Commentary: Doing development right

Posted: November 22, 2013 in Urban planning
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VIDEO: Late Night with Jimmy Fallon

Ask a candidate for local council what they stand for and they’ll usually read off the same old script: life long local, supports better amenities for the area, and opposes over-development. Invariably, this opposition to over-development often turns into opposition to almost any sort of development at all – NIMBYism at its purest. And when everyone is a NIMBY (not in my backyard) what you get is BANANA (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone).

Building nothing is certainly an option, but it soon results in a housing shortage which pushes housing prices up across the board. This in turn results in housing affordability issues, often for the most vulnerable in society: the poor, the young, the old, the migrants, etc. So building nothing is not really an option, we need to build something. So the question is not should we build, but where should we build? Should development happen where it is most beneficial, or where there is the least political resistance? This brings us back to the NIMBY, because they want development to happen in the latter, rather than the former.

Really we should be pushing for concentrated high density development in and around activity centres with good commercial, job, and transport links. This in turn would allow the remainder of the metropolitan area to remain protected with its low density village environment maintained.

Some good recent examples of each are the leaked proposals to dramatically increase densities around Kingsford (g00d) for when the new light rail line comes through in a few years and to allow “Fonzie flats” in low density suburbs (bad).

The Kingsford plans call for buildings of up to 20 storeys in Kingsford, doubling the suburb’s population through the addition of 30,000 additional dwellings. The area is right next to a major university, has a commercial zone along Anzac Parade with shops/cafes/restaurants/pubs, and will soon have a light rail line connecting it up to Central and Circular Quay. It is the sort of area which has a vibrant atmosphere, walkability, and plenty of jobs. It is exactly the sort of area where you want to pack in as many people as possible, in order to ensure that as many people as possible have access to the sort of good infrastructure, good jobs, and good living environment that exists in this area.

Leaked development plans for Kingsford. Click to enlarge. (Source: Matt Thistlethwaite)

Leaked development plans for Kingsford. Click to enlarge. (Source: Matt Thistlethwaite)

Some locals won’t be happy, and it is this sort of unhappiness that the now local MP tried to tap into at the recent federal election. But if these new dwellings aren’t built here, or somewhere similar, then they will need to be built on the city fringe or as infill development in existing areas that lack the infrastructure that places like Kingsford have.

The option of building on the fringe is slowly drying up, as it isolates residents from jobs and other services, while eating away at the Sydney basin’s limited remaining farming belt. As a result, it is unlikely that this will continue much beyond the current North West Growth Centre and South West Growth Centre.

That leaves infill development in low density suburbs, like The Hills in Sydney’s North West. The “Fonzie flats” proposal, studio apartments built over garages, mentioned above is an example of this. Granny flats are another. But adding population to parts of Sydney that are not suited to large amounts of road traffic will only backfire when all these people take to their cars due to the lack of walkability and good public transport.

These are the very things which places like Kingsford have, and why it is more suited to take on additional population. But if development proposals there are rejected, then it only pushes the development over into less suitable locations. And that is definitely development done wrong.


NOTE: This post was accidentally published for 26 minutes on the morning of Wednesday 20 November, before this next section was written.

The need to have greater densities for infill development does not mean that developers should be given a blank cheque to just do as they like. In fact, governments should (and often do) trade off these higher densities in exchange for something else from developers. This may be additional public space, more units with rent set below the market rate, contributions to building essential infrastructure to support higher density, etc. And there is absolutely a role for community consultation to improve development and ensure it fits in with the surrounding community. It is not, however, something that should be used as a backdoor way of preventing development from going ahead.

When addressing residents of Surry Hills about the light rail down Devonshire Street earlier this year, Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore raised the Eastern Distributor as an example of community consultation being a force for good. While initially opposed by many locals, consultation and community feedback resulted in the revitalisation of streets like Crown St and Bourke St, previously traffic arteries, into quiet and livable places now that major traffic had been moved to the Eastern Distributor. It allowed for the future creation of the Bourke St cycleway, and turned Surry Hills into the village it is today.

The Urban Activation Precinct plan by the state government has the same potential. With constructive community consultation, the increased densities can act as enablers for better transport infrastructure, improved public spaces, and a more active community. What it can’t be, is an avenue for local special interest groups to block the development that Sydney so desperately needs for its younger generation to be able to afford a home of their own.

  1. Alex says:

    I’m a (qualified) supporter of the CESLR and I understand and accept the logic of increasing residential densities in areas served by new transport infrastructure. However I think plans for new developments up to 20 storeys around Kingsford based around the plans for it to be a light rail terminus are a bit over the top.

    I acknowledge that they are planning a high-capacity light rail service, but for this level of development a full-on metro seems more appropriate, especially given the other traffic generators along the way such as the university.

    I have also previously stated my support for the NWRL (as a heavy rail extension rather than a metro); however if they are planning densities like this for the south east, part of me wonders if it would make more sense to swap the projects – build a metro to UNSW and Kingsford and a light rail line in the north west. After all you are unlikely to get these sorts of densities in the latter, even with a metro.

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