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Unlocking the greyfields to inhibit urban sprawl

Announcements by both NSW and Victorian governments in recent weeks that they would continue to encourage the development of new housing on the fringes of Sydney and Melbourne revealed that urban planning…

Governments in NSW and Victoria are planning to encourage more development on the fringes of cities: but the solution lies in inner and middle greyfields suburbs. AAP/Howard Arkley

Announcements by both NSW and Victorian governments in recent weeks that they would continue to encourage the development of new housing on the fringes of Sydney and Melbourne revealed that urban planning in Australia is yet to find a solution for unlocking the potential for housing redevelopment in the middle suburbs of the nation’s largest and fastest growing cities.

Targets of more than 60% and 50% of infill housing for each city respectively, established in recent metro strategic plans, are not being achieved.

In the face of sustained population growth, our big cities continue to sprawl into the greenfields, despite the now well recognised problems associated with higher infrastructure costs, lack of amenity, car dependency, poor job access, diminished agriculture and open space.

A model for directing population and investment inwards – to inner city brownfield precincts – was established over 20 years ago thanks to the federal government’s Better Cities program. Of itself, however, brownfield redevelopment will fail to deliver the net additions of infill housing required.

The solution lies in the greyfields – those ageing but occupied tracts of inner and middle ring suburbia that are physically, technologically and environmentally failing and which represent under-capitalised assets. Here, attempts have been made to intensify housing and employment around activity centres and transit oriented development projects. Outside of CBDs, especially in Melbourne, these designated centres have tended to under-perform. Transport corridors have also been advanced as a focus for higher-density development in the major cities, but recent research at the Swinburne Institute for Social Research suggests that the volume of new infill housing in Melbourne does not vary by level of public transport access, with most remaining car dependent.

Most infill housing in the middle suburbs has been occurring in a fragmented, sub-optimal fashion. As greyfield housing comes onto the market (typically properties where 80% or more of the total value is vested in the land) it is purchased, demolished and rebuilt, typically resulting in yields of 1:1 and 1:2-4 dwellings.

There is a well established model for this class of development. A major gap in the residential property development market is for redevelopment projects capable of yielding net infill dwellings in the range of 6 to 20 units as a medium-density product (four to six storey height). There is a major opportunity for the property sector in this segment of the market – greyfield residential precinct regeneration – but it currently lacks a development model.

A new logic for urban development is required: green urbanism (see Figure 1). As conceived here, this involves a new policy focus that positions regeneration of greyfields precincts as a principal objective: activity centres, transport corridors and greyfield residential precincts.

Figure 1

A recent study for the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute called Towards a new development model for housing regeneration in greyfield precincts, led by me has identified areas where innovation is needed in order to establish a viable development model:

  • New urban policy capable of articulating a long-term strategy for targeting regeneration in the middle suburbs;

  • Establishing an urban regeneration agency with responsibility for greyfields as well as brownfields;

  • A digital spatial information and planning platform with associated tools capable of identifying the most prospective precincts for regeneration, and providing capacity for stakeholder engagement in visualising development options;

  • New urban designs for low rise (four to six storeys) medium-density precincts with high environmental performance (energy, water, waste) and high residential and social amenity;

  • Innovative construction processes and changes to the labour force capable of providing more attractive and affordable solutions to medium-density housing developments. (Industrialised processes that include combinations of prefabricated panels, service systems and interiors that can provide fast turnaround options for replacing existing low-density housing);

  • A range of finance models capable of being matched to traditional private sector for-profit developments as well as hybrid private/community not-for-profit projects;

  • Proactive community engagement that radically departs from the established “placatory” or “adversarial” models that often come into play with populations targeted for redevelopment;

  • A new “regen” planning code capable of accommodating compact city strategies.

To continue applying 20th century solutions to a 21st century urban problem will not deliver cities that are competitive, productive, liveable and environmentally sustainable.

In this context, greyfield regeneration joins other “wicked” urban challenges - along with storm-water and re-use of waste water, renewable energy systems and zero-waste system - confronting governments, industry and communities.

Join the conversation

20 Comments sorted by

    1. Dale Bloom


      In reply to Byron Smith

      About 2/3 of Australia’s population growth is concentrated in the outer-suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne. There is a question as to whether that improves or hinders human carrying capacity, but the bigger question is why do we need to continually increase the population?

      Here is a graph of Australia’s population, and the graph line does appear to be increasing inexorably.

    2. Robert Nelson

      Associate Director Student Experience at Monash University

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Hiya Dale (and thanks Byron)

      Whenever urban sprawl is analysed, the topic of population growth is sure to come up. Sadly, however, it obscures the core issues of urban planning. Urban sprawl is caused by sparsity, not absolute numbers of people. There are much larger populations living happily on much less land all around the world.

      There are many reasons why population growth creates a distraction from the gist of Peter’s article. First, pragmatically, we have the population that we have…

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    3. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      I doubt we are "growing the population", Dale. It's not like some scientist or planner up there somewhere with us in a petri dish.

      To achieve you goal you've just going to have to go out there and stop everyone from bonking.

    4. Dale Bloom


      In reply to Robert Nelson

      Robert Nelson,
      It is true that our ecological footprint is abysmally bad (we are ranked 143 out of 151 countries on this index

      I am not quite sure of the reasons, but when the majority of people in Australia are now living in a few cities, I would think increasing the population of those cities is a definite step in the wrong direction.

      I don’t think squashing people together is going to actually reduce overall consumption, particularly when we keep bringing more and more people into the country, to please a few real estate developers and a minority of others.

      When reading through papers such as “Environmental Impacts, Human Population Size, and Related Ecological Issues” (
      they always seem to emphasise minimisation of population growth, rather than allowing the population to increase and increase and increase.

    5. Byron Smith
      Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Ministry assistant, ecologcal ethicist and PhD candidate at University of Edinburgh

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      For a more mainstream scientific perspective try reading the recent report from the UK's Royal Society called "People and Planet": Population trends are indeed important, but they are global, and Australia closing its borders isn't going to slow the birth rate in the poorest countries (which is where nearly all the growth is - most developed countries have fertility rates below replacement).

      Well designed urban areas have considerably…

      Read more
    6. Dale Bloom


      In reply to Byron Smith

      Byron, reducing “consumerist acquisitiveness” has been bandied about for a long time, but it hasn’t occurred yet.

      The same people who want to increase the population also seem to want to increase consumption so as to increase GDP.

      Religion and spirituality are dying out due to attacks by left-wing rationalists, family life is dying out due to attacks by feminists, and all that is left is consumption.

  1. Ewen Peel



    I could not agree more with your thoughts on this subject.

    A classic example of the planning people getting it wrong is around the Werribee area where some of the best Ag country in the state is being
    developed and slowly encroached upon by new estates.
    One minute the Government and planners are worried about food miles, fresh produce, security of supply and good quality, then they allow development in these prime ag areas.
    Not sure what the answer is but it is a policy that sometime in the future
    will prove to have been shortsighted and a very poor use of a valuable resource.

  2. Roger Fay

    Professor, Associate Dean

    Agree with you Peter. Complex planning laws and processes are part, though not all, of the problem. Developers find it easier, cheaper and more profitable in most cases to develop outer suburban greenfields sites.

  3. MsKatieKatieKay

    logged in via Twitter

    Our planning problems reflect not only a failure of policy but also a failure of the market. We rely on developers to purchase the land and develop it for our future needs. However, unsurprisingly, developers aren't interested in future needs so much as their own profit and bottom line. The result is developers focusing on outer suburban green fields sites (and associated land banking) and, in brown fields areas, a focus on small, 1-2 bedroom apartments that maximize yield.

    The problem is that…

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  4. Len Puglisi

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Peter - a valuable piece, but...

    Until the planning profession stops preceeding its contribution to Melbourne's settlement policy with comments like, 'In the face of sustainable population growth..', there will be no solution to the deteriorating environmental situation. There must be strong and persistent advice given to Government that there is NO solution to Melbourne's problems if there is continuing population growth - especially to hyped-up growth as we are now seeing it. To keep saying to Governments, 'you want growth - this is the best way to do it', is simply to let them off the hook of facing the reality that, apart from small adjustments, the game is up for development expansion.

    1. Robert Nelson

      Associate Director Student Experience at Monash University

      In reply to Len Puglisi

      Dear Len

      In the discussion above, I was trying to convince Dale that population growth has nothing to do with the question.

      You can have sprawling dysfunctional cities with tiny populations and you can have high-efficiency cities with enormous populations. There is no link between good planning and absolute population numbers.

      Our choice is to become denser or to sprawl further. It’s a red herring to complain about population, especially when we have proved that we have long been the world’s poorest planners on much smaller population figures.

    2. Len Puglisi

      Urban environmental writer

      In reply to Robert Nelson

      Robert - In planning for cities, the starting point is not a notion of good or bad design but the political environment and the development lobby that presses daily with a hefty PR machine on governments for quick approvals. The planning professionals (Fed and State as well as consultants) have been talking seriously in favour of 'medium density' as long ago as the early 1980's. What's been the response from the politicians and the developers: 'Yes, yes - we'll allow/encourage medium density'. Which has simply meant an open book for developers to go high-rise. Now we have an appeals tribunal criticising the City of Melbourne for trying to 'micro-manage' a site development proposal, architects heaping praise on developments that managed to fit on minuscle sites, the surrounds of developments that give only tokenistic landscaped space.... Whatever planners may wish for, it won't happen if they give the politicians and developers the excuse that 'you've got to fit everyone in'.

    3. Robert Nelson

      Associate Director Student Experience at Monash University

      In reply to Len Puglisi

      Sure Len!

      Planning is nothing if not messy and a lot of what you say rings true. Also, as Katie observes in her post, much development is based on speedy profit.

      But just because planning is messy, we have to reckon with the possibility that sometimes developers are right in trying to fit as much accommodation on an inner-city block as they can. Sometimes, the spaces put around buildings as a sop to suburban taste are useless (you say tokenistic) and we’d be better off without them. There are many international templates that show how streets spring to life without buildings having gardens around them.

      But I do take your point. We’d be likelier to achieve good planning if we had an idea, for example, of what makes for a sociable street rather than absolutes about limiting density, population and other great Australian fears.

    4. Len Puglisi

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Robert Nelson

      Robert - It would be easy if all we had to deal with was 'messiness'. Unfortunately, as many occasional contributions to 'the Conversation' suggest when they raise issues of de-growth, steady state economy, 'a simpler way' and such like, the problem for cities goes much deeper than that. Cities as 'growth engines' 'the triumph of the city' - these are the mind set of corporate capital, and it's dragging a completely outclassed and forever underresourced governmental sector along by the nose. That…

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  5. Stephen Prowse

    Research Advisor

    Its not just developer profits and developer pressure on councils driving this. Many residents in the more affluent inner city suburbs especially do not want to see higher density developments in their suburbs. As an example, look at the opposition to higher density housing in Long Pocket in Brisbane. This is a real opportunity to build medium density, high quality, well designed, up market residential accommodation but there is strong local opposition. Hence there are huge social and cultural shifts required as well as policy changes.

  6. Bruce Moon



    Many, many years ago - well before I became involved with land-use planning - I started my working life in the clothing industry.

    The 'secret' of the fashion industry I learnt is that it reinvents itself annually by delivering a 'new' look. The positioning of the waistline goes up or down, the 'in' colour moves from a bright to a pastel, etc., etc., etc..

    This 'fashion' principle has been adopted in a wide range of industries, and not only for those marketing consumption goods…

    Read more