Promenade Plantée, Paris

29 September 2011 – People are still afraid of density. On the surface, density has developed a picture of itself; it has become synonymous with the characterless concrete high-rise apartments which are fitted with repetitive miniature boxes. It is a place swamped by pollution, noise, crime and traffic congestion, a destroyer to the good quality of life and a signifier of all that is against The Great Australian Dream. However what amuses me the most is that recently I read an article that claims Sydney’s density causes a lack of fertility.  And whilst this also seams outrageous it also made me think, why are we still afraid of density?

Two reasons stand clearly. Firstly, density is all that is not the Great Australian Dream; the cultural identifier advocating that every Australian deserves the quality of life that comes from owning a home on a quarter acre block.  A vision that was first made popular by Sir Robert Menzies in the 50’s when encouraging the emerging middle class towards the successes of ambition and planning but has now become a sign of security and success.

Because of this, Australians have historically developed a suburban understanding of density and with that comes the opposing argument that apartment living is somehow inferior to the ownership of a large house. The threat to the Australian dream is not only a threat to our core identity but it has also become a threat to our economic identity.

Secondly, our connection to the land and our understanding of space has been inherently carved in our psyche. We were born into space, we breath its privilege with pride, and we identify ourselves by its boundaries.  This is what it is to be Australian.

To have this position threatened demands not only that we address our identity but also that we address the privileges that we were born with.  It is not a comfortable place to be and understandably we are fearful of what we don’t know.

The issue though is that we need to densify. The sprawl of our cities places both economic and physical strain on the infrastructure that is needed to service them, the long travel distances between work, home and school by car and public transport requires the burning of fossil fuels which expands on our carbon footprint. Low density means that any new houses being built are being build on the outskirts, pushing the sprawl out into greenfields and further away from the existing infrastructure and employment centres. 

So is the fear of density justified? Yes, to some extent, I believe it is.  Sydney does have some inferior examples of density.

The resistance to density lies in poor planning; planning needs to provide the attraction for people to live in density. Currently Sydney doesn’t have the adequate planning, services nor atmosphere for density; and the promotion of density without the delivery of adequate planning is only going to promotes mistrust in the debate and further harm our environment.  High density living potentially lowers car use but if inadequately planned will still increase our gas emissions.

To break the barriers standing against the argument of density we need to take responsibility to make density more appealing.  It is our responsibility to set a new standard for living within the city.

We need to actively bring the space of our culture into our cities, we need to plan and promote accessible green continuous spaces that not only manifest in the form of parks but spaces that interact, intermingle and intertwine within the urban fabric.

HIgh Line, New York

We need spaces that actively promote atmosphere and liveliness, spaces that become centres of rejuvenation and relaxation and promote physical and mental wellbeing.

Environmentally, green spaces reduce our gas emissions, they cool the city heating loads and reduce both noise and air pollution.

The allocation of urban green spaces should not just be a provision of a figural amount ,rather they should also boast availability, accessibility and variety. Precedents can be seen in the integration of the High Line in New York or Promenade Plantée in Paris. These spaces reshape our relationship with the urban fabric.

The Australian dream can move forward, it has the potential to reshape our cities. We do not need to relinquish the dream. We need to be innovative about our dream.  We have in our hands the ability to mould, reshape, adapt and reassociate it with every generation that passes. It is ours. We created it.

Within the Australian Dream is the seed of a new type of city, a city that is connected to its land and to its green spaces, a city that is open and bold and innovative and is setting a standard for a new quality of living.

If we don’t take ownership of the Australian Dream and take responsibility for protecting it by moving forward then we need to take responsibility for losing it.

Joanne Taylor is a Master of Architecture student, UTS Sydney