Features

The pro-density debate

July 22, 2010

As discussions about a ‘big Australia’ continue, Melbourne Open House this week held a pertinent discussion exploring the positives of urban density.

As current political leaders hone in on the perceived public concern for population growth and fear of a ‘big Australia’, promising to control immigration and limit the growth of our cities, a talk presented by Melbourne Open House this week explored the flip side of this argument.

Held as part of the State of Design Festival, ‘House This! Density in Melbourne’ brought together eight speakers to present the case for the benefits of increased urban density.

Planning for population growth

“Congestion and pollution are only a result of unplanned growth,” argued Andrew McLeod, CEO of the Committee for Melbourne. Why, he asked, are people afraid of the city’s population doubling in 50 years – in 2010, the city is twice the size it was in 1960, and it is a better city for it. If our parents’ generation coped with it, why do we think we’ll be unable to? Or, as McLeod put it, “Why do you think we are more stupid than our parents?”

“It’s not possible to control natural growth,” he explained, and in order to achieve sustainable urban growth, we must allow local and federal governments to plan for projected growth. In other words, if we allow the no-growth lobbyists into government, we will end up with congested and polluted cities.

The 7.5 percent city

Rob Adams, from the City of Melbourne, presented his proposal for the 7.5 percent city, suggesting we can double the population of Melbourne by altering only 7.5 percent of the city’s land area.

Adams’ model focuses on a selection of Central Activity Districts, situated around the city along major public transport hubs. By concentrating development on these urban corridors, the city can significantly increase its population while also retaining lower building heights in the surrounding areas. It is an appealing vision, with mid-height buildings that don’t block sunlight or impose on surrounding houses and parks.

Adams also noted that Barcelona has an average of 70-80 dwellings per hectare. Comparing this to Melbourne’s current target of 15 dwellings per hectare puts Australian concerns with overcrowded cities into perspective.

An innovative model for urban density

Several of the speakers addressed the misconceptions of density. Stuart Niven, from the Department of Planning and Community Development, explained that many people equate increased density with “imposition, excessive height and ordinary physical results”.

“I don’t want to suggest that people’s fears are not real, because they clearly are,” he added. “There are not many examples around to dispel those fears.”

Niven’s solution to changing attitudes towards density was to drive change with government intervention. “Our development market is essentially conservative,” he explained. He used the Bo01 development in Malmo, Sweden, as an example of a successful model for housing density. Funded by the Malmo government, the large-scale sustainable development was effectively a public investment that served to educate private developers by demonstrating that this new residential typology could be profitable.

The government invested public money in the scheme, which then earned them a profit – money that went back into public spending, not into the pockets of private investors. The experiment proved that these types of developments work, in order to effect a market-wide change.

With up to 70 percent of the global population projected to be living in cities by 2050, it seems futile to argue that we can prevent the country from becoming a ‘big Australia’. The solution is surely to acknowledge projected growth, and plan for our cities to ensure that this growth is sustainable. And the prospect of the government actively engaging with the design community in order to drive sustainable growth is certainly something to get excited about.

House This! Density in Melbourne was presented by Melbourne Open House and the Architecture Registrations Board of Victoria (ARBV) on Tuesday 19 July 2010, as part of Victoria’s State of Design Festival.

Bo01 photographs from here, here and here.

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