3 Nov 2017

There is probably no single topic of conversation more likely to get people engaged and debating currently than the subject of housing affordability – and the lack of it in many parts of Australia.

Interest rates remain at historic lows, making repayments within the grasp of many working Australian home owners, despite the rapid rise in prices. However, for those yet to enter the market, lack of affordable new supply has meant the required deposit is now well out of reach for many would-be home buyers. Some have turned to the so-called Bank of Mum and Dad, reportedly now the fifth largest ‘bank’ in Australia. But for far more, the Australian dream of home ownership remains a dream, and a distant one at that.

There is no single, easy solution to this problem. But one that would go a long way to addressing affordability is to increase affordable supply in areas with existing infrastructure, particularly transport infrastructure. And this inevitably leads to discussions around density, which in turn quickly lead to many NIMBYist clichés of why it can’t be done.

Part of the problem is a misconception of what density really looks like – our minds tend to picture the worst case examples in developing countries. But this is not the reality.

Density done well means something other than endless high rises, with their negative social and environmental connotations. Density done well can not only look good, but also bring myriad economic, social and environmental benefits – it’s a win, win, win, win situation.

Benefits of Density

Economic Social Environmental
Housing affordability (accommodating population growth) Diversity Less sprawl, more trees
Maximising employment and small business opportunities Equity Reduced car usage
Maximising the economic infrastructure (transport, utilities) Ability to downsize in your ‘hood’ More efficient use of scarce resources (water, power)
Facilitating better social infrastructure (pools, libraries, parks) Removing the ‘spatial leash’ on mothers (parents)  
Productivity gains through improved access to skills base, key workers Community spaces create neighbourhoods  
Access to skills promotes productivity    

Urbis supports a YIMBY attitude and believes Australia’s cities can get there too if we have sensible conversations about the right type of density. A term that’s being heard more and more in these conversations is the “missing middle”: Middle density developments can mean townhouses, duplexes, low rises, mixed use developments and combinations of these. There are some great examples in Australia already.

The 'missing middle': Central Park, Chippendale (left) and Rhodes Peninsula (right). 

Getting these developments right means planning, collaboration, and the careful design and understanding of the costs and benefits of options for each potential development site.

But increased density is not suitable in all locations. Mapping done by Urbis shows that there are good reasons not to go down that path in some areas. For example, in some Sydney suburbs, any significant increase in density could bring higher costs than benefits as geography and topography do not allow for a commensurate increase in economic or social infrastructure.

But there are also areas where we are missing out on economic, social and environmental benefits – areas that have only modest density at present but relatively good transport access, as illustrated in the snapshots below.


Click map to enlarge

Kensington- Rosebery

Click map to enlarge

Critically, our interactive mapping also shows that lower density not only means lost benefits to the economy, communities and environment, but also keeps the barriers high for would-be home owners, by reducing affordability.

It’s time to change the conversation.