To cut urban sprawl, we need quality infill housing displays to win over the public

Geoffrey London

The continued preference for detached housing in new suburbs is driving Perth’s urban sprawl and means two-thirds of dwellings built over the next 15 years need to be on infill sites to meet the state’s target. perthhdproductions/flickr, CC BY

With state governments across Australia acknowledging the need to limit urban sprawl, fill the gaps within existing metropolitan areas and build higher-density housing on selected sites, many opportunities have opened up. Demonstration projects are key to ensuring quality outcomes, and government has a leading role to play.

The Western Australian target for urban infill is at the lower end compared to other states. In August 2010, the Department of Planning and the Western Australian Planning Commission released Directions 2031 and Beyond, a report that proposed a more consolidated Perth, with an infill target of 47% of new housing.

The report stated that 328,000 new dwellings would be needed by 2031. The 47% target translates to 154,000 of these. This target was a 50% increase on infill trends at the time.

In 2015, the same two government agencies released the draft document, Perth and Peel@3.5 million, which again nominated the 47% infill target. However, the authors acknowledged that urban infill rates had reached only 28% in 2014. This means that, to reach the 47% goal, the required increase in infill has moved from 50% to 68% more than the actual infill numbers in the five years between the two reports.

Filling the housing gap

This is a substantial change, and one that will require significant shifts from “business-as-usual” approaches to housing delivery along with community acceptance of higher residential densities. Government can assist with these shifts and, in doing so, help to fill a conspicuous gap in the content of the reports.

This gap is the absence of anything more than the briefest of references to the nature of the housing that will provide the increased infill and density. There is no real discussion of housing types and design, methods of construction and delivery, or forms of ownership that may encourage a greater take-up of such housing.

Higher residential density and infill continue to face a level of community resistance. Some of this is justified, in that much of the completed suburban infill is of a poor quality and too fragmented to deliver the positive changes and level of amenity that higher density can bring.

A quick Google Maps scan across the middle suburbs of Perth shows the dominant form of suburban infill in the city. It is a compressed suburbia. Large houses are squeezed together onto sites, shrinking usable private outdoor space to leftover space, reducing access to sun and cross-ventilation, and diminishing existing tree canopy. Driveways, car courts and double garage doors engage with the street.

Standard industry infill strategies in middle-ring or greyfield suburbs. Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, Monash University

How do we improve infill?

Looking at this prompts the question: how do we improve the standard? Researchers at Swinburne and Monash universities in Melbourne and at the Australian Urban Design Research Centre (AUDRC) at the University of Western Australia have proposed solutions.

The Monash project, Infill Opportunities: Design Research Report, prepared for the Office of the Victorian Government Architect, explores how considered design strategies can contribute to better-quality infill redevelopment in the middle-ring suburbs.

The strategies include:

In addition, the idea is for the units to have a degree of inbuilt flexibility so they can adapt to changing household circumstances. While this work remains diagrammatic, it nevertheless demonstrates that, with a clear focus on how design can enable amenity to be optimised, suburban infill can provide attractive housing options.

There are infill projects being built in Perth that demonstrate what is possible when real design intelligence is at play.

For example, LandCorp’s stage 1 development of Knutsford, 1.5 kilometres from the centre of Fremantle, provides a mix of well-considered housing types. These feature good indoor-outdoor relationships and clever spatial strategies to enable a high degree of internal flexibility.

This housing is being offered to the market at very reasonable prices. In stage 1, 23 units were completed, with 33 being built in stage 2, all designed by Spaceagency.

The streetscape of stage 1 at Knutsford, designed by Spaceagency, is free of driveways, with access at the rear. Robert Frith

We need more good examples like this, with a greater diversity of housing types. The potential that is implicit in higher-density housing – the opportunities for social engagement, sharing of facilities, fewer cars, richer urban potential, better public space and urban realm – needs to be made explicit.

Time to revisit the display village

For more than 50 years, display villages have been used to promote and sell detached project housing. These displays have enabled buyers to see what they are buying and to understand the potential of the broader setting of the house.

The quality of design helped stage 1 of Knutsford to sell within months. Robert Frith

Historically, display villages promoted, through built example, the houses that eventually formed suburbia. In the same way, a display village for higher-density housing units could promote options that are not currently on offer in the housing market.

Potential buyers would be able to experience and understand the qualities of the housing on display. A higher-density display village would demonstrate how, with intelligent design, these units can be spacious, adaptable and work effectively with outdoor space.

For Perth, such a display village would provide a valuable means for industry to innovate with housing types and forms of construction. A government imprimatur and the willingness to underwrite the first projects should ensure this outcome.

The village would offer design diversity in terms of type and form, construction innovation including modular and prefabrication techniques, use of new materials, and the ability to test new strategies for utilities and waste.

It would showcase design for low energy use on a precinct scale and for reduced car dependency. It would take advantage of Perth’s climate and allow a fluid relationship between indoors and outdoors, creating a sense of space, light and air.

Infill can add value to suburbs

Government and industry would plan and promote the project. Government would provide the land and industry would build the housing. The display housing would be open to the public for a period of time, then sold to individual buyers.

Affordability remains a major obstacle to broader acceptance of higher-density housing. This is because selling prices per square metre are considerably more than those of a detached new house on the suburban fringes. The display village could explore alternative forms of land and house delivery and ownership.

Higher-density housing isn’t necessarily a threat to the traditional Australian notion of suburbia. It need not be seen as a denigration of the values that recognise suburbia as having a particular quality that helps establish the idea of an Australian way of life based on the detached house and its backyard. There is a vast existing stock to ensure those values will remain in place.

The development of well-designed, high-performing and higher-density infill housing will, in fact, protect existing suburbs from the poorer-quality infill that is occurring, while allowing the benefits of an enhanced public realm to be shared.

The WA government has a major challenge in meeting its infill targets. It can help meet this challenge by initiating a government-assisted display village of quality higher-density housing. It would be the first state government in Australia to do so.


The Conversation is co-publishing articles with Future West (Australian Urbanism), produced by the University of Western Australia’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts. These articles look towards the future of urbanism, taking Perth and Western Australia as its reference point. You can read other articles here.

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Geoffrey London has in the past received Australian Research Council funding for housing-related research.

University of Western Australia provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation AU.