– Are outer suburbs dense enough to walk?Posted: May 4, 2011
This story in The Age says average dwelling densities in the fringe Growth Areas need to double to make walking to local shops and services viable.
It’s based on a report, Shall We Dense? (geddit?), which says the current minimum average density of 15 dwellings/Ha in the Growth Areas only yields about 510 dwellings within walking distance of local shops and services. Density needs to increase to 25-30 dwellings/Ha to provide enough residents – about 3,000 – to make local shops within walking distance viable.
I’ve said before that the downsides of sprawl are exaggerated, however if new residents of outer suburbs freely choose to live at higher 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 preferences.
I don’t think that factor is being able to walk to shops. I can’t see that home buyers in the Growth Areas would actually choose to forego a big detached house and garden in order to buy, for much the same price, a considerably smaller townhouse or apartment so they could be within walking distance of a local shop or two.
I guess that really depends on what the local shops offer. But this is the outer suburbs – it isn’t Tales of the City or The Secret Life of Us. It can’t be assumed that merely increasing outer suburban housing density will create an environment with the ‘buzz’ and ambience of a St Kilda or Fitzroy. The relatively high density of activities in the inner city is sustained to a considerable degree by young, high income professionals without dependents who support all those restaurants, galleries, coffee bars and specialty services. They aren’t there by accident either – they live there because it’s close to the CBD and all those high-flying jobs and cultural, leisure and entertainment attractions. They’re prepared to downsize to get it.
The average outer suburban resident, in contrast, is likely to be married, have children, a big mortgage and limited disposable income. It’s another thing entirely for a family in the outer suburbs to downsize in order to live within walking distance of a small and expensive grocery store, perhaps with the choice of a coffee shop or a restaurant. Something this local is simply not going to have anything like the sheer number and diversity of people and outlets seen in inner city locations.
It’s not just a matter of ‘buzz’ either. Since they’d almost certainly still have a car (even in the inner city only 14% of families didn’t have a car at the 2006 Census; and 41% had two or more!), the marginal cost of driving to a district centre, rather than walking locally, would be low. Time-stretched families could load the car to the gunnels with a week’s worth of groceries bought from a large supermarket, do some comparison shopping at the fruiterer, and maybe undertake a range of complementary activities such as making a wager at the TAB, having a haircut, getting a prescription filled, or taking little Dakota to the doctor. They could choose from a range of places to eat lunch.
While average lot sizes in the Growth Areas have fallen substantially in recent years, that’s been primarily in response to a significant drop in affordability, rather than to any fundamental change in dwelling preferences. Getting outer suburban home buyers and developers to choose higher density living in large numbers will require a much more sophisticated approach than offering them a few desultory shops within ten minutes walk.
Giving people compelling reasons to live in new ways that happen to be more sustainable is the key. I think there may be potential for new market-driven development forms in the outer suburbs that emphasise connectedness with others and sociability. In all likelihood these would be denser and more walkable than the current suburban form, but my feeling is these physical attributes would be a by-product rather than the key drivers.
Of course I’m implicitly assuming that policy should have regard to what people actually want. Some will still contend that, notwithstanding home buyers preferences, higher densities should be made mandatory in the Growth Areas because of the negative social costs of sprawl. I don’t necessarily agree (although I think we have to get the price signals right) but I think the onus is on those who argue the ‘mandatory’ case to come up with much better evidence than is usually provided to support their case.
I couldn’t find a copy of Shall We Dense? I think it’s very disappointing in this digital age that neither The Age on-line nor the authors provide a link to it. I did find what appears to be a precursor report (see here) which has some very interesting pictures but isn’t very analytical. As an aside, how do authors come up with titles like Shall We Dense? I don’t ‘geddit’ – can anyone explain the relevance of the ‘literary’ allusion to either the film or the song of the same name?