Urban fringe, how dense should it be?

Government has ceded control over the urban fringe and density to developers who have squandered our most valuable resource, land, planning experts say. The Property Council in Victoria says Plan Melbourne is wrong to argue for greater densities and Stockland and Frasers Australia are themselves divided on the issue.

A completely different model of urban design is needed for Melbourne’s outer urban fringe areas if higher housing densities are to be achieved, says RMIT University’s planning expert Professor Michael Buxton.

The latest ABS figures show Melbourne is the nation’s fastest growing capital city with an average of 1760 extra people each week during 2014-15.

Plan Melbourne, the planning document that guides the future of the city, is under review with the Victorian government pushing for 20 dwellings per hectare within green field developments on Melbourne’s outer fringe.

The Property Council of Australia and major developers say townhouses on the urban fringe work “in pockets” but, with the vast majority of buyers wanting bigger blocks, a mandatory high-density requirement is doomed.

Michael Buxton. Photo: Australian Property Institute

Professor Buxton, who teaches environment and planning at RMIT’s School of Global, Urban and Social Studies and has a research focus on fringe areas, said 20 dwellings per hectare is “eminently achievable”.

“Twenty lots per hectare is still one of the lowest average density requirements in the world,” he said. “Many of the fringe areas in American cities are exceeding that now.”

The London area and England generally has achieved 25 lots per hectare for decades but is working towards to 35 to 45. In Germany, rates are between 45 and 100 dwellings per hectare.

“What we need is a completely different model of urban design for the fringe areas where you have a range of lot sizes. You are still going to have a proportion of lots that are going to be detached – some are going to be quite large – but you have a range of lot sizes and a range of house types.”

Instead of a majority of detached housing, Professor Buxton advises a mix of types including more apartments and townhouses – at present just 5-7 per cent.

Asher Judah

Outdated and irresponsible practices rule the entire urban land market

“But this requires the building companies to actually get off their backsides and do a bit of innovative design and planning and they don’t want to do that,” he said. “Why does the entire outer urban land market have to be subject to their outdated and irresponsible building practices?”

The Property Council’s Victorian deputy executive director Asher Judah said there was no demand for such high density living. “We support 15 (dwellings per hectare) and some of our members do 17 and 18 but we think there is no demand from the public for lot densities at that level,” he said. “There is a fundamental misunderstanding in government circles about economics of development in the growth areas – just because the government wants people to live a certain way doesn’t mean they actually want to.

“And when you start imposing higher density development than the community wishes … then you are trying to tell people that their housing choices are wrong. The community is demanding to live out there for a reason and that is a house of a certain size.

“So in regards to townhouses on the urban fringe of Melbourne – I don’t see them happening in large numbers, there will be a few examples around train stations and retail hubs but we are not there yet and if we manage things properly we will never have to go there.”

Townhouses work in pockets

Frasers Property is developing urban fringe communities in Clyde North and Cranbourne West in Melbourne’s south east; West Meadows, Greenvale, Wallan and Sunbury in the north; and Point Cook in the west.

Sarah Bloom

Victorian residential division general manager Sarah Bloom said Frasers had concerns about higher density requirements on the fringe.

“Twenty houses per hectare is really dense,” she said. “That is delivering density at average lot sizes of 300 square metre to 320 sq m as opposed to 15 in the hectare which is in the mid-400s. When you get down to that density, they are small lots and there is less demand – they don’t deliver a good outcome.”

According to Ms Bloom, Frasers Property has had “success in pockets” with the development of townhouses, provided they are in good proximity to infrastructure, retail and parks.

“The key is to deliver an affordable built-form solution,” she said. “Townhouses are an alternative to the traditional house and land package in these areas; we need to deliver it at a good price.”

Stockland selling well with townhouses

Stockland is seeing strong demand for its range of townhouses especially lakeside townhouses in residential communities such as Highlands in Melbourne’s northern suburb of Craigieburn.

The developer will start construction on more than 500 townhouses this year, and has identified a future pipeline of about 2000 more within its residential developments in key growth corridors throughout Australia.

Stockland Victorian general manager residential Mike Davis said townhouses were appealing to a wide range of people from first home buyers and young families, to older people wanting to downsize, or investors.

“We operate in a very broad residential property marketplace, and we respond to this diversity of demand with an equally diverse range of products,” he said.

“Our townhouses are available for a comparatively lower price than a detached house and land package within the surrounding community. For other customers, such as downsizers or investors, it is the low maintenance requirements of a townhouse that is a particularly compelling feature.”

Like the Property Council, Mr Davis says a diverse range of housing types are required to meet the needs of Melbourne’s growing population.

“We believe that the planning framework in Melbourne needs to be suitably flexible, and should not be mandated to a maximum density of 20 dwellings per hectare,” he said.

Sydney’s fringe opts for townhouses

With average lot prices in Sydney now $400,000, people are buying townhouses on the outskirts of the harbour city. However, Mr Judah believes that’s out of necessity not a desire for a more sustainable way of living.

“Sydney’s housing affordability equation is in deep trouble – probably irreversible now,” he said.   “The average price of a house in Sydney is $1 million. Ours is around $600-700,000 depending on where you buy … so the reason people are buying townhouses and smaller properties in Sydney is because they simply can’t afford to buy what they want.

“It’s not because there is a fundamental shift in the mindset of the public that they are happy to live in smaller housing – townhouses or apartments – they have no choice if they want to enter the housing market. Melbourne hasn’t lost that freedom of choice yet, and we certainly don’t want it to, and that is why the continual expansion of the urban growth boundary will ensure that choice remains.”

Where exactly is the choice?

However, Professor Buxton said home buyers on the fringe, particularly first home buyers, were not being offered any choice. “What they are being offered is one standard model with a little bit of variation,” he said. “So young couples have to go and buy a four-bedroom house with a rumpus room and an en suite when they are probably not going to have a family for some years.”

He said young buyers needed to be provided with information on running costs of large houses on the urban fringe and offered alternatives. “If you buy, for example, a two bedroom townhouse out there close to public transport, you’re going to save an enormous amount in transport costs and heating costs and you’re going to save a lot of money on the capital purchase of your house. So we could actually be offering homes for a third less in price down there.”

To fix or not to fix the UGB

The PCA’s position is that Melbourne’s urban growth boundary should not be fixed.

“We think there is ample room to expand in the north and the west and parts of the south east and not only do we think there’s space but we think it’s inevitable that expansion will occur along those key corridors,” Mr Judah said.

Logical expansions, according to the Property Council, would include along the Hume Highway in the north, towards Geelong along the freeway and the train line in the west, and towards the Port of Hastings in the southeast.-

However, Professor Buxton said an enormous amount of land had been “squandered” on the fringe and this could not continue. He reflected that a mandatory 15 lot per hectare was introduced when the new urban growth corridors of Whittlesea, Berwick/Pakenham/Cranbourne and Werribee were released in 1990. When the Kennett government arrived in 1992 it was the first policy that Planning Minister Robert McClelland jettisoned.

“If we had of maintained 15 lots per hectare, it would have been 25 lots per hectare today,” Professor Buxton said. “It would have gone up incrementally … a quarter of a century of wasteful land development! We have squandered a wonderful opportunity.

“The only way to stop this wasteful, irresponsible and socially divisive use of land is for governments to mandate [more efficient land uses] and bring these companies at least towards best world practice. Even in America they are doing it better. Why are we so bad? We have handed over control to the development companies. It should be regulated and made to come into the 21st century.”

Services are crucial for high-density living

Locating townhouses and apartments close to shops and other services is seen as vital to their success on the city’s fringe.

“Our townhouses are generally located close to the centre of our communities, which provides our townhouse customers with easy, convenient access to cafés, neighbourhood shops, public transport and nearby playgrounds and parks,” Stockland’s Mike Davis said.

Frasers Property’s Sarah Bloom said townhouses should only be developed once infrastructure is in place, “when the estate has reached a level of maturity with a lot of housing stock on the ground.”

She said about two years into a development was appropriate, although admitted there was “no hard and fast rule” and earlier might be suitable if the estate adjoined an established area with existing infrastructure.

The Property Council recognises that one of the big challenges is to match service delivery and infrastructure provision with growth.

“There is a mistake in thinking that you can just plonk these high-density developments out there and expect people to live there,” the Property Council’s Asher Judah said. “That lifestyle hasn’t become viable there yet because the shopping centre doesn’t provide all the services or the government services aren’t there yet. They still need a car to get to a lot of things they want to visit so that kind of maturity of the urban landscape hasn’t quite happened.”

According to Mr Judah, the medium-rise residential development and expanded retail space at The Glen shopping centre is a good example of planning framework evolving over time to reflect population changes. More than 100 apartments now sit above the Glen Waverley train station, within a stone’s throw of The Glen.

Smarter housing, better design from the start

However, Professor Buxton believes we can create smarter suburbs from the outset.

“It’s not a matter of lowering all lot sizes, it’s a matter of lowering average lot sizes,” he said. “Mix up house types and lot sizes – I don’t think that’s rocket science.”

He said houses of all sizes must be close to employment, services and retailing. “It’s not just a matter of density, it’s a matter of design,” he said.

“You’ve got the model of massive housing estates where you can’t walk anywhere; you’ve got to drive to get a carton of milk and you drive to big box retailing.

“So we have lost this whole idea of integration between uses and attractive varied urban design and unless we get back to that we are building future hells.

“These are car-dependent suburbs. It’s one of our huge issues in planning in this country and no state government is doing it properly because they have handed over control to a few large development companies, and I don’t think that’s in the interests of the people.”

See recent news article in InDaily , Warning of “urban deserts” on Adelaide’s fringe,  quoting Professor Buxton saying Adelaide had similar issues:

“… a failure to protect the semi-metropolitan food bowl would ape the policy failures of the Victorian Government, which in 2008 reneged on its own commitment to an urban growth boundary.

“They accepted the narrative that there’s a land supply problem… it’s totally faulty reasoning, and just based on errors of fact.”

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  1. No houses permitted to be built unless English row house size under 100sqm on lot sizes 150-200sqm. End the oversized house, the over sprawled communities.

  2. Your comments section will no doubt be overjoyed to hear that London’s current target densities for redevelopment are up to about 200 dwellings/hectare. Density is here to stay in the UK, supported by massive investment in public transport infrastructure in the form of underground heavy rail (Crossrail 1, Crossrail 2).

    But we have to beware of fairy dust salesmen who tell Oz you can have any kind of sustainabile future with so much housing at such low densities on the urban fringe. Australia has the dubious honour of having the highest per capita energy consumption in transport for a reason: decades upon decades of inefficient low-density development, that can never be effectively served by any sort of public transport. That means residents are trapped into owning a car for every adult in the household. Try squaring that nightmare with carbon reduction targets.

  3. The human health aspect of suburbia still seems to be given token attention at best. Most research points to average densities of 30+dw/ha to create walkable places where people will actually walk; viable shops, services etc. https://www.shapingsuburbia.com/shaping-methodology among others

    Smaller lot subdivisions run the risk of locking in sub-par densities for 20+years with lot size and geometry that makes increasing densities difficult. Yes, infrastructure delivery is a key issue but let’s not use that argument to deliver another generation of poor outcomes.

  4. The ideal high density anthropogenic living node was once called a village. Each social vibrant village requires a significant forest garden, to ensure clean water, fertile soil and healthy food and air. The private car domination of Australian communities is a result of, and a driver for, unsustainable urban sprawl. We must move rapidly away from the conventional (colonial) model of dividing up the land based on mediocre low amenity yield with an almost geological overlay that disregards landscape hydrology, biological capacity and the core elements off a cohesive and socially meaningful human environment including low environmental risk and high energy and resource independence. There are examples of how this could happen, including my recommendations to the NSW Heritage Council for increasing the mixed density enjoyment of “Yobarnie” in North Richmond, where rural land management innovations over the last 50 years left a legacy of significant water security. Using biological capacity and the landscape hydration patterns to determine the future development on the urban fringe, in any nation, will address risk and provide a new and exciting direction for communities in a variable climate.

  5. A mix of housing options in New Estates would support household diversity; provide an opportunity for those not wanting to own a 3-4 bedroom house but cannot afford it. A nice to me modest housing stock on smaller blocks would have improved environmental benefits for reduced construction materials. Long gone the days of the backyard cricket pitch. However good urban planning needs to allow for significant tree canopies to reduce urban heart Islands effect and allow for public land for communal use.

  6. Some urban academics have coined the terms “dense sprawl” and “dysfunctional density”. Alain Bertaud and colleagues have published a lot of work on “the spatial distribution of density” within urban areas. The greatest efficiency is achieved by way of densities that are highest at the city centre and taper off from there. Further from the centre, density is only useful in nodes on the right corridors.

    This absurd pressure for dysfunctional, sprawled density is the result of UGB’s and the subsequent land price inflation deluding people into thinking that allowing more crammed-in housing might bring house prices to more affordable levels. Actually, real life, supported by the best urban economics literature, shows that within a UGB, increasing allowed density increases site value faster than it (allegedly might) reduce housing unit prices. Houses may well shrink in their footprints and even floor space, but the average prices of them will not fall.

    I don’t know where the data in the article above about common development densities “by nation” comes from; it does not gel with what I have read on the subject, such as the excellent series of papers by Alan W. Evans and Oliver M. Hartwich a few years ago. Germany does very good planning of high density “nodes” in the right places but the average new home is far more spacious than the UK’s, and overall urban area densities in Germany are easily 50% lower than the UK’s. The key is density in the RIGHT places, and letting people enjoy a bit of space at “fair” land prices everywhere else. The UK has probably the worst “dysfunctional density” in the first world, a legacy of decades of Town and Country Planning Act rationing of urban land supply and ever-inflating land values.

    Ironically, where you have freedom to sprawl and hence cheap McMansions and low land prices, you also can have cheap dense redevelopment. Look at the prices online, for Houston central city apartments, in which there is a construction boom right now. Cheap greenfields McMansions also means very affordable “high density” housing in the RIGHT places, and MAXIMUM “choice” for all!

    Ironically the land-rationing policy that leads to “dysfunctional density” also leads to households being spatially sorted by “ability to pay”, being forced into INEFFICIENT location decisions because they are “priced out” of anywhere more efficient! There is a damning graph that tells 1000 words, in Hulse et al (2011): “The benefits and risks of home ownership for low-moderate income households” – see page 99: Map 3: Percentage of houses sold which were affordable by low-moderate income purchasers, Melbourne, 1981–2006