OPINION: Philip Bull’s article “Posh Sydney says No to density” incorporates an inaccurate, emotive attack on me that requires a response.

It incorrectly and repeatedly asserts that my stance on planning and that of Save Our Suburbs is based on self-interest. In fact, over the years all our communications have been centred on advocating what we believe will be in the best interest of Sydney as a whole. Save Our Suburbs has no concept of “Posh Sydney.” The very term drips with envy and divisiveness.

The Department of Planning meetings that Philip Bull refers to are public meetings and were attended completely independently by Save Our Suburbs and the Urban Taskforce. Only in a discussion from a recent presentation I had made to the Australian Institute of Urban Studies did Chris Johnson and I have a conversation and which turned to discuss the medium density controversy. That resulted in the SMH article Limited high-rise can halt sprawl and preserve our suburbs on 7 May 2019.

Save Our Suburbs has consistently researched and investigated the claimed benefits of high-density policies and the effect of these policies. These claims include improved sustainability, less congestion, better housing choice, reduced housing cost and environmental preservation.

With regard to sustainability, the Australian Conservation Foundation has calculated greenhouse gas emissions for which the average person living in each postcode is responsible. This shows that high-density is less sustainable than low density. For Australian capital cities the national average for high-density areas is 27.9 tonnes compared with only 17.5 tonnes for low density areas.

There are many factors involved. Per person emissions in units are more than in single residential. Operational energy in units is about double that of single residential due to lifts and lighting and airconditioning in the common areas.

Embodied energy, which is the energy of construction amortised for the life of the building, is much more from high-rise with its steel and concrete components and its method of construction.

Transport proves to be only a small proportion of people’s emissions. More people live in a typical low density dwelling than in a high-density dwelling, so reducing the per person emissions.

Even when wealth is taken into consideration people living in high density emit more emissions than those living in low density. The Department of Planning, Infrastructure and Environment Basix requirements allow overall high-rise greenhouse gas emissions per person to considerably exceed that for detached housing. High density is less environmentally sustainable than low density.

The overall vision officially portrayed for Sydney is more density in the form of the Three Cities Plan of the Greater Sydney Commission.

The Commission claims no one will be more than a half an hour away from their jobs and public services. I have asked the commissioners on what they base their Three City scenario. Where in the world is there an example of such an arrangement working? No answer has been forthcoming.

I can provide an example of what really happened with a policy that attempted to link jobs and dwellings – the Markelius plan for Stockholm. High density and facilities for jobs were constructed at transport nodes. It transpired that most of the people living in the nodes worked elsewhere and most of the workers in the nodes came from elsewhere.

The Stockholm example is a likely indicator of what will probably happen to the Three Cities plan for Sydney.

People assume that currently most Sydney jobs are in the CBD. However, this assumption is incorrect, as is shown by a 2018 study from the Grattan Institute.

Like it or not, 50 per cent of all jobs in Australia in the last five years have been created within a few kilometres of the CBD in Sydney and Melbourne because of this fact, according to The Grattan Institute – Ed.

Only 14.5 per cent of jobs are currently in the CBD. A further 8.4 per cent in aggregate are in major employment centres and 77.1 per cent are distributed all over the city area.

People might get a job nearby their residence, but if they change their job they are unlikely to move home. Other people in the household might be working elsewhere.

Then there are other destinations such as education. Their activities will not just be limited to a particular segment of the city. This is likely to have been the situation in the Stockholm attempt to match work places and residences. Such fragmentation of the labour market is not feasible in the real world.

High density does not reduce congestion. We have witnessed the increase in congestion as the density of Sydney increased. The denser the city, the longer are travel times to work. For high-density Hong Kong with excellent public transport this is 47 minutes. This is also the case for Tokyo and Moscow.

In low density Dallas-Fort Worth with a population of 6 million the time is only 26 minutes. Contrary to what we have been told, high density is not conducive to easier travel.

High-density proponents say the policy provides more housing choice. However, surveys show that the majority of people living in high-density would prefer to live in a house. A portion of young people like apartments, but this is nothing new. Young people have been making the transition from family home to flat to house for decades. Forcing high density onto communities reduces choice.

Another consideration is cost. At one time nearly all Australians could afford to own their own home. Since the introduction of high-density policies the cost of housing has escalated from some $150,000 to nearly $1 million per dwelling. This is due to the rate of authorised land release being reduced from 10,000 lots per year to as low as 2000 to support high-density policies. The resultant scarcity caused the land component in the price of a house to increase from 30 per cent to 70 per cent.

High density is detrimental to the environment. Open ground which absorbs rainwater is replaced by hard surfaces resulting in flooding carrying pollution into our rivers and ocean. There are fewer trees and green spaces that absorb carbon dioxide and other pollutants and cool the city. There is less roof area per person to collect solar energy and rainwater.

Our research shows that it is apparent that planning policies need to be drastically changed. It is disingenuous to suggest that public opposition to planning policies can stem from the activities of community groups. It stems primarily from public realisation of the effect of these policies. This is in spite of the spin promulgated by government agencies.

We do not merely criticise. We attempt to suggest alternatives. In addition to decentralisation, to partially cope with an increase in population the area of the city can be increased. Cost for additional infrastructure for an increasing population is less with mass production in new areas than trying to upgrade infrastructure in areas originally designed for low density. Jobs will be distributed as the Grattan study mentioned above indicates.

Australia is not short of land – only about 0.2 per cent is urbanised. Importantly, as far as sustainability is concerned, the area of a city is insignificant. Much more noteworthy is the ecological footprint which is the area required to supply materials and energy and to absorb waste. This is dependent on population size and is 150 times that of Sydney’s area.

A parliamentary report reveals only 7 per cent of food consumed in New South Wales emanates from the Sydney basin and of this only one third is vegetables. The largest proportion is eggs and poultry, cattle and pig slaughter. It should be possible for the relatively small area that might be required for development to bypass agricultural land used for vegetables.

We find that the benefits claimed for high density policies do not stand up to analysis. Proponents of these policies cannot point to any dense city that does not suffer from the problems they claim these policies will alleviate. Contrary to what Philip Bull repeatedly asserts, it is apparent that the focus of Save Our Suburbs has been centred on advocating what we believe will be in the best interest of Sydney as a whole. We have never tried to put the interests of one particular sector ahead of any other area of Sydney.

Tony Recsei is president, Save Our Suburbs

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  1. References are available for the statements made in the article. With regard to Tim Williams’ interpretation, John Daley at the Productivity Conference on 12 Dec 2016 said “Sydney is a bit different. It’s better spread across the Northern suburbs and you do get more going on in Parramatta and Penrith. I suspect that’s because the transport system of Sydney and the topography of Sydney is so difficult…..” Addition of the data listed in the Grattan study of 2018 shows at most some 20% of Sydney jobs could be “within a few kilometres of the CBD”. The rest is distributed throughout the city.

    1. Tony, John Daley says here, his exact quotes: While economic growth has been concentrated in cities for some time, the trend has really accelerated in the past decade. Half of all jobs growth is now within a 2km radius of the city centres in both Melbourne and Sydney, reflecting the increasing share of new jobs in services industries where physical proximity really matters. See https://grattan.edu.au/news/productivity-and-geography/

  2. Tony, thank you for passing on some insights I hadn’t considered in this debate. One being the increase in carbon footprint per person the higher the density. (Having to rely on more heating/cooling & clothes dryers would also contribute to this, due to lack of solar access & natural breezepaths.)

    Decentralisation seems to be a logical solution as an alternative to the continual increase of density to Australia’s cities. Australia has many rural towns where the populations are declining & that have fantastic buildings going to waste. With clear planning goals that address the sustainability of economy, ecology, social interaction & culture, necessity has provided us with the springboard to take this as an opportunity.

    Planned well these hubs could incorporate cycleways, public transport, workplaces, food producing areas, including community gardens, light industry within a reasonable commute & fast trains to the cities. A great opportunity to create inter generational living, protect ecology & enhance mental wellbeing. If the cost of the fast train service is a stumbling block, we need to better utilise technology to provide local education, healthcare, employment & entertainment so that there is less need & or desire to commute to the cities.

  3. A lot of holes in this argument – the case of congestion is not just a high density vs low density. Hong Kong is one of the densest city-states in the world and with that many people packed into an island peninsula, they have to get very innovative with their transport. Which is the majority of public transport FYI.

    let’s go back to the core of the Save our Suburbs argument – their belief is the suburbs are under attack, and they need to save them. But the suburbs they want to save arent the suburbs anymore – the suburbs are way out on the fringe of Sydney. This is the missing middle where medium density would be beneficial to environmental concerns, connecting to existing networks for transport (which can be improved to cater to increased demand and are within the walking/cycling range for activity generators).

    And also, the tree argument? by providing a denser living, we have an active requirement to ensure our public spaces are better – therefore improved parks, outdoor areas and network connections themselves. pollutants are already washing away, on things called roads. Whereas a lot of these newer developments are putting in rain tanks for greywater use and fire requirements; a much better use of water than some existing houses.

    I get it people don’t like change – but why not then let change be embraced in a way both can agree on? medium density? it looks like a 3-4 storey building. Maybe 5-7 nearer the transport hubs, but who wants a single storey house on the corner of the busiest arterial routes anyway? go up 4 storeys and you can escape some of that noise a bit better.

  4. Australia has been rated as being the most at risk from climate change in the developed world. Deaths from heat will increase, food production will falter cites will run out of water but our politicians can only think about GDP growth.