– Are outer suburbs dense enough to walk?

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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?

9 Comments on “– Are outer suburbs dense enough to walk?”

  1. Oz says:

    The fact that the Jason Dowling article starts with “MELBOURNE is building thousands more houses on its sprawling fringe than there is demand for – while at the same time the supply of houses in established suburbs is dramatically inadequate, A LEAKED CONFIDENTIAL REPORT REVEALS…The VicUrban report also reveals Melbourne’s building industry is failing to meet the need for housing for overseas migrants to Melbourne,” highlights the problem that limits informed debate on when, where, and how to accommodate the additional Melbourne million in future.
    With next to no reliable information in the public domain and media to discuss future accommodation for the aging and lower income quintile of the population, how can Melbourne achieve sustainable and viable planning outcomes?

  2. Ian Woodcock says:

    Alan, you set up a straw man. The relevant comparison is not with inner-suburbs like St. Kilda that have the highest density in Australia (!), but with the streetcar (tram) suburbs of the inner-middle ring, like Kew, Camberwell, Malvern, Armadale, etc. where densities are higher than the outer suburbs in many places, public transport is good, there is housing diversity and access to a wide range of shops and services, and moreover, social capital is high. These tram-based suburbs (many also with good rail services, too) were designed and built before the car became ubiquitous and are walkable and cyclable, and much-loved by their residents. More of Melbourne needs to be like the medium-density parts of these kinds of places. Much of suburbia beyond the tram system lacks the amenity of these places, and can never be like St Kilda anyway. Intensification of these middle and outer established suburbs in the ‘greyfields’ was a major plank of Melbourne 2030 and its updates, and the failure has primarily been in implementation, with a polarisation in types of development on the basis of the same stereotypes you employ above: high density for the inner-city, low density for the greenfield fringe. This has warped the property market – each successful ambit claim by a developer (10 storeys in a 2-3 storey inner-city area, such as Richmond, Brunswick or Fitzroy, say) that gets approved at VCAT re-values the land around it in such a way that affordability drops and it becomes ever more difficult to do decent, well-designed and affordable medium-density, or even, high-density, low-rise. If Melbourne is to have a decent and intelligent and moreover, productive public debate about a sustainable future, we need to forfeit the use of simplistic stereotypes about ‘what people want’, what higher density means, and what Melbourne is and can be.

  3. The dichotomy of city versus suburbs means that we make urbanistic exceptions to suburbs– they do not need to support life (in an urban sense), they can be less social recreation and they can be boring and wasteful…
    I tend to challenge that mindset, particularly because there are excellent examples that show that the entire city can be considered city. The suburbs cannot be St Kilda, but they can sustain a healthy social, commercial life with other characteristics. They can have pockets of vibrancy around their civic spaces (did not mean something like Knox shopping mall)— that of course, if we gave the ‘civic’ the respect it deserves.

  4. Michael says:

    I find the reveal preference argument particularly weak when it comes to choosing types of housing because there are so many factors that limit the choices available. How many people honestly get to choose the exact type of neighbourhood mix and dwelling type?

    These preferences are also made in an environment where oil is cheaper than it is likely to be in the future and carbon pollution is not being priced.
    Everytime The Age runs these kinds of articles there will be a string of posts affirming Australian’s love of the great outdoors, gardening and how units and apartments are the early stages of a plot to force everyone into housing blocks.

    In the suburb I live in there is both a resistance to any increase in density and a growing reality that few residents seem to be able to cope with the demands of a garden, especially now that there are so many other diversions on the weekend. That of course doesn’t mean people still don’t have a “preference” for them of course.

  5. Look, I agree with Alan that “Shall We Dense” is a silly title and the original report that is available on the internet is pretty limited in analysis. Furthermore, as Oz says, the fact that we are having a discussion based on a leaked confidential report and another report that is unavailable on the internet points to some problems with the way debates are happening about the future of Melbourne right now. Where I disagree with Alan (and probably agree with Ian) is that housing choice consists of “trendy St. Kilda” v. “affordable outer suburb”. It isn’t just a matter of being able to walk to a shop or two – it is a matter of accessing a range of educational, employment and leisure choices without jumping into the car. It is a matter of being able to live in the same area as your life progresses (if you choose): from having nearby parent-child drop-ins and interesting playgrounds when you are a young child, to having places to ‘hang out’ with other teens, to cheap starter housing, to aging in place with appropriate health care and access to shops and social spaces. Why can’t we build all suburbs with all of those basic social and public transport infrastructure attributes? Why aren’t we offering those choices?

  6. David Mulhall says:

    Alan, your piece has left me wondering how long its been since you’ve been down to St.Kilda. To use the sugar coated “Secret Life of Us” portrail of St Kilda to support your position on why people are attracted to a particular location lacks much insight into the real reasons.

    The ‘buzz’ or so-called ambience of St.Kilda turns rather sour after 10pm every night of the week. Since when has the toxic mix of street prostitution, the drug & alchol affected, and the homeless ever been considered as desirable ‘buzz’ or ‘ambience’?

    Instead of using St Kilda or Fiztroy to champion high density, why not use the Albert Park/Middle Park or Seddon/Yarraville ‘Village” precincts as examples of best practice. It is the ‘fine grain’ of these areas which is the key to providing a compelling reason for people to live in so called ‘new’ ways.

  7. rohan says:

    Yes I agree with David Mulhall that outer suburban developments should be designed more like villages, that is with a denser core, preferably at a railway station or major bus route stop, with shops, services, public space, maybe a school, and surrounded by higher density housing; the individual house sprawl then starts beyond that. At teh Moment, all is designed around a car – virtually no-one has a choice about driving to the shops – usually a large precinct of large scale shops with a large car park, while the services and parks and schools are scattered elsewhere. Dont know if ‘mandating’ this is best way forward, but it is a model that appears to work in Toronto and some planned communities in the US, and certainly planned communities in Europe (though of course they rarely have individual houses on 1/4 acre or less blocks). Presumably a townhouse in such a planned community would cost less than a McMansion, so some would be attracted (and some could be subsidised ‘social’ housing), but the majority would still be detached houses.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I don’t disagree with all of what David said either (although I’m not sure that 1,000 dwellings on the fringe is going to get all the services you mention). The issue I address above isn’t whether or not higher densities are desirable on social welfare grounds(see my 3rd para) but rather whether or not fringe residents would find urban village life sufficiently attractive that they would choose to trade off some space for it. I mentioned St Kilda and Fitzroy (although St Kilda got all the attention) because I think the perception of many people who prescribe higher fringe town houses is shaped by what they see in inner city areas e.g. cafe society. Hopefully what I was endeavouring to explore is clearer from my second post.

      BTW parts of St Kilda might be poor late at night but it still seems to be a very sought-after location for singles.

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