Australia’s absurd skyscraper obsession

By Leith van Onselen

Professor Brendan Gleeson from the University of Melbourne has penned a somewhat contrarian article questioning the efficacy of what he calls “vertical sprawl” – the proliferation of low-quality high-rise apartments across the East Coast of Australia:

The towers crowding out the centre of Australian cities are a symptom of failed governance and planning, and it’s threatening any transition to ecocities…

To understand the major barrier to making our cities more sustainable and environmentally friendly places, just stand in the centre of almost any Australian city and look up. The chances are you will be in the shadow of a tall building totally reliant on air-conditioning and made from energy-intensive materials like steel.

Poet Dorothea Mackellar once lauded Australia for its “wide horizons” and “sweeping plains” but the country is now a land of high rises. Incredibly for its small population, Australia ranks sixth in the world for the number of buildings standing above 150m.

It has almost 100 such skyscrapers, putting it only behind more populous nations like China, the US, Japan, South Korea, and the small but land-constricted United Arab Emirates. Australia actually ranks fifth in the world for the number of buildings standing over 100m at 352.

Professor Brendan Gleeson, from the University of Melbourne, calls it “vertical sprawl” and it is spreading as more and more high rises are approved. He warns it is a symptom of a serious problem that threatens to block our cities from ever becoming sustainable ecocities — weak metropolitan governance that has left planning hostage to short-term profit seeking.

“By vertical sprawl I mean the poor-quality, high-density buildings that are increasingly compacting our cities,” says Professor Gleeson, the Director of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute. “They are poorly designed, poorly orientated and are being built too close together with little or no regard for urban and green spaces.”

Indeed, he notes that an international study has found that high-rise developments in Melbourne were being allowed at sometimes four times the maximum densities of Hong Kong, New York and Tokyo.

“The vertical sprawl has been driven by a combination of property developers seeking to maximise their yield from the high-value land in our inner cities, and a lack of regulation that has simply re-zoned areas for development and then just let the market rip.”

While there are suggestions that compact cities of high rises can be more sustainable and free up space, Professor Gleeson says the evidence indicates that high rises are much more energy and resource intensive than medium-density developments, such as low-rise buildings that don’t need lifts.

“It is very hard to design high rises that aren’t reliant on air-conditioning, so from the start you are on the back foot in terms of reducing energy consumption,” says Professor Gleeson.

“While high-density living is promoted as a supposedly green shift, it is these high-rise buildings that will prove the most vulnerable to climate change and rising temperatures”…

“We have enough evidence now to show that tall residential buildings perform surprisingly badly in terms of both water and energy consumption,” says Professor Gleeson. “You might build high-rise buildings for various reasons, such as if there is a land shortage, but there isn’t any environmental reason for building them.

“The first thing we have to do is dump this idea that we should Manhattanise Australian cities. Population growth means we do need to move towards more higher-density living, but we have to do it a lot better than we have been.

“What the evidence shows is that well-designed medium-density development comes out best.”

So much for the notion that limiting urban expansion and cramming people into high-rises is the environmentally friendly and sustainable thing to do.

Turns out that our major cities have instead merely replaced unsustainable urban sprawl with unsustainable vertical sprawl, with the resulting “vertical slums” of micro-apartments, as well as urban heat islands that lack greenery and recreation space.

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Comments

  1. “water and energy consumption”?

    Require 51% of new apartments to be double glazed. Stop 90% of them from having sub-5 star air conditioners and refrigerators.

    Unlike oil, water is not consumed but goes in a cycle. Heck, we have giant desalination plants now while people get burnt alive in houses and apartments due to the virtue-signalling ban on 45L/min shower heads. Brilliant! The planet is covered in water…

    • That would cost money, and make them less profitable. How about some cheap aluminium cladding instead to earn a green star?

    • drsmithyMEMBER

      LOL. Yeah, because a high flow shower head is going to stop a house – or even more hilariously, an apartment building – fire.

      FMD you come out with some stupid shit.

    • Jacob,

      Do some reading.

      Nearly 98% of the Earth’s water is in the oceans. Freshwater makes up less than 3% of water on earth, and over two-thirds of this is tied up in polar ice caps and glaciers. Freshwater lakes and rivers make up only 0.009% of water on Earth and groundwater makes up 0.28%.

      https://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz/murphymw/

  2. “The vertical sprawl has been driven by a combination of property developers seeking to maximise their yield from the high-value land in our inner cities, and a lack of regulation that has simply re-zoned areas for development and then just let the market rip.”

    That is totally what is happening in Sydney right now. State government sacked all the councils, rezoning everything around stations, removing planning controls and due process. No plans for any new parks, schools, local roads etc just people who are able to live in small, but pricey, apartments. That market certainly isn’t local families. And unlike low-rise development once they’re built, they’re there to stay.

  3. Having spent half of my life in Europe (indeed I grew up in Spain) I find it fascinating how Australia can at the same time brag about being environmentally conscious and f-up everything related to it. As a child visiting the grandparents in Melb I was rather envious of the green spaces, nature in your backyard, towns where you could play without getting runover… Now I think of how much Europe has improved in this regard and how much Australia has gone backwards and how the pace is quickening. In ten years even Asian cities like HK will be more liveable (Tokyo already is).

    • Singapore might be a better example than Hong Kong (which has a similar attitude to development as Sydney – in fact some of the same players behind it).

      • Depends what you like. Hong Kong still has nice corners like Sai Kung and Lantau or the NT areas around Tai Po and Tai Mo Shan. Singapore only has the Central reserve and everything else is a giant mall. I find it soul crushing (personal opinion entirely of course).

      • In terms of preserved green space Hong Kong is starting out from a better position, but in terms of new green architecture Singapore doing some amazing things, vertical gardens etc, whereas HK still just doing giant high rise towers that are mostly unaffordable to locals anyway.

  4. The Patrician

    “Population growth means we do need to move towards more higher-density living, but we have to do it a lot better than we have been.”
    I love how these self-appointed experts talk of “population growth” as though we have no choice.
    The entire analysis is built on a false premise.

  5. GeordieMEMBER

    “Think about tomorrow and not a day further. It’s the new Australian way.”
    “Profit: In Australia it is all that matters and it matters not who makes it – as long as someone is getting ahead”
    “Australians all let us rejoice! Our land for property monopoly.”
    “In a post-truth world, Australia is indeed a leader and innovator.”

  6. Philly SlimMEMBER

    “What the evidence shows is that well-designed medium-density development comes out best.”

    Which is why (Sydney) suburbs like Paddington, Surry Hills, etc are so popular. Victorian terrace houses are great to live in and have curb appeal to boot. I do not understand why we don’t have developers mimicking the Victorian terrace like they do in London. Every time I get the weekend Financial Times I see adverts in their property section for new build terraces. Makes too much sense.

    • Ronin8317MEMBER

      Because you make so much more money from selling a cheaply built dog box 2 bedroom apartment in Green Square for 1.2 million each.

    • Around me, any old house on a block that is large enough to subdivide is snapped up for a small fortune. But they don’t come up for sale very often. Nowhere near enough to make a difference, just an occasional small profit for a small builder.

      London, and many other European cities were built densely in a time when people got around on foot or horse. Sydney suburbs were built in the time of the motor car. Over time these suburbs will become denser but it will be a long piecemeal process.

    • My partner and I have just moved into a large terrace style townhouse in Canberra, and it’s bloody great. Highly livable and suits our circumstances very well. I wouldn’t want to live in a tower in a million years, even if it wasn’t clad with dried napalm.

    • Moving into a terrace was the best decision I’ve made. Completely agree we need more of this type of housing. I’m also a fan of low rise units. 4-5 stories. The older ones, avg 90sq for a two bedder… rented one a few years ago. Was great and no lift to boot. So strata would have been low.

    • kiwikarynMEMBER

      On my street, a small narrow Victorian terrace (one in a row of 5 of them) was demolished and in its place was built a 3 story block with an office and 5 one bedroom apartments.

  7. Totally agree Phil. We should be looking to London and Paris as examples of medium density, higher quality, aesthetically superior standards. The crap that’s being approved to go up in Melbourne is disgusting and a blight on this great city.

  8. LabrynthMEMBER

    The laws of re-zoning are backwards in NSW. When the Council or State proposes to re-zone land it should be compulsory acquired. At that point the land is demolished and a master plan created and then tendered out for purchase from the highest bidder.

    The state/council receives the benefit of the uplift in value, the re-zoned area is master planned to include all the amenities that people seek and there is overall a quality control process to make sure it goes to plan.

    Currently land is re-zoned, the land owners negotiate one-on-one with developers, each developer is looking to maximise their profit and build to their capacity. Ergo you get a lot of little developments that do not relate to each other and the current mess we have now where each building is built as cheap as possible with no regards to the overall amenity of the area.

    As Council will be receiving the benefit of the uplift in zoning they can afford to pay a larger premium to compulsory acquired land to make it political palatable.

    • truthisfashionable

      Sounds like you have been watching the disaster that is unfolding around Schofields, Riverstone and Marsden park.

      The disjointed pockets of housing estate developments are creating sectioned off little islands within the greater area. I doubt its changed but there didn’t seem to be any areas set aside for café strips, childcare centres or any small parks. Everything will be a short drive away.

    • +1 right now the windfall gains go to land owners. See the corridor along Parramatta Rd for example vales literally trebled along the road.

      The laws of re-zoning are backwards in NSW. When the Council or State proposes to re-zone land it should be compulsory acquired. At that point the land is demolished and a master plan created and then tendered out for purchase from the highest bidder.

      The state/council receives the benefit of the uplift in value, the re-zoned area is master planned to include all the amenities that people seek and there is overall a quality control process to make sure it goes to plan.

  9. AlbyManglesMEMBER

    the towers of sky kennels covered in chinese/british napalm cladding may be easier to simply blow up in 20 years time when they are an uncontrollable slum

  10. One of the problems with the high rises is that the higher the building more elevators are required, and consequently more floor space was occupied by the elevators.

  11. Good piece. You hit the nail on the head, governance is at the heart of this problem together with the Federal Govt population Ponzi. Governance is now code for ‘developers wishes’; governments of both persuasions are nothing else that developers lapdogs. At the heart of all this problem is the Federal Gov’t policy of mass migration which supplies 200,000+ people as desired by developers and big business. In this environment, no-one should expect any semblance of proper governance by a proper government! Incidentally, the australian people have never been consulted about this level of immigration, the 3 main parties (ALP, LNP & Greens) are just responding to business despite the majority of people disapproving of mass migration.

  12. If the vertical sprawl had happened before the horizontal sprawl happened, then the green areas and recreational areas would be on the outside edges of the vertical sprawl and beyond. In reality, that’s just where the horizontal sprawl begins.

  13. DarkMatterMEMBER

    Hi rise buildings in the megacities just entrench the parasitic nature of these places. Also, you need to ask exactly what is the function of the vertical slum? What does the city produce that requires this density and power consumption. At least you get eggs from battery hens.

    • These are sophisticated knowledge workers, producing and marketing high tech digital services content.

    • DarkMatterMEMBER

      Yes, it is a new age utopia in the big cities now. Well worth the odd spontaneous combustions here and there.