greenbelt around the city limits. It also ensures that funding that would otherwise be focussed on providing expensive roads and services to the far flung corners of the city, can be focussed on providing reliable public transport lines and roads to satellite towns, while the provision of localised services can be the responsibility of focussed efforts of local councils within the satellite towns.

None of the three pro-actively planned cities were without their flaws, with each, as the financial capitals of their respective countries facing growing chasms between the rich and the poor. Each city is aiming to bridge this gap by providing an increased amount of focused services provision to the long-term financially disadvantaged in their cities.

The provision of reliable and extensive public transport systems was also a feature of all three cities. In all three cases, there has been a concerted effort and focus on the provision of housing around public transport lines and not the other way around. In New York, it has led to a highly efficient system which aims to ensure that the outstanding majority of the city’s population are within a short walk of a subway stop, further reducing the need to rely on private car and clearing the roads inside the city of congestion and its air of traffic emissions.

The key feature of all three cities was the focus on so called ‘stretch’ targets well beyond the norm for most cities. In London, the stretch goal is the access of all residents to nature and open space. In New York, it is the aforementioned easy and universal access to reliable, efficient and affordable public transport, and in Copenhagen, it is the achievement of the aim to be entirely carbon neutral without relying on offsets by the year 2025.

These are the kind of stretch targets that are currently out of the reach of a sprawling city like Sydney, as it is focussed on the provision of far more basic needs for its residents such as reliable roads, public transport and affordable housing. It is certainly currently outside the reach of Detroit, which is focussing its efforts simply on survival.

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. In a worst case scenario, should adverse economic conditions ever come to fruition, to face a Detroit-like future.

In order to meet Sydney’s macro aspirations of growth on a global scale, it is 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, as demonstrated through the Mosaic analyses of other cities around the world, 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.

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.”

The full White Paper is available here.

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