Life in a windowless box: the vertical slums of Melbourne

Apartment blocks in Melbourne. Image: Getty.

Australia’s apartment boom is in full swing. Nationally, 40 per cent of new dwellings are now apartments or units, and building approvals outnumber those for houses. Melbourne and Brisbane are the most extreme cases, but these trends are national – and they are fundamentally reshaping the future of urban Australia.

In Melbourne, for example, the inner city is being flooded with 1-2 bedroom micro-apartments set in increasingly tall towers (30 storeys plus). Almost half are under 50 square metres – not much bigger than a generous double garage. These would be outlawed in other world cities, including Sydney. The Property Council of Australia and much of the industry acknowledges the problem. Victorian Planning Minister Richard Wynne has now released a discussion paper, and there is a plan to set new guidelines next year.

The differences between a small one bedroom 42 m2 apartment and a standard one bedroom 50 m2 apartment. Image: RIBA Homewise – The Case for Space: The size of England’s new homes.

The market is not delivering what families need, and as a result, future liveability in Australian cities is in jeopardy. Much of the commentary centres on size and density, but a discussion about quality and the market is also urgently needed. 

Reports of “vertical slums” are not entirely unwarranted. Apartments can be great homes – so why are ours so mismatched with families and affordability concerns? For working families in the city who need access to services and work, there are few affordable alternatives.

Quality vacuum – a race to the bottom

Many new apartments have bedrooms with no windows, low ceilings and inadequate storage. They have poor access to natural light and ventilation, and underperform on environmental efficiency. Internal amenity of apartments is comparatively under-regulated. Apartment bedrooms without windows, for instance, are illegal in New York, Hong Kong and Vancouver.

An example of the features included in a "poor" housing development. Image: Future Living, City of Melbourne 2013

Current regulation is failing families and future Australians. Building Code of Australia and National Construction Code requirements, borne out of original concerns with safety, simply aren't up to the delicate task of ensuring quality while enabling innovation. Even the Guidelines for Higher Density Development (DPCD 2004) fail to provide specific and measurable outcomes, with high-level objectives that are evidently easily bypassed in practice.

Melbourne’s apartment construction boom continues unabated. Image: Shutterstock

Marketing airspace – unconstrained towers

A recent report unfavourably compares Melbourne’s high-rise rules to those of world cities. Developers in Melbourne can build at four times the densities allowed in New York, Tokyo or Hong Kong. Moreover, inner city developers are generally under no obligation to contribute to essential public infrastructure, such as affordable housing and community facilities, through density bonus systems. The findings are nothing short of damning, not least for a city that prizes itself, year on year, as the “world’s most liveable city”.

Market-driven urban development “logic” is rarely questioned, but there’s evidence of wholesale market failure. Much of our high density, high-rise apartment stock caters to the local and overseas investor market, enticed by favourable taxation and regulatory regimes. Putting aside concerns about the potential impact of tightening regulations on foreign property investments, many new apartments seem basically unaligned to households’ and families’ changing needs.

Two priorities emerge: for reform, and for understanding changing housing needs.


Reform or regret

This report, by academic Leanne Hodyl, makes a case for urgent market reforms to establish density controls; density bonuses to link development to public benefit, including open spaces, affordable housing and community facilities; and an enforceable tower separation rule to mandate the minimum distances between towers. It also argues that Melbourne would benefit from apartment standards.

In Sydney, guidelines and processes have long been in place to regulate minimum apartment sizes, maximum numbers of apartments per floor, requirements for window provision, minimum floor-to-ceiling heights and minimum storage sizes (SEPP 65).

Reforms towards “good design” pre-suppose an understanding of the future occupants of apartments and their housing needs. A recent study found “good design” is a reasonably uncontroversial concept: it is design that accommodates changing household comfort and needs, and contributes positively to the environment, health, wellbeing and safety.

A current study called the LATCH Project is underway to determine changing household needs and the everyday experiences of inner-city apartment dwellers, including families.

The research reveals the huge diversity of households – future apartment dwellers are not just single-person households and empty-nesters. They need daylight, functioning kitchen spaces, storage, nearby schools and open space. Things that currently fail to align with high-density developments across our cities.

Ralph Horne is Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor, Research & Innovation; Director of UNGC Cities Programme; and a Professor at RMIT UniversityMegan Nethercote is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University.

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

 
 
 
 

Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.