The density dilemma

By Ross Elliott, cross-posted from The Pulse:

A recent decision by Brisbane City Council to restrict townhouse and similar ‘missing middle’ housing product to areas actually zoned for it has been met with hostility from some parts of the urban planning community. It has been exaggerated as a “total ban” and labelled variously as “terrible news,” a “huge mistake” and “a disgraceful decision.” Setting aside the emotions that this decision has triggered, the decision highlights a potentially widening gap between the views and aspirations of residents and the preferred planning solutions of urban designers and planners. Is there a solution, other than duelling pistols at 50 paces?

Brisbane, along with Sydney and Melbourne, is a city dealing with the pressures of a rapidly growing urban population. Federal Minister for Cities & Population last week (19 Nov 2019) declared at a Committee for Brisbane event that he believed Melbourne – his home city – was probably 20 years behind in the infrastructure needed to keep pace with its growth. Similar observations could apply elsewhere.

It’s not just our inability to fund and deliver infrastructure at the speed required that’s seen us fall behind, it’s also the speed of growth itself. Australia’s major cities have set themselves a blistering pace in terms of urban growth, as illustrated in the chart below. Our rates of growth are similar to Chinese mega cities like Shanghai or Beijing, and well ahead of comparably productive, profitable cities of the west with qualities we often seek to emulate.

Accommodating these almost frenetic rates of growth has for more than 20 years seen Australian state and local governments adopt a pro-density housing model which seeks to prevent outward growth and to encourage higher density living in established urban areas. While there is much logic behind this, it also means – for existing residents of those areas – potentially significant changes to the residential environments they’ve been used to.

To reassure residents, planning strategies sometimes got carried away with over-promising the benefits of higher urban densities. This blurb from the 2013 version of the Draft Metropolitan Strategy for Sydney is one example: “A home I can afford. Great transport connections. More jobs closer to where I live. Shorter commutes. The right type of home for my family. A park for the kids. Local schools, shops and hospitals. Livable neighbourhoods.” Few Sydneysiders would think those promises have since been delivered. Many might suggest the opposite.

Other planners were highly critical of the infill ambitions that were central to various state and regional plans. Nationally respected planner Tony Powell AO described Melbourne’s version at the time (“Melbourne 2030”) as “superficial to the point of ridiculousness.”

He went on to say (in 2007): “The proposition in the latest crop of metropolitan strategy plans that 50% or more of future housing development can be accommodated in existing suburban areas of the major cities is patently ridiculous. These are simply unexamined and unreliable hypotheses, not strategies.”

Fast forward to today and the arrival of higher density housing forms into traditionally low-density suburban housing is not going down well with residents. In some neighbourhoods, residents are positively hostile. To whom do they express that hostility? Not to the urban planners and architects who have actively promoted the benefits of density (while downplaying its flipside) but to their local, elected representatives.

This is democracy at work, and local representatives have a duty to reflect those concerns. In Brisbane’s case, those concerns saw the Liberal majority Council introduce restrictions on townhouse and “missing middle” housing form in low density neighbourhoods. The fact that this amendment was supported by the opposition Labor Councillors suggests it’s feedback they are getting also. The community have voiced their opinions and the legislators and elected representatives have listened. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?

The reality of the restrictions is far from a blanket city-wide ban, as some critics have tried to make out. Townhouses can continue to be developed in areas zoned for them: in low-medium density zones, character residential infill zones, and in medium density zones. There have reportedly also been some 40ha of ‘emerging community’ zoned land which is no longer eligible for townhouse development (which is old news).

Neighbourhood plans are also in a process of ongoing renewal, meaning additional zones suited for townhouse development can be created in the future, especially in and around transit or infrastructure nodes. The community simply doesn’t want to see townhouses arrive in suburban streets of detached homes where the zoning is low density. They understand low density to mean just that. They want town plans to deliver on what they say.

(Previously, if a 3000m2 block was available in a low density residential zone, or if one was amalgamated, developers could apply to develop a townhouse product irrespective of the low density zone. You can understand why this went down with locals like a ton of bricks).

But it’s been the hostile reaction of some parts of the planning community which has been enlightening. There is, it seems, a low regard by some for the right of the community to have an opinion on what gets built in their neighbourhood, near the property they own and on which they pay their taxes and (for many) want to raise their family.

In this case, the Council was criticised “particularly for ignoring the advice and submissions of industry experts” because “the community doesn’t understand the full story because they are not experts in the field of City design and planning.”

The Housing Industry Association chipped in: “This is plainly and simply a political move because they want to win the election next year.” Meaning doing what the community wants and hoping to be returned on that basis is now a bad thing?

Another commented: “It’s concerning that we listen to the general public for planning in our city rather than the experts who understand growth of a city.” Wow. Let the import of that statement sink in for a moment.

The tone in all this is “leave this to the experts.” Respect your betters. If the community fail to appreciate the wider planning objective being served by the arrival of unwelcome housing forms into their immediate neighbourhoods, they need re-education. How Orwellian.

Those sentiments obviously don’t represent the majority of the urban design profession. But the industry as whole might need to be mindful that the challenges of bringing the community with them, and in describing the benefits of housing forms such as townhouses, is something that can’t be taken for granted, nor can community opinions (nor their right to hold them) be dismissed so readily as the views of “non-experts.”

So the solution? I don’t know – but slagging off at the community isn’t one of them. There are design prototypes that are perhaps less likely to provoke community resistance, and there are many people who could welcome the cost and opportunity this type of housing can provide – from low income households to seniors to first home buyers. Maybe the community hasn’t seen as much of the ‘well designed’ product they can actually afford, but rather have seen perhaps too much of the product that is cheaply designed with little regard to its lasting community impact?

Either way, a lot more listening and a lot more respect of community opinion – and the people who are elected to listen to it – would go a long way.


  1. The worst thing is that the pretext that density “will restore affordability” is the opposite of all the evidence. Land prices are highly elastic in the wrong direction. The denser a city becomes due to mandates from planners, the higher the median per-unit price goes. All the median-multiple-3 cities have, as their median home, something with close to a 1/4 acre section. This is another demonstration, from the low end of the data, how elastic the price of land is.

    • Precisely, affordability is achieved with less density and moving people out more to create new cities/areas, slamming everyone in the same space creates competition for resources and hence prices rises.

    • unit prices in sydney are not high because land is expensive or because construction is expensive or because infrastructure is expensive … they are expensive because we are in the middle of property ponzi …
      mirvac, meriton, … and other large developers have profit margins of 50% or even over 70%
      that means that unit prices could be almost half the price and developers making world standard profit margins of 10%

      it’s the easy credit money and property craze that make prices high

      all other things, including density, planning, building code, … are relatively irrelevant

      • I’m talking about evidence derivable from “the data set of all cities”. If what you say about Sydney “developer profits” is true, then the super profits are simply a form of extractive land rent, nothing else. It assumes that the developer has held the site through a period during which the prices have inflated.

        In fact it is a chronic distortionary problem in cities being forced to “intensify”, that the value of “sites” generally inflate to represent their “development potential”, and developers have to pay this price upfront and still make approximately the same return on “added value”. Their risk is increased, their holding cost is increased, and they are caught in a gladiatorial battle with each other to win sites and also win sales for finished product. It is an “incumbent site owners” paradise, not a developers paradise.

        This is why it is common in these planning-created situations where there is a housing shortage and inflating prices, developers are going broke! The UK illustrates this over the long term; from cycle to cycle to cycle, the real prices have infalted and the shortage has worsened – and the developer sector has suffered a high rate of attrition.

        In so far as your anecdote is true, it has to involved a minority of clever operators who are gaming the “land” system – for example, obtaining the sites with inside knowledge that they can achieve upzoning afterwards. They know full well that under these distorted, planning-created conditions, they can make more money by cramming in more units. This is the opposite to the shallow and false assumption that underlies current planning fads, that site values are static and cramming more units in results in site costs divided up over more units, and hence lower prices per unit.

        • but than this is not any different than what’s going on with houses
          rundowns on 600sqm in inner west are selling for $2m so they can be knocked down, block subdivided and sold for 1.5m each
          cost of construction is just a tiny portion

          • That’s exactly part of my point. Those shocking prices represent the “development potential” in the distorted market, of the sections those dilapidated houses are on. It is entirely likely that thousands of “houses” themselves are far more expensive than otherwise, because of the upzoning that has occurred. Even if only a few of them are actually sold to developers and redeveloped, ALL of them will be priced at the level representing “development potential”, even those sold to desperate private buyers intending to live there!

            I believe I’ve explained to you before, that freedom to convert rural land ex-fringe to urban use, anchors the “urban land rent curve” so that site values do remain static in the case of intensification. This used to be the norm, and the fad-ridden professions, including economics, are incurious about the systemic change in urban land markets that means the old norms no longer apply, thanks to the prohibition on ex-fringe land supply.

            Even things like negative gearing used to merely help increase the supply of rental housing; low interest rates just enabled people to pay off debt faster, and actually stimulated the economy; population growth merely flowed through to economies of scale in housing supply. The “anti sprawl” fad has screwed EVERYTHING.

  2. Town planning elites have utter contempt for the wishes of citizens.

    Elite town planners and elite crony developers who profit from rezoning decisions have a simple plan of action:

    * Rezone to high density to give windfall to cronies (and indirectly self)
    * Sardine-stuff immigrants/poor/bogans/deplorables (OTHER PEOPLE) – into the high density housing
    * Take ill-gotten gains and use to buy house for self where high density is banned.

  3. This may actually work if the feedback to these local councils from residents flows to: State Governments, and then to the Feds, and then to the Treasury Department technocrats who influence immigration levels.

    If no Council will increase its density, then let Gerry Harvey build a new new city to accommodate 250,000 new people each year.

    • Actually what they need is diversity.

      I’m warehousing a policy where voting for the Greens will be a de facto referendum on personally living with refugees in your vicinity.

      If you vote for the Greens, you must be tolerant, therefore you can help our cause with the highest of tolerance refugees need.

      So the seat of Melbourne for example will have the highest placement of refugees. Seats like Cooper will have high refugees too.

      If a seat has zero green 1st preference votes, this seat will have no refugees placed in the area. If existing refugees are there, then they will be relocated to a seat in proportion with the green votes it received.

      Vote green, and you will directly increase the presence of refugees in your area, near your train stations at night, near the ATM’s you do your banking, near your daughter’s school.

      You will be culturally enriched.