Forcing Density in Australia's Suburbs


Australia is a continent sized country with total urbanized area of only 0.3%.  As is the case with the USA, the population is increasing as a result of natural growth and immigration. The country is blessed with a sunny climate and enough space to enable its inhabitants to enjoy a relaxed, free lifestyle.

Given this, one would expect there would be little support for the higher density housing ideology of the Smart Growth advocates. Yet since the early 1990s the Australian Federal Department of Housing has been pushing exactly this approach.

Sydney, located in the state of New South Wales, has been the forefront for this densification policy. Sydney (population 4.34 million) is subdivided into local municipalities, each run by a popularly elected council. Traditionally these councils have had the responsibility of planning their own areas. Over the years council zoning plans have complied with the expressed preference of over 80% of Australians to live in free-standing homes. In an effort to alter this long-standing pattern the New South Wales Government has resorted to the use of authoritarian processes to force densification, whether areas like it or not.

High-density regulations from the Planning Minister come about by ministerial fiat without discussion in the State Parliament. These regulations require municipal councils to submit planning strategies to the Planning Minister that increase density, to his/her satisfaction, under threat of removal of a council’s planning powers. In a blatant conflict of interest, half of the members of the minister’s assessment panel are developers who stand to gain from the implementation strategies being assessed and the other half are bureaucrats. There is no community representation.

Most councils have meekly complied with the coercive demand to submit high-density planning strategies.  As a result previously attractive suburbs with their flowers and foliage are being overcome by the relentless march of grey concrete and bitumen. Bewildered long-time residents find themselves isolated amongst the drab shadows of upward-rising, smothering unit blocks.

One leafy, mainly single-residential council area in the northern part of Sydney (Ku-ring-gai) insisted that the submission of their residential strategy be delayed until studies could be conducted of the effects of the resulting higher density on infrastructure, traffic, the environment and heritage. This cheekiness was dealt with savagely. Its traditional planning powers have been taken away and given to a planning panel appointed by the Planning Minister.

This planning panel organised a plan that will increase the population density of the municipality by some 50%. The plan proposes that the traditional village centres and numerous surrounding homes in the area be replaced by massive high-rise tower developments, many spreading deep into surrounding residential streets.

In a token show of democracy the panel arranged for a public consultation meeting on the draft plan. During the meeting, resident after resident excoriated the high-density plan as grossly excessive, defiant of independent studies and contemptuous of environmental and heritage constraints. Speaker after speaker denounced the panel's processes – as “failures of transparency and due process”, “patronising and condescending of community concerns”, “pandering to developer interests”, being “part of a process to impose a policy that was not in the greater public interest” and a “sham”. The panel ended the meeting when only half of those who registered to speak had done so. Despite tumultuous scenes of uproar, the planning panel resolved to adopt the high-density plan.

One would think that such dictatorial impositions on a community could be warranted only by indisputably being in the wider public interest. The Planning Department has attempted to justify its stance by alleging benefits for the greater public good. Chief among these are claims that high density is better for the environment and that the policy saves on infrastructure cost.

In Australia the evidence points to the contrary. On the question of greenhouse gas emissions, a recent study which allocates greenhouse gas emissions to final consumption at the household level1 shows that on average per person emissions in the high-density inner city areas are nearly twice that in the outer low density areas. Another study shows that there are more greenhouse emissions from domestic energy use in high-density living (5.4t/person/year) than in detached dwellings (2.9t/peson/year)2. This results from lifts, clothes dryers, air-conditioners and common lighted areas such as parking garages and foyers. What is more, the energy required to construct high-rise is nearly five times the energy needed to build single-residential, per resident. 

In Australia high density hardly reduces travel intensity at all. Research on Melbourne areas shows that the people squeezed into newly converted dense areas did not use public transport to any greater extent than before and there was little or no change in their percentage of car use3.

There is not nearly enough difference in the greenhouse gas emissions of public versus private transport to counter the increased emissions of high-density dwelling. Greenhouse gas emission per passenger km on the Sydney rail network is 105 gm. The figure for the average car is 155 gm - but for  modern fuel efficient vehicles is as low as 70 gm.

Adding more people to existing infrastructure results in overload. After 15 years of high-density policies, the quality of Sydney suburban roads, rail service, water supply and electricity has noticeably deteriorated. High-density retrofit is hugely more expensive than laying out new infrastructure on greenfield sites. Infrastructure costs quoted by the authorities almost always omit the cost of restoring the standard of infrastructure back to the level of service people enjoyed before high-density was imposed. One example of these “forgotten” costs – the augmentation of electricity supplies in downtown Sydney, necessitated by 4900 additional apartments, will eventually cost $A429 million ($US340 million) – or $A80,000 per new apartment.4

The effect of high density policies on the cost of housing has been devastating to the younger generation. In attempting to force people into higher density on existing land, the authorities have drastically cut down the supply of new land for housing. This has resulted in the cost of land now comprising 70% of the cost of a place to stay, instead of the traditional 30%. A new dwelling on Sydney’s outskirts should cost about $A210,000 ($U168,000) but is actually more than $A500,000.

The cost of commercial land in Sydney has also rocketed out of control. Employers take their business elsewhere. Back in 2000, the New South Wales proportion of the national economy was 35%. This has now plunged to barely 30%.5  The proportion of bankruptcies has increased from 25% to 38%.6

Besides ostensible “green” ideology, perhaps the powerful driver for high-density policies lies with the resulting opportunities for infill developers to make huge profits. Over the last five years, the ruling New South Wales Labor Party received donations from the development industry of $A9 million while the opposition party netted $A5 million. These donations exceeded the total contributions for all political parties over the same period from the gambling, tobacco, alcohol, hotel, pharmaceutical and armaments industries combined7.

The political donations gain donors favoured access to government.  This inevitably results in policies sympathetic to them, which in turn result in more profits and more donations.  

Other Australian states also have implemented high-density policies but not to the degree of New South Wales. Recently in Victoria8 and in Western Australia9 carefully couched announcements have revealed that policies are moving away from excessive high-density.

Mistaken ideology and financial rewards to a minority have made high-density an enduring feature of New South Wales planning policy. The results are not pretty: more greenhouse gases, high traffic densities, worse health outcomes, a creaking and overloaded infrastructure, a whole generation locked out of owning their own home and business fleeing the state for the greener, less congested pastures elsewhere.

(Dr) Tony Recsei has a background in chemistry and is an environmental consultant. Since retiring he has taken an interest in community affairs and is president of the Save Our Suburbs community group which opposes over-development forced onto communities by the New South Wales State Government.

1 Australian Conservation Foundation Consumption Atlas, ,

2 Myors, P. O'Leary, R. and Helstroom, R.,2005, Multi-Unit Residential Building Energy and Peak Demand Study, Sydney, New South Wales Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources

3 Christopher Hodgetts, 2008,Thesis: Urban Consolidation And Transport, University of Melbourne

4 EnergyAustralia website accessed October 2008

5 Sydney Morning Herald 15 November 2008

6 Sydney Morning Herald 29 March 2009

7 Sylvia Hale, Member of NSW Legislative Council, 29 April 2009, Speech to the National Trust Breakfast

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Forcing Density in Australia's Suburbs

Engineers deal in facts - otherwise their plans and projections would go wrong and ruin people's lives

Dr. Recsei has quoted indisputable facts similar to those I have seen elsewhere indicating that we are heading for just that

- the ruination of people's way of life here in Sydney Australia.

He lightly touched on other states who are already going away from this forced infrastructure overload called urban 'consolidation' which they discovered was an unnecessary aspect of life in their cities.

There is also the 'uglification' of ALL suburbs that comes with it. Anyone who disputes this should take a walk (you can't safely drive) around the inner city suburb of Flemington -it never was a leafy north shore paradise but it is definitely approaching vastly overdeveloped ugly status now.

Those of us who have lived in Sydney all our lives are watching with horror as secondary roads reduce to one dangerous lane in street after street outside too many of these unnecessary blocks where sewers invariably overflow now quite regularly.

Obviously in order for 'developers' to fill this increasing oversupply of high rise blocks there has been a larger that projected increase in population in Sydney through immigration.

As a result, we have all been shamed into not using/weaned off using potable water because we can't get the dams to fill anymore -even after rain.

My Hydrualic Engineer associates assure me our dams were designed to always recover (even taking 7 year droughts into account) with originally projected 'worst-case' population growth.

Lately we see our power supply losing that long term 'designed-in' resilience only to find once again that it is due to loads NEVER envisaged for 2009!.

Are we shortly to see the equivalent of another de-salination plant 'band-aid' for our power supply - again funded by the utility paying consumer with his Holden whilst the 'Developer' drives past in his Porsche

- on to check out another patch of naive stand-alone dwellers whose combined land sales to him will give us another high rise block and even more overload?

Someone please call a halt -or at least time to re-think this madness

Perhaps the GFC is already doing that.

The vandalising of Ku-ring-gai on Sydney's north shore

The New South Wales Government, in an ideologically-driven frenzy, has used its undemocratically appointed, rate-payer funded Planning Panel to destroy the heart of some of the finest and most unique suburbs of any city in the world through totally inappropriate and illogical rezoning.

With total disregard for good planning principles, they have offered up Ku-ring-gai on a plate to the Labor Party's biggest donor and lobby group, the property developers. Despite their ridiculous claims of resident consultation they have, with vindictive glee, trampled on the wishes of the largely Liberal-voting electorates of Ku-ring-gai.

Despite being 40% over their stated new dwelling quota, they are persisting in pushing totally inappropriate 5-storey unit blocks into areas of pristine single storey heritage houses with their superb trees and gardens. They have made no attempt to plan for the infrastructure necessary to support the increased population of these suburbs.

The results of this madness will permanently blight Sydney and will immortalise the Philistines who instigated and approved its execution. It will be an absolutely tragic loss for Sydney and Australia. It will make Sydney and New South Wales an international joke, as did the state government's vandalism of the Sydney Opera House in the 1960's by preventing the famous architect, Joern Utzon, completing its interior. The immaturity and incompetence of the New South Wales government is only exceeded by its susceptibility to developer lobbying.

The Omission of the Public Interest

This current article makes relevant reference to the public interest and within NSW seems poorly managed.

Determining what will benefit the public in general (as distinct from governments or interest groups) is a seemingly perpetual struggle. There seems limited agreement about what the concept means and the most people give little thought to how the public interest might be identified or constructed.

The application of the public interest in planning and property development has different perceptions of the concept of the public interest and differing views about how the substantive content of the public interest should be determined.

It would appear that appeals to the public interest typically work best when they invite participants in a decision-making process to prove that their participation and contribution take into account all relevant interests affected by a decision. Whilst not all participants will agree, it is the presence of due process (or it could be a code, or a protocol or a mediating institution or a reporting requirement) promotes a deliberative process of open discussion about the public-interest impacts of potential decisions.

Clarification of the concept of the public interest is needed as the term is widely used by politicians, lobby groups, journalists and the public, sometimes in ways that are justifiable but often in ways that are not. Because of the definitional difficulties the popular understanding of the concept of the public interest is poor and the concept is therefore open to misuse in rhetorical claims for the legitimacy of sectional interests or government policies.

Practitioners attempting to determine the substantive content of the public interest would benefit from an overview consideration of the opportunity to:

• develop a public interest framework for formulating
claims about the substantive content of the public
• using that formulation of the public interest in the
development of public policy options
• evaluate the options, and
• manage conflict among stakeholders.

The range of likely elements of Public Interest would include:

• Effectiveness -Is the initiative / project effective in
meeting the proponent’s stated objectives?

• Accountability and transparency - In the event of PPPs, do the partnership arrangements ensure that the community can be well informed about the obligations of government and the private sector partner, and that these can be oversighted by the Auditor-General? (The likely contract matters withheld from voluntary disclosure being trade secrets, genuinely confidential business information and material which if disclosed would seriously harm the public interest).

• Affected individuals and communities - Have those affected been able to contribute effectively at the planning stages, and are their rights protected through fair appeals processes and other conflict resolution mechanisms?

• Equity - Are there adequate arrangements to ensure that disadvantaged groups are not injuriously affected by the proposed development or access to related services, etc?

• Consumer rights - Does the project provide sufficient safeguards for consumers, particularly those for whom government has a high level of duty of care, and/or those who are most vulnerable?

• Security - Does the project provide assurance that community health and safety will be secured? Each proposed initiative / project has distinctly different issues. Particular areas to consider are corruption, crime, public health risk (including emissions), heritage, environmental sustainability, quality and security of supply, the latter being of special concern when the market is immature.

• Public access -Are there safeguards that ensure ongoing public access to essential infrastructure, etc?

• Privacy - Does the project provide adequate protection of users’ rights to privacy?

At least at the National level, the pubic interest test mechanism has been identified: to examine the relationship between the overall interests of the community, competition and desirable economic, environmental and social outcomes. The Agreement recognises that without limiting the matters to be taken into account, in assessing the costs and benefits, the following matters should be considered:

• government legislation and policies relating to
environmentally ecologically sustainable development;
• social justice, access and equity considerations,
• government legislation and policies relating to matters
such as occupational health and safety, industrial
relations, discrimination;
• economic and regional development, including employment
and investment growth;
• the interests of consumers generally or of a class of
• the competitiveness of Australian businesses; and
• the efficient allocation of resources

Using the Ku-ring-gai example, and in noting what did and didn't happened in dealing with the public, it seems that the NSW Government has some way to go respecting and engaging with the public. Should we allow the errors of the past to become the precedent for the future?

Robert Senior - Planner and Land Economist