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Should people be opposed to higher density?

Tuesday, 1st Jul 2014

fence

Under the planning framework, Directions 2031 and Beyond, the WA government has set a target for almost half of new residential development to occur in established urban areas.

If Perth is going to accommodate a rapidly growing population, which increasingly wants to live near work and amenities, we simply can’t afford for the urban sprawl to extend indefinitely. We need to embrace infill development regardless of the challenges it might bring about.

Perhaps the biggest of those challenges relates to planning and rezoning, specifically, the opposition from local residents who don’t want to see housing density increased in their suburb.

This is not just a challenge for Perth but for cities around the world. In fact, this type of opposition has become so prevalent that there are a number of acronyms used to label its proponents.

The most well-known of these is NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard). There is also the broader CAVE (Citizens Against Virtually Everything), and the extreme BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything).

Understanding the opposition

Every citizen has the right to protest against change, especially if they believe it will adversely affect their personal situation.

In the case of those who are against development in their area, protests are generally sparked when residents of a particular area believe their normal suburban lifestyle is under attack by plans to increase housing density.

The cause is typically fronted by resident groups, who can garner significant suburban media attention and put significant pressure on the local council to protect the status quo.

Interestingly, it is the residents in wealthy suburbs that tend to be most vocal and most persuasive on this matter.  They have the financial means, political influence and the organisational ability to go about protecting their cherished lifestyle.

What are the groups afraid of? One of the major areas of concern is the fear that infill development will disrupt the cohesion of their neighbourhood. They don’t want to see beautiful, tree-lined streets ruined by unsightly apartment complexes or other developments that are out of character with existing properties.

Clearly, it’s not just about how developments will change the look of streets, but how they will impact on things like privacy, traffic, parking, access to sun and even the environment. While some might not admit it, there is probably also a fear that ‘the wrong’ type of people will move into their suburb.

Impact on property values

While it can be a complex issue,  ultimately it boils down to one thing: the fear that proposed changes will negatively affect local amenity by making the area less desirable.

You can’t criticise people for wanting to protect their financial security and way of life, but I’m unaware of any evidence that shows properly planned infill development causes property values to decline.

In fact, there are many suburbs in Perth that have recently seen property values increase considerably on the back of zoning changes. In some cases, individual properties have gone up by more than $100,000 after being rezoned for higher density.

Affordability, choice and the fringes

One of the impacts of people and councils limiting development in their area is that it merely moves development elsewhere – generally to the fringes of the city.

Fringe development might be good for car manufacturers, but it often requires enormous taxpayer-funded expenses for the roll-out of necessary infrastructure.

There is also the impact on affordability. Locking up land reduces the opportunity for affordable housing in established suburbs. And ironically, it is the children of those opposed to development that often suffer when, like other first-home buyers, they are forced to move to distant areas where essential services are inadequate.

By opposing infill development, advocates are also limiting housing diversity and this can reduce their own opportunities to downsize within their current suburb.

The traffic conundrum

Often a major concern for groups is the fear that higher density housing will increase local road traffic and there is some validity to this argument.

However, ‘protecting’ suburbs can sometimes have unforeseen consequences. By pushing people to the fringes, this can actually create local traffic problems as desperate commuters try to find ‘local routes’ to beat the peak-hour traffic. We’ve all seen how normally quiet residential streets can become major thoroughfares at certain times of the day.

The traffic argument also fails to consider the fact that infill development can actually take cars off the road when it is concentrated around public transport nodes and jobs.

Conclusion

The views of groups opposed to development can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. The worry, however, is that overly fierce ‘protection’ of our suburbs will ultimately undermine any chance of delivering the affordable and diverse housing we desperately need. As is often the case, what makes sense on an individual level can be a recipe for disaster on the larger scale.