Get social to increase density

Almost everyone with an interest in the future development of Melbourne agrees that a key strategy for dealing with unprecedented population growth is to increase the supply of multi unit housing in the suburbs.

Unfortunately there is also a consensus that this objective will be hard to achieve given the near certainty that existing residents will fight tooth and claw to resist new developments in their neighbourhood.

I’ve argued previously (Increasing multi unit housing supply) that the only way to increase supply is to tip the balance between the interests of established residents and new settlers in favour of the latter group.

It might nevertheless be possible to attenuate the level of conflict to some degree by improving behavioural factors. These are often over-looked by planners and architects whose natural tendency is usually to see solutions in spatial and physical terms.

It might be that more effective regulation of behaviour is the single most important action that could be taken to assuage the concerns of existing residents. The logic goes like this. For any household living quietly in a detached house, there is always a chance that life in the suburbs might some day take a turn for the worse.

Those friendly, quiet and considerate neighbours in the house next door might move out and be replaced in the worst-case scenario by neighbours who play loud music, have noisy pool parties and drive too loud and too fast.  The new neighbours might not mow the nature strip or front lawn and might consistently let their rubbish bins overflow on the street.

And if that happens there’s not much the aggrieved household can do, especially about noise. Police either don’t have the powers to take practical action or don’t regard neighbourhood noise as a priority. The distressed residents install energy-guzzling air conditioning, close the windows, put in ear plugs and try to bear it.

These sorts of fears are multiplied in the minds of existing residents when they contemplate the possibility of multi unit housing being built nearby.

Their fears are threefold. First, the probability of getting a ‘bad’ neighbour goes up with larger multi unit developments simply because there are now more neighbours within the same critical distance. Second, the demographics of multi unit housing favour younger people who are more likely to have parties, play loud music, stay up late and generally have a good time. Third, multi unit residents are more likely to rent and hence have less incentive to invest in preserving good relations with neighbours.

And whatever noise is created is likely to travel very efficiently to the ears of existing residents when it is transmitted from a second, third or fourth floor apartment without intervening walls, fences and shrubs to attenuate it, as is likely with sound emanating from the ground floor of a house.

Superior design of new developments can possibly go a little way toward ameliorating unwanted sound transmission but the fact is the developer has to make a profit; each unit has to have windows; and almost all customers want a balcony or courtyard. In any event not all developers are interested in ‘good’ design and not all architects are ‘superior’ – the distribution of architectural talent is presumably something like a bell curve.

What is really needed is a recognition that these sorts of issues primarily require social rather than physical remedies. While social norms regarding appropriate neighbourly behaviour might have been enough to mediate almost all differences between neighbours in the 60s and 70s, that is not enough today. Lifestyles, domestic technology (particularly amplified sound) and possibly even personal attitudes to strangers have all changed.

The answer could lie in better access to third party interventions when behaviour becomes un-neighbourly. If existing residents were confident that they had an effective form of redress in the event their new neighbours’ behaviour was objectionable, then it is likely their opposition to new developments would be lessened. Clearly this could also apply vice versa.

The meat of this strategy is ultimately stronger regulation and policing of undesirable behaviour. Having access to effective remedies might also make multi unit housing a more attractive option for residents who otherwise elect to live in a detached house on the fringe.

The loser here is the ‘rogue neighbour’ who may be at risk of over-zealous implementation. This cost would need to be balanced against the social advantages of happier neighbours and increased housing supply in established areas.

6 Comments on “Get social to increase density”

  1. Michael says:

    A very interesting article. You correctly identify the often unspoken fears people have about increases in density. Having lived in countries with much higher densities where the cultures are different and anti-social behaviour that negatively impacts is much less tolerated I can imagine how it might not work in Australia without some kind of official mechanism. Maybe body corporates could somehow become liable for the nuisances their members cause.

  2. […] successful cities, there need to be non-physical changes in how we regulate behaviour (for example, see here). Nor should we import foreign solutions directly – we need to adapt to local […]

  3. Matthew says:

    Bring back terraces I say. Higher density, without the multi unit stigma. Garages aren’t needed by everyone these days either.

  4. […] I’ve discussed here, fear of inconsiderate behaviour – and powerlessness when it happens – is one of the reasons […]

  5. Ian Woodcock says:

    Two questions:

    1. What evidence is there that resident fears actually have a material effect on the distribution and take-up rate of medium-density housing?

    2. Who are the members of this ‘consensus’, and is there any evidence that they have had a material effect on the distribution and take-up rate of medium-density housing?

  6. […] to non-physical ways of managing the inevitable conflicts inherent in higher densities. As I’ve discussed before, the law around issues like noise simply hasn’t kept up with the shift to new housing […]

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