While global cities are responding to changing lifestyles, affordability and environmental challenges by adapting their zoning and housing policies, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. We are enshrining single family zoning despite being the most sprawling mainland capital city in Australia, ranking poorly in world standards; And preferencing cars over walkability by increasing car parking requirements for all new multiple dwelling developments.
The illusion of ‘doing the good thing’ is part of the problem.
For some, the recent proposed ban on townhouses in Brisbane was associated with something ‘good’ such as protecting the backyard, our neighbourhood character or in essence, the great Australian dream. But at what cost?
Protecting something may sound like a ‘good thing’ but “it is time to ask six hard-hitting questions,” noted Natalie Rayment in her presentation at Brisbane Conversation event by Urban Design Alliance Qld earlier this year:
1. What is it we are trying to protect?
Is it the backyard? Is it our neighbourhood character? What about housing choice and affordability, the impacts of our housing choices and housing policy on urban sprawl, infrastructure costs or climate change? Or is neighbourhood composition at the heart of the issue?
2. What makes up our neighbourhood character?
Is it really only the land use, a neighbourhood only full of single-family dwellings? The density? Does built form factor into it – building size, setbacks, the amount of landscaping provided and existing vegetation protected? If so, could we move to form based codes, rather than land use?
What about residential composition? Is the true neighbourhood character found in children playing in the streets, people walking and cycling in the neighbourhood, a corner café at the heart of the neighbourhood where people can meet and make social connections? Or is it something else, such as frequent, low-cost public transport? Is it the walkability score, the green credentials, where our suburbs sits in the rankings of quality of life, health or happiness?
3. As a town planner, it’s disappointing to have to ask, but are we zoning great, walkable neighbourhoods out of existence?
Enshrining over two thirds of Brisbane for only single-family housing will do just that.
4. Can neighbourhood character be preserved while increasing density?
I would say many of our most loved character suburbs in Brisbane have higher density than single-family zoning and a mix of zones to allow neighbourhood centres to flourish, local services to be offered and local jobs opportunities to arise.
5. What will influence community opinion?
Is it ensuring development outcomes display design excellence and innovation? Is it development outcomes that reflect our changing preferences? We need to go beyond the Boomers and Millennials and start also considering what Generation Z will want. Sustainable outcomes in response to climate policy? Affordability and a fair go for all?
6. If we continue down this path, where will we end up?
Now, we would like to add question seven: Will a blanket ban on townhouses, a legitimate housing choice, from around 70% of Brisbane’s residential areas solve (or achieve) anything? And will increasing car parking rates, higher than rates in Sydney and Melbourne, do anything to reduce congestion on our roads, reduce fossil fuel usage or get more people active?
One positive result that will come out of this ban is it will make some members of our community very happy. Particularly the older, existing home owners, privileged enough to own a home in one of our more wealthy low density suburbs, not yet thinking about where they may want to downsize to as they age or where their children may be able to find a home they can afford. Is that our common goal? What about everything and everyone else?
Is it the same community that marches our streets protesting against climate change inaction by our Governments? Is it the same community who has shown increased demand for townhouse and apartment living over the last two decades?
Is it the same community for whom the chance of owning a home has dropped to just 22%? And is it the same community who demands solutions for the seemingly never-ending road congestion in Brisbane?
While supporting this ban may feel like doing something ‘good’ for some, others see it as nothing but a complete lack of awareness or appreciation of the much bigger and more important issues that need to be addressed to accommodate the sustainable and equitable growth of our city.
“The tension between greening our city, defending neighbourhood character and keeping up with population [growth] is not sustainable,” says Stephen Hayes, Senior Environmental Consultant from Wolter Consulting Group.
“Given this tension, something will have to give, and considering the importance of environmental conservation on a national and global scale, it’s unlikely to be the environment.”
Unfortunately, the big issues, such as the sustainability and environmental factors, as well as housing choice and affordability, were not prominent at all in the community conversation around the ban.
Can I Be Your Neighbour? – is something YIMBY Qld decided to ask in response, because we saw this as a major problem here. Those who already have backyards dominate the conversation. There is no ‘diversity of voices’.
We started with a roundtable discussion sharing personal stories among our team, whether our own, or of our friends and family. Within half an hour, we had at least a dozen examples of real life situations and people who couldn’t do without choice, diversity and affordability in housing. These included downsizers, young professionals, young families, single parents, older people who wanted to ‘age in place’ or move closer to their children, students, couples, singles, lifestyle seekers, eco warriors – the examples were endless. We needed to share these stories.
We knew there are many people in our community who can relate. We needed to reach out to them and strengthen our voice via a collaborative effort. After all, YIMBYs are a voice for those who need to accommodate a future in our city. The ‘Can I Be Your Neighbour’ campaign was based around real people and their stories, and ran for the entire public consultation period.
Not only did we reach out to the community via blogs, social media, letterbox drops, email messages and various events but we collaborated with the industry, student groups and like-minded professionals and experts as well, including: Property Council of Australia (PCA), Australian Institute of Architects (AIA), Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA), Planning Institute of Australia, Grattan Institute, Q Shelter and even Heart Foundation. The support was incredible and many jumped on board to write submissions to Brisbane City Council urging against the proposed ban.
While not yet made public, we hear that in the last week of the campaign, some local Councillors wrote to their networks seeking submissions supporting the ban, to outweigh increasing opposition pouring in.
No doubt this is an issue that divides opinion. Our concern is that many of those opinions have been formed without all of the important information at hand.
We call for a broader community conversation about the implications and ramifications, or trade-offs, of this policy if it is implemented, taking a broader look at the impacts and real costs to our community, now and into the future. It is time to change the conversation!