Why creating communities is good for business

Why creating communities is good for business

Australia’s population growth has been a boon for business — not to mention government coffers.

But economic gain from population growth could easily tip into economic drain.

Growth is predominantly in outer suburbs. Poorly planned estates with skeletal infrastructure become struggling communities that rely on a much greater share of the health and welfare pie.

There is little in the way of a national vision to house our swelling population. But our economy will sour if we continue to build dwellings without considering what life will be like for residents.

It’s a truism, but people need more than a roof over their heads. They need jobs, schools, healthcare, shops, exercise and social interaction. In short, people need communities. Weak communities are dependent communities, but strong ones make significant social and economic contributions.

‘Creating strong communities’ might sound like a great marketing line, but it is also a vital part of our economic future — and by extension, the future of the building industry.

The challenge

Australia’s population is expected to double in the next 40 years to tip 40 million. That means building a new Melbourne — or two new Brisbanes — each decade.

Of course, we won’t be conjuring new metropolises, but accommodating millions more in our existing cities. Capital city growth currently accounts for about 80 per cent of our annual population increase, and there is little to suggest this pattern will change.

Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane will remain our biggest cities, but not in that order. Melbourne’s flat topography has meant easier development and relatively cheap new housing, and the city is expected to outstrip Sydney by 2050.

Plan Melbourne, the Victorian Government’s blueprint for 2050, has forecast that the city will need 1.5 million extra jobs, 1.6 million new dwellings, and a transport system that caters for an extra 10 million trips per day.

Imagine doing all this while meeting the typically Australian expectation that lifestyle and prosperity will not change.

Indeed, transport, health and education services are already starting to collapse in Sydney and Melbourne. Melbourne was recently re-named the world’s “most liveable city” — a curious title for those in outer suburbs who battle traffic each day just to reach the train station, let alone catch the train and make it to work on time.

Meanwhile, in Brisbane, a major poll by Galaxy this August identified overcrowding as the main planning concern for residents. The alternative to crowding is spreading out, yet the city already extends across some 1300 square kilometres and will risk becoming a blur that runs from the Gold Coast to the Sunshine Coast.

Solutions

By and large, Australian cities continue to house their growing masses in a combination of outer-suburban developments and apartment towers. 

There is a place for both, but they need to be done well.

The best greenfield developments offer a mix of housing types, allowing demographic diversity, genuine proximity to jobs and services, connection to natural landscapes and places for people to gather and interact. The worst continue to act as “sleeper suburbs” or “dormitories” — under-resourced areas where people spend half their time inside their well-stocked homes, and the rest travelling long distances to work.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are apartment towers. These offer proximity to services and can be an affordable solution to struggling first-home buyers. But many are held by investors, have a sardine-can vibe and offer no green spaces or communal facilities where residents can interact.

Barangaroo in Sydney and Queen’s Wharf in Brisbane are intended as remedies — places where thousands will “live, work and play”. Towers will be balanced by gardens and cleverly designed civic spaces, as well as restaurants, shops, cafes and other businesses.

It’s a model that has already been attempted in Melbourne’s Docklands, with mixed reviews. (The southern city’s winter winds might help explain why the waterfront area is less of a hub than expected!)

Making the most of a city’s natural assets helps. In Brisbane, the Northshore development in Hamilton is reinvigorating a former industrial area with a mixture of housing types, shops, restaurants and civic spaces. River access via ferries means the new suburb’s significant population can commute without adding significantly to road traffic.

There is a third option: infill development in existing suburbs — townhouses and medium-rise apartments. These are the vital missing link and provide an affordable, attractive housing alternative, according to planning experts.

But this kind of infill housing is also the hardest to develop. It’s relatively easy to transform a large lot, such as a former industrial estate, into a site for a 60-storey tower, and make a profit. It’s much harder to make a six-storey development stack up — especially if your site is in a leafy suburb full of residents who are resistant to change.

Amalgamation of under-utilised properties, such as small houses on major roads, or vacant land near train stations, is helping to provide opportunity. Councils are also becoming increasingly aware of the importance of thoughtful infill development.

Two developments in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick stand out for their ingenuity. ‘The Commons’ and the adjacent ‘Nightingale’ were pitched squarely at owner-occupiers and were a resounding success. In both, purchasers have exchanged underground parking and individual laundries for communal facilities and reliance on public transport and adjacent car shares. Sustainable features keep living costs low and title covenants cap resale profits for 20 years, to encourage long-term residents.

Both developments spent about a year at the Victorian Planning Tribunal — but both sold out rapidly. A similar development in inner-suburban Fairfield is also stuck in planning. Yet almost 200 people have applied to buy one of its 20 apartments.

Indeed, the few infill developments across the country that genuinely consider people’s living needs sell rapidly. Some developments even ban investors and have committees that interview prospective purchasers to ensure their suitability.

Australian’s unreasonable lifestyle expectations and ambitions have been cited as a reason for the ‘business as usual’ approach to housing development. But developments such Nightingale suggest an ability to adapt and a need for genuine alternatives for city dwellers.

Our input

Change is imperative and building professionals can make a difference.

Engineers can have a hard time seeing themselves as anything but technical problem-solvers. But we are, in fact, in the business of creating communities – and should become more aware of planning issues.

We should also seek to engage and educate stakeholders and use our expertise where possible to encourage positive development and help make our cities more liveable.

We can work with local authorities – where experienced engineers are often in short supply – to help solve problems and shape policy that will allow social and commercial interests to dovetail.

Of course, financial risk is a major factor limiting infill development. It’s not hard to see why turning the first sod is far more appealing on an expansive greenfield development than it is in the middle of a city.

Inviting engineers earlier to the party could help. Often, architectural plans will be submitted to council with no consideration of how the building will be constructed quickly and efficiently.

Engineers can help remove this major financial unknown — and help squeeze maximum value out of a site and ultimately deliver more value to residents.

Remediation, geotechnical and foundation issues, as well as adjacency to existing buildings and heritage overlays, are among the biggest potential costs. Early engagement can mean practical solutions and advice that save millions.

That is, provided the project is ultimately approved.

But even here, we can and should have an input. Our state-based planning systems, which strongly favour existing home-owners, are plagued by inconsistency and opaqueness. The consequence is that only the safest projects, in commercial terms, go ahead – resulting in a tendency toward cheap, cookie-cutter apartments with little more in their favour than a lower price than existing housing.

The constraints of geography in cities such as Sydney and Auckland have already made denser forms of housing a necessity. Some models are positive, others not – and winning community support remains a challenge.

Last July, the ABC news website reported a plan to house 100,000 new residents along Sydney’s western rail corridor. The piece quoted a local government official warning of “severe overcrowding” and residents complaining that towers up to 25 storeys high would destroy local character.    

Meanwhile, veteran economics reporter Tim Colebatch wrote recently in The Age that “Demography is destiny . . . but it is also density.” Cities such as Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth may seem to have “boundless plains” but infrastructure costs are making expansion less tenable and infill developments that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago — such as the car-free Nightingale — are not only possible, but popular.

Building professionals need to keep pace as young people demand new forms of affordable housing. We need to stay abreast of changes and develop a sophisticated understanding of what makes for a great community – and a bad one.

As problem-solvers, engineers are vital to helping to create better cities — not just bigger cities. We must continue to advocate for clearer planning and collaborate with architects and developers to create strong communities.

Not just because it feels good — but because it makes sound economic and business sense.

Mark Campbell 
Executive General Manager - East

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