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.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.