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Feb 27, 2017

Why do inner suburban residents oppose development?

Existing residents oppose major developments because they feel they'll be worse off. The benefits to them are vague while the costs are clear and painful

Proposed 476 unit development, Queens Pde, Clifton Hill, Melbourne

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.

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10 thoughts on “Why do inner suburban residents oppose development?

  1. Teddy

    Gosh, what does that last post say? I’d have to refer it to a lawyer …

    The first time I meet an inner city Nimby was about 20 years ago. There was a proposal down the road to expand (no extra height involved) a boarding house, then being used to accommodate people having trouble with the prohibitive entry costs and requirements of the our inner suburban rental market. He asked me to sign petition against it, everyone else nearby had, he told me… He was surprised, no confronted, and then angry) when I refused, saying, “they have to live somewhere.”

    It took my neighbour 10 years to forgive me. We just never talked about it again…

    Since then I’ve encountered many more Nimby campaigns, generally all run by the same local Greens activists who use “overdevelopment” as a recruiting tool for the party and elections. In my inner west area they have opposed:
    – Housing for international students (“international!)
    – Several social housing projects
    – All boarding houses
    – Numerous apartment projects (some contain provisions for an affordable housing component, some don’t)
    – A busway
    – An underground metro
    – lots more, anything that anyone proposes generally, but most recently just up the road, the conversion of an existing old college complex into a nursing home (with no extra height involved, and much less traffic generation potential)

    Fortunately my Nimby neighbour moved before that DA came up. He subdivided his lot, redeveloped both sites to their maximum resale value, and cashed in – all the while espousing the same Greens party anti-developer vitriol. The original boarding house is of course long gone, converted to upmarket, tasteful housing. Nothing like the old social housing building, with all the diversity and vitality it once provided to our neighbourhood, can exist can exist in inner city gentrifried areas where Greens party activists are on the job.

    Alan, the answer to your question? Just look the voting patterns in the Greens (and near Greens electorates) of Melbourne. They’re the richest, smuggest, most reactionary and insular parts of the city, right?

    1. Elizabeth Allen

      From my reading only developers, planners and politicians use the acronym “Nimby”. Its a great way insulting people instead of having a balanced discussion about the problems of overdevelopment and loss of heritage etc.

  2. Alan Davies

    Recent pertinent decision by Victoria’s planning court:

    Yue Qi Group Pty Ltd v Glen Eira CC

  3. Dudley Horscroft

    “A wealthier council that can provide more services for the same level of rates.”

    No way. A wealthier council will increase the rates – to provide for extra expenditure on the new developments – or will just find more things to waste money on. What we would prefer is a council cutting unnecessary services and getting the rates down. In all the discussions re housing affordability, it should be mentioned that rates can be a substantial blockage to buying. Bad enough having to repay the banks, but the amount that Councils charge can be ridiculous.

    Re the residents who are not supposed to use cars, but will do so, the answer is to prohibit any car spaces being provided as part of the apartment purchase. Should be no requirements to provide car spaces – up to the developer – but any car spaces provided should be separate to apartment purchase, and car spaces should be capable of being converted to other uses.

    1. Teddy

      Your car space suggestions make sense Dudley, but developments without an allocated car spaces (or even two) are fiercely resisted by developers, buyers, some (retrograde) council planners and most importantly – the existing residents.

      If there is one thing absolutely guaranteed to incite furious Nimby opposition its fear about traffic and car parking spaces.

      Everyone old enough to have a driving licence in the inner west streets of Leichhardt, Newtown and Petersham owns a car – sometimes two, and expects to be able to park it and drive it wherever they damn well please. It’s their “right.” Lecturing them about using public transport is useless, yes they might to work (if their destination is the CBD, but they’ll drive anywhere else). And the rest of the time, they’ll drive their kids one block to school and themselves two blocks to the café. These streets are all thoroughly gentrified with houses worth $1.5 – $2m, but have limited off street spaces, so competition for is fierce.

      This is also Nimby Central. All development is opposed, weather it has car spaces or not.

      At Rhodes near the railway station, Canada Bay Council did limit car spaces in some of the tower blocks they approved, but faced strenuous opposition – from all directions including buyers. They did prevail bit the numbers involved were small.

      1. elizabeth

        This is offensive nonsense. I bet that all the commenters and the blog write live in a big houses in an elite suburb. Why did I subscribe to read this rubbish from developers and planners.

  4. lethell

    Nineteenth-century streets coping with the increased traffic, gridlock, introduced by developments which are claimed not to require use of cars but whose inhabitants do of course use them , along with crowded parks that were once peaceful havens now packed with family parties because the units they’ve bought are too small for large gatherings are my pet peeves at present.

  5. Teddy

    I live in the inner west of Sydney, the epicenter of this city’s rampant Nimby-ism… I’ve heard all the objections to development you’ve listed there Alan, and here’s a couple more:

    “We don’t want the sort of people who shop in malls.” Class prejudice, pure and simple.

    “It’s out character, and the new comers won’t fit in.” Generally this means a building more than two-stories, and it will attract “the wrong sort” of buyer. Usually “investors” or sometimes “overseas investors” will be mentioned, and the objectors will be careful about what they do say. But at the heart of this one is race. Buyers of high-rise apartments will (generally) be Asian. Most often Australian-born ones, but no matter to the Nimbys, They’re “not like us.”

    “Hideous! Chatswood on steroids…” Race again… Chatswood is a middle ring suburb with quite a few high rise apartments centered around its rail junction – exactly as so many urban planners recommend for environmental and other reasons. Its local council is wealthy beyond belief, and all residents (who mostly live in bungalows wort $2m and more in surrounding leafy areas) enjoy fantastic services. But 30-40 years ago it was a sleepy Anglo-Saxon suburb.

    And Alan, your suggestion that “A stronger metropolitan economy with more jobs and improved housing opportunities for their children.” will fall on deaf ears. Its totally true, but Nimbys don’t care about anyone else, and only give lip service to the facts that their bloody-minded selfishness means that not only will their children never have local employment (except in low wage coffee shops – providing the “café culture” and “village” vibe the Nimbys have paid for), but they’ll be forced to live and work on the city’s far distant outskirts or even in regional centres – driving everywhere. There will be plenty of Nimby crocodile tears about “not seeing their grandchildren” and “the government should do something.” But if that something involves a perceived cost to them, they’ll oppose it.

    Every time.

    1. Woopwoop

      The race card doesn’t work here Teddy. The article itself pits monocultural suburbia against “cosmopolitan” inner city. My inner Melbourne street has Asian food shops and many African residents. If you want monoculture, go to Kew.
      I don’t want any of the “benefits” touted in the article! Why must an ever-growing population be accepted as good and inevitable?

      1. Teddy

        I’m guessing Melbourne is different, Woopwoop. The inner west of Sydney used to be multicultural (or “cosmopolitan”). But the fashionable inner ring suburbs are now increasingly Anglo – its rare to see anything but white faces in its “lively” cafes and “village” centres. The really diverse areas of Sydney are the middle ring suburbs like Chatswood, Bankstown, Rockdale and Eastwood, where apartments towers have been build around the railway stations.

        As for “growth,” yes, as millionaire capitalist Dick Smith keeps reminding us, it is appalling. Until you start to consider the alternative…