Devolving the Australian Dream – Bigger, Better, and Fairer

By Philip Graus, Cox Architecture, 15 October 2014
...‘good density’ creates good places - well connected by infrastructure. ‘Poor density’ is out of scale with its surrounds and does not contribute positively to its place. Worst of all, poor density creates congestion and lowers quality of life – this is what the community will not support 

Has the 1980’s debate about the shape of our suburbs evolved into a debate about the form of our city?
Thirty years ago, we joined together to save our suburbs. Today, we need to save our cities.
For more than 20 years I’ve been asking -  somewhat pretentiously – if we need to “Redesign the Australian Dream”.  Like most of us, I share a growing concern that one of the most pressing problems for the average person in any sizable city in Australia is  finding housing that’s affordable. Let’s face it, the Great Australian Dream of a detached house on a quarter acre block is no longer a reality for most. Perhaps the debate on affordability needs to be reignited?

The 1980’s – Compact vs Affordable Suburb 

From the late 1980's there was growing debate about whether Australian cities should 'consolidate or spread'. Those advocating spread argued there was no need to abandon the 'Australian dream' of detached house and garden. Doesn't everyone deserve a house and a garden? They were not alone. Serious city thinkers Hugh Stretton and Patrick Troy warned it was really a government ruse to save on mounting costs of supplying infrastructure to surrounding suburbs. Stretton wrote "they are shifting housing wealth and choices from poorer to richer; they are helping to centralise the city with ill effects on the outer suburban life of many."

This argument has continued and, if anything, is more polarised today. Last year the Better Planning Network mobilised such a level of community concern with the new Planning Act that it was shelved.  So why haven’t we - the community - embraced what a mix of evidence and experience has been saying for years? 
Much of the housing described by those advocating consolidation in the 1980’s was called ‘medium density’.  Bruce Judd of the University of NSW saw it as “an intensity of residential development somewhere between the ‘low density’ detached suburban housing and ‘high density’ multi storey. The model was a middle of the road density that might somehow maintain the ‘Australian Dream’ by comfortable compromise”. 
But would this ‘comfortable compromise’ merely ‘miniaturise’ the Australian Dream - creating environments with neither the expanse of the traditional suburbs nor the advantages of the more dense urban environments. The city might get bigger, but would it get better?
Sydney wasn’t going it alone. In the US, Duany and Plater-Zyberk advocated a ‘New Urbanism’ that would create higher density suburbs structured around better public domain and walkable streets. In the UK the much-touted Essex Design Guide was critical of the ‘middle of the road’ approach, advocating two spatial types; the rural type defined by landscape; or urban where built form defined the spaces.  ‘Suburban’ was rejected because it achieved neither. The public realm was largely absent in the suburban hybrid. And arguably, much of it still is today.
I wanted see for myself whether these overseas models held real promise. So 20 years ago I went looking for earlier so-called exemplary suburbs that seemed to have stood the test of time; Hampstead, London; Riverside, Chicago; and Forest Hills Gardens, New York. It became obvious that they were neither ‘medium density’ nor ‘suburban’.  
So what were they?
Well, each had a strong civic urban core with apartments designed for a mix of incomes focused around a rail station.  This core was then surrounded by lower density, low rise apartments and houses.  The sense of place created by this transition was very strong.  
So where can this work for Sydney? Around transport places – centres on rail stations, corridors along transport routes, and clustered around wherever you have high value health and education; like the University of NSW, Westmead, or RPA Hospital.
It was striking how the traditional exemplars visited contrasted markedly with two ‘New Towns’; Irvine in Orange County, Southern California and Milton Keynes in the UK.  Some 100,000 acres, four times the size of Milton Keynes, Irvine was promoted as innovative medium density small lot housing par excellence by many I spoke to there. To me it was similar to Milton Keynes, a segregated and homogenous ‘medium density’ city. 
The lesson in this to me was that density can only be judged in context – ‘good density’ creates good places, well connected by infrastructure. ‘Poor density’ is out of scale with its surrounds and does not contribute positively to its place. Worst of all, poor density creates congestion and lowers quality of life – this is what the community will not support – quite rightly!

Today – a global vs equitable City?


So, 20 years on - has anything changed?  On a basic level the pedestrian street, walkable neighbourhoods, and public domain championed by the New Urbanists have been accepted and largely realised in both the inner city and suburbs.  But where the promise and reality of New Urbanism parts company is that in reality, new urbanism done poorly is just car-based suburbia with better street and public domain structure – railway suburbs without the railway.
But more significantly the discussion has shifted in scale from suburb to the metropolitan city (with its core, its suburbs and its places in between). We’ve realised you can’t fix the part without thinking of the whole. While height and density continues to divide and polarise the community, it should be put into a broader context of where are the best places to intensify our city? How can Sydney be better as well as bigger? This public discussion is happening, as the community comes to understand that planning and transport infrastructure need to be more strongly linked. It is not so surprising that this understanding is quite recent. Most of us in the professions were not focussed on the massive infrastructure underspend in the 80’s and into the 90’s. There is serious spending now. But are we really integrating transport and planning now? Perhaps we need to see how the new Metropolitan Strategy and Transport Master Plan support each other, specifically how funded infrastructure projects mesh with strategic precinct plans. Are we intensifying and improving the same places? If not why should the community accept increased density and height? What’s in it for them? For all of us?
But perhaps the real issue for the next decade or more is planning a fairer city. There is a growing disparity in affluence spatially dividing Sydney diagonally between the northeast and southwest. It’s a disparity you can map. Australia is not alone in this. Joseph Steiglitz the American Nobel Prize winning economist has explained this eloquently in the Price of Inequality. Enrico Moretti of Berkeley in The New Geography of Jobs has translated this spatially, arguing that the so-called Global Cites are becoming Divergent Cities - Global Mega Cities with increasingly poor edges. Interestingly Richard Florida, champion of the Creative Class, revised his well known book in 2010, adding a chapter on inequality, responding to criticism of how the so called Creatives were gentrifying and displacing communities – economic growth had overtaken social justice as a core objective.
So perhaps we can learn from the past – while we worried about smaller lots in the 80’s we should have been focussed on linking growth more strongly to transport. The current concern with density may be addressed by making places better and more connected rather than just bigger. While we do this, why don’t we think a decade in advance and start to address how we can make Sydney bigger, better, and fairer? Let’s not waste the opportunity to realise the full potential of a new airport for Greater Western Sydney to redress Metropolitan Sydney’s imbalance in wealth and access to high value jobs.
Let’s take the chance to redesign the Australian dream – and make sure it’s bigger, better and fairer.