Sydney aerial water

OPINION: High-density living gets a bad rap in Australia – largely because we’ve not been particularly good at it. While cities like Singapore have led the way in establishing and maintaining communities in high-density developments, Australia has wrestled with the concept.

As a nation of paddocks and quarter-acre blocks, we’ve been slow to embrace the success of high-density builds that bring people together. An underlying barrier is the perception that apartments are not suitable to raise young children. As a result, we’ve held onto a culture of individualism over a more European and Asian dynamic, where multi-generations live under one roof.

In Singapore, elderly family members tend communal gardens for the younger generations to enjoy in the evenings and on weekends. While it’s not the norm for extended families to live together in Australia, there’s a case for it – the familiarity of childcare and aged care onsite.

Attitudes to high-density are changing

But developers are starting to shift their thinking as they realise the value that comes from creating community. At the same time, buyers are becoming more discerning, choosing to live closer to amenities and transport while hopeful a community might be borne.

In the drive to build community across Australian cities, towns and suburbs, developers play an integral role. Local developers with a local focus are adding to the local identity – they create places that welcome a sense of belonging, spaces for locals to linger. The built environment can be a constructive force for social change and the property industry is uniquely placed to invoke a sense of community that will maximise social value. A vital step to measuring social value starts with speaking to the people who will ultimately benefit.

Community-centred developments based on engagement and evidence-based decisions tend to leave a more positive imprint on our landscape as people become part of the process and feel in control of their environment. With more buyers looking to live in apartments and townhouses there’s an expectation that community is worth something.

We’re starting to see non-market factors – social inclusion, health and wellbeing – begin to have real value attached to them. We’re developing ways to value benefits beyond the usual metrics, using formulas like Social Value and the more stakeholder informed Social Return on Investment, both of which have been developed from traditional Cost-Benefit Analysis.

Success stories already starting to emerge

Developers can build much more than merely living spaces. We’re seeing this now in Australia. At Harold Park in Glebe, Sydney, a redevelopment success story was the product of community-centred planning, design and development. 

The finished product is a multi-offering and multi-dimensional community environment carefully planned and co-designed. It’s far from the regrettable burst of uninhabitable dwellings built for international investors. 

Whole communities can be born out of well-planned mixed-use developments. Investing in critical social assets like hospitals can create a similar vibrancy, catalysing wider community economic activation by creating homes for specialists, practitioners and their families nearby. Such precincts also encompass greater levels of social value capture: for example, by providing the resources for the development of community-based health care programs. 

There are also added health and environmental benefits of high-density living, with increased walkability to local amenities and services like supermarkets, medical facilities and schools. Residents are encouraged to leave their cars behind, meet their neighbours and immerse themselves in the local community.

We need innovation in development

24,000 new apartments have been launched in 2018 according to a recent Urbis report, however sales rates have been lacklustre for the last two years.

In order to stimulate interest in apartment living, we need innovative thinking to deliver residential and community developments that are cost effective and able to meet social objectives. A great development is an economic and social exercise, not just a planning exercise.

It’s not about selling buyers “the dream” or working with an image consultant to target new demographics. Instead, great developments share and connect with communities, they are living places.

As we face the challenge of creating homes for the population boom forecast across Australia’s already expanding cities, developers can lead the way in educating the market, creating community-focused places that encourage ownership and pride of place.

It’s an exciting time – not one to be feared – if we can embrace this opportunity to alter how Australians live in high-density homes, now and for the future. 

Richard Gibbs is the economic and social advisory director at Urbis.

Spinifex is an opinion column open to all, so called because it’s at the “spikey” end of sustainability. Spinifex, the grass, may be inconvenient or annoying at times, but in fact, it’s highly resilient in a hostile environment and essential to biodiversity and holding the topsoil together. So too, we hope, our column. If you would like to contribute, we require 700+ words. For a more detailed brief and style guide please email

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  1. Harold Park may be as good as it gets from a private developer, but it is architecturally and socially homogeneous (at least in terms of SES) and we need to build diverse communities that reflect the society as a whole – social levies are a start but not enough _ Bruce Lay

  2. Spot on Richard. As one of the City of Sydney consultants for Harold Park, I know that the focus was very much on the public places and spaces of Harold Park; connecting community internally and surrounding the site; and adding value for all. The essentials of place making. This was the starting point with input from existing residents and stakeholders informing our work. The outcomes are evident – a vibrant, valued place with its own identity but stitched into the urban and social fabric of Glebe and Sydney. And a great outcome for the developer, businesses, new residents and the existing community.