Urban infill dystopia is cooking our cities under concrete

For years, the development industry and urban planners have called for Australia’s supposedly underutilised middle-ring suburbs to be bulldozed for apartments and townhouses in order to house the many millions of extra migrants projected to inundate our cities over coming decades:

This transformation into a dense urban form is to be most stark in Sydney, where the Urban Taskforce projects that only one quarter of dwellings will be detached houses in 2057, down significantly from 55% currently:

This transformation will obviously also see reduced access to green space, according to Infrastructure Australia’s modelling, as Melbourne’s and Sydney’s populations balloon to a projected 7.3 million and 7.4 million people by 2046 (see last row below):

An issue conveniently ignored by these geniuses is that in addition to eroding all markers of liveability (see above), their urban infill utopia will also make our cities hotter, causing increased heat-related deaths.

With canopy coverage declining across almost every city, researchers have again sounded the alarm:

Australian cities are increasingly becoming concrete jungles as trees and canopy coverage disappear, according to experts who warn this is contributing to an urban “heat island” effect…

A national initiative — called Greener Spaces Better Places — brings together academic, government and industry groups to promote further greenery in our cities.

Its research says black bitumen and dark roofs compound the already-hot days by creating a so-called heat island effect, absorbing heat and radiating it back like an oven.

It has estimated this can create on-ground temperatures as high as 55 degrees in the sun.

Compounding the issue, a 2017 report by the group, titled Where Should All The Trees Go, found canopy coverage in urban areas had declined in almost every state and territory…

The reasons for greenery loss were varied and complex, said RMIT associate professor in international planning, Marco Amati.

In some areas, greenery might be lost because houses were getting bigger and land plots were smaller, so there was less space for plants, he said…

“Land in cities is absolutely at a premium … and realistically [councils] don’t control very much of their own land,” he said…

Dr Tony Matthews – a senior lecturer in urban and environmental planning at Griffith University – has also explicitly warned that infill development is driving the heat-island problem:

“Heat stress actually causes more deaths in Australia than all of the other natural disasters combined”…

Middle-ring suburbs were more likely to be the leafy, cool retreats created by postwar architecture and planting…

“The real problem comes when we try and increase densities, which we have done in a suburban context through a quality called urban consolidation,” he said.

“And that has been taken up through most of the capital cities, all of the capital cities, in fact.

“It’s squeezing more floorspace out of less land, so that’s why we’re seeing so many apartments, so many townhouses, we’re also seeing a reduction in block sizes from maybe 700 metres or 650 metres to 400 metres.”

Squeezing more properties onto land means there is less room for parks, trees, or anything other than constructed buildings, he said.

The result is dense, urban fringe suburbs with little greenery and houses with no gardens, parks reduced in size as competition for tenancy grows…

“What I feel we have done with these suburbs is we have locked them into a pattern of heat stress, limited outdoor activity, limited use of the public realm, and all of the problems that come with that because they’re not green enough and in some cases they don’t have the potential to be any greener,” Dr Matthews said.

The infill utopia of jamming millions more people into the existing urban footprint will necessarily chew-up green space as backyards, trees and open space are removed to make way for additional dwellings. And this will necessarily exacerbate the ‘heat island’ effect afflicting our cities, in turn raising energy use (think air conditioners).

Clearly, maintaining green infrastructure in our major cities is not consistent with the projected explosion of their populations via mass immigration, along with planning rules that force increased population density.

The first best solution to this problem is to slash immigration back toward the historical average, thereby slowing the destruction of green space:

Address the problem at its source.

Leith van Onselen
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