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Planning policies in many cities advocate higher-density housing for reasons of sustainability and efficiency. Dan Peled/AAP

Vested interests behind ‘city shapers’ often subvert higher-density policies

Urban consolidation features in the planning policy of every Australian capital city, but is highly contentious. Communities often resist attempts to increase density. And research suggests such policies are inconsistently implemented and often fail to achieve sustainability goals.

Urban consolidation aims to increase the density of dwellings and/or people in an existing area. Cities justify this goal based on assumptions about its ability to produce sustainable outcomes. In particular, policy rhetoric focuses on decreased car reliance, increased housing diversity and more efficient infrastructure provision.

Research suggests stakeholders’ understandings of urban consolidation vary. And they often subvert policies to suit their own ends.

Our research investigated how “city shapers” – planners, developers, architects, peak organisations and local councillors – described, prioritised and viewed urban consolidation and higher-density housing in Australia’s third-largest city, Brisbane. We found they hold contradictory opinions on urban consolidation. Their views also depart from policy rhetoric about its benefits.

City shapers’ views

The participants I interviewed fell into three main groups.

  • The “Australian Dream” group supports greenfield development, holds negative views on apartment living, and features a deep cynicism about community consultation and planning regulation.

  • The “Neoliberal Business As Usual” group features support for all forms of housing, a belief that current community consultation and planning processes are sufficient, and support for growth and market-led development.

  • The “Apartment Advocates” are focused on apartments for housing, urban consolidation as a beneficial planning policy, and market-driven development.

The three groups’ main differences revolve around their view of “good” urban form, the legitimacy of planning and consultation processes, and the suitability of apartments as a housing choice.

What is ‘good’ urban form?

The assumptions about what makes for “good” urban form are widely divergent.

The notion that increased density automatically decreases reliance on cars is widespread. Participants in our research referred to “going up rather than out” as the simplified answer to urban challenges.

Similarly, they often directly contrasted urban consolidation with urban sprawl. They saw increased density as the answer to sustainability.

Higher densities do offer substantial opportunity to deliver better urban forms. However, reducing the debate to “densification is good and suburban expansion is bad” is unhelpful.

Such a simplistic approach places too much emphasis on density. It ignores issues such as changing behaviours, providing public transport and retaining green spaces.

In contrast, the Australian Dream group focused on consumer choice, land economics and housing affordability justifications for suburban expansion.

Even urban planners who supported urban consolidation acknowledged consumers’ desires for detached housing. They noted the inevitability of continued urban expansion.

Flexibility for developers favoured

The research revealed almost unanimous support for providing developers with flexibility to deliver economically feasible projects, even if this meant departing from the neighbourhood plan.

This is in keeping with a broader move away from planning as a mechanism to correct and avoid market failure. The focus has shifted towards deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing and entrepreneurialism in planning.

Despite this, planners challenged lobbying efforts by interest groups wanting to expand the urban growth boundary.

Similarly, they acknowledged the community lacked opportunities for meaningful input into development decisions.

Apartments for the childless

The tendency to think of apartment dwellers as ‘child-free’ could lead to fewer community amenities. Dan Peled/AAP

The narratives around higher-density housing in Brisbane reveal concerning trends for the city’s future. Despite substantial support for higher-density housing, most respondents saw it as inappropriate for families with children.

This presents challenges. A “child-free” discussion can legitimise a lack of family-friendly amenities in inner-city areas. It can also entrench social segregation based on lifestyle and age.

The research revealed an almost unanimous belief that higher-density housing is rarely affordable. Displacement of lower-income households is seen as inevitable.

Instead, higher-density housing is thought to reflect investor demand and access to finance. The high proportion of investors buying inner-city higher-density housing is a concern. This trend is associated with an increased risk of price fluctuations, high levels of vacant properties, and the development of small apartments with little long-term appeal to occupants.

The research paints a specific view of apartments. These are thought of as either luxury items developed in response to the cosmopolitan tastes of an elite, childless sub-class, or a fraught investment product with a limited shelf life.

Neither bodes well for the creation of sustainable, socially integrated communities in higher-density housing.

What now?

Planning policies in many cities support urban consolidation. They promote the ability of higher-density housing to adequately meet people’s needs. Our research suggests this rhetoric is not always reflected in the beliefs of Brisbane’s “city shapers”.

We need to be aware of the contradictions between policy and what happens on the ground. Both the winners and losers in urban development decisions must be considered.

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