Bennet St Surry Hills
Bennett St – one of my favourite streets in Surry Hills

Fairfax columnist and architect Elizabeth Farrelly is enthusiastic about the NSW government’s new draft medium density housing policy which makes it easier to build terrace houses in middle and outer suburbs. She reckons the terrace is “a device of genius” with the ability to create community in the suburbs:

The Sydney terrace is special – both for itself and for the neighbourhood it creates… For contemporary Australians, it shifts the balance from the ultra-private mindset of suburbia towards that thing we wordlessly crave: community.

But Ms Farrelly is concerned the draft policy will encourage “flabby” terraces and streets. She argues the “impossible, energising tightness” of Surry Hills with its narrow laneways and four-metre houses is an ideal model for the suburbs:

To bring the village lifestyle of Surry Hills or Glebe to Rooty Hill or Cherrybrook, to deliver the walkability and richness for which people currently drive east, the new Sydney terrace needs tightness, delicacy and proportion. It must accommodate not just housing but studios, bars, dance schools, poetry dens, absinthe dives, mah-jong joints, op-shops and galleries. Diversity demands versatility.

As a former resident of Surry Hills, I share Ms Farrelly’s enthusiasm for the suburb and its stock of (extensively renovated) old terraces. But I think she exaggerates the role of dwelling type in creating community and, especially, the contribution it could make to neighbourhood in a suburban setting.

The idea that it’s the physical environment that creates rich, alive and walkable communities – and that inadequate design prevents them – is ingrained in the psyche of many designers. It’s a self-serving exaggeration that betrays a narrow way of thinking. Perhaps that’s not surprising; give someone a hammer and everything looks like a nail.

The large number of small traditional terraces in inner city Surry Hills is only one part of the explanation for the  ‘buzz’ and ambience of the suburb and it’s not the major part. Here are some other explanations.

One: the demographics are very different to somewhere like Cherrybrook. Residents of Surry Hills are much younger, have more disposable income, and fewer dependents. They’re the kind of people whose innate disposition is to be out-and-about.

Two: it’s right on doorstep of the largest, densest and most diverse concentration of activities – jobs, galleries, restaurants, bars, shops, leisure venues, etc – in the metropolitan area. There’s lots of reasons to go out, many of them within walking distance.

Three: it’s at the hub of the metropolitan area’s radial public transport system (and it’ll soon have a new light rail line). Public transport is a vastly more attractive option in Surry Hills than in somewhere like Cherrybrook.

Four: driving isn’t an attractive option; parking is difficult and roads are heavily congested during the week and on weekends. That encourages trips on foot or by public transport.

Five: population density is high. That theoretically could happen in Cherrybrook to some degree too as a result of the government’s proposed new terrace house rules, but what gets overlooked is that Surry Hills is predominantly an apartment suburb. Only 28% of occupied private dwellings are terraces or town houses; 70% are apartments, flats or units.

I don’t doubt that a shift to the traditional terrace form and a grid of narrow streets in a suburb like Cherrybrook would make some difference to the character of “the hood”, but it’s not likely to be a lot. A far more decisive factor is that just 13% of the population in this suburb is aged 25-39 years and 29% has never married. The comparable numbers in the suburb of Surry Hills are a whopping 48% and 68%. These suburbs might as well be different countries!

Since residents of Cherrybrook would almost certainly still have a car even if they live in a traditionally sized terrace (only 3% of dwellings in the suburb have no car; 69% have at least two), they’d likely continue to prefer the convenience, choice and cost savings of driving to the mall or a major centre for shopping and many leisure activities. The idea of walking to a choice of coffee shops at the end of a (terraced) street sounds nice, but mightn’t have the same appeal to suburban residents – or the same commercial viability – as it does for those living in Surry Hills.

The traditional dwelling form and street layout of Surry Hills could be replicated in the suburbs, but the elements that explain its excitement and walkability – its demographics and proximity to the city centre – can’t be transferred. There aren’t going to be many “dance schools, poetry dens, absinthe dives (and) mah-jong joints” for residents of Cherrybrook to walk to if they’re not interested in them or can’t afford them.

Expanding dwelling options by making terraces a more attractive option is a welcome move in stratospherically expensive Sydney; but making them attractive to the people who’ll actually live in them is the key.