Professor Peter Newman

In this edited extract from his yet-to-be-published journal article Density, the Sustainability Multiplier: Some myths and truths with application to Perth, Australia, Professor Peter Newman reveals the top 10 myths regarding high density.

Myth 1: High density housing is bad for your health and creates social problems

There is no evidence to suggest that health gets worse in dense housing. Most people in the world live in high density housing, though there are huge variations in density. There is no correlation between these levels of density and health. Health levels relate mostly to income.

Poverty is the biggest cause of ill health. Hong Kong has 300 people a hectare – nearly 30 times Perth’s density – but has high life expectancy and low infant mortality like Perth.

There is no evidence social problems like crime are increased in high density areas. Crime is also mostly related to poverty. In America, the higher the density the lower the crime rate though this is more than likely because low density cities are poorer. There is some evidence that low density areas have greater obesity and depression due to less walkability, and higher crime rates due to less “eyes on the street”.

Myth 2: High density housing will lower land values and create slums

There is no evidence to support land values collapsing when higher density housing goes into an area. In most cities, land values are related to amenity – access to recreation sites, the ocean, good schools, to services like health and other employment opportunities and close to rail lines. As people move to amenity areas the pressure to subdivide goes up. If zoning is increased then land values increase.

Even in the low density cities of America, the highest density areas like Manhattan, inner San Francisco or Washington DC are, in general, the highest value land. If anything, there is a problem with density causing land values to go up so much that they cause poorer people to be displaced as they can’t pay the rates or rents become too high. This gentrification is why a proportion of affordable housing is on the agenda for most planners dealing with the density issue.

Myth 3: Nobody likes high density housing

There are many cultures who like dense, high-rise housing in Asia, Europe and Latin America. There is a long tradition of living in close proximity for security and ease of access between friends and family. English traditional culture favours the village and rural spaciousness (in literature this is called “pastoralism”), especially after the industrial revolution with its dense slum housing. There has, however, always been a more urban tradition in cities like London and Manchester with their amenity and attractions, and in the US.

In Australia many migrants from the UK were escaping the poverty of public housing and came seeking a suburban life. Housing markets in Australia, and more dramatically in Perth in recent years, have increased in the proportion of households who favour location over housing type, that is, they choose high density because of its access to amenity. Location has always meant a lot in cities.

Many people will want to remain in a low density house but they appreciate the benefits that higher density centres nearby can bring to their area including better transit, shops, childcare and even aged housing options. As dense centres are built the attitudes to them start to soften.

Myth 4: The high density problem is caused by population and this should be stopped or people put in country towns

Population movements are mostly part of the global economy and few countries are trying to opt out of that like North Korea. Stopping participation in the global economy means that cities go into immediate economic decline. Some cities like Detroit in the US and Liverpool in the UK did not adapt to the changing global economy and so went into decline. Few communities or politicians are going to accept economic decline as their policy for the future.

Perth, for example, is a boom town and its population growth is mostly caused by overseas immigration. Australia has always been a migrant country and the growth of the economy is linked to this flow of people from across the world who have followed the new jobs. Mostly, people come to Australia who have specific skills or business investments. Refugees are a small proportion and are part of international law obligations. Stopping people coming to Perth once in Australia is not legal. If the economy crashed then the population “problem” would be solved – it would transfer to somewhere else. Perth’s economy is unlikely to be used as an immigration control device.

Some Australian migrant schemes require new arrivals to live in country towns. Some stay (for example, Katanning has a multicultural mix of workers) but most move to cities like Perth where the economic opportunities, educational opportunities and health opportunities are greater. Country towns in Australia are mostly in decline and few policies have worked to reverse this decline. Government incentives in terms of country town housing, grants, etcetera, have never changed Perth’s overall growth. When Western Australia grows it is because Perth is growing.

Myth 5: High density housing removes trees, places for children to play and opportunities to grow food and collect rainwater

The new world cities built with the car after World War II had large allotments. Australian suburb allotment size of a quarter-acre or 1000 square metres was a substantial area designed to cope with a septic tank’s overflow, to have a rainwater tank, hopefully a vegetable garden, some trees and plenty of grass for children to play on – and of course, a large garage for several cars. This lifestyle was heavily subsidised in the post-war years for returned service men and continues to be subsidised as it provides for the unique “Australian lifestyle”.

However, like all new world cities, Australian cities now have sewerage systems and good water supplies and the size of the houses have slowly grown so they are now four times bigger than houses in the 1960s, while the block size has reduced to around the 400 sq m mark. Still the campaign rhetoric of save our suburbs groups is to maintain the low density suburb as though they remained unchanged since the 1950s.

Every decade of housing reaches a point where redevelopment is necessary. The model that seems most acceptable to low density-dominated local planning systems in the US and Australia is to allow backyard infill with several small units. In this way all the trees, grass and vegetable patches are replaced with brick houses, bitumen and brick pavers. Apparently this is acceptable because it is not high rise. However it adds very little to an area because there are no infrastructure changes or service improvements.

High-rise that enables better infrastructure and services, and which can incorporate space for trees, play areas, intensive landscaping like biophilic green walls and roofs and even intensive food gardens with water collection and recycling, are for some reason not acceptable.

Myth 6: High density housing consumes more energy and produces more greenhouse gas

The recent arguments against high-rise housing are suggesting that these building types are dangerous to the future of the planet as they consume more energy and produce more greenhouse gases than single detached low density housing. This is not true based on first principles of architectural design and in the scientific evaluations that are happening.

The argument depends on high-rise housing having large energy consuming areas like public lift spaces, public parking and public common areas for spas and swimming pools. The data used to support this invariably include buildings with the high energy consuming areas (mostly very wealthy) compared to the whole low density housing stock that mostly do not have such facilities as spas and swimming pools. This is wrong scientifically.

The history of architecture shows that one of the key reasons for compact houses was to share walls to conserve energy for heating and cooling. Thus, most evidence comparing high and low density housing (using similar wealth levels) shows that high density consumes less energy as heating and cooling are the biggest factors.

The biggest difference between housing types is in their associated transport energy. Here the main factor is location and in Australian cities this is easily measured by how far from the CBD the housing is. Central/inner denser housing is between four and 10 times less transport energy consuming than low density outer/fringe suburbs.

High density housing is attracted to areas closer in and hence mostly high density housing is not only lower in its building energy, it is much lower in its transport energy. As fuel and electricity prices rise this energy factor will continue to be a major reason why high-rise housing will be needed in increasing amounts, especially if well located.

Myth 7: High density housing is not necessary as renewable energy and electric vehicles will mean we can drive as much as we like

This is also a new argument by those who concede that high density can indeed save energy, but perhaps they say this will not be needed as renewables and electric vehicles will mean we can have fossil fuel-free cities and low density.

Even with renewables and electric vehicles in our cities they are still car dependent with rapidly growing suburbs. By 2050 when the world needs to have removed 80 per cent of fossil fuels, there will still be huge areas of American and Australian cities with low density car-dependent suburbs.

To be truly sustainable, these areas will need to have totally converted to renewables and electric vehicles.

There is a bigger problem: traffic. Automobile dependent city roads are already full. It is not sensible to imagine traffic increase based on electric vehicles rather than reducing the need to use a car. This will happen if high density well-located housing redevelopment is provided around rail stations and inner/middle suburban areas with good access.

Future cities will need renewables, electric vehicles and transit-oriented high-rise – as fast as possible.

Myth 8: High density housing development is destroying the heritage buildings of our suburbs

In every era of urban development there are buildings we want to keep as they are beautiful, full of history and with sensitive restoration they can be given a new life. Most cities conserve their heritage as a part of their redevelopment. However, most urban redevelopment is in newly created spaces based on redundant industries or warehouses and considerable opportunities exist for adding new houses into under-utilised urban space.

The most creative cities can do restoration and redevelopment that enables a city’s economic and social life to grow. Perth’s inner areas are mostly good examples of redevelopment and Fremantle has almost doubled its housing stock while restoring its heritage.

The biggest issue facing American and Australian cities is the lack of creative higher density opportunities being enabled in other than the old brownfield sites. There are many more opportunities for redevelopment in inner and middle suburbs but most housing redevelopment is either simple, dysfunctional low density infill of backyards or very wealthy high-rise. Car-based cities need to hold on to their quality heritage but add considerably more affordable high-rise housing in inner and middle suburbs. Heritage housing restoration and high density redevelopment are not incompatible – they are both needed.

Myth 9: High density housing redevelopment is wasting the materials and embedded energy in suburban housing

When housing life is near its end the question becomes whether it should be redeveloped as part of high-rise housing or restored as a low density heritage house. The extra argument that is now being presented to stop the high-rise option is that the planet will benefit from not wasting the materials and embedded energy in a house.

The answer is that any building’s materials can be recycled and thus, save most of its embedded energy. There are many ways of reusing building materials. Even a timber and asbestos house can be redeveloped; in one example, a building was recycled as a prefab home after the asbestos was removed.

New high-rise housing can use much lower embedded energy and low-carbon/low cost wall and roof materials, especially if constructed by off-site manufacturing and simply joined together on site. An assessment of the reductions in embedded energy, basic raw materials and waste saved in Perth shows the huge potential for savings in basic raw materials with redevelopment using OSM, compared to business as usual urban development on the fringe (15 tonnes using OSM compared to the 288 tonnes per person for BAU).

High-rise housing is a major part of the planetary resource solution, not part of the problem.

Myth 10: High density housing is not good for the economy

A range of markets drives the economy and it is true that much of the housing market in automobile dependent cities has become oriented to the low density project house market on the urban fringe. However, the new high density housing market is rapidly growing and many firms are adapting to these new opportunities.

In terms of the economy there are many benefits in this high-rise market compared to the low density urban fringe market:

Urban fringe housing is subsidised by state and local governments. In Australia this is around $100,000 per dwelling. Similar data are found in American cities. In Perth this means $45.4 billion in the next 30 years unless redevelopment happens on appropriate sites in inner and middle suburbs.

Urban fringe housing costs the economy hugely in extra transport costs due to the extra car travel. In Australian cities each dwelling built on the fringe involves an additional $250,000 over the lifetime of the house in travel cost. In the next 30 years this will cost Perth $133.6 billion just in time lost to travelling. Denser cities have 5-8 per cent of their GDP spent on transport; low density cities have 12-15 per cent of their GDP spent on transport.

Walkable high density areas have improved health due to greater walkability and improved productivity outcomes due to greater attentiveness and less days lost.

Much more of the revenue from its residents is spent locally on personal services such as restaurants, childcare and entertainment rather than on cars and housing DIY which invariably go out of the local economy.

High density housing will improve the economy of any low density city. In Perth this would amount to $212.9 billion of savings over the next 30 years of urban development.

Professor Peter Newman is an environmental scientist, author and educator based in Perth, Western Australia. He is currently Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University and director of the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute.

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  1. Peter Newman doesn’t use the word ‘high rise’ that his detractors above immediately seize upon, except to imply that high rise is unpopular in Aussie suburbs.

    Mid rise high density places can be lovely, and highly desirable. Paris is mid rise high density, so is Rome, London, Florence, in fact all the cities that Aussies flock to look at in the summer over here are mid rise AND high density. So I don’t believe that Aussies are allergic to density, but they are being sold an inferior high rise form of density.

    Readers may be interested in a new report from the Prince’s Foundation, ‘Housing London, A mid-rise solution’. This advocates high density without high rise:

  2. Enjoyed reading the article and the contributions. I wonder if Peter’s argument is influenced by the words “high density”. We can and have (eg Newtown, West End, Carlton, etc) delivered compact and walkable neighbourhoods with a range of housing – including detached, attached and apartments. Which in turn support the diverse centres we love but miss in the suburbs.

    We also need to locate more people in real places. An American developer states “A town house without a town is an inferior product”.

    I agree that evidence is important but has been absent – consistent with many urban design ‘theories’.

    And yes design and carparking are important.

  3. Dear Nero, The Fifth Estate says, “Our Planet, Our Real Estate” as a way to emphasise that the most valuable asset we have, our real estate, is our planet. And as with our own home, we need to care for it as the precious fragile thing that it is. We advocate that the long range view of sustainability harmonises all the elements of sustainability: social, ecological and financial. Long range financial success is based on long range respect for all the relevant elements.

  4. In response to Patrick Troy :
    1) I understand the wish for every man to own his own castle, but the deal is that cities involve a cascading series of negotiations with one’s self and others to gain all those benefits possible in a city: fun, happiness, wealth, health, love, life, parks, diversity, and so on. Life in a free-standing, single-family house in a suburb or in the country has appeals, but it gets lonely and trends towards misanthropic.

    2) The best way to avoid high energy use is to have a great central location. Naturally, others will want to be there too begetting high density in a liberal democracy. Locations further afield in an automobile dependent, limited transit option, hinterland will use more energy for transport, heating and cooling.

    3) People with access to good food options, clean water, air, light, great public open space and amenities (such as places to walk to) have the best health outcomes. Plenty of healthy people live in towers, enjoying great views of the city and street life, walking out of their home along a tree-lined street to work or school through a Jane Jacobs like setting.

    4) The task now is to build excellent cities with dense enough neighborhoods to support local business and frequent transit. No matter how we parse the numbers of density or energy or otherwise, the real need is to house the global population some of which will work and pay taxes in Australia.

    This is my response to Patrick Troy.

  5. An important matter not considered in the discussion is how high versus low density housing will relate to the future, and in particular to the environmental need to transition to lower overall populations and communities being self reliant with regard to food, energy and water. As Patrick Troy has demonstrated in the past the quarter acre block where people can grow a proportion of their own food provided life skills which will be essential in the future. On the other side of the coin, where people are largely cut off from the physical environment in high rise buildings they will be ill-prepared for the change. Another aspect to be considered concerns the reconfiguring of the settlements and their buildings. Will the high rise buildings present a larger challenge than buildings in the lower density suburbs?

  6. Mr Newman makes an array of fantastic claims, including economic claims outside of his expertise.

    Mr Newman should state – prior to every article he pens – whether he receives ‘research’ money from the high-rise property development lobby.

  7. Peter says that people choose high-density because of its access to amenity. In Hong Kong, the densest developed city with wonderful public transport, the mean journey time to work is 47 minutes. Even there it is impossible for most people to live near their place of work or other desired destinations. A great city develops as a result of the huge variety of skills, employment opportunities, suppliers, educational facilities, entertainment and other amenities it provides. Only a tiny fraction of this variety can be located nearby.

    He implies that the reason studies show per person energy consumption in high-rise is double that in single-residential is due to differences in wealth. However studies using multivariate regression, which isolate energy consumption from the effect of other variables such as wealth, still show per person energy consumption in high-rise is much more than in single-residential dwellings.

  8. Peter is writing for a blog that calls ‘our planet’ ‘our real estate’.
    This is not a blog that is interested in self-determination or ecological values or freedom. It is a blog about making money from property development.

    There would be no need for the Peter Newmans of this world to argue for high rises if the same property development lobbies had not managed to artificially increase Australia’s population growth rate by influencing government to massively increase planned invited economic immigration along with temporary immigration.

    Along with continuous bullying to accommodate high rises, and the stress of losing our natural spaces, our wildlife, our freedom, our gardens, natural shade and sunlight , we sadly experience continued loss of real opportunities to participate in our political future. Planners have taken over government and they seem to care more about propaganda than democracy.

    It is really shocking to see this happening and try to stop it in the face of the machine of developer propaganda.

  9. What’s wrong with traditional, low density housing? It’s more family and environmentally friendly. There’s a place for high towers and apartments, but they are more appropriate in the CBD for singles, students and couples. They are not for children. While many countries bring up families in high rise towers, we don’t have to emulate them in Australia. We have many immigration policies in Australia, but nothing about a sustainable population size – to protect our living standards. Our planet, country and cities have limits, and constraints, that should be recognized. These “myths” are about promoting on-going housing growth, and population growth. Where’s the economic, social and environmental triple bottom-line justification?

  10. I should also have responded to the assertion claiming transport energy is less in higher density. There is little difference between greenhouse gas emissions per passenger kilometre for public transport and cars. This for buses is 120 gm, for a car 164 and for a hybrid car 70. For actual journeys the difference would be even less as cars usually take a more direct shorter route. Further, information from the Australian Conservation Foundation reveals that transport energy represents only 10.9% of the average household energy profile whereas household energy use and amortised construction energy of the building come to 31.8% which is three times as much.

  11. There is an ineffable sadness in reading the most recent illustration of Peter’s inability to understand the way their form and structure affect the lives of those who live in cities. He has never recovered from the failure of his superficial exploration of some of the world’s cities in which he did not understand that correlation did not necessarily imply causation. He has been on a pro high density jag ever since.
    It is sad to see someone so wedded to physical determinism singing to the developers’ mantra without exploring the research into the comparative per capita energy and water consumption of different forms of accommodation. Research which gives the lie to those who claim that high density of accommodation leads to lower consumption. He carefully avoids reference to the evidence that high density – especially high rise high density – accommodation is massively more expensive in terms of its per capita embodied energy consumption compared with traditional forms of accommodation. We do not need to refer to empty notions “based on first principles of architectural design”- a simple reading of the studies of the consumption behaviour of households in different forms of housing will suffice.
    It is also sad to see someone who sets out to demonstrate his understanding of the health issues affected by households in different forms of accommodation with no apparent familiarity with the contemporary research into that issue – let alone the vast amount of historical research evidence into the effect of high density on the health of children which underlay the housing reform of post-war Australia.
    It is a matter of record that those who, in our new brave world, live in high density accommodation the may ‘own’ have lesser property rights than those who live in traditional accommodation, moreover, their behaviour and activities are subjected to forms of governance that those who live in traditional housing are not. Peter is wise to ignore these issues.
    He is wise too to ignore all the research evidence that suggests that ‘downsizing’ to live in high density apartment is not something that most suburban households aspire to.
    There is no need to respond seriatim to all Peter’s tilting at windmills. Suffice it to say Peter is fortunate to find a publisher willing to publish his assertions. We may look forward to his presentation of the evidence that supports them.

  12. Fear (of change) will always spawn ‘myths’, but as Wendy rightly says, the lack of fine grain design/provision is fertile ground of anxiety for residents and neighbours. Philip is spot on too – IMHO the Residential Flat Design Code has reduced ‘unattractive propositions’ considerably – but I would add the proviso that local government needs to ‘buy in’ to provide the amenity/urban planning direction. There are good examples of this happening in Sydney, and some sad examples.

  13. Evidence is the operative word. Many Asian cultures have evolved high density living spaces over the centuries, but high rise accomodation itself is a comparative recent phenomenon, only beginning in ernest after World War II. Shanghai, for instance, has only developed large scale high rise accomodation projects in the last two decades, so their long term social sustainability is not yet known.

    My concerns about the social sustainability of high rise comes from the experience of working at two public housing towers, one in Melbourne and the other in Sydney. The despair was palpable.

    As Peter points out, high-density housing is more economically sustainable, but I’m unsure if high-rise is the way to go. The high density arrondissements of Paris are an example of the possibilities.

  14. Peter Newman perpetuates his rhetoric over reality regarding high density which dates back to his 1989 book displaying a graph pictorially purporting to show that per capita transport energy decreases with density. Using only data from that book I have shown that this is a pictorial misconception and that it is just as easy to show a relationship between transport energy and wealth (the correlations for which are mostly higher than for the supposed density relationship).

    Regarding his alleged myths, in higher densities the incidence of schizophrenia is double and there are many other documented negative health impacts. I have conducted surveys that show that 96% of people do not want high-density to replace family homes in low density suburbs and only 5% of people who intend to downsize would like to live in an apartment. Research shows apartments are not suitable for bringing up children and there are poor health and parenting outcomes. Studies show per person greenhouse gas emissions in high-density are double that of those in single residential. New South Wales planning requirements for targeted energy saving are much more for new houses than for high-rise, for which energy savings from the past overall housing average are much less feasible. Also, embodied energy incorporated into houses is very much less. What is more, in the future, if we wish to collect energy from the sun and water from the rain obviously the greater the roof area per person the more practical this will be. That means low density. High density does not improve transport. All over the world, the higher the density, the greater the congestion and journey times to work are longer. And finally, world-wide studies show that jurisdictions with high-density policies have unaffordable housing.

  15. Perhaps the biggest problem we face with designing and building affordable high density housing in Australia is the assumption that the car parking needs to be accommodated on the same site. Accommodating the geometry of the car, and the the cost of building it its own little 35sqm studio apartment in the basement kills affordability and precludes many forms of low rise high density forms that would otherwise be financially viable. The requirement for on-site parking is perhaps the worst example of unthinking planning incrementalism imaginable. Car parking should be commodified. In high density areas, if you want it, lease it, and walk to it. This of course depends on a much expanded public transport system and alternates such as car share being available in these areas.

  16. What I want to know is how high is unsustainable and I mean height of the building. I am not against high density. As Wendy says it is more about the design or bad design in the case indicated

    In terms of the design there needs to be a context of how fits into its surrounds. The effects of micro climate. It is not great if you have the highest rated building and stuffs up the amenity and micro climate of others around them. We have to take a holistic approach to design. Not a site by site approach. The appropriate town planning and stop the developer being king. Like Barangaroo in Sydney it is a case of money talks not appropriate and best practice or design. It is a blight on the Sydney’s landscape

    Since I have moved into the inner west of Sydney I am horrified by what is being build. It is about short gains not long term.planning.

    It is time to show best practice, long term planning and sustainable development that creates sustainable urban communities

  17. Thank you Prof. Newman. Respectful approach to environment (as a common home of all creatures and all generations of human) accentuates on use or waste of nonrenewable resource as less as possible. high dense area means less use of land, more open and natural spaces, more accessibility, more walkability, less need to travel, less need to car and fuel consumption, less pollution, less cost of life, less cost of infrastructure development,… which yield less destroy of ecosystem. so, it is highly expected, the more dense area, the more chance to save our environment.

  18. Excellent article- It is encouraging that Peter is resolutely pushing the argument FOR high density. Perth is unsustainable on practically any yardstick. The issue is manifestly not aesthetics (contra Philip, Wendy) but one of scio-cultural sustainability, and the issue of urban density needs to be considered in relation to macro-economic factors like the global impact of the economic system of WA- it is potentially absurd to be debating the fine points of ‘correct’ urbanism when WA is exporting the raw materials of global speculative development. But a move to densification here might mean a commitment to Perth as a node and economic/cultural generator, not simply an exporter to service the engines of globalization. Diversifying the areas of exchange, and investing in cultural capital, supported by the social exchange that greater propinquity will encourage, will secure a more sustainable future for us.

  19. Thank you, Peter. Of course, I agree with you. AND I must point out that there are also weaknesses with some high-density and high-rise housing developments. Not all contribute to residential satisfaction, as post occupancy evaluations often reveal. In a huge 2007-2008 study of the iconic False Creek North high-rise housing development in Vancouver, residents complained about lack of in-unit storage, visitor parking problems, ventilation and furnishability issues, as well and grievances about the design of open space, the lack of local food shopping options, schools and child care. Location is important — and so are fine-grain and detailed design considerations. So let’s have more evaluation so that we can confirm the contributors to resident satisfaction. We need EVIDENCE. What some research has revealed is that what neighbours and others fear is quite different from what the actual RESIDENTS experience. An evidence base for resident satisfaction in higher density housing would go a long way to addressing some neighbourhood issues, I feel.

  20. Peter’s piece demonstrates that density itself is not the issue. Density needs to be seen in context. Density works when the overall proposition is attractive enough. Let’s not plan unattractive propositions