Six great things sprawl can teach us about living in the compact city
The push to overcome sprawl and design a more compact city seems founded in assumptions that ignore the charms of the suburbs.
“I wouldn’t live there if you paid me,” declared rock band Talking Heads in The Big Country, its unambiguous lament about the ever-expanding suburban frontier. However, in Perth, people have been actively choosing the ’burbs – the majority of new homes in the city continue to be built in new suburbs, even as many planners and academics rue their popularity.
The push to overcome sprawl and design a more compact city seems founded in assumptions that tend to ignore the charms of the suburbs. Infill advocates, in particular, typically cite the need for new homes to have proximity to public transport networks and their congested surroundings. This, however, seems a big ask for those looking to partake in the “good life” with which Perth is synonymous.
So, how can residential infill acknowledge and capture some of the fundamental qualities that attract so many people to the suburbs? Because without this, the idea of Perth as a compact city may just be planning fiction.
The following six points are taken from the book Sprawl and the City: Combining the qualities of suburban and urban living to create better residential infill (UWA Publishing, 2016). The book measures a standard home in the sprawl and one in the dense inner-city against thirty-nine diverse economic, social, and environmental criteria. These six selected points highlight some of the attractive qualities found in new suburbs and how they could be transferred to compact city living to inspire more suburban-minded households to embrace living closer together.
1. It’s awesome value
In the sprawl you get a square metre of floor space for a quarter of the price of an inner-city apartment. That’s a lot of bang for your buck, plus you get to own your very own piece of good old terra firma.
How can we reduce the cost of higher-density construction? It’s complex and energy intensive. Perhaps we should further enable low-rise medium-density urban infill that uses “cottage” and modular construction techniques that don’t require excavation, sprinklers and high-risk development.
2. The air is so much cleaner!
In the sprawl the air quality is, on average, five times cleaner than that in a congested inner-city location. Wasn’t this the reason for getting out of inner-city areas all those years ago?
Street trees can do a good job of filtering pollutants, but it’s not enough if your dwelling depends on airflow from a trafficked environment. We could regulate apartment design in these locations to respond to this or simply distribute new dwellings away from them.
3. Backyards are bliss
Want a safe and secure backyard so that you can easily set up the playpen, kick a ball or get a dog? Then the sprawl has the best offer around: on average 10 times the space of your inner-city balcony!
The desire for a private “piece of turf” is strong. Larger communal areas integrated into higher-density buildings may work for some, but a nicely dimensioned private courtyard in low-rise infill seems even better.
4. It can be so productive
Not only can you grow around half of your annual veggie and fruit needs, but you can generate four times your electricity demand and sequester some of your carbon emissions to boot.
Communal gardens are a great alternative, but there’s nothing like your own stash if your recipe demands it and you’re close to the stove. You could grow your own in a courtyard, or maybe duck out to the verge if you live in low-rise infill.
5. The doctor is in
The sea breeze is one of our most pleasant natural phenomena. If you live in the inner city and can’t open your windows because of noise and pollution, or you’re facing the wrong way, then you’re missing out big time!
It’s easier to capture the breeze if you have cross-flow ventilation options, but then in a busy location you may be admitting nasty particulates as well. Clever design can partially overcome this problem, but it’s better to be in a location where you can easily open up.
6. It’s so much quieter
In the sprawl the average background night-time noise levels are about half that of the inner city. If you want to de-stress and get a good night’s sleep, then this is the place for you.
It’s a fact that roads and traffic are the biggest noise sources in urban residential environments. A well-designed apartment could help reduce the impact of noise but distance from the source is the best insurance.
With research and clever design it may be possible to make high-density urban infill options adjacent to transport attractive and enduring enough to draw the punters in and keep them happy and healthy. But this seems like loading complexity upon complexity.
Sprawl and the City suggests that the ability to achieve a compact city in Perth lies with enabling a smartly designed low-rise infill model across well-located existing suburbs. Such a model could deliver the best of both worlds, capturing some of the essential qualities of the popular suburban ‘product’ within an infill location. It’s a model with great promise if the goal is to arrest urban sprawl, yet one whose possibilities remain largely untested.
Dr Anthony Duckworth-Smith is Assistant Professor at the Australian Urban Design Research Centre in Perth where he lectures in the University of Western Australia’s Master of Urban Design programme.
This article is co-published with Future West (Australian Urbanism), produced by the University of Western Australia’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts. The publication look towards the future of urbanism, taking Perth and Western Australia as its reference point.
Sprawl and the City is available through UWAP. Described by City of Fremantle Mayor Dr Brad Pettitt as ’thought-provoking, smart and innovative’ this graphically engaging and accessible book attempts to uncover the factors which underpin housing choices and use them to inform the planning and design of a more compact city in a sprawling urban context.