In Sydney, developers are about as popular as Chris Bowen at a retirees’ conference. But the reality is that to get the sort of Sydney that most of us want, more of us might do better to join that happy throng – and become developers. Let me explain.
Last year, the state government released a housing policy colloquially referred to as The Missing Middle. It aims to fast-track the construction of low-rise, medium-density housing such as terraces in low-density suburbs.
The policy seeks to provide a choice between the rampant growth in high-rise units mushrooming in centres close to transport, such as Homebush and St Leonards, and the acres of low-rise suburbia that surround them. Go to any high vantage point in Sydney, such as the Harbour Bridge or Gladesville Bridge, to see how Sydney’s future shape is rolling out.
Make no mistake, the current form of urban growth in Sydney, often overblown as the Manhattanisation of Sydney, is a deliberate policy of governments which have been unable to let the genie of a more moderate and dispersed form of urban renewal out of the bottle, for fear of upsetting the neighbours.
Successive governments have tried to implement policies to allow dual occupancies or other forms of medium-density housing across low-density zones – and all have failed due to the portrayal of an attack on Sydney’s suburban character. It’s no surprise that the missing middle policy is foundering on the same rocks, with 50 councils temporarily exempted not long after the policy’s release as local governments painted a picture of cataclysmic neighbourhood change and infrastructure backlogs. Its release less than 12 months out from a state election probably didn’t help.
But why should we be interested in such a policy? Because it’s the form of densification that more people can live with, as well as providing a housing choice many of us might aspire to. A recent Ipsos poll on urban density conducted for the Committee for Sydney found that 47 per cent of respondents were supportive of more medium-density housing where they lived, versus only 25 per cent in favour of more high-density development nearby. That’s two to one voting in favour of medium-density over high-rise.
The danger is that a piecemeal roll-out of the missing middle policy – where the street you live in undergoes incremental change; this site developed, the site next door not – will inflame exactly the sort of planning conflicts and neighbourhood disputes that will bring the policy down. If all politics is local, all town planning is particularly so.
The policy needs to be rolled out in an integrated way, whereby whole street blocks or precincts are master-planned for low-rise, medium-density housing and developed by residents banding together and becoming the developer. In this way, important considerations such as overlooking, sun access and the need for extra open space can be properly planned for, with any “losers” – such as those having their block become a park – being compensated by the “winners”, who achieve redevelopment.
What better way to eliminate NIMBYism than having would-be objectors become the developer!
We have seen some limited examples of streets of residents becoming developers, most usually banding together to achieve rezoning of their properties for higher density housing near new railway stations. They then sell the rezoned land to property developers for a handsome profit.
But we need a game-changer approach and one that local councils, properly resourced, could facilitate by working with streets of willing residents. It won’t be easy but is one of the keys to implementing an important planning policy and perhaps turning on its head the notion of who is a developer and who is an objector.
Richard Pearson is a professional town planner. He is a former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Planning and was Administrator of Inner West Council