Do fringe dwellers want density?Posted: November 11, 2010
The benefits of residential density are more complex than they appear. The attractions of living cheek by jowl in places like Surfers Paradise or the CBD may not apply everywhere, especially on the fringes of our major cities.
Almost everyone knows, it seems, that density has enormous benefits. It is correlated with lower levels of car ownership, fewer kilometres driven and higher public transport use. It lowers infrastructure costs and is also associated with lower consumption of energy and water. According to some, it’s even connected with higher levels of social capital and lower rates of obesity.
However most of the benefits – both private and social – do not derive from density per se but rather from location. Lots of people want to live in high amenity places like the beachfront or in proximity to the jobs, entertainment opportunities and transport infrastructure of somewhere like the city centre. These sorts of places are in short supply so demand can only be met by increasing density.
Higher density necessarily means less land per dwelling but it doesn’t inevitably mean smaller dwellings. However unless you’re filthy rich, one of the compromises you will have to make to capitalise on a sought-after location is a smaller dwelling. The 350 m2 McMansion on the fringe might at best be a 140 m2 three bedroom unit on the top of Doncaster Hill or an 80 m2 two bedroom unit in Docklands.
The point is that many of the social benefits associated with density – like higher public transport use and lower car ownership – are a function of the location, not the dwelling type. In turn, lower energy and water use is not primarily a direct function of density but rather a result of their smaller size.
This might seem self-evident or even a distinction of no more than academic interest. But as I’ve argued before, the failure to fully understand what density is, can lead to bad policy. It is also a particularly pertinent point in the context of advocating higher densities in places like fringe Growth Areas.
Growth Areas don’t generally have the sorts of location-specific attractions associated with denser areas. From a settler’s point of view, the value of living at density in a Growth Area is much harder to discern that it is in the inner city. The value of living in a small dwelling is no doubt even harder to see.
A household moving into a small two bedroom apartment in the inner city is trading off space for accessibility to a range of work and social opportunities. On the fringe however, any household looking at a smaller dwelling attached to others has to wonder what the offsetting benefits are.
The only really compelling reason to choose to live at a higher density in a Growth Area is affordability. Density in this context might not mean a townhouse but rather a diminutive lot with a smaller than average detached house (although still considerably larger than an inner city apartment).
There’s already clear evidence of a shift toward higher densities on the fringe at the lower end of the market. For example, Stockland, offered 213 m2 lots in its Highlands development at Craigieburn. It still has (149 m2) house and (294 m2) land packages for sale below $350,000. Over time, some of these buyers may come to recognize that attached dwellings, for example town houses, are a better small housing solution than detached dwellings.
The prime candidates for both smaller dwellings and higher densities (the two don’t necessarily have to go together on the fringe) would be one and two person households, especially on lower incomes (I believe smaller households make up around 15% of Growth Area residents). They might find a townhouse an attractive alternative if it were cheaper than a house and/or closer to local services like shops and the station.
But half of Growth Area settlers are second home buyers and around a quarter are investors. At current prices, most buyers – including the majority of first home buyers – can still afford a reasonably large detached dwelling. In the absence of a compelling argument to the contrary, it seems unlikely they will buy townhouses, big or small.
Walkability sounds like an attractive benefit of density but I can’t see it being an adequate trade-off by itself for reduced indoor and/or outdoor private space. The Growth Areas are not Chatswood or even Box Hill, let alone the waterfront or the CBD.
There’s an argument that higher densities on the fringe would reduce significantly the capital and operating costs to government (over and above developer contributions) of providing infrastructure. If that is so (I’m not sure it is but I’ll accept it until I see evidence to the contrary), then it would be worthwhile finding ways to make higher densities an attractive proposition for fringe settlers. Affordability will do some of the hard yards but it’s just a start and risks stigmatising density.
My feeling is that the some of the more imaginative new urbanism principles may offer a way forward here. Perhaps what we really need in our major cities is a demonstration project and some smart marketing that makes density in the outer suburbs desirable.