Western Australia is trying to cut urban sprawl. Infill housing is the answer

The Kings Park gardens, Perth. Image: Getty.

With state governments across Australia acknowledging the need to limit urban sprawl, fill the gaps within existing metropolitan areas and build higher-density housing on selected sites, many opportunities have opened up. Demonstration projects are key to ensuring quality outcomes – and government has a leading role to play.

The Western Australian target for urban infill is at the lower end compared to other states. In August 2010, the Department of Planning and the Western Australian Planning Commission released Directions 2031 and Beyond, a report that proposed a more consolidated Perth, with an infill target of 47 per cent of new housing.

In 2015, the same two government agencies released the draft document, Perth and Peel@3.5 million, which again nominated the 47 per cent infill target. However, the authors acknowledged that urban infill rates had reached only 28 per cent in 2014. This means that, to reach the 47 per cent goal, the required increase in infill has moved from 50 per cent to 68 per cent more than the actual infill numbers in the five years between the two reports.

Filling the housing gap

This is a substantial change, and one that will require significant shifts from “business-as-usual” approaches to housing delivery along with community acceptance of higher residential densities. Government can assist with these shifts and, in doing so, help to fill a conspicuous gap in the content of the reports.

This gap is the absence of anything more than the briefest of references to the nature of the housing that will provide the increased infill and density. There is no real discussion of housing types and design, methods of construction and delivery, or forms of ownership that may encourage a greater take-up of such housing.

Higher residential density and infill continue to face a level of community resistance. Some of this is justified, in that much of the completed suburban infill is of a poor quality and too fragmented to deliver the positive changes and level of amenity that higher density can bring.

A quick Google Maps scan across the middle suburbs of Perth shows the dominant form of suburban infill in the city. It is a compressed suburbia. Large houses are squeezed together onto sites, shrinking usable private outdoor space to leftover space, reducing access to sun and cross-ventilation, and diminishing existing tree canopy. Driveways, car courts and double garage doors engage with the street.

Standard industry infill strategies in middle-ring or greyfield suburbs. Image: Faculty of Art, Design & Architecture, Monash University/author provided.

How do we improve infill?

Looking at this prompts the question: how do we improve the standard? Researchers at Swinburne and Monash universities in Melbourne and at the Australian Urban Design Research Centre (AUDRC) at the University of Western Australia have proposed solutions.

The Monash project, Infill Opportunities: Design Research Report, prepared for the Office of the Victorian Government Architect, explores how considered design strategies can contribute to better-quality infill redevelopment in the middle-ring suburbs. The strategies include:

  • going above a single storey, with the height shifted away from site boundaries to reduce overlooking and shadow-casting of neighbours;

  • allocating usable private courtyards to each unit;

  • providing good solar access, cross-ventilation and outlook; and

  • developing a car-parking strategy that can change over time.

In addition, the idea is for the units to have a degree of inbuilt flexibility so they can adapt to changing household circumstances. While this work remains diagrammatic, it nevertheless demonstrates that, with a clear focus on how design can enable amenity to be optimised, suburban infill can provide attractive housing options.

There are infill projects being built in Perth that demonstrate what is possible when real design intelligence is at play. For example, LandCorp’s stage 1 development of Knutsford, 1.5km from the centre of Fremantle, provides a mix of well-considered housing types. These feature good indoor-outdoor relationships and clever spatial strategies to enable a high degree of internal flexibility.

This housing is being offered to the market at very reasonable prices. In stage 1, 23 units were completed, with 33 being built in stage 2, all designed by Spaceagency.

The streetscape of stage 1 at Knutsford, designed by Spaceagency, is free of driveways, with access at the rear. Image: Robert Frith/author provided.

We need more good examples like this, with a greater diversity of housing types. The potential that is implicit in higher-density housing – the opportunities for social engagement, sharing of facilities, fewer cars, richer urban potential, better public space and urban realm – needs to be made explicit.

Time to revisit the display village

For more than 50 years, display villages have been used to promote and sell detached project housing. These displays have enabled buyers to see what they are buying and to understand the potential of the broader setting of the house.

The quality of design helped stage 1 of Knutsford to sell within months. Image: Robert Frith/author provided.

Historically, display villages promoted, through built example, the houses that eventually formed suburbia. In the same way, a display village for higher-density housing units could promote options that are not currently on offer in the housing market.

Potential buyers would be able to experience and understand the qualities of the housing on display. A higher-density display village would demonstrate how, with intelligent design, these units can be spacious, adaptable and work effectively with outdoor space.

For Perth, such a display village would provide a valuable means for industry to innovate with housing types and forms of construction. A government imprimatur and the willingness to underwrite the first projects should ensure this outcome.

The village would offer design diversity in terms of type and form, construction innovation including modular and prefabrication techniques, use of new materials, and the ability to test new strategies for utilities and waste.

It would showcase design for low energy use on a precinct scale and for reduced car dependency. It would take advantage of Perth’s climate and allow a fluid relationship between indoors and outdoors, creating a sense of space, light and air.


Infill can add value to suburbs

Government and industry would plan and promote the project. Government would provide the land and industry would build the housing. The display housing would be open to the public for a period of time, then sold to individual buyers.

Affordability remains a major obstacle to broader acceptance of higher-density housing. This is because selling prices per square metre are considerably more than those of a detached new house on the suburban fringes. The display village could explore alternative forms of land and house delivery and ownership.

Higher-density housing isn’t necessarily a threat to the traditional Australian notion of suburbia. It need not be seen as a denigration of the values that recognise suburbia as having a particular quality that helps establish the idea of an Australian way of life based on the detached house and its backyard. There is a vast existing stock to ensure those values will remain in place.

The development of well-designed, high-performing and higher-density infill housing will, in fact, protect existing suburbs from the poorer-quality infill that is occurring, while allowing the benefits of an enhanced public realm to be shared.

The WA government has a major challenge in meeting its infill targets. It can help meet this challenge by initiating a government-assisted display village of quality higher-density housing. It would be the first state government in Australia to do so.The Conversation

Geoffrey London is professor of architecture at the University of Western Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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