Melbourne apartment blocks

Special report: Depending on who you talk to high-rise buildings are either destroying the liveability of Australian cities or setting us up for the future.

So how do we understand what level of density is okay? And how comfortable will we be as our cities accelerate expansion in a vertical rather than horizontal direction?

City of Sydney became nervous last week when it appeared the new 19-hectare Waterloo Estate, which will have a total of 7000 dwellings, had projected densities of 376 dwellings or 700 people per hectare. The city voiced concern that this level of density would adversely impact amenity, and lead to insufficient open space, overshadowing, loss of tree canopy and the inability to meet apartment design standards.

NSW land development agency Urban Growth’s chief executive David Pitchford was quick to reassure the city that those figures did not “reconcile with the design envelope and density levels”.

He said density at Waterloo Estate would be similar to Green Square Town Centre, with the benefit of a Metro rail station, open space and community facilities. The 278-ha Green Square site has a town square of 17 ha with residential dwelling density at 4000 dwellings or 235 dwellings per ha.

There’s growing concern in Sydney and Melbourne that developments are getting too dense.

Is there a magic number?

The Urban Taskforce has published a report based on Australian Bureau of Statistics figures showing that Sydney has 21 square kilometres with more than 8000 people a square sq km, and no other Australian city ranks at that level.

Urban Taskforce chief executive Chris Johnson

“So Sydney, according to ABS data, seems to be well ahead in terms of greater densities and it’s not just right in the centre of the city – it includes places like Chatswood, Parramatta and areas like that,” Urban Taskforce chief executive Chris Johnson says.

“Interestingly, London had 327 square kilometres at that density, over 8000 people per square kilometre, so while we might think Sydney is getting a bit dense with 21 sq km, it is nowhere near what places like London have.”

Johnson says the proximity of Frasers Property and Sekisui House’s Central Park development ion Sydney to Central Station, buses, universities and entertainment is the trade-off for its density.

“It’s plugged into everything you could imagine so that sort of density of 1000 people per hectare seems to be quite reasonable for a site like that.”

However, he notes that regardless of the concentration of residents, you need to look at the floor area ratio of an entire development when analysing density.

“If you take one single building and take its footprint and just multiply it by height you’d probably get 40:1 or something, but if you look at Central Park it is about 4.5-5:1. That includes the parklands and the various amenities that come with the project. So my position is that something like Central Park in an overall sense is a good solution and one that needs to be replicated in various places.”

The Urban Taskforce’s position is to increase densities around railway stations and in inner-city areas that are closer to jobs.

“I think that Sydney is probably going to lead the country as the case study for how density knits back into the existing structure of the cities as opposed to continually heading out horizontally.”

The Metropolitan Development Plan shows that month-by-month about 70 per cent of approvals are for high density development – generally apartments – rather than lower density development.

Acceptable density depends on services

Patrick Fensham

Patrick Fensham, principal and partner of SGS Economics and Planning, says acceptable density depends on the level of services, amenities and transport that are being provided at different densities, as well as the form of the development.

“There is obviously a limit to how you can shuffle buildings around at a certain density,” he says. “It might be that you do have to start going very tall once you are wanting to really crank up the densities.”

However, he gives the example of terrace-housing in Paddington, which is the same density as Bondi Beach (three and four storey walk ups) and Bondi Junction (dominated by high-rise apartments with ground-level retailing).

“There are three locations near each other, which actually look very different even though, roughly speaking, they have about the same number of people or dwellings. So there are different ways of doing it and it’s about really the feeling on the street, and the services and amenities that are likely to be provided.

“Certainly it’s a new frontier for Australian cities, the sort of densities that are being talked about,” Fensham says. “Green Square, which the City of Sydney has been heavily involved in, is a high-density location as well – higher than we’ve ever done anywhere else – so they’ve been pushing that frontier, as well as Urban Growth at Waterloo.”

Leanne Hodyl progressing debate on density in Melbourne

Denser than New York and Hong Kong

Churchill Fellow and former City of Melbourne employee Leanne Hodyl released a report last year that highlighted that high-rise apartment towers were being built to accommodate 6290 people per ha in one particular Melbourne CBD pocket – more than triple the maximum density that would be allowed in Vancouver (1290 people per ha) and more than double what would be permissible in New York (2560 people per ha) or Hong Kong (2620 people per ha). These figures certainly dwarf the 700 people per ha feared for Waterloo.

The report found that weak, ineffective or non-existent policies enabled the approval of tower developments that were very tall, would squeeze out the space between buildings, and have little regard for the residents, the street and the value of the neighbouring properties.

Hodyl recommended establishing:

  • appropriate density controls in central Melbourne
  • density bonuses to link development to public benefit and incentivise the delivery of new open spaces, affordable housing and other community facilities
  • an enforceable tower separation role
  • apartment standards

The Victorian Government responded, introducing interim planning controls in September last year to rein in high-rise development. The interim rules applied some height controls over a small area of the city (about a fifth) but for the bulk of the CBD and Southbank a plot ratio approach (also known as floor area ratio or floor space ratio) was applied. The plot ratio calculates the building yield based on the bulk of the building in relation to the lot size. Melbourne was assigned a plot ratio of 24:1 and then in April when the proposed amendment, Melbourne Planning Scheme Amendment C270 – Central City Built Form Review, was exhibited, this figure was tightened to 18:1.

To give this context, Hodyl’s report found the building densities of recent high-rise developments had been 30:1 and even as high as 55:1.

Not enough to solve the problem

Michael Buxton. Photo: Australian Property Institute

RMIT planning expert Michael Buxton says the new rules were not especially onerous.

“It’s a welcome improvement but it’s far too little,” he says. “It’s really not what’s required to solve the problem in Melbourne.”

“Eighteen to one means you can build an 18-storey building on a block, boundary to boundary, but if you want to build higher you have to have setbacks,” Buxton says. “The further you set back the building, the higher you can build.”

Hong Kong allows 9.9:1 (with a bonus for better environmental design outcomes), New York City has up to 12:1 (with bonuses for affordable housing or creation of a plaza), Singapore allows 14:1 with bonuses, while Sydney has 15.4:1 with bonuses.

“In essence the plot ratio is a generous one; it’s the most generous in Australia,” Buxton says. “It’s still one of the most generous in the world for any world city, outside some of the big mega cities in Asia. So you can quite easily build quite a high building, you just have to have it set back. It’s not significantly disadvantaging developers; it’s simply introducing a bit of order into what previously was a complete free-for-all.”

No apartment standards for Melbourne

Unfortunately, the new rules do not mandate better quality design for apartments. So, unlike Sydney, there is no minimum size requirements, provisions for access to light for habitable rooms, or improved environmental performance. Ten thousand apartments are currently under construction.

“There are really no mandatory design rules or environmental rules governing the performance of buildings,” Buxton says. “And this is especially a problem because in the CBD buildings are being built according to the lowest standards in the Building Code of Australia and there are no energy-saving requirements or other environmental requirements.

“We are building some of the worst-quality high rise buildings in the world and this amendment isn’t really dealing with any of that.”

A time bomb in the CBD

In another blow, when the Victorian government introduced the interim controls it exempted applications that had already been lodged. Permits for 18,000 apartments are in the pipeline.

“This government introduced a savings clause, which allowed any application that had been lodged but not approved by the time the interim controls were introduced to be judged by the old rules, which were really no rules,” Buxton says.

“And the other significant thing is there’s a huge number of existing permits.”

Another 21,000 apartments.

“There’s almost as many proposed high-rise buildings subject to applications and existing permits as recent approvals.

“Because of the number of existing permits, in six, seven or eight years, Melbourne will see a whole raft of massive new towers going up under rules that applied eight years ago when the new rules were intended to stop that very type of construction. So the government has a time bomb on its hands basically. We will see all this construction occurring, which is totally undesirable and wouldn’t be permitted under the new system.

One hundred new high-rise towers have been approved.

“When you see the maps, it really does just stagger you,” Buxton says. “Melbourne is being fundamentally destroyed.”

Developer incentives

Melbourne’s proposed amendment provides guidelines for developers to go higher if they provide 10 per cent for public benefits. For example, a developer in Flagstaff building seeking an extra 8000 square metres would need to provide $7000 a square metre in public benefits. Ten per cent x 8000 sq m x $7000/sq m = $5.6 million – therefore public benefits totalling $5.6 million. These could be social housing, publicly accessible open areas or closed spaces, a competitive design process or, curiously, commercial office space.

“Instead of being forced to comply with mandatory minimum public benefit provisions in meeting very generous rules even under the new proposed system, developers are actually receiving a benefit from providing a return of some kind to the public,” Buxton says.

“The alternative that applies in many other cities around the world is that the public benefit is mandated as part of the approvals process for buildings of a certain size and this is simply a test, a criterion, which the developer has to meet in order to gain a permit for the application.”

According to Buxton, it’s a very generous incentive approach.

“What this is proposing is you can build to the plot ratio and you get all the benefit, and then if you want to provide a public benefit then we’ll let you build even higher!”

Are super tall buildings desirable?

To encourage the debate towards higher urban density, the Urban Taskforce pushes super tall buildings. Johnson says super tall buildings are warranted where land is expensive.

“I particularly championed height rather than horizontal spread as a critical part of this and part of the mix needs to be quite tall buildings where land value is very high around railway stations and back to mid-level heights in other locations,” he says.

While Sydney and Melbourne need a balance between different housing types, taller building are an important component, he says.

“I think as Australia is part of the world of global cities, and if you look at what is happening in all the major cities of the world including London and New York, more vertical living is becoming very much part of that.”

Height provides outlook and stops people feeling hemmed in, Johnson says. He gives the example of six-storey complexes in Rhodes and Homebush.

“People living in those are basically looking across a courtyard to similar housing next door,” he says. “When you go up into a tower next door, there are stunning views out over the Parramatta River and across the Olympic site and out to the mountains. That is one of the benefits that comes with taller buildings and it’s evidenced of course by the prices. The sale prices go up as you go up the height of the buildings.”

Fensham is not convinced.

“We can take a lot of parallels from other places. There are hyper-dense places which are awful and there are hyper-dense places that are okay, but we really need to understand those lessons and the history and culture of them.

“Amenities and services are going to be critical to make density work but … I’d be much happier if we were striving for a European city-type density,” he says. “There is sort of a uniform scale of Berlin or Paris where you have that four to five storeys and what it tends to be is more building on any block but clever private open space arrangements and clever relationship with public transport.”

While Berlin has 65 dwellings a hectare in mid-rise development, other places fit 65 or 70 dwellings per ha into high-rise towers in open space.

“Those European-type densities have a great proportion with the street,” Fensham says. “You have four to five storeys on either side of you, it’s somehow less imposing than 25 to 30 because it feels like the dimension is appropriate to your experience at street level.”

A new way of thinking

Fensham says we need to do a bit of “joined-up thinking” to integrate higher density living with social infrastructure planning, education planning and open space planning.

“The reality is it’s a new frontier for Australia,” he says. “So we are not doing it very well.

“We are moving to much more diverse urban environments but there’s teething problems because we really haven’t learnt, for example, how to retrofit schools into higher density environments.”

He says we are starting to learn some techniques around higher density schools and point to plans for a vertical school in South Melbourne designed by Hayball Architects as a good solution.

“But the fact that that is an innovation shows that we are really taking baby steps. We are just starting to think about how to get diversity, how to get social mix into our communities.”

Another challenge will be changing from the infill and intensification of old industrial land to the redevelopment of existing detached housing.

“We’ll see it in the Sydenham to Bankstown corridor (Sydney) where existing detached housing is being rezoned for higher density, and retrofitting open space and community facilities into those environments is more challenging,” he says.

While developers of old factory sites were agreeable to carving off a corner for a park or community centre, how do you convince landowners in existing streets to come to the party?

“How do you actually make that work in what was a detached-housing suburban street where the incentive for the owners is the fact that they are going to get multiple dwellings on the site that they own or they’re going to have greater development rights? There are real challenges in how to fit social infrastructure into those environments, which were more traditional suburban housing areas.”

Embrace the sharing mentality

Sydney is growing at about 1.5 per cent per year and, according to Johnson, that means we are going to have to double the number of homes in Sydney over the next 40 years.

“The only way we are going to do it is knit more density back into the city,” he says. “If it can be done in ways that people want to live … trendy cosmopolitan locations, then that is a very positive thing.”

He encourages people to take a leaf out of Rachel Botsman’s Collaborative Consumption book and embrace the sharing culture.

“Younger people want access to a whole lot of amenities rather than necessarily owning them so you don’t need to have a park as your back garden as long as there’s a park close by,” he says, “You don’t need have a garage as long as there are shared GoGet cars down in the basement.”

Instead of each house having its own swimming pool in the backyard, people share and have access to amenities.

“So for every 100 apartments there may be a shared swimming pool for instance,” Johnson says.

“I think that cooperative consumption instead of hyper-consumption is, in sustainability terms, a really important issue. If people can share and get access when they want these sorts of things, it’s a much better approach.”

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  1. The tower blocks going up all over London – 460 of them in the pipeline – are not for Londoners. They’re mainly places for rich foreigners to park their cash. A new asset class. They’re empty most of the time, London is full of stories of owners not bothering to pick up their keys.

    They contribute nothing to the liveliness of London and nothing to solving the pressing need for affordable housing, as Simon Jenkins observes:

    You absolutely do not need to go ‘super-tall’ to get the density of London, most of which is 2-4 storey walk-up terrace houses and flats, in streets that are interesting and varied to walk or cycle along. You just can’t get that with super-tall buildings, and you don’t even get the environmental benefits of density at those heights, since tall buildings use more energy per dwelling than medium rise. All towers do is make a few people very rich – a perfect urban form for the 1%.