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 »