Dense Urban Thinking Down Under


Ku-ring-gai is a piece of suburban paradise in the inner rings of Sydney. A district of modest homes and quaint small-scale shopping districts, it sits near one of the last remaining stretches of blue-gum forest inside Australia’s largest city. You can still catch the occasional cockatoo luxuriating on a branch.

First built around 1900, the neighborhood of 106,000 boasts all the charms of the classic “garden city,” balancing nature with modestly scaled development. Yet today the Ku-ring-gai community — including the remaining flora and fauna — is threatened with extinction by planners and developers seeking to pack the district with non-descript apartment tracks and ten-story commercial structures.

“They’re doing everything they can to destroy this area,” says long-time community activist Kathy Cowley, a founding member of both Save Our Suburbs and Friends of Ku-ring-gai over lunch of meat pies and salad at her cottage. “They approach it as if it was a greenfield [or previously undeveloped] site for high-density housing. They are trying to destroy everything with bad planning.”

Cowley speaks bitterly about how the state government of New South Wales, which controls development, cares little about disturbing a sensitive human as well as natural urban environment. Most of the new apartment dwellers, she notes, tend to be recently arrived residents. Many appear to be Chinese students, who ride on the surprisingly rickety trains largely to schools closer to Sydney’s center city.

This assault on Cowley’s neighborhood reflects a peculiar density ideology that, although present in the United States, is far more powerful in New Zealand, Great Britain and Australia. Density advocates swear that everything from the necessities of economic competition to limited resources require “cramming” future populations in ever smaller spaces. It doesn’t matter that the population might object.

In contrast, suburbs are constantly painted as on the verge of extinction. They are destined to become the dull victims of everything from demographics, “cool” migration, green ideology and the rise of “rentership” over home ownership to the ever-present, never-quite-happening “peak oil” that is destined to drive people out of their cars and into the inner cities.

Economically, the density industry emphasizes the central city’s producer of high-end jobs tied particularly to financial services and its role as home to most universities, government institutions and media. But in the future, even elite industries seem more likely to disperse than concentrate. Look at high tech, where the vast majority of employment tends to be in suburban areas such as Silicon Valley, the counties surrounding Washington, D.C., and sprawling Durham, N.C.

The same can be said in terms of demographics. Rather than becoming more dense, the vast majority of American cities have become more spread-out. The same has happened in many major metropolitan areas in advanced countries worldwide.

The density obsession seems particularly ill-suited to Australia, a sparsely populated country where less than 0.2% of the land is urbanized, compared with less than 3% in the U.S. and around 6% for Great Britain.  But such thinking has taken root in this vast continent — to the detriment of many of its people.  ”The writing is on the wall for the Australian dream,” says Joe Flood, professor at the Flinders University Institute for Housing, Urban and Regional Research.

Perhaps the biggest impact of pro-density policies has been rising land prices. State governments, which control most planning in Australia, along with their developer allies have discouraged development of new houses on greenfield sites, preferring to see the next generation of Australians living cheek to jowl close to the urban core.

Because of this Australia, once a bastion of middle class aspiration, has suffered some of the world’s highest housing prices.  Sydney itself ranks second, behind Vancouver, in the English-speaking world’s unaffordability sweepstakes. In 1990 a Sydney household median income required five years wages; today it requires almost ten.

Prices have been shaky recently, but current planning strictures will likely keep them artificially high. In America you can escape California or New York prices by heading south or inland. Even Australia’s second-tier, slow-growing  burgs like isolated Adelaide are more expensive than larger economically vibrant cities like Seattle and more than double as costly relative to incomes as Indianapolis, Dallas-Fort Worth or Houston.

As a result, many younger Australians — and their parents — have reason to wonder if the next generation will ever be able to own a home. What they call the “Great Australian Dream” — with a backyard and shady streets — is being supplanted by the planner’s utopia of dense urban dwellers. Nothing wrong with having a dense option, but this is not about choice; it’s about coercion. The feisty New City Journal, edited by onetime Labour Party activists, described the process as “ruining our cities in order to save them.”

Sadly much of the densification policy is based on faulty logic, increasingly justified by climate change. It’s ironic hearing pious greenhouse gas obsessions in a country dependent on exports of raw materials, most prominently coal, to China, the world’s biggest emitter. And a domestic reordering would have little to no impact on climate change since Australia generates barely 1% of the world’s greenhouse gases.

But even if you agree Australia must do its part against climate change, many policy recommendations are based on a total misreading of modern urban form. Planners and media pundits assume, for example, that people can save energy by taking the train downtown; but even in Sydney, Australia’s largest and oldest big city, barely 12% of the labor force works in the central district, well below the levels decades ago.

There’s also a presupposition that people living in downtown apartments are inherently less energy consumptive than their suburban counterpart. Yet a recent study done by researchers at the University of South Australia showed that overall urban dwellers — who travel, eat out more and consume more goods per capita — also consume more energy, once things like elevators and common areas are factored in, than the suburbanites living in townhouses or single-family homes.

A similar finding was also made by the Australian Conservation Foundation. But in this particular battle, facts rarely intrude. Who needs to think after you have spent years in college being conditioned to believe that all density is good, the denser the better?   And for the big urban landowner, what could be better than stating a moral cause for limiting the suburban competition, thus spiking property  prices?

What is happening to lovely Ku-ring-gai and the Great Australian Dream should stand as a warning of what happens if planners, and their big developer allies, gain total sway.  Let’s just hope America’s traditional decentralization of authority will prevent our middle class dream from following the sad trajectory of our hitherto lucky friends down under.

This piece originally appeared at

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and an adjunct fellow of the Legatum Institute in London. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.

Photo "Cockatoo in Sheldon Forest" by flickr user AussieGold