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Forcing density in Australia's suburbs

By Tony Recsei - posted Friday, 24 July 2009

Australia is a continent sized country with total urbanised area of only 0.3 per cent. 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 per cent 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 among 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 per cent. 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 level 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 (Multi-Unit Residential Building Energy and Peak Demand Study, NSW Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources) 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). 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 (Christopher Hodgetts, 2008, Thesis: Urban Consolidation And Transport, University of Melbourne) 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 use.

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First published in New Geography on July 18, 2009.

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About the Author

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. You can find the Youtube site here; and the blog here.

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