Melbourne shows how Airbnb is reshaping our cities

The sharing economy at work. Image: Getty.

Infrastructure in our cities – let’s call it the hardware – remains much the same as ever. But the software – the way we use it – is transforming rapidly. One piece of that software, Airbnb, is dramatically reshaping the world’s cities.

The digital platform allows citizens to find and rent short-term accommodation from other citizens. Airbnb has the potential to rupture the traditional spatial relationship between tourist and local, making our cities more vibrant and diverse places to live in and to visit.

The question is: what opportunities and dangers does the platform present? What are the implications of repurposing existing residential infrastructure for short-term accommodation? What happens when the global “sharing economy” meets a city’s suburbs?

Lessons from an early adopter

Melbourne was an early adopter of Airbnb. It is also one of the top 10 cities for global travellers on Airbnb. What insights can be gathered from its experience?

According to Airbnb, three-quarters of listings worldwide are outside major hotel districts. Airbnb has three types of property listings: entire homes, private rooms and shared rooms.

Concentration of Airbnb entire-house rentals in Melbourne. Image: Jacqui Alexander & Tom Morgan/author provided.

Entire homes make up over half the total number of Melbourne’s metropolitan listings. Data collected in January 2016 reveals that their distribution is relatively consistent with that of hotels and licensed accommodation, which exist in large concentrations in the CBD and inner city.

Many hosts who list entire homes lease or sublet when they go away. In Australia, tenants require permission from their landlord to sublet, so there is little risk for the landlord if they follow due process. But analysis by website Inside Airbnb indicates that about 75 per cent of entire-house listings in Melbourne are available for over 90 days per year.

Hosts with multiple properties manage about a third of all the entire-house listings in Melbourne. These operators hold an average of three properties, but some have dozens. Through Airbnb, these brokers are turning existing housing infrastructure into informal, distributed hotels while saving on capital costs, overheads and wages.

Globally, the Airbnb phenomenon has been blamed for driving up rents, accelerating gentrification and displacing local residents by reducing available housing stock.

In Melbourne, the boom in high-density development in the CBD has resulted in an excess of homogeneous apartment dwellings. Bedrooms without natural light, as well as insufficient floor area, outdoor space and storage space, characterise many of these developments, rendering them effectively unlivable for long-term residents. But these properties are attractive to itinerant tenants seeking affordable inner city accommodation.

Concentration of Airbnb shared-room rentals in Melbourne. Image: Jacqui Alexander & Tom Morgan/author provided.

Shared rooms in Melbourne constitute only about 2 per cent of all listings, but they are almost exclusively confined to the CBD. Box Hill (14km east of Melbourne), and Maidstone/Braybrook (8km west of Melbourne) are secondary outlying hotspots. The majority of CBD listings are around new apartment towers near Southern Cross Station (at the western end of the CBD) and RMIT University.


A number of already small two-bedroom apartments in the Neo200, Upper West Side and QV1 towers are operating as gendered dormitories. These often sleep eight, with four to a room. Overloading these apartments creates potential fire-safety and hygiene-compliance issues.

Short-term letting via sites like Airbnb allows investors to earn up to three times the amount they’d receive in rent (the average cost to rent an entire home is $189 per night). Travellers benefit from competitive accommodation rates, cooking facilities, convenient locations and access to private pools and gymnasiums intended for residents.

Airbnb acknowledges that professional hosts with multiple listings are exploiting the so-called sharing economy, but has not yet taken steps to regulate this. Governments would do well to implement the long-awaited and much-needed minimum design standards for apartments to curb the construction of developments in the city that fail to cater for residents or which are purpose-built for the Airbnb market (a few local examples are already emerging).

Beyond the obvious need to protect the amenity of citizens, protection of the liveliness and heterogeneity of the city is essential to maintain the kind of “authentic” experience that appeals to Airbnb users in the first place. Melbourne is beginning to follow the trajectory of international cities like London where the investor market, fuelled by capital gains tax exemptions, has pushed residents further and further out. Dispersing the concentration of entire-house and private-room rental is vital.

Concentration of Airbnb private room rentals in Melbourne. Image: Jacqui Alexander & Tom Morgan/author provided.

More promising is the dispersed pattern of private rooms in Melbourne. These represent around 45 per cent of listings across the city. While private rooms are still concentrated in and around the CBD, diffuse listings across Melbourne’s middle-ring suburbs realise Airbnb’s ambition to enable access to the everyday spaces of cities.

This pattern makes sense given the mismatch between Australian house sizes, which remain the largest in the world, and changing household structures – most significantly, the decline of the nuclear family. An increase in housing diversity in the middle-ring suburbs is likely to facilitate more entire-house listings in these areas in the future.

We are also seeing evidence of Airbnb driving housing diversity. Annexed and granny-flat configurations are commonly listed in suburbs close to the Melbourne CBD like Brunswick and Caulfield. Loose-fit arrangements like these provide more flexibility to cater to both residents and visitors, and the by-product is slow but genuine “bottom-up” densification.

Government incentives for this kind of small-scale development would help to make this a viable (and, for many, welcome) alternative to densification through high-rise apartment development.

In 2015, Tourism Victoria entered into an agreement with Airbnb Melbourne to promote buzzing inner-city suburbs Fitzroy and St Kilda as “sharing economy” hotspots. But the cost of renting in these suburbs is already exorbitant. Fitzroy was named the second-most-expensive suburb in Melbourne for apartment rental in 2015.

Instead, policymakers could encourage disruption in the suburbs that would benefit both sides.

What can be done to capture local benefits?

Airbnb claims that tourists who use the platform “stay longer and spend more”. Through taxation and additional revenue from the sharing economy, governments could fund more extensive and efficient transport networks to service both locals and visitors. Extending transport infrastructure would support the intensification of distributed neighbourhoods and maximise intermingling between tourists and locals.

Airbnb rentals in Perth. Image: Jacqui Alexander/author provided.

Bottom-up densification could also be a way forward for Perth. The distribution of Airbnb accommodation towards Perth’s coastal suburbs highlights potential in this space: here, tourism-specific and local infrastructure can converge. This is an exciting prospect for a state that positions itself as a unique travel destination.

Airbnb emerges from the same cultural tendency as the pop-up shop and interim-use place activation. Built environment professionals must recognise it as an urban issue and lead with a framework for targeted, productive disruption.

Airbnb can increase the density of people within existing building stock, while dispersing the positive effects of the tourist economy. This requires more imagination from planners and designers, who first and foremost must consider the interests of individual citizens, whether they are renters or home owners.

Can Airbnb be a part of the solution of increasing urban infill without compromising a minimum standard of living?The Conversation

Jacqui Alexander is lecturer in architecture at Monash University.

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

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.