It is unusual for the leader of a community action group concerned about over development and the head of a developer lobby championing high-rise apartments to agree on a planning approach for Sydney’s growth. But, amazingly, the two of us, one the president of community group Save Our Suburbs and the other the chief executive of the Urban Taskforce, do agree on how Sydney can grow without destroying the suburbs.
We are both often at Department of Planning briefings where bureaucrats assume we are on opposite sides of policy discussions but the “missing middle” code proposed by the state government a year ago has brought us together, at least in policy terms.
We are concerned about the potential for new medium-density housing to spread through the suburbs in a manner that will destroy the suburban character of houses with distinctive architecture surrounded by flowers, trees and other foliage, and have a negative impact across much of Sydney.
Many councils are fighting the medium-density code, their main concern being that residents do not want widespread change to the character of their suburbs. The government has allowed 50 councils to postpone the adoption of the code, but that period of grace expires in just over three weeks, on July 1. That deadline will become a flashpoint. Councils need more time, but will they get the extension they are requesting?
We accept that small areas of medium-density could be built in council-initiated, appropriately zoned areas, but the rest of the suburbs must be protected.
We believe that carefully planned high-rise housing in limited locations in town centres and around railway stations is a better option than widespread medium density to accommodate part of Sydney’s growth. This type of housing in apartments has become a preferred way of living for demographic groups who want a more urban lifestyle and to use public transport, including metro rail, to get to work.
Importantly, the NSW government must continue its rollout of turn-up-and-go metro rail lines that connect town centres across Sydney.
But more housing must be encouraged on the fringes of Sydney and along corridors outside Greater Sydney. A very fast train connection between Sydney and Canberra would open up peripheral housing development options along its route, particularly around the Southern Highlands at Bowral and around Goulburn. In a similar manner, a very fast train along the east coast connecting Sydney, Wollongong and Newcastle would open up even more desirable peripheral housing options.
We are concerned the NSW government seems to prefer a medium-density approach of low-rise but bulky, multi-dwelling housing inserted extensively into existing suburbs. From a development perspective the feasibility of these housing types is dubious and from a local character perspective the intrusions of bulky buildings with increased density of parking will destroy the suburbs that Sydneysiders so love.
From a macro planning perspective it seems preferable to limit the change of local character to small areas in town centres and around railway stations with high-rise buildings rather than spread changes across much of suburban Sydney.
Another area we agree on is that planning policies for land use on the periphery are far too restrictive and manipulate the market. In a number of large, prosperous American cities such as Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth there are no restrictive land use policies. We understand that developers can propose developments of the housing types people want in suitable locations, often on the periphery, and create neighbourhoods with amenities that attract buyers. The result is that housing cost is about a third of that in Sydney and journey-to-work times and congestion levels are far lower.
One of us wants to protect the suburbs of Sydney and accepts peripheral development and high-rise in limited locations in town centres and around railway stations. The other champions the swing to a more co-operative lifestyle in high-rise or medium-rise apartments where amenities and transport options are shared but with easy access.
What we are both very concerned about is the widespread proliferation of medium-density, low-rise dwellings across the suburbs that will generate more car congestion and will forever change the local character of our detached house suburbs.
Tony Recsei is the president of Save Our Suburbs and Chris Johnson is the chief executive of the Urban Taskforce.
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