Inside the Collection

Suburbia, apartmentia, adapturbia

Photograph of Nelsons Ridge housing estate
Nelsons Ridge housing estate, photo by Marinco Kojdanovski 2012

Are baby-boomers responsible for Sydney’s unaffordable housing? It’s becoming a common theme of the property media with story headings like ‘Boomers put super squeeze on first home buyers’. And similar arguments are being made in the planning and architecture world.

Former NSW Government Architect Chris Johnson: ‘The big issue right now for Sydney is the pendulum swing from low density detached housing to more urban apartment living.…With a growing army of ageing baby boomers wanting to protect suburbia, Sydney needs a new swat squad of younger urban dwellers to support the new apartmentia’.

There are two sides to this argument. One is simply that baby boomers are the generation most able to afford Sydney real estate. The other, more important issue is that new housing development is being stymied by the boomers’ defense of low-density, low-rise suburbia on heritage and liveability grounds. Hence the housing shortage – Sydney needs to double its current construction rate to about 30,000 new dwellings a year to reduce the pressure of demand and spiralling prices.

That demand, by the way is not primarily caused by population increase; households today typically include fewer people so we need more housing per capita. The type of residences in demand is changing: families with children now form only one fifth of new households. Couples without children (or without children at home) and single person homes are now the major housing markets.

Architectural model of Nelsons Ridge Housing Estate
Powerhouse Museum collection: Architectural model, Nelsons Ridge housing estate, Gift of Porter Models, 2013.

In any case it’s not that hard these days to design and build houses with good energy efficiency and other sustainable outcomes. This is a model of a streetscape at Nelsons Ridge, a new housing estate near Greystanes in western Sydney. Developed by Lend Lease, Nelsons Ridge features many architect-designed project houses, smaller and more eco-efficient than most ‘McMansions’. It also features pedestrian-friendly streets, parks, a shopping centre and other social infrastructure.

However Nelson’s Ridge is largely dependent on private car transport, undermining its sustainability credentials. Politicians and others like to promote the virtues of new suburbs, 1950s style. But today more than 70 per cent of new housing is built within existing suburbs. Rather than move to new suburbs, most Sydneysiders prefer to live closer to jobs, schools, shopping and entertainment. Commuting has lost its allure.

Most of Sydney’s new apartment precincts are built near railway stations and other urban infrastructure at St Leonards, Rhodes, Strathfield, Wolli Creek, Hurstville and elsewhere. Ideally, these projects encourage public transport use and revitalise local shopping and employment. Baby boomers are a prime market for these developments – the boomers are actually well-represented on both sides of this argument.

I’m doing new content for a couple of showcases in the Museum’s Ecologic exhibition on the theme of urban sustainability – so I have been thinking about these sort of issues. There’s no doubt that a big issue for today’s urban thinkers is:  how to increase the density and affordability of existing suburbs while retaining and increasing their liveability and sustainability?

Older suburbs close to the cbd mostly have good public transport and well-established social infrastructure. This is the battle ground of boomers v the rest. From the 1960s the boomers repopulated the inner city, for decades derided as ‘slums’. As a card-carrying baby boomer I’m old enough to remember dinner-party boasts of miniscule prices for terraces and bungalows followed quickly by spectacular windfall gains. (I didn’t get in property until I was in my 40s so I missed that part of the boomer dream).

As a result, according to the Melbourne art critic and academic Robert Nelson, ‘the suburbs have grown consistently and inexorably…By expressing this as a choice of lifestyle, we fail to acknowledge that many have been denied choice by established, inner suburbs. Inner suburbs have made the choice for the outer city by jealously protecting their own low-density living’.

Things are unlikely to change if housing choices remain restricted to single-family houses or apartment blocks. Baby boomers are not the only demographic anxious to protect yards and other green spaces. Fortunately, as Tone Wheeler points out, ‘we are now building a far greater range of housing, including duplexes, townhouses, and low-rise, medium-rise and high-rise dwellings in response to changing demographics. Consumers are demanding more housing choice, and planning policies are struggling to catch up’. The challenge is to gain acceptance of these new housing types in the suburbs.

Rendering of V-House suburban apartment
V-House suburban apartment building by Long Bao Tran, 2013.

In the Ecologic exhibition I’m planning to include some student projects from the UTS Adapturbia Masters course taught by Adam Russell of DRAW Architects. These projects address the issue of designing higher density and sustainability into existing suburban blocks while retaining their character.

Above is Long Boa Tran’s concept of a low-rise apartment building which would make much better use of a suburban apartment than the traditional ‘six-pack’ walk-up. It’s double-V footprint would maximise common greenspace around a flexible, low-energy building.

In contrast William Cai proposes a flexible three-story structure designed for suburban backyards. Adaptable for one or two bedrooms it could comfortably accommodate numerous one and two person households within existing suburbs.

Poster of adaptable urban living unit
Adaptable urban living unit by William Cai, 2013.

Charles Pickett, curator

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