Is living at density the same everywhere?

A reader, Ian Woodcock, took me to task yesterday about my post on whether outer suburban families would willingly choose densities of 25-30 dwellings/Ha so they could walk to local shops and services.

In particular, Ian reckons I invoked a straw man when I argued that “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”. He says 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.

Ian’s broadened the discussion beyond walkability to the merits of density more generally. I’m not sure there are substantial parts of suburbs like Camberwell with average densities as high as 25-30 dwellings/Ha, but nevertheless I’m happy to make the comparison with them. I’ve set out my argument about the attractiveness of higher densities to Growth Area residents below:

My contention is that living in a townhouse or apartment in the inner or middle suburbs – whether it be St Kilda, Kew, Fitzroy or Camberwell – delivers an entirely different set of benefits than it would in the outer suburbs. In essence, it’s worth choosing to live in a town house in the former but not at present in the latter.

Camberwell residents who can afford it generally choose to live in bigger dwellings, usually a detached house with a yard. The rest live in smaller dwellings like newish apartments and townhouses because that’s the only way they can afford to live there. They want to live in Camberwell for all the usual reasons – it’s close to the city centre, close to large centres like Glenferrie Rd and close to private schools. They also like it for the status it confers and because it’s ‘people like us’ i.e. wealthy or aspiring to be wealthy.  As Ian says, it also has good public transport and a wide range of services. But most of those who live in apartments and town houses do so because they have to – it’s primarily about location, not dwelling type.

Some will argue there are people who could easily afford a big dwelling but actively prefer a small one. Undoubtedly there are some, but there aren’t many and they’re not usually families (who’re the main household type in the Growth Areas). The fact that empty nesters tend to hang on to their large houses signals that, if they can afford it, people put a high value on space. People who can afford it don’t buy studios or one bedroom apartments in Docklands or Southbank – they buy three bedroom units and penthouses. All those renovated and extended terraces and houses in the inner city don’t say “small is better”. Location and dwelling size are what economists call superior goods. As incomes rise, consumers tend to buy more of them – they might move to a better suburb or a bigger dwelling (although only the very rich can usually do both).

Now compare Camberwell to the Growth Areas. In the latter a detached house with a garden costs much the same as a townhouse. Households don’t need to forego space in order to live there, so why would they choose to buy a townhouse? Read the rest of this entry »


– Are outer suburbs dense enough to walk?

Google's new Driverless Car Technology massively increases intersection capacity

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.  Read the rest of this entry »


Are Melbourne’s houses too big?

Metricon’s Grandview – what a 27 square (252 m2) house looks like

According to the State’s Building Commission, new houses in Victoria were 252 m2 on average in 2008-09 compared with 217 m2 in 2000-01. This report says “homes in Victoria are getting bigger, much bigger – leading to warnings that some people may be building homes bigger than they need by borrowing more than they can afford”. The Building Commissioner is quoted as saying:

The promotion of larger homes by medium and high volume builders, where added rooms are used as a marketing tool, have contributed to the increase in size……consumers are up-sold to home theatres, additional bathrooms and media rooms

I have a couple of thoughts/reactions to this.

First, some context – while there are buyers who want a behemoth like Metricon’s 49 square ‘Monarch’, almost three quarters (74%) of Growth Area buyers purchase a single level dwelling. Moreover, 70% of homes are less than 30 squares and 47% are less than 26 squares. Some are buying a “McMansion”, but most are buying something like Metricon’s Grandview.

Second, the claim that buyers are so gullible they are “upsold” to bigger homes they don’t “need” is patronising. Buyers do know what they want. Two thirds of Growth Area purchasers are buying their second home – half of this group are buying their third or fourth home. And nearly half (48%) of adult buyers in the Growth Areas are aged 35 years or more.

Third, if people are buying homes they can’t afford, that’s not primarily an issue of dwelling size. I expect over-stretched buyers would more likely be purchasing a home that’s closer to the city centre — it would be smaller than a fringe “McMansion” but cost more because of its greater accessibility. If there has been an upward movement in the proportion of people buying homes they can’t afford, the problem and the solution lie with lending policies rather than with dwelling size. Read the rest of this entry »


Will redevelopment of Fishermans Bend really be ‘revolutionary’?

The Age breathlessly headlines the Government’s proposals for the redevelopment of Fishermans Bend as Premier Ted Baillieu’s “inner city housing revolution”. Planning Minister Matthew Guy says the area will evolve as ”Australia’s first inner-city growth corridor”.

Whoa there! I think it might be time for a relaxing cup of tea and a lie down. Let’s put these claims in perspective.

According to Mr Guy, the area under consideration is 200 Ha. That’s quite a bit smaller than the 41,000 Ha expansion of the Urban Growth Boundary approved last year.

Mr Guy also says the area is going to be developed over a 20-30 year time frame. If its total capacity is the 10,000 to 15,000 dwellings estimated by the Chief Executive of the Property Council, Jennifer Cunich, that’s at most 750 additional dwellings per year on average, and as few as 333 per year.

Just to put that in context, 42,509 dwellings were approved in the metropolitan area in the 12 months ending on 30 September 2010. Ms Cunich is quoted as saying even that’s less than we need – she says there’s a shortfall of 6,000 homes per year across the State.

While the redevelopment of Fishermans Bend is important, the claim that it’s a ‘revolution’ is hyperbole.

Likewise, the Minister’s claim that Fishermans Bend will be a ‘growth area’ – a term usually used to refer to massive outer suburban release areas – is more than a trifle exaggerated. Consider that 17,000 new dwellings were approved in Melbourne’s (outer) Growth Area municipalities in the year ending September Qtr 2010.

The Minister’s claim that the project will focus on “more affordable” housing also seems ambitious. Read the rest of this entry »