Let’s hope the rush to the regions doesn’t mean duplicating the urban planning mistakes we’ve made in our cities.

People are evacuating Australia’s big cities in search of affordable, comfortable regional living in droves.

Growing demand is driving up house prices. This week CoreLogic reported a 4.7 per cent increase in home values across NSW regions in the last quarter compared to a 1.6 per cent increase in Sydney.

In Victoria, the trend is the same, with 4.8 per cent increase for the regions last quarter compared with 2.1 per cent in Melbourne. In regional Queensland, house values are up 4.6 per cent compared to 2.5 per cent in Brisbane, with the Sunshine Coast feeling particularly sharp rises.

Most agree that Covid is driving the trend, in some way or another, although long before the pandemic people had already been trickling out of cities and into commutable towns in search of more affordable housing.  

Spurring the move now is a growing acceptance of working from home, at least a couple of days a week.

Another driver is changing economic circumstances due to low interest rates, JobKeeper, tax cuts, early access to super and no overseas holidays to spend money on. Then there’s the run on blocks of land as people look to take advantage of government incentives such as the HomeBuilder grant.

For many living in the regions, the interest is welcome. Many of these places are desperate for investment of any kind that might create jobs and prosperity for the community.  

For others, it means property is becoming less affordable to buy and fewer rentals.

Without good strategic planning, there is also the potential loss of local character, liveability and sustainability as poorly serviced, car dependant, treeless suburbs start eating into the farmland and bushland that made the towns attractive in the first place.

This problem of substandard sprawling development around commutable regional towns and on the outskirts of major cities – which may soon become the same thing if this pattern continues – pre-dated Covid but there’s concern that accelerating growth could make matters worse.

House prices going ballistic in commutable towns

Ballarat, a heritage-rich Gold Rush town that’s only a 1.5 hour train-ride west of Melbourne, was already popular with people looking for cheaper housing outside the capital. But Ron Morrison, managing director of Ballarat Real Estate, says the last few months have been the most buoyant period he’s experienced in the 40 years he’s been working in the area.

He says the building industry is “flat out”, with tradespeople struggling to keep up with demand for building new homes. Finding someone to do the work is tough, he says, and it is a “bit of a worry” that standards will probably drop in a bid to keep up with the demand.

Bush block for sale in Dereel, 30 mins from Ballarat. Via Bartrop Real Estate.

On the flip side, he says it doesn’t help that the local council, which has been embroiled in leadership problems, isn’t approving green field sites with any urgency.

The result of few lots on which to build new homes is the price of established homes is rocketing upwards.

Towns further out also experiencing rising house prices

Even in a town like Wagga Wagga, NSW, that doesn’t fall into the commutable distance from Sydney (although it is under three hours from Canberra), house prices are rising.

Paul Gooden, director at Fitzpatrick Real Estate in Wagga Wagga, says there’s been a sharp increase in values and demand.

He says it’s less about tree-changers and more about people having more money to spend on property, and realising that there’s a profit to be made.

The town is also experiencing a huge supply of renters and not enough rental properties, he says, with his agency’s rental vacancy rate hovering around 1 per cent.

On top of that, Gooden says there’s a shortage of land for new builds, with the government’s HomeBuilder grant driving demand for empty lots.

A culture of big lots and car dependency is baked into the regions

In the past, Gooden says new housing development in Wagga was fairly homogenous, with little diversity in housing types. But the council has recently changed its tune, and is favouring more multi-level zones with higher height caps.

Gooden sees the value in denser, less car dependent communities but says it’s “not the way people think in rural NSW at the moment”. He’s pretty sure it’s compulsory to include a car park in every lot in Wagga right now.

What these development patterns mean for human and environmental health

The failure to connect-the-dots between Australia’s appetite for big semi-rural blocks and environmental degradation and diminishing food bowls is something that keeps liveability expert Dr Iain Butterworth awake at night.

For Butterworth, who helped to establish the Victorian Liveability research program led by RMIT’s Healthy Liveable Cities Group, the development patterns in Australia’s growing regional towns is worrying.

He says the ingredients that go into thriving 20-minute communities are effectively the same everywhere you go. There’s usually a thriving town centre; walkable, green, compact streets; energy needs supplied by low carbon technologies; places to work, learn and play; and infrastructure that is inclusive of different ages, genders, disabilities and cultures.

Although plans for many new subdivisions include these features, Butterworth says the final product rarely matches the glossy renderings in the brochure.

He’s seen it play out in a rapidly expanding outer western suburb of Melbourne that was designated a growth area by the state government. An attractive precinct plan was mocked up, which included a train station. Thousands of residents have since moved in, having been sold a dreamy lifestyle at a price point they could afford, but the infrastructure has not been delivered.

What these residents failed to realise, Butterworth says, is that the train station – and other crucial pieces of infrastructure – were merely conceptual. The plan is to build the train line eventually, he explains, but only once enough people move in. And this might not be for another 15 or 20 years.

In the meantime, residents are stuck in car dependent, lifeless, low density suburbs, where they have to drive an hour to get to a doctor’s appointment.

“You should be planning for access, not planning for population.”

Not only is liveability sacrificed but so is a community’s ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change. People are stuck in fossil fuel-intensive cars to get around, and in suburbs with sparse, immature tree cover and lots of concrete that worsens urban heat.

He also says these sort of growth corridors are filled up with seemingly little thought given to the sustainability and resilience of the population, with much of the land released prime agricultural land.

“Often the first pieces of infrastructure to go into any new subdivision is a Maccas, a Thirsty Camel and somewhere to play the pokies.”

Butterworth says the tendency to release land for greenfield development is derived from Australia’s colonial history. He says it’s less common in Europe, where space is at more of a premium. In progressive urban planning countries such as The Netherlands it would be considered “bad urban planning practice” to put in a new suburb without heavy train infrastructure.

“You’re condemning people to a high body mass index, less time at home with their families, mental distress from long commutes.”

This is all made worse by the “toxic infrastructure” that seems to worm its way into new subdivisions straight away.

“Often the first pieces of infrastructure to go into any new subdivision is a Maccas, a Thirsty Camel and somewhere to play the pokies.”

Planning needs to be better

In the regions, planning resources for councils are often tight. Steven Liaros, who has a background in urban planning and infrastructure and has been traversing the nation talking to councils about his vision for small regenerative settlements, says that when it comes to strategic planning, councils can often only manage the bare minimum.

Liaros says it differs from council to council, however, with some doing exemplary strategic planning work, especially in towns that are spurred on by a forward-thinking community, such as Bellingen in NSW.

Butterworth agrees that councils often do excellent strategic planning but it’s often overridden by state government interests. Development is a big money maker for state governments, which means powers to rezone boundaries and overturn planning schemes made at the municipality level are often misused.

“With more people moving toward the regions, how can we welcome new people without losing the identity of a place?”

He says that in state planning legislation, the onus is typically on the community to say why a development shouldn’t go ahead, not that the developer should prove why it should go ahead.

We only have one type of settlement pattern

In an interview with The Fifth Estate last year, Queensland University of Technology’s Dr Mirko Guaralda also expressed his concerns about transplanting urban planning templates favoured by major cities into smaller towns. 

He and some of his colleagues are hoping to study the topic, which would include looking at alternative models for human settlements.

He says that in Australia, we rely on just a couple of models of development.

“There is not really an exploration of different models of settlements, such as a greater focus on medium density.”

Interconnected villages in parts of Europe could be something to consider, but as Guaralda explains, it’s less about picking winners and more about opening the door to alternatives to Australia’s default city structure of a dense urban centre surrounded by low-density sprawl.

Village in Germany. Photo by Angel Barnes on Unsplash

“With more people moving toward the regions, how can we welcome new people without losing the identity of a place?”

Commuting isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either (unless it’s well thought out)

Before the pandemic, Todd Denham, a researcher at RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research, did his PhD on how commuting from regional areas in Victoria impacted people and the communities they lived in.

While the rise of commuting households was found to improve the quality of jobs in the regions, and leads to more jobs in supermarkets and cafes, the migration of highly paid city workers also drives up house prices in those towns, which can price existing residents out.

He also says that commuting residents tend to go no further than 1-2 hours away, because even in post-Covid times, he suspects people will still need to go into major cities a few days a week. He can’t see the Covid-induced regional boom extending outside these commutable zones in the longer term.

Trains make a longer commute more doable, but it’s important to be able to treat the commute as work time. That means having a spot to sit down, he says.

Some urban planners have called for good internet access on trains to encourage more dispersed living.

As to whether the pandemic will intensify these trends or whether tree changers head back to the city as the crisis abates will be interesting to watch.

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  1. Some excellent food for thought. As a community, we now have a great opportunity to expand upon our traditional settlement models; an innovative local response to a global pandemic. The big question is : Who will lead the charge?