Debunking “Brisbane City Council Ban on Townhouses and Apartments No Way To Tackle City’s Biggest Problem: Urban Sprawl”

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The following is an article recently penned by Jorge Branco and published by Domain. It is one opinion and as a property economist, I sought to express my own in contrast to it. The article Jorge wrote is in italics, my comments are made in plane text.

Brisbane City Council is on a crusade to “protect the Brisbane backyard”. In those terms, the council’s bipartisan push to ban townhouses and apartments in low-density suburbs seems almost noble.

The simple reality is that Council is in fact protecting land uses that were designed for detached housing given the relaxation and often poor outcomes that occurred during the most recent investment cycle. Council is not banning apartments and townhouses, it is simply enforcing where they can and can’t go. Some might argue from a property economics perspective that this actually creates certainty in the market place. It protects the asset values of some housing, whilst also ensuring that affordability in those low density areas does not get inflated by developers that can pay more for a site than a Mum or dad purchaser, let alone a first home buyer. I suspect you will find that many suburbs actually have a mix of low density and higher density land uses throughout.

But for anyone who wants to see the city’s major problems such as iffy public transport, worsening traffic and access to services in the suburbs addressed, it’s a completely backward piece of policy.

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A recent study identified that public transport use has declined and more people are electing to drive, up from 70% to 72%. What this doesn’t show is where people are travelling to. The study also identified the worst time to travel was around 3.00pm on many roads, which is the traditional school pick up time. Despite this, the question has to be asked why is public transport patronage failing? Could it be that it is too expensive, not frequent enough or simply that the infrastructure has not kept up with what is a rapidly growing region? The SEQ City Deal strategy would suggest that this is more of the problem and that a three-tiered approach by Government is actively sought to remedy this as growth continues to march onwards. Projects such as Brisbane Metro and the Cross River Rail are trying to remedy the inner city choke points that are part of the rapid population growth that has occurred in the inner city suburbs.

The council is asking the state government to let it block all “multiple dwelling” developments across a great chunk of the city including Chermside West, Chelmer, Nathan and parts of Paddington and Ashgrove. According to Brisbane town planning firm Wolter Consulting, the proposal would affect more than half of the city’s land area. The council declined to provide its own estimates.

So the argument here is that containing “urban sprawl” is okay, but one shouldn’t contain higher densities? Does this not speak of hypocrisy around land uses and town planning principles? The challenge obviously works around what are zoned land uses and what does good quality accommodation look like.

Look, I get it. If you own a nice house with a backyard in one of these suburbs, you don’t want apartments or possibly even a granny flat going in next door because it will probably put a dent in the value of your home and make it harder to park.

I’m glad as a Property Economist we can agree on that point. One of the biggest gripes around suburbs that have had significant levels of gentrification through density is the streets were never designed to cope with the level of traffic and parking that is a side effect. This is further increased by the often wonderful café strips that emerge as well and draw in more traffic from outside of the area. One of the reasons values are dented is because adjoining housing often lose their privacy, particularly in their own backyards. If you bought a house in one of Brisbane’s premier suburbs such as Paddington or Ashgrove as stated above, only to have an apartment block built next to or near it on low density residential land, I would suggest you have every right to be upset. In fact it doesn’t matter what the socio-economic status of the household is, most people’s backyards are sacrosanct.

But shaping a big city, particularly one growing as rapidly as Brisbane, to work as a cohesive whole with good public transport and services is hard. The council says it has been engaging with the community about the city’s growth, and where density and height is needed. “Residents and businesses told council they wanted height and density around transport nodes and high-frequency transport locations,” a spokesman says. I completely agree, but surely that shouldn’t mean halting all intensification in great swathes of the city so that public transport problems there don’t need to be addressed.

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And yet the argument often used against urban sprawl is that it is too hard to service with public transport. Yet when residents and businesses want greater interaction and densities with public transport around high frequency traffic locations this is a problem? Actually, the concept of a Transit Oriented Development has been pushed through planning circles for decades now in one form or another. By increasing densities around these nodes, infrastructure is better utilised, street level businesses are more successful and density can realistically expand from these nodes. So whilst the author states they agree, the reality is that they don’t. Therefore it is not about ignoring public transport in certain locations, it is about making the best use of the public transport we have. That low hanging fruit thing.

A townhouse and apartment ban is the sledgehammer approach to addressing concerns about development but planning instruments already exist to block massive developments in sleepy suburbs. Just last week, the council used its already existing powers to knock back a townhouse development in Morningside, citing concerns about communal open space, setbacks and planting. The most obvious measure is an existing stipulation that apartments and townhouses in low density areas be on blocks of at least 3000m2. That’s roughly five-to-eight average blocks. So your neighbour’s Queenslander isn’t suddenly going to turn into a six-pack of flats without half your street also selling up.

Essentially the result is the same when one considers the above argument, however architects have become incredibly adept at making use of small spaces to create multiple addresses on. There are many examples throughout Moorooka and Annerley to name just two suburbs where townhouses have been built at the back of a traditional house because the lot size was large enough to accommodate this and they certainly weren't anywhere near 3,000sqm in size. It is the certainty of land use that house buyers are desiring. Knowing that what they have spent their lifetime of savings on will not be impacted by a land use that was not intended for that particular location in that particular suburb.

But broadbrush anti-density measures only make the council’s job harder and lead to more suburbs like North Lakes and Springfield, where you’re looking at an hour to 90 minutes in a car or train to get to work everyday. Urban sprawl = bad is not exactly a controversial viewpoint in the planning community and Brisbane is one of the world’s sprawliest, depending on your definition.

Urban Sprawl = Bad is one of the problems that is associated with an often misguided planning doctrine. This necessity to make everything black or white is highly problematic for how people live, work and play. Higher densities do not suit all walks of life or life stage.

The greatest growth in population out to 2041 will be in the Family Formation demographic of circa 450,000 people with an additional circa 295,000 children in SEQ. When one looks at those figures alone, the demand for detached dwellings to raise a family in will be popular for a long time to come. When we look at the next highest demographic cohort over the same period of time, it will be those healthy retirees that account for 250,000 additional people. The same group dubbed the Grey Nomads or Baby Boomers that are one of the wealthiest age groups in Australia’s history. The type of people that have their caravans, boats, Winnebago’s and the like who need room to store the toys and are still able to maintain their households and actually have the time to do so.

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Let’s not forget that the majority of people that live in North Lakes or Springfield Lakes don’t actually work in the CBD. North Lakes is in fact a very good example of contained employment ranging from basic manufacturing through to the highest levels of health and technical services. Projects such as this should be considered aspirational and used as examples from which to improve upon, rather than lumped in the basket of, “Urban Sprawl = Bad.”

US-New Zealand anti-regulation group Demographia’s 2018 World Urban Areas survey placed Brisbane in the world’s 55 least-dense cities of larger than half a million people. Pretty much only the Gold Coast and a host of US sprawls like Tucson, Arizona, and Knoxville, Tennessee came in lower. Nobody wants to turn Brisbane into Dhaka or Mumbai but lower density living is simply harder to cater for.

Whilst we often question the methodology used by Demographia for various reports, we would again suggest that the densities used as in the example above for council areas do not take into consideration natural features such as mountains, flood plains, parkland etc that change the density equation dramatically by increasing the actual household/population per square metre when those other factors are included. And yes the author is correct that we don’t want Brisbane to go to extremes.

The obvious areas are in provision of public transport and other services, along with restaurants, cafes and bars that rely on denser populations for customers. But health is one often overlooked factor. Spending two to three hours in a car commuting every day is bad for your health. Not being able to walk or cycle to work is bad for your health. Living in a suburb that empties out everyday and where people aren’t around to volunteer and join community groups isn’t great, either.

I agree with the general sentiment above, however increasing densities in and around cities without the appropriate improvements to transport will only make the journey to work longer for those middle and outer ring suburbs as congestion increases in the near city suburbs. Not being able to walk or ride to your place of employment is obviously bad for your health when compared to driving a car. The simple reality is that many people who could ride to work choose not to because it is dangerous with the necessary infrastructure not being in place to separate cars and bikes. Read social media and you would believe cyclists are the root of all transport evils. The other factor potentially influencing riding to work is the quality of end of trip facilities, inclusive of secure bike storage. Invest in alternative transport to roads and I guarantee both the health of the community and the amount of congestion declines.

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The simple fact suburbs empty out during peak hour is more to do with the settlement pattern and the location of economic hubs. However, because a suburb empties out during the day does not mean that everyone is travelling in the same direction. More investment in the middle ring and outer suburbs growing employment hubs will make far greater use of existing infrastructure. This has been very well done in destinations such as North Lakes, Springfield Lakes, Varsity Lakes/Robina etc.

Just this week, Lucy Gunn and Belen Zapata-Diomedi from the RMIT Centre for Urban Research released a paper comparing health outcomes in two suburbs: a growth area on the western outskirts and a more central suburb another council is densifying. “Because there’s less amenity and infrastructure to draw on [in fringe suburbs], there’s an effect on health which is a cost. Better health translates to economic value,” Dr Gunn said. To combat these problems, Australian cities are pushing towards something referred to as either infill or urban intensification. Basically, that’s increasing density in parts of the city that can support it rather than continuing to expand greater Brisbane until we reach the 200-kilometre Noosangatta planners often warn about. Unfortunately, that’s where other problems come in.

Actually the SEQ Regional Plan is very clear this will not be the case. For over a decade the urban footprint has largely been contained and density targets continue to be increased. The fear-mongering around Noosangatta is highly erroneous.

You’d have to have had your head in the sand to deny Brisbane doesn’t have a problem with recent developments. West End is riven by conflict over massive constructions going up in the formerly mostly low-rise suburb, and forests of relatively ugly towers built without communal space or community in mind have grown in Newstead and Hamilton almost overnight. Schools, roads and public transport, in many cases, are struggling to cope. This is urban intensification but its implementation has left a lot of people unhappy and scared that what happened in these suburbs could happen to them.

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You can’t have your cake and eat it too. The member for the Greens in West End who staunchly opposed a major multi tower project in West End was seen sitting in the community gardens this project developed. Prior to this, the space was not available to the public. The quality of the cafes and bars has continued to improve in West End as a result of the densities. Yes some suburbs have had many towers built that served the primary interest of investors, however they also provided accommodation in terms of rents at quite affordable prices, got people into near city suburbs so their commute times were less and in theory, made them more healthy based on the research quoted above. A win for the broader economy. An important point to note is that the majority of apartment projects in Newstead, Hamilton and even West End have been reclaimed commercial and industrial space, not low-density housing.

It’s amid this pushback that Griffith University urban and environmental planner Tony Matthews believes the council’s decision is likely more driven by politics than good planning policy. “There are tools and mechanisms that allow you to have density without having height,” Dr Matthews says. “If you look at many French cities, for example, or Spanish cities there’s really very elegant density without having height. But here it’s either height or inelegance or both. “And again, that’s not specific to Brisbane. That also happens in Sydney and Melbourne.”

Firstly it is very difficult to compare Australia’s urban form which for most cities is little more than a century old in its truest sense. French and Spanish cities by default are centuries old and dealing with their own ageing infrastructure issues. I wonder what the residents of those elegant medium rise cities would think of the opportunity to have their own house and backyard?

However it is agreed that it is possible to have higher density and in modern master planned communities this is being achieved through small lot housing, townhouses, three storey walk ups and medium rise accommodation. The reality is that it is easier to build it there because it is already planned for. Retrofitting suburbs is both costly and often in conflict with local residents as stated above. Bad planning is simply that and it is this outcome that the Council is arguably trying to ensure doesn’t happen anymore. It is extraordinarily expensive to create parks in existing suburbs when they don't already exist. What has to be knocked down to accommodate this?

He lays some of the blame for resulting public attitude directly at the feet of developers skimping on certain elements of best-practice in rushing up big ugly apartment towers. But the media’s depiction of new developments and the council’s own failure to impose stricter standards have also contributed. The council’s response, he says, while likely to contribute to a lesser degree to urban sprawl, will probably be felt hardest in higher property prices and less choice.

Yes the last investment boom did see some truly poor outcomes in built form. This cannot be laid solely at council’s feet but must include every aspect of the development sector, including the industry bodies who were warned about what the outcome would be. The impact on prices would likely be negligible in the short to medium term as it enters a period of correction, both in supply and price.

Executives at Wolter Consulting wrote to State Development Minister Cameron Dick this month expressing many of these misgivings and urging him to block the council’s ban. Senior associate town planner Brad Jones understands the council is trying to tackle the concerns of family home owners about big developments ruining their suburb’s amenity but says there’s a better way. “Council can tighten up what they let through,” Mr Jones says. “If they want to, they can really hold developers to those requirements. Over time the industry has chipped away at a number of these and really it’s fair to say there have been some poor outcomes, but it’s not just the development industry’s fault.

“Council administer their own policy and are approving these things, so they can easily just take an approach from now on [that] we’re going to provide a much more rigorous assessment with the codes we have in place.” The introduction of a Chief Design Office, on the back of the same surveys and app usage used to justify the townhouse ban, would appear to be a step in the right direction.

Instead of a populist policy designed to scare home owners into thinking their backyard is at risk but about to be saved, the council should be forcing developers to create functional, appealing expansions and working to provide or encourage the necessary services.

No, the Council is providing certainty. Certainty for both the development community and the residential community. Describing demographia as a regulation free organisation and then stating medium density should be allowed to occur throughout any suburb so long as it meets certain design criteria simply sets the same cycle up to occur again and feels like a certain hypocrisy. The fact residents and businesses want greater density around high frequency transport nodes indicates that this is the best place to work through the increased density equation.

Retrofitting existing suburbs with higher density is always going to be problematic; particularly when the arguments stem from travel times to work, public transport and the presumption that all residents work in the CBD. The fact is our transport infrastructure has not kept pace with the population. It has been far too focused on cars rather than alternatives. The Brisbane City Council and State Government are to be applauded for projects such as the Cross River Rail and Brisbane Metro. Densities will increase around those stations, though the cost of the service once built needs to be affordable. Affordable being defined by both convenience and cost measures.

Albert Einstein said; “You can’t solve tomorrow’s problems using yesterday’s technology”. So perhaps it is time to rethink the density issue and consider where things like telecommuting, economic and innovation hubs are located, safe transport routes for cyclists and walkers; and heaven forbid the removal of the most simplified and perverse ideology that Master Planned Communities = bad. The community is neither one nor the other. It is a homogenous and interesting group of individuals. To state that the Council’s strategy is simply politics suggests that perhaps the community doesn’t like the doctrine of density that has been served up to them by planners because it is what is best for them. Common sense will no doubt prevail in time.

Matthew Gross | Director | | +61 7 3229 0111 | Brisbane | Australia