Do fringe dwellers want density?

150 m2 house on 294 m2 lot at Craigieburn

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.


8 Comments on “Do fringe dwellers want density?”

  1. Joseph says:

    Regarding reduced capital and operating costs to government of providing infrastructure with higher densities. Why assume one side of the argument is correct if there is no evidence?
    If you look at the usual suspects of government ‘infrastructure’ spend it is hard to see that it has much to do with density :
    i) education – cost determined by number of students not how big the houses are that they live in.
    ii) health – determined by number of people and how ill they are.
    iii) public transport – if you move to the fringe you have likely accepted car dependence and public transport is of very limited value.
    iv) roads / pipes etc. – The roads and pipes in the estates aren’t paid for by government. Major roads will be but again are determined largely by the number of people that use them rather than how far apart they live.

    Undoubtedly costs will be higher but if it is only marginal then it is a questionable basis for public policy.

  2. Moss says:

    Hmm. “However most of the benefits – both private and social – do not derive from density per se but rather from location.”
    I’m not sure that it is quite so apparent.
    “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.”
    One could argue that jobs, entertainment etc follow the density, rather than the other way around? In fact I would argue that this is the historical way that villages/towns/cities have developed. First people started living in tight, clustered communities as a form of protection from the outside world. Such a community then generated jobs in trade and services etc. This attracted more people.
    Possibly too simplistic, but I think your dissociation of “desirable location” and density itself is a little to simplistic as well…

    • Alan Davies says:

      I think we’re both right. Activities grow with density, but that density only occurs in the first place at locations with the right attributes.

  3. chris says:

    Perhaps density is over valued.

    The same house of the same size and even of the same design can have a very different footprint depending on the number of occupants, and their lifestyles.
    For example whether windows are opened to catch the southerly breeze, insulation and curtains, what temperature the heater is set to, whether a worm farm is used for leaf over vegetable or diet is mainly meat, whether the garden provides veges or habitat, how the occupants travel to work and what they consume and recycle and whether they use solar or green power.

    High density dwellings can be very hard to heat and cool naturally and enforce air-con; lifts; 24×7 lights in the foyers, corridors, lifts and underground car parks (for the 4WD). And the cement and fuel used in construction has a very high footprint.

    Paul Mees (Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age, 2010) has argued that ‘density is not destiny’ by his analysis of the Swiss provision of public transport to rural areas, and by discrediting the belief that PT requires high density which was based on the erroneous assumption that density is constant in a city.” See also: The Density Myth
    (http://mams.rmit.edu.au/j4oa4rdaow29.pdf)

    See also: Urban Legends: Why Suburbs, Not Dense Cities, are the Future – http://www.joelkotkin.com/content/00276-urban-legends-why-suburbs-not-dense-cities-are-future

    lots to think about …

    • Alan Davies says:

      The moral is, I think, that you have to think very carefully about what density is actually measuring. It’s a good proxy in many circumstances so it usually doesn’t matter – but not always, so it’s important to ‘get’ the fine distinctions. If you have access to academic journals, Garry Glazebrook and Peter Rickwood have done some good work on the relationship between public transport and density.

  4. Peter Parker says:

    “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.”

    Alan, the odd thing is that this difference in percieved values is opposite to actual demand, as reflected in sale prices for various types of established dwellings.

    Eg a small 2br unit in Werribee on 100m2 of land sells for about 80-90% of the price of a small 3br house not far away on 600m2 of land.

    Whereas an inner suburb unit may be half the price of a house on a large block.

    One of the main reasons for density not catching on is that new townhouses are hardly cheaper (and tend to be dearer in outer areas) than houses on 3 or 4 times the land. However the townhouses may have a larger floor area.

    Hence housing prices seem to be more proportional to home floor area and newness, rather than land area whose $/m2 price drops greatly when one goes from a unit/townhouse footprint to a house footprint.

    Yet when building houses costs are a bit like a taxi fare with a high flagfall; it’s relatively cheap to add extra living areas. Given fixed land sizes this means a shrinking backyard.

    Without room for gardening, sheds and outdoors, this means that people either become stuck inside on the X-box or are spending money they don’t have (and burning fossil fuels) outside the home.

    However somewhere in between there is a happy medium – and except for a few low-rise units near shops and major transport units, I would suggest that every housing unit in middle and outer areas should have a substantial courtyard at least, much like a townhouse or villa.

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by K-Steve, IPAA Victoria. IPAA Victoria said: Can we get higher density on the growth area development? http://bit.ly/eaxKcg […]

  6. […] densities and thereby consume less space, that’s got to be a positive step. The problem, as I touched on here, is finding the magic factor that might induce such a shift in […]


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