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.

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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