Aerial view of Homebush Bay, Sydney, Australia.

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. 

                         Table 1. Models of Urban Density from Newman and Hogan (1981)

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.

Peter Newman, Curtin University

Professor Peter Newman AO is an environmental scientist, author and educator based in Perth, Western Australia. He is Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University and a former Board Member of Infrastructure Australia. More by Peter Newman, Curtin University

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  1. By avoiding urban sprawl, cities protect vulnerable areas and safeguard natural buffers that provide ecological and climatic benefits. This combination of holistic urban planning, sustainable building practices, and equitable community engagement that Prof Newman has advocated for years is essential to harness these advantages. Urban densification, as he clearly states, offers multiple avenues for addressing climate change mitigation and adaptation actions towards a net zero future. His text shows that when cities densify, they inherently reduce transportation emissions due to shorter commutes and a greater reliance on efficient modes like public transport (e.g., tram boulevards), walking, or cycling. Such cities also support energy-efficient structures, reduce the urban heat island effect with greener designs, and enhance infrastructure efficiency. Furthermore, as we learn from Prof Newman in his unit on Future Cities, dense urban structures are better positioned to manage stormwater, fortify resilient infrastructure, and concentrate resources efficiently to adapt to climatic changes. Congratulations on keeping up the fight and spreading solutions. Never give up, Peter.

  2. Review of our suburban sprawl and monoculture will not only make more liveable cities, it will assist with the huge issue allied to upgraded PT and walkability to the affordability issue – fast trains would be a macro response also

    1. Agreed. Hope for a serious urban strategy to begin emerging from the Federal Government.

  3. I love Professor Newman’s advocacy of density. The redevelopment of middle and outer suburbs, and of greyfield sites is the only sustainable way to accommodate our population projections (which are unnecessarily high) while maintaining/regenerating what little remains of our coastal dwelling wildlife. The Asian examples of high rise and the Euopean and Canadian examples of medium density provide exciting indications of what we can do to provide attractive, community generative developments. When our area in Asquith (near Hornsby in Sydney) was rezoned for 5-storey development, we and our neighbour rejected the approaches of the main developers, with their ugly, unimaginative designs. Instead we sought a small sustainable developer, who gave us less money but left a legacy we could be proud of. Their development has an attractive and variegated street presentation with several sustainable functions. They proved it is possible to make a profit from providing community friendly housing. We can and must overcome our present subservience to the power that developers hold over the government function of urban design.

    1. Great story Sherrie. I would love to see more of this area. Why not write something on Asquith for Fifth Estate?