Density through urban redevelopment is on the agenda this week at the national cabinet meeting – and for the next decade as cities like Melbourne formally embrace density instead of urban sprawl.
Embracing density has been an academic interest for me – more like an obsession – for more than 50 years. In 1975 my first paper showed how ecological succession followed the second law of thermodynamics in its redevelopment processes through embracing density. The rationale became even more obvious to me after the oil crises showed that automobile dependence was a serious issue.
But it didn’t take long to see that in Anglo-Saxon cities like ours’ density was a dirty word, so we had a human issue with embracing density that went to deep fears about the health and social problems associated with density. In 1981 a young research student Trevor Hogan, and I wrote A Review of Urban Density Models: Towards a resolution of the conflict between populace and planner, in Human Ecology, which set out why the scientific literature was mostly not supporting such fears.
The paper is summarised in Table 1. All the models on the left were found to have no real basis in reality and that often density increases improved human health and social issues. It all depended on how the density was designed and managed. Whereas the models on the right were strongly showing the positive benefits.
But we have not embraced density – much. The dominant planning paradigm for this period has been the value in sub-dividing the urban fringe with urban redevelopment being left to market forces. The only federal-state intervention to change this approach was the Better Cities program in the Hawke era.
The British Town and Country Planning Association had a motto “nothing gained by overcrowding” as it created the English approach to 20th century town planning. But in multicultural Australia we must now embrace density.
The issue is how to do it.
There is so much that has been found wrong with the model of sub-dividing back-yards in the middle suburbs and now we are left with just small pockets of high rise as the only way to do any density. But it is mostly a top-down solution that removes involvement with local communities.
Get the local communities involved – at the start
National research project Greening the Greyfields has a better model. That’s to involve local communities in the process at a precinct scale, which creates better opportunities for design and management of medium density.
This can then include better options for affordable housing and better links to new public transport.
High rise and medium density needs to be linked through tram boulevards as City Architect Rob Adams has shown in Melbourne where 55,000 new housing units have been built in 10 years. Now we need to create new tram boulevards with new technology that can help lead the net zero agenda as well as the affordable housing agenda.
Embracing density means embracing new approaches to planning that bring the whole community along. We should not fear density or the changes to a planning process that includes more community involvement not less.