Historian Graeme Davison observes in his new book, City Dreamers, that “the most desirable ways of living in Sydney and Melbourne are increasingly dense, urban and cosmopolitan rather than sparse, mono-cultural and suburban”.
In Australian cities, “dense, urban and cosmopolitan” largely means inner suburban i.e. within circa 10-15 km of the huge concentration of jobs and services in the CBD. But proposals to increase the number of dwellings on large strategic sites in this region are commonly opposed by existing residents (e.g. see Is 16 storeys OK in the inner city?).
What have residents got against new developments in their neighbourhood? The usual arguments I hear (and these aren’t always internally consistent) are that they would:
- Spoil heritage values by replacing, or being too close to, old buildings.
- Blight the existing neighbourhood character by bringing in something that’s different e.g. “too modern” or “out of scale”.
- Reduce amenity e.g. by compromising visual privacy, increasing potential noise sources, cutting off views, intruding on the skyline, reducing the number of trees and shrubs.
- Overload infrastructure and services that’re already over-capacity e.g. schools, roads, public transport, parking.
- Lower property values.
- Facilitate gentrification and hence contribute to loss of socio-economic diversity.
- Bring in different people e.g. renters, who don’t have the same commitment to the neighbourhood as long-term residents.
- Create dwellings with no social value e.g. left unoccupied by wealthy (foreign) buyers or used for tourism (Airbnb).
- Only benefit (avaricious) developers, (acquisitive) investors and (self-interested) politicians.
- Ignore families; new dwellings are targeted at small households e.g. singles and couples without dependents.
- Produce poor quality housing e.g. new dwellings are ugly, unsafe, mean (“dog boxes”), of poor build quality, and designed to meet the needs of investors ahead of occupants, much less residents.
Residents are often portrayed as concerned only with the potential negative effect of new developments on property values, but I don’t think that’s right. My sense is their primary worry is maintaining amenity; they feel they paid for a bunch of neighbourhood characteristics when they bought their dwelling and therefore have the right to keep the local area pretty much as it is. A change in amenity is of course ultimately reflected in property values, but in my view that’s not what’s uppermost in residents’ minds.
Whether they recognise it or not, residents do get benefits from new developments:
- A wealthier council that can provide more services for the same level of rates.
- A stronger metropolitan economy with more jobs and improved housing opportunities for their children.
- An increase in the number and diversity of restaurants, shops, and services in the local area.
- Improved infrastructure e.g. more frequent buses to support the larger population.
- In some cases, an uplift in property value if a new development catalyses further growth in the neighbourhood.
The problem is the benefits of development are broad, diffuse and delayed. Most manifest at the regional or metropolitan level and over an extended timeframe. The pain, on the other hand, is highly specific; households living close to new developments feel the costs they suffer swamp any benefits they might get. They feel they’re not getting much, if anything, in return for the hit to their neighbourhood amenity.
What can be done to reduce opposition to developments, especially those on large strategic sites? The ideas on the table include better design, smaller projects, a reduced role for residents in planning decisions, or directly compensating them for the impact.
Of course, these sorts of actions would have serious costs. I suspect there’s no silver bullet; developments will almost always make some residents feel they’re worse off. City managers have to make hard choices. Perhaps one of the key things that could be done is to build a stronger narrative around the social value of increasing dwelling supply.