(L-R): Dr Brad Pettitt, Col Dutton, Chiara Pacifici, Samantha Reece, John Silla

A panel of some of WA’s leading development thinkers and actors convened to debate one of the Perth’s major growth issues – density – and whether the state is finally getting it right.

The Property Council of WA event, convened by Samantha Reece of Property ESP, featured a diverse panel – Fremantle Mayor Dr Brad Pettitt, senior development manager at Cedar Woods John Silla, general manager of residential at Stockland Col Dutton and director of sustainability at Psaros Chiara Pacifici – who brought together a range of experience and expertise on a topic that is never far from discussion in WA.

Greenfield versus infill

The opening question attempted to evoke debate, but all panellists agreed – Perth needs both greenfield and infill development into the future. More simply, Dutton said, “Communities want product they see as valuable,” a point relevant to both styles.

Silla agreed, stating there were equally good examples of infill and greenfield development to be found, disliking what he described as an “evangelical” attitude of “this is the true way, this is the only way” when discussing development in Perth.

While Perth “clearly” needed both styles of development, according to Dr Pettitt, the current business as usual target for infill was not only not working, but was “not sustainable” and current 40 per cent infill targets for Perth’s future development ought to increase to a minimum of 60 per cent.

Sustainability in WA – cause for excitement or concern?

Thoughts on sustainability ranged from it being an oversimplified and overused concept needing to be led by industry and education, to being a point of difference in an increasingly tight property market.

Chiara Pacifici highlighted the limits to the wealth of ideas surrounding sustainability in the urban form.

“There’s lots of thinking [about sustainability], but it’s still thinking. We’re not seeing true large-scale delivery of ecologically sustainable development in low or medium density development.”

The reason for this, Dutton said, was the “risky” nature of sustainability on a large scale, stating that sustainable development needed to “stack up financially”. This, Pacific said, however, was already happening as people were increasingly buying housing product because of green features alone.

Describing WA as a laggard, Dr Pettitt said the state was “globally way behind” in sustainable development, arguing that increased efficiency standards for homes have disappeared due to lobbying and that “every apartment and house you buy, should be rated [for water and energy efficiency]”.

Intriguingly, convenor Reece stated that “not everyone has a green heart” and all agreed: awareness is the key to action.

Density increases

Fremantle’s inner-city population is rapidly growing from an original 829 people in 2009 to a not-too-distant future of 5000 inner city dwellings.

Dr Pettitt believes this will revitalise the city from one that is vibrant at weekends and desolate otherwise, to one where people are living and working in the area seven days a week. Density here has been touted as the saving grace, supporting self-sufficiency for the popular port city whose commercial building occupancy rates are falling, with average vacancies sitting at 10 per cent.

For Perth, density is tied to liveability, which equates to design, amenity and urban nodes that support self-sufficient communities within the larger sprawling fabric, Dutton said. However, increasingly the parameters of liveability are shifting beyond the built environment to include elements such as places of worship, accessibility and safety, Silla noted.

Density and inertia in response to a diverse demographic

Perth’s traditional low density housing form is increasingly unable to accommodate the needs of a changing demographic – both an aging population and younger people without children – and it is here that the debate on density became less about curbing urban sprawl and more about the housing needs of a changing population. It is also here that the reasons behind Perth’s largely homogenous urban form came to light.

Perth’s “generational suburbanness”, Dutton said, was one where decision makers display “very good strategic intent” but lack a means of execution, which includes supporting infrastructure, improved transport, amenity and funding.

“It’s just criminal to have a strategic approach and no way to execute it,” he said. Federal Labor’s Metronet Plan was mentioned as an exception.

Dr Pettitt believes the key to improvement is consequence.

“Local governments have to be told that they must do density. No one ever holds [local governments] to it. There needs to be consequences [of not meeting targets]. If we don’t meet our density targets as local governments, we [shouldn’t be allowed] to apply for funding. We save government dollars when we build infill,” he said.

Development assessment panels

DAPs are a hotbed of debate in WA, holding discretionary power for many high-density developments and views on them are mixed. Noted for their expertise, which is often criticised as lacking in local government, their considerable power and a lack of transparency surrounding their decisions often causes community outcry.

Dutton said DAPs provided certainty in development, which is critical because “you can’t attract international or state investment if you can’t demonstrate certainty of what you’d like to achieve”.

In contrast, Dr Pettitt, who is ambivalent about DAPs and labelled them as not transparent or easy to understand, stated that density was widely supported by the Fremantle community because “[the City of Fremantle] promised our community design excellence”. According to Pettitt, DAPs often approve poor design outcomes, disagreed to by the community and council alike, which if left unchecked would contribute to “vertical sprawl [and] the same density hangover from the 1960s”.

Future Perth – what is most important

When asked to summarise what was most important to the future development of Perth, the panellists’ responses were surprisingly varied, with density in and of itself not a prominent feature. Instead, liveability, ecologically sustainable development, housing choice, leadership and transport integrated planning were noted as the key issues to consider in the development of cities in WA going forward.

Though described as a laggard, this was noted as a blessing as Perth has much to learn, and to gain, from the plight of the cities before it.