Sydney apartments gentle urbanism

Our cities are growing massively but we don’t need tall towers to cope with a rapid rise in housing. Try gentle urbanism instead. A view from Sydney but applicable everywhere.

The boardrooms, suburban kitchens and office breakouts of Sydney are running hot with conversations around the rapidly changing Sydney we love.

Some are excited about the buzz to come, while others despair about the change to a place they remember as quieter and more accessible than now. From these conversations come a number of do’s and don’ts that Sydneysiders would apply to the making of our city as we accommodate up to 8 million people by 2050.

Experts are rare in the quiet corridors of government where decisions are made

One a few of these ideas are given status and even fewer will determine what actually happens. It’s the conversations of closed offices in Macquarie Street and its quiet corridors that determine our change. Rarely is an expert in the room, more likely it’s a lobbyist.

So, if we are to take back control of our city’s future and see it renewed in a sustainable way we must harness the conversation into an effective argument for change.

Rarely is the discourse more than numbers – economists, real estate agents, developers, Treasury boffins – are all numbers people. They talk in cycles, increases and absolutes – but we don’t live in numbers. Our city is physical and textural, experienced in the flesh.

We need therefore to be talking about making – the quality of the construction as well as the experience. For when the numbers are paid for and the profit taken onto the next project, it is we who live with the physical in perpetuity.

Recent research by Hill Thalis spatially quantifies the sheer size of physical change we have experienced last century and tracks what we are likely to experience this century.

Since 1950 Sydney’s population has grown by 3.3 million people or an additional 170 per cent – a long term average one might consider reserved for cities of the developing world.

From around 5 million now we are expected to hit 8 million in a much shorter time. With phrases bandied around like “Sydney is full” many of us are feeling the negative impacts of such a rapid change. The disruption of major infrastructure, the increasingly congested roads, the changes to streets previously quiet and low-scale are but a few.

There is no doubt that we need to move to more efficient living – but are we doing it the right way? If it is disruptive during the transition, and we are unhappy with the physical outcomes, then we are failing to direct the conversation appropriately. Rapid change brings with it speculation and the opportunity to capitalise. Developers hence are central to this, and their skills honed to making a living from the change. It is government that sets the goalposts – and so it is here to which the people must turn their attention.

Chris Johnston as the chief executive Officer of the Urban Taskforce is well versed in these conversations. His recent piece Let’s embrace high-rise living for families, not be fearful” (SMH, 19 Sept 2018) is one of many recent pieces spruiking the benefits of apartment living.

Talking only of trends and absolutes, unfortunately, means that there is little substance or qualification on the physical. At best it is a marketing piece for his development lobby. But in doing this he appears salesman-like, too general, and not interested in the quality of how we live. We need to start talking about the quality.

We will remove detached houses from this conversation for a number of reasons – as those with the highest amenity are reserved for the wealthy, and those we are making new are isolated from the best of Sydney on blocks too small to grow a proper tree.

We also know that greenfield development of detached homes was never a sustainable practice, and it’s been decades since the “great Aussie dream” really existed. So let’s look to attached forms of living where efficiencies can be made and real communities formed.

There is no differentiation in Johnson’s piece between a 30 storey tower and a 4-6 storey manor house or garden apartment building. These are very different beasts.

Big towers have big costs

Towers are inherently isolating. They have a place in particular locations, but should not become the norm.

Where we rise too far above the street we may gain views – but we can no longer step out and talk to friends on the street below. In fact, many balconies are too windy to sit on at all. We are well above the tree line (20m or so) and so are exposed to the elements, particularly the heat.

We are reliant on lifts and unable to use the stairs – limiting regular exercise and interaction with our neighbours.

Lastly, the sheer volume of infrastructure required to support large towers competes directly with landscape – communal spaces with deep soil and mature trees.

Too often placed as an after-thought, it is in fact the landscape surrounding our homes that provides our suburban character and identity. In terms of quality, landscape is key.

A 4-6 storey garden apartment block with 40 per cent or 50 per cent landscaped area is far superior to a contemporary suburban fringe home. It is more likely to be close to a train station, employment centre, schools and other essentials. What we need next is to offer the types of dwellings people are happy to live in.

The bigger the building, the harder it is to design and guarantee amenities such as access to sunlight, ventilation and landscape. The mix of apartments is key, as is the footprint of the building.

A lumbering 1200 square metre footprint will have many single-orientation apartments, usually heavily weighted to one and two bedroom types with one balcony and no ability to cross-ventilate. Corridors get no natural light or air, and we start feeling like home is an institution.

Physically, these buildings are sick. In the long term, they make us sick.

Halve this footprint to 600 square metres or less and the possibilities become numerous. The shadows of a slim-footprint building have much less impact on the neighbours and its tighter perimeter much more guarantees to cross-ventilation.

If we up the mix to a significant portion of three and bedroom apartments we now get homes with two or three sides of a building for sunlight and fresh air, over multiple levels, multiple balconies, and at four storeys at least 25 per cent of the dwellings having courtyard gardens and play space.

Because the footprint is limited, we can keep and supplement mature trees and add barbeques, roof terraces, swimming pools, playgrounds and communal gardens. How many of us would like to share these qualities in our own homes?

We need a gentle urbanism; it could achieve so much higher densities

How we physically make this change is the final step. If we love our suburban character and our low-rise street then it’s no surprise we rebel against a large-footprint 10, 12, 18, 30+ storey tower. The change is too dramatic and ignores the best of what we already have.

Instead, we must be gentle. We must make our gentle urbanism. A small footprint four storey building with generous landscape and setbacks is completely palatable next to two-storey detached homes. This step from two storey home to four storey apartment generally yields 3-4 times the density – and this is no meagre achievement.

Salt and peppered gently through our suburban fabric in suitable locations means we could accommodate huge numbers of people within our existing urban footprint and build no higher than the tree-line. If they are well located we can reduce parking numbers, and become gentler again whilst promoting walking and socialisation.

Of course, the numbers people will say it doesn’t add up and dispute such a strategy in absolutes – but this again ignores the physical making of our city. If we want something enough, we can have it. If we want a liveable, amenable, enjoyable and memorable city we need to demand it – and back it up with conversation on how to make it, being prepared to share the change each in an equitable way.

We can become like other big cities and lose our unique character, or we can make it our way.

Over to you, Sydney.

Benjamin Driver is a senior urban designer at Hill Thalis Architecture + Urban Projects and regularly lectures, teaches and tours city-making.

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  1. Good luck with gentle mid-rise urbanism in established Sydney. I agree with you, this approach is so much fairer on so many leave. Fair to local character, opening up the field to more diverse developers and putting homes where people actually want to live.
    But, the planning controls and culture of North Sydney, Mosman, Wollahra, Waverley, Randwick, much of the City of Sydney and Inner West Councils will fight you to the death, as you know. Well designed small scale urbanism in a good location is hard, high rise on a busy road or near a distant rail station is easy.

  2. Good article which helps the debate for sure.

    I wonder where the author and commenters live? I live in Amsterdam in an apartment on the 4th and 5th floor of a five storey apartment block built in the 1920’s. It’s lovely and in a lovely neighbourhood but we do find with two children aged 8 and 5 that it does have its compromises in terms of getting the kids outside and having that freedom to just let the kids tumble about. We miss that from our single storey free standing home in the inner west of Sydney.

    I think that anyone who enters this very important debate should first disclose their living style. This will help to eliminate hints of hypocriticism!

  3. This is an excellent article. To achieve a more gentle alternative we need to rethink the zoning system. We tried this for Warringah but that experiment was abolished by the imposition of the reactionary Standard Instrument that crudely required everywhere to look like everywhere else.
    The Warringah LEP 2000 had a residential zoning essentially without a minimum lot sizes as density was controlled by persons per hectare rather than lot sizes. There were two definitions of residential buildings, dwellings and high rise appartments. Dwellings could have multiple sinks. The design controls were contained in the place based desired character statements. If the desired character was for lower rise buildings set in landscape that could allow manors with mulitple dwellings or mixes of joined and detached dwellings set in landscapes. The subdivision pattern could follow the dwelling designs. The dreaded single, one sink, house on a single minimal lot was not demanded. With greater design freedom greater densities would have been posible with the opportunity for designs for place coming from good architects assessed by professionals on Design Review Panels.
    Instead we have standard designs ticked off by certifiers paid by those being regulated with density crudely being achieved by demands for smaller and smaller minimum lot sizes.

  4. Live in a city if that is what you want out of life but you will have to bear the smells, the noise. the congestion, the traffic, the isolation and the exploitation of “developers” intent on taking your money. I have been there and done that – but at a cost.
    Now I live in a rural “city” where the air is clean, the birds are singing, there is dew on the grass in the morning. The traffic – what traffic? The internet enables me to work with clients who live hours away. The weekly shop is 6 minutes away and all the facilities are nearby and friendly. Schools abound and access to travel infrastructures adjacent. One can plant a tree of your choice, nurture it and watch it grow with amazement at how it happens (now that is design – we architects are nothing compared to that, absolutely nothing). Life is too short to spend it fussing about mega cities – leave that to the brain washed and the sardines.

  5. There’s a lot to be said about midrise dwellings. Height/density in the right place with the right amenity needs more discussion. High towers in CBD’s (not overshadowing public open space) , 6-10 in other centres with good transport and green infrastructure, and 3-4 in other places.

    Density should be near amenity: that includes green and social infrastructure as well as transport

  6. Chris,
    The people who buy into tall residential towers for the views are very often soon after disappointed – to say the least – when an equally tall or taller set of newly developed neighbouring towers remove all or most of their view. Winter sun also frequently disappears as well.
    Planning controls may speak of “view sharing” but very few local government areas have zonings and controls that are detailed and well designed enough to provide any workable protection of views. And to retain views, towers need to be widely spaced – with the resulting densities being no greater than those of well designed garden apartments of 4 to 6 stories.

  7. Ben Driver – yes, well said. Additionally I urge greater engagement with soft urban environment by allowing, encouraging, making available, space(s), both horizontal and vertical where flora can and will be able to gain purchase in the enfolding areas. Niches for life to dwell and others for cultivation of food. This will take a great planning strategy to excellence. Thanks pw.

  8. Interesting article that highlights the central problem with our debates about city planning. We always start with the question of how best to house more people. What’s the point in adding more people when infrastructure is already congested? That congestion has little to do with capacity of infrastructure and everything to do with the organisation of the city. Where is the housing relative to the work opportunities? How do we distribute people, goods, food, water and energy around the city?
    The GSC has started talking about a metropolis of the three cities because we need to re-orient traffic away from Sydney CBD. This central magnet is the principle cause of congestion as so many funnel in at the same time and pile out at the same time. It would be far more useful to talk about a metropolis of 100 villages… a distributed network with each centre providing as many goods, services and work opportunities as possible for local residents. This is also how you can support the creation of communities and local character. Perhaps then we might also be able to take our Sydney blinkers off and see that it’s a big country out there…lots of regional cities and towns crying out for workers and offering a less stressful experience of living in communities where individuals can have a voice and make a meaningful contribution.
    All this should be explored in the context of cities being transformed by the internet, also a distributed network, enabling remote working, say from a regional centre (see Bernard Salt’s discussion on the e-change).
    I deliberately use the word city rather than urban or urbanism (as in the article) as the latter excludes the rural and therefore food systems from any discussion about planning. It also creates the Sydney-centric mindset, Sydney blinkers that can’t see anything outside. We need to define cities as the systems that provide ‘Citi-zens’ with their basic needs…housing, food, water, energy as efficiently as possible so as to create the time and space for more meaningful pursuits.

  9. Ben, You promote ‘gentle urbanism’ well but it is only one part of what residents in cities like Sydney are looking for. Many people prefer living at higher levels with views and they pay more for this. Many other people prefer very low density that spreads across the landscape. You say there is major infrastructure needed for large towers and that they don’t support landscape. But look at the road networks (plus water and other services) required for low density. I support diversity where people can live the way they want.