It’s time to get serious about encouraging housing in regional areas

It’s time to get serious about encouraging housing in regional areas

By Catherine Cashmore
Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Australia seems to make half-hearted appeals to encourage regional migration.  I say half-hearted because despite “generous” housing grants offered to those who venture out into these comparatively desolate locations, there is little to entice migrants to make the move into neighbourhoods crying out for growth. The expectant short-sighted and stubborn belief that building new housing and granting one-off incentives will have consistent migrational effect is futile, without investing first and foremost into infrastructure, transport, education, health and most importantly jobs.

These are the only innovations that can open the door to a wider demographic and thereby ease inner-city inflation.  However, all of this comes at a cost, which is hard for governing powers to justify short term, therefore we’re condemned through need – and subsequently desire – to live in metropolitan locations, which are now beginning to strain at the seams. This places a tremendous responsibility on the shoulders of our town planners to get it right, as it’s their job to redesign Australia’s capitals and make the topographical alterations that will bare effect on our cultural progression. If they get it wrong, we can wave goodbye to the yet distinctive allure that sets Australian cities apart.

For the vast majority of buyers (roughly 70% of them according to the stats) purchasing a property is about purchasing a “home” and therefore a “lifestyle”.  So far we’ve been lucky in Australia.  Our cities are the essence of “liveability” – those who haven’t travelled overseas may not think it, however spend some time in the world’s other hotspots such as London, for example, and you’ll soon get tired of the comparatively high levels of crime, traffic congestion, pollution, cold winters, vandalism, unmanageable population, and the modern monstrosities architects have created in order to prove the point.  Australians love travel, but no matter how enjoyable the vacation, it’s rare to hear an Aussie express a strong desire to live elsewhere. Our national anthem says it all: here is always “home”.

For this reason, Melbourne, Sydney, Peth and Adelaide commonly drop into the top 10 of the “world’s most liveable cities” (according to TheEconomist‘s yearly survey).  A large part of this is due to our “walkability”. In the inner- and middle-ring metropolitan locations, there’s easy access to transport, schools, parks, and shops. However, this alone doesn’t make us liveable – what truly makes our cities liveable is the interaction we have with the people who share our neighbourhoods.

This interaction comes in various forms and fosters a valuable sense of community.  Shopping strips lined with small coffee shops and cultural delicacies, corner pubs offering live music, ample parklands, bike paths, museums, sporting events, theatres, festivals, backyard barbecues, conversations over the garden fence, those we meet on an summers evening stroll – the list goes on.  It’s interactions like this that nurture empathy and without getting too detailed, ultimately keep crime rates low and people grounded. However, this cultural interaction is only possible and sustainable because our unique architecture over the decades has evolved to allowed it. Height restrictions, heritage overlays and green bans protecting parkland have all played their part. However, this is now rapidly changing.

I remember Prince Charles daring to speak out over the subject of how “modernists” were ruining the look of England’s cities. He was correct in as much as he shared the majority opinion of local residents struggling to cope with all too wilful destruction of their local communities. London – home to some of the most magnificent architecture in Europe – has largely been destroyed by mountainous glass towers, which disproportionately squash as many citizens as possible into confined square boxes. The bigger the population, the greater the temptation to provide these quick-fix relatively low-cost answers, and the result is a move away from enabling the population to physically and socially meld with their local environment. Quaint rows of terrace houses (holding similar appeal in the UK to some of Australia’s streets, which are lined Victorian and Edwardian terraces) quickly lose their attraction when surrounded by these monstrous constructions and despite various heritage overlays and supposed safeguards, Australia is heading down the same route.

There has been many a discussion in Melbourne over the disastrous development in Docklands.  It was to be one of many golden answers to Melbourne’s shortage of supply. But why hasn’t it worked? Of all the inner-city suburbs in Melbourne, Docklands (along with Southbank) consistently holds the highest vacancy rates and lacks any lasting appeal for home buyers. It’s not just down to the type of housing provided – important oversights were made from the outset such as lack of schooling, parks, trees, open spaces, community centres, pubs and so forth. However, considering the largest demographic living in the neighbourhood are young singles, you would have thought close proximity to city amenities would have quashed any negative effects this oversight caused?  Not so! The most common, encapsulating, comment you’ll hear from unhappy residents is “it lacks soul”.

There is no diversity of housing stock in Docklands to attract a varying demographic.  The abundance of high-rise accommodation (which I admit has its place in any city and is obviously needed in proportion) fosters no social interaction whatsoever.  Children playing in the street, dogs going for a walk or residents popping down to the milk bar to stock up on essentials – you won’t find these things in Docklands.  Who wants to pop out for a stroll when it involves waiting for a lift that stops at multiple floors on the way down and puts you onto a comparatively deserted street with no perceptible verve or spirit? Had planners envisaged the suburb to involve a “useable” range of accommodation options and community facilities that nurture a wider demographic and subsequently interaction (thus thinking beyond the cost benefit of simply squashing as many people as possible into each small square metre of land), it would have eventually evolved into the success story as planned. However what a tragic (arguably) waste of residential land it’s proven to be.

For a timeless success story in architectural design, you don’t have to look far from home. As any real estate professional will tell you, the housing that attracts the broadest demand from the general population is that which holds period appeal. Although many of these homes at the time of construction were built subject to a strict budget, they engaged with the environment around them enough to maintain their attractive street aspect and keep the localities thriving.  Commonly, the main attraction to buyers of these timeless designs is the rare and opulent period detail, which is now costly to replicate. However at the point of construction, space was just as much an issue to town planners as it is now. These properties weren’t created for backyard barbecues – Victorian terrace housing is essentially the forerunner to the modern townhouse. It was (at the time) a “cheap” space-saving option. However, it maintained a balanced connection and sense of proportion to ensure the community atmosphere continued to thrive.

For example, the veranda became an extension of the living areas – a place to welcome guests or sit in the shade on a warm summer’s eve.  Then, riding on the back of the industrial revolution, Modernist thinkers of the 1950s arrived and so did what’s often termed “Brutalist architecture” (or “streets in the sky”) – thereon followed a slow but steady demise. The tower blocks – options created by the new mass supply of building materials such as steel and concrete – were intended to be “protective and integrating” for residents, but when developed in abundance (providing accommodation for 150-plus residents), they proved just the reverse. Dark stairwells littered with rubbish, broken-down lifts, high levels of crime – even as design improved, lack of connection with the neighbours was a constant stranglehold on community participation.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not against high-density housing, nor do I have the curse of NIMBYism.  There is as much a place for apartment blocks as there is for the traditional Aussie house in the burbs – but when it’s developed vastly out of proportion with the local surrounds, it’s not conducive to society and there’s a point at which mass development must redirect its focus.

So what to do?  For those sitting behind local government desks, modern towers are the perfect solution to population growth. Like student housing, they have a place. For first-home buyers they’re a stepping stone to something bigger. For a growing population they’re essential. But step over that fine visionary balance and our cities will no longer have the appeal to top the most “liveable”.  The sustainable population debate has no easy answer – or I should probably re-express that as “no cheap answer”. Metropolitan locations will always be favoured by a majority, however we’re selling ourselves short if we don’t make the necessary efforts to unlock regional towns and encourage a broader pattern of growth.

For example, why not force large companies to locate their central offices in the smaller satellite cities that already have a strong established culture? Start to invest seriously into fast transport systems that link regional locations to the major capital cities thereby open up options for buyers.  Give back control to communities and allow local government to do what it’s essentially there to do – listen to the people and respond to residential needs.

All too often our local councils are bullied into submission by overriding federal control that never looks beyond short-term gain. All too often neighbourhood protests are ignored, because squashing more and more residents into a suburb takes a priority.  Australia has tremendous potential to be a lasting “garden of Eden” and envy of the southern hemisphere. No one needs fear population growth if we manage where we grow – however this growth must now move forward with a regional agenda.

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