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A sign signifies tensions over population density

A sign signifies tensions over population density

| On 05, Nov 2011

CHANGE BRINGS CHALLENGE and I saw a big hint of this when walking down the street to The Spot.

The big hint was a big sign attached to the front fence of a house. In a big, bold font it pushed its message of opposition to accommodating more people in Randwick to the street. The cause of the householder’s displeasure seems to be the prospect of a greater population density, a statement of displeasure at the state government mandated increased population numbers for Sydney’s local government areas.

Valid concern… or common NIMBYism?

Is this another example of the NIMBYism commonly encountered whenever changes to urban landuses are proposed, or are there valid concerns? Well, there always are valid concerns because there are valid planning considerations to take into account – increased traffic flows, impact on parking, overshadowing, energy and water efficient design and so on. Why these are valid concerns is because they have been so badly done in the past, and it is this that is often behind the NIMBY response. Opposition to proposed changes in urban landuse has become the default setting, and given the history of how urban development has often been done in the past, opposition is understandable.

The recent controversy over medium density apartment development in Ku-ring-kai demonstrates how accommodating Sydney’s growing population can become a hot political issue. That development was cancelled, however that won’t stop development. It will merely drive it elsewhere. It might be good news for those northsiders who don’t want change to their suburbs but will it be good news for areas that are developed to accommodate the people who might have lived there? Like Randwick.

Lifestyle—vague concept or lived reality?

That sign at The Spot, though… it played on emotion as do most effective messages and it made reference to intangible and often vague concepts. For instance, it raised the notion that development and more people would lead to the loss of the area’s lifestyle. Just what this is puzzles me. What makes lifestyle? Isn’t that something that is experienced individually? Is there some collective lifestyle enjoyed by those living around The Spot? If so, what is it?

I live in an apartment quite close to The Spot but I have yet to identify any particular life style associated with the area that would distinguish it from other areas nearby. For me, lifestyle around The Spot is made up of things like walkability – being able to walk from home to The Spot, to Randwick’s commercial strip, Coogee Beach or Randwick Community Centre with its workshops that skill-up the community; the availability of public transport to the city; the local availability of cafes with good but moderately priced food; good neighbours.

These things might contribute to lifestyle but they are not unique to the area around The Spot. If you take a look around you find the place is one of mainly middle class people living in low-rise apartment buildings dating back to the 1920s, residents in a nearby block of social housing apartments and duplexes and detached houses set in small gardens. It’s what you would call medium density and it is all the better for being so. I don’t see how accommodating more people in the area is going to change that. A denser population can only make local businesses and public transport more viable and create the opportunity for new, specialist retailers and service providers.

Population density is the crux of the issue and I acknowledge that badly designed and built shanghai apartment accommodation can be both an eyesore (though that’s down to personal perception) and can create traffic snarls and other difficulties. At the same time, if we don’t increase densities across Sydney’s local government areas, where do we put the city’s increasing population? More than likely it will go to the expanding outer suburbs and to the exurbs that are eating up the city fringe market gardens and reducing the security of our urban food supply. If residential development is forced out of one area it doesn’t go away. It goes somewhere else.

This is where NIMBYism, although sometimes understandable in particular circumstances, fails the city as a whole. It merely displaces development. Comfortable middle class people might drive it out of their suburb but in doing so they force it onto someone else. Perhaps this doesn’t matter to them and, if this is so, then I have to ask whether this is just another manifestation of selfishness.

The trick in increasing population density in an area is to design it so that it retains what is good with the old. But first, you have to identify what it is that is good about the existing character that is worth keeping.

For those adverse to high rise, we can do medium density with only modestly scaled buildings. A friend, a designer familiar with the medium density cities of her native Germany, told me that the optimum height for an apartment building is that from which you can recognise the face of a friend in the street below. This works out at something like five to six or so stories. Good, thoughtful design can deliver human scale urban residential development that accommodates an increasing population at this height and that complies with energy efficiency and provision of open space.

The need for open space

With medium density development we come to value our open space more and development should allow for a good swarth of it.

As populations grow so do the range of demands for public open space. The traditional, nineteenth century idea of city parks as lawn-covered expanses modelled on the estates of the British aristocracy is giving way to uses that combine childrens’ playgrounds, BBQs and picnic tables, seating for quiet recreation, lawn for picnicing or kicking a ball about on, bushland reserves and community gardens.

My point in itemising these things is that the demand for them is likely to grow with population increase and that new medium density development needs to include open space for all of these options in its planning.

So, I appreciate the fears of the person who erected that sign on their fence near The Spot, but I disagree in principle. But their fears are shared by others and placating them will be the job of local government but mostly it will be the job of the developer. If they deliver a poorly designed product to house Randwick’s growing population then those fears will be vindicated and opposition to further development will likely be more vigourous.

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