09/09/2010 - 00:00

Wide brown land needs suburban downsize

09/09/2010 - 00:00


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Our continual desire to build super-size houses will lead to Perth becoming an unliveable city in just a few generations.

AUSTRALIAN houses are now the largest in the world with an average area of 215 square metres. In the US, the average house is 202sqm, in France it is 113sqm and in Britain it is just 76sqm.

On top of this, our housing is now among the least affordable in the world. For generations the median house price in Australia has been around three times median household income,s however Perth has now reached a staggering 6.8 times median household incomes.

A recent Bankwest report concludes that only five to 20 per cent of key workers will be able to afford the current median house price, which it’s predicted will only get worse as prices continue to escalate.

Large houses have not always been the norm for Perth. Census figures show that the great majority of pioneering houses were small, with four rooms or less, and again in 1901 census figures show the majority of dwellings still being small with four rooms or less.

In the first 30 years of the 20th century, Perth was fairly prosperous and, following WWI, house numbers boomed. Many of these houses still exist in our inner suburbs, ranging from around 80 to 120sqm.

Following the Depression and WWII, Perth experienced a major housing boom, however building materials were scarce, demand was high, so houses were limited to 100sqm.

The people who built these post-war homes worked hard, saved, and were very cautious of debt. The baby boomers of today were raised, along with their siblings, in the houses they built.

By the late 1960s and 1970s, home builders nationwide, such as AV Jennings, were rapidly growing as the first children of the baby boom started to leave home to start their own families.

A typical AV Jennings house was around 140 to 150sqm and comprised three bedrooms, two small bathrooms, study, combined lounge dining area and a kitchen with small family meals area. The smaller-model houses were around 120sqm, had no study and one bathroom.

In the 1980s things started to rapidly change. The banking industry deregulated, foreign banks entered the market and lending criteria was relaxed. All that was needed was something to entice people to borrow. So the Australia middle class was introduced to the American McMansion.

Unlike their frugal parents the baby boom generation was not afraid of debt, so they started to trade up their first houses to build these super-sized houses; and so started a period of major change to Perth’s entire urban fabric.

A decade or so later the children of the baby boomers, Generation ‘X, were also ready to own a McMansion – with all the extras. This generation was raised in a world of conspicuous consumption and, like mum and dad, embraces debt.

These latest houses range in size from around 220 to 350sqm. They all have a home theatre, a restaurant-standard kitchen, a special space just for using computers and the children’s bedrooms are all the size of a traditional master bedroom.

Other rooms include a living room, an activity room, a home office and a master bedroom more like a hotel suite with its dedicated parent’s retreat and jacuzzi.

The living areas alone in these houses are around 100sqm, which used to be the size of an entire family home.

Our suburbs consequently have become a sprawling mosaic devoid of all but residential accommodation, where roads occupy the only open space and where trees have nowhere to grow.

Forty to 50 years ago, most houses built by middle class Western Australians were occupied by an average of 3.5 people. The current figure is 2.3 people.

This modern trend for big houses coupled with reducing occupancy rates is having a major negative impact on Perth’s population density.

With current average lot sizes around 520sqm, the average population density in our new outer suburbs is about 30 people per hectare, compared with inner suburbs such as Subiaco, Mt Hawthorn and Victoria Park, which had population densities of between 60 and 80 people/ha at the time of their establishment.

This is roughly consistent with other Australian cities, which, along with many major cities in North America, rank among the most under-populated urban land in the world.

Low population densities are a problem because they don’t provide enough local demand to warrant many of the activities needed to support city life, so we end up with vast suburbs of houses and little else.

The latest census data show that the majority of Perth households are occupied by single people or childless couples, so you would think we would see a diversity of housing to accommodate these needs. With the exception of a few locations the vast majority of Perth’s suburbs are built as if the entire resident population is a monoculture of families.

Sadly, we are furiously building an unsustainable city full of inappropriate housing none of which future generations will want. All this does not bode at all well for the owners of McMansions, who will find it difficult to find buyers when they try to downsize.

The big question is what, if anything, really can be done? Altering the existing DNA of a city in a democratic society is almost impossible because most land is privately owned.

Cities can, however, be retrofitted if they have a regular grid because the grid can be subdividing to make a smaller grid and this approach is the central theme of a series of debates the Institute of Urban Studies will be running in the coming months.

The ‘Small is Better’ series of debates will show how house designs, no larger than 100sqm, can be developed on lots ranging from 75 to 100sqm. The pros and cons of this approach will be discussed by leading players responsible for the physical shaping of our city.

One proposal for five- by 20-metre lots enables older houses with 20-metre frontages and a rear lane to be subdivided many times.

Adopting the ‘small house’ approach using lots ranging from 75 to 100sqm it is possible to increase population densities in some inner urban areas of Perth to between 150 and 200 people/ha.

Retrofitting in this way can significantly increase inner-city housing supply which assists in lowering housing costs and produces more dynamic and economically viable cities.

High-rise buildings are one way of retrofitting a city and sometimes they can make an important contribution however there are many advantages in building smaller houses.

Groups of small houses make neighbourhoods and provide people with a more direct way to interact with each other. Small houses are also more affordable to construct, much less costly to run than high-rise buildings, are more adaptable to changing needs, and they make pleasant streetscapes. They also fit more easily into existing inner suburbs because they do not tower over their neighbours.

Naturally this approach requires the establishment of very good standards and planning guidelines. Above all, any city retrofitting activity must be good urban design, which means the resulting places must be people friendly and appealing to the inhabitants.

We have no option, Perth must undergo a significant shift with respect to house size or we will find our city unliveable in a few generations.

The state government, through ‘Directions 31’, is setting the planning framework for this shift to occur. Governments, however, don’t build cities, the people do. Therefore it is incumbent on the citizens of Perth to start accepting that our city is now too large to continue with our current inappropriate housing practices and begin the shift to smaller housing.

If the next generations are to stand any chance of leading normal lives we need to start building smaller, more affordable houses, which are appropriate and appealing.

Perth has the opportunity to lead Australia by showing how small really is better when it comes to city planning and house design. After all, we would only be doing what the rest of the developed world has already been doing for centuries.

• Linley Lutton is deputy chair of the Australian Institute of Urban Studies



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