Michael Bleby Reporter

Michael writes on emerging markets, architecture and engineering. He has served as a correspondent in Tokyo, London and Johannesburg and has written for Reuters, the Financial Times, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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Back yards hold back smarter housing development

Published 30 October 2012 12:15, Updated 01 November 2012 00:51

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The development of much-needed higher-density housing in the suburbs is being held back by an unsustainable love of the back yard, an issue that has some of the most active urban planners thinking long and hard.

While high-rise apartments have become trendy and aspirational in inner-city areas, it is easier to build these developments when all they require is the redesign of commercial or unused railway facilities, the director of architecture firm Hayball, Tom Jordan, says.

In contrast, “backfilling” suburban housing – by for example turning back yard space into dwellings – draws a lot of hostility.

“That’s politically sensitive,” Melbourne-based Jordan says. “You’re [seen as] attacking the culture of the back yard.”

While Sydney has had success in developing medium-density mixed-used residential, commercial and retail areas such as Bondi Junction, St Leonards and Chatswood, Melbourne, “is a long, long way behind”, he says. Sydney’s geography, with areas often separated by water, are partly responsible for the city’s development but urban planning policy and implementation has pushed it ahead.

Paramatta, for example, has “a lot more developed than Dandenong”, Jordan says.

Part of the hostility comes from past developments that haven’t worked. Attempts to introduce “dual occupancy” – placing two dwellings on a single housing block – in Canberra in the 1990s met with resistance because of a requirement that each dwelling have two onsite car parks, an architect with the South Australian Commissioner for Integrated Design, Tim Horton, says.

Getting rid of cookie-cutter approaches and tailoring planning rules for a local community can overcome resistance, says Horton. The council in the Adelaide suburb of Unley is now looking into better utilisation of the laneways (and back yards) that run behind many of the area’s 2500 dwellings.

Sensitive development could allow much-needed development. A report completed in 2010 for the City of Melbourne says that if medium-density developments of between four and eight storeys were built along the city’s tram and bus public transport corridors, the city could accommodate up to 2.4 million new people without expanding the current boundaries of the city.

“It’s an economic extravagance to keep building low-density suburbs,” Jordan says. “It will certainly hold back the functionality of the city if we just continue to sprawl endlessly.”

Different dynamics are shaping households. One one hand, declining housing affordability is pushing people into larger households as younger people stay, or move back in with, their parents while they save to buy their first homes. As BRW reported last week, research firm Macromonitor says the number of multi-family households in Sydney has risen since 1991. The trend is likely to continue, with the average number of people per household up from 2.57 in 2006 to 2.58 now and is likely to rise to 2.60 by 2021, Macromonitor says.

On the other hand, an aging population and greater preference for living alone and inner-city living may support a move towards smaller households.

Whichever way things go, the love of the back yard remains strong.

“There will always be a tension between increased density and its effect on the amenity of detached and lower density housing immediately adjoining,” Jordan says. “Despite the community’s best intentions to provide more affordable housing, when faced with a perceived loss of amenity most people will oppose change in the suburbs.”

Still, the argument for more sensitive development will continue.

“If we’re going to ask about the future of the back yard, what I’m more interested in is what’s the future of the front yard?,” says Horton. “Having 10-metre setbacks (from the front boundary line to front door) for a culture that doesn’t use front yards, how might we begin to do more interesting things with our front yards?”

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