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Place over space

Cite Magazine
Issue 22 - Summer 2013

In the face of Perth’s rapidly growing population, how willing are householders to abandon the quarter-acre dream, and what will it mean for them if they do?

Family moving into a new home
Family moving into a new home

In the second half of the twentieth century, living space in Perth seemed abundant. The great Australian post-war dream of owning your own home – set proudly on a quarter-acre block of land – was in full swing, and new suburbs giving shape to this dream were developing rapidly.

Even for those who couldn’t afford to buy their own home, space was not a luxury: for children across the metropolitan area, finding a patch of grass to wrestle on, a tree to climb, or a decent stretch of ground on which to play an impromptu game of cricket was usually just a matter of heading out the back door.

In recent times, however, significant population growth, demographic change, increased life expectancy and a growing focus on environmental sustainability have started to force serious reconsideration of how much space we need to live well.

Perth’s rapid growth (it is Australia’s fastest growing city, with the current population of 1.9 million people expected to increase another half a million by 2031) is placing significant new demands on our housing infrastructure. In parallel, the number of people living on their own is also steadily growing: it is expected that by 2031 the number of lone-person households across Australia will have increased by 73 per cent since 2006.

Given the concerns this raises about turning our landscapes into endless suburbs, the question has to be asked: just how fiercely are Perth householders attached to the tradition of having their own house on a quarter-acre block of land?

Not fiercely at all, according to a recent study led by Associate Professor Steven Rowley, Head of Curtin’s Department of Property Studies and Director of the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute. His study, ‘The Housing We’d Choose: A study for Peel and Perth’, surveyed almost 2,000 people about the trade-offs they were prepared to make when choosing housing to suit their budget. It showed that people were willing to live in semi-detached houses on less land, if it meant they could live in the areas they wanted.

“While most people still prefer the idea of a separate house (around 80 per cent of respondents), the reality is that people are willing to live in a semi-detached dwelling and to trade off the number of bedrooms, if it provides them with an affordable option in a good location,” Rowley explains.

“The study found that a safe neighbourhood is the most important housing attribute, followed by easy access to work and to a preferred school. Location, not the amount of land or the housing type, was the deciding factor. Respondents preferred the central metropolitan suburbs to the newer, urban fringes, where single houses might be sizeable and affordable but were a long way from their established networks and offered less amenities.”

As another recent study states, these householders seem to intuitively know what’s best for them: living in a good area is better than living in a good house.

Associate Professor Mike Dockery and a team of researchers from Curtin Business School and the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research examined data from national longitudinal studies to explore how the health and development of Australian children is influenced by housing circumstances.

It showed that housing styles played a negligible role in shaping the outcomes for physical health, social/emotional development and learning for children. Rather, it was parenting styles and the ‘liveability’ aspects of their broader neighbourhood – its socio-economic status, security, access to parks and other amenities, and its feeling of social connectedness – that had the much greater impact.

The only exception to this finding was for Aboriginal and sole-parent households, where inferior housing did contribute to poorer outcomes. The report also showed that overcrowding could have a negative impact on learning.

“The old real estate adage of getting into the worst house in the best neighbourhood seems also to apply for improving children’s outcomes,” Dockery says.

“The study showed that the physical properties of a dwelling aren’t significant. Parenting has a much stronger impact than housing variables, and it’s only those housing issues that affect the quality of the relationships within the household – insecure tenancy, frequent moves, financial stress – that appear to influence children’s social and emotional wellbeing.

“This is a positive finding for equality in Australian society. It shows that children from all sorts of housing environments can reach their potential and be socially mobile, as long as they have positive social influences.”

He adds that this highlights the importance of distributing public housing throughout the more liveable, higher socio-economic suburbs and of improving neighbourhood amenities and the quality of schools in poorer neighbourhoods.

IF the good news is that higher-density living doesn’t in itself disadvantage health and wellbeing – and the public has a greater appetite for it – what changes can we expect to see in our urban landscapes?

The Western Australian Government has set out a strategic direction for the consolidated growth of the metropolitan area over the next two decades in its report Directions 2031 and Beyond. It estimates that an additional 328,000 dwellings will be needed by 2031, and has set a target of just under 50 per cent of these being provided via infill development: that is, the redevelopment of existing housing within a built-up area. The state government also seeks to increase the number of dwellings per hectare being built in new land developments (from 10 dwellings per gross urban-zoned hectareto 15).

Rowley says a variety of housing types, in a range of price points, will need to be provided to accommodate preferences for living in our already established suburbs.

“Our report gives the clear signal that the residents of Perth and the Peel region [about 75 km south of Perth] support a shift in focus from urban fringe development of detached, four-bedroom homes to a wider range of housing types in the inner and central suburbs,” he says.

“At the moment, however, there’s a considerable mismatch between the current housing stock and the type of housing many people can afford.

“There needs to be an increase in the proportion and range of semi-detached dwellings being supplied to the market in these areas, allowing people to make the housing trade-offs they want to fit their budget, whether that’s to do with the amount of land, the number of bedrooms or the level of density of the dwelling.”

Rowley adds that the property development industry has already started to respond to this demand, with new urban developments such as Cockburn Central – a blend of residential and commercial properties not far from Fremantle – which offers apartments of various sizes in excellent proximity to transport networks and a range of other amenities.

“Cockburn Central, which has been planned and developed in partnership with government, is a good example of where density can work and be relatively affordable,” he says.

“However, smaller, piecemeal infill development of our existing suburbs will be a greater challenge because it will be hard to deliver this in an affordable way for low and even medium-income earners.”