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.

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