30 August 2023

How big can Canberra be? Greens say it's time for limits on urban sprawl

| Rebecca Vassarotti MLA and Jo Clay MLA
Join the conversation
aerial shot of new housing

How many more new suburbs do we need in Canberra? Photo: File.

Canberra, we need to talk. We need to deal with our housing and climate crises and come up with a way of living that addresses both.

Cities like ours are facing many challenges. We’re in a climate crisis. A housing crisis. An extinction crisis. We have a growing population who need somewhere to live.

We have a housing market that is driven by profit and causing greater inequality, leaving many in our community unable to find suitable or affordable homes. Governments, including ours, need to start making different choices, or things will only get worse.

The types of houses we build and plan to build in the future need to be part of that new approach.

Many Canberra suburbs were designed with big houses on big blocks. But we know that not all Canberrans want that anymore. We can’t just keep bulldozing our precious natural environment to build suburbs on the outskirts of town. It’s harmful to habitat and it’s terrible town planning.

We know Canberrans want options – townhouses, duplexes and apartments, as well as free-standing homes. We know many Canberrans want to live closer to where they work and play.

We know that many older Canberrans would like to be able to downsize without leaving their suburbs.

READ ALSO If wood heater smoke is such a burning issue, government can’t afford to take decades to stop it

And this just makes sense – of course, people want different things. So how do we make that happen? By changing rules about what types of houses we can build across the city and having a thoughtful and appropriate vision for Canberra’s future.

Last week, the ACT Greens passed a motion that would do just that. The motion we put forward to our party membership outlined our vision for the future of our city. A city where people can live in affordable housing that meets their needs, they can easily get to where they need to go and they have access to nature, parks and green spaces.

Under current rules, in many parts of Canberra, you’re only permitted to build one standalone house on a block of land. The ACT Greens motion seeks to change the rules so that more blocks could have up to two houses instead of being restricted to one single house (for those who speak planning language, that means rezoning RZ1 to RZ2).

We have also endorsed changes to current RZ2 and RZ3 properties to allow subdivision and unit titling, as well as to encourage consolidation of blocks to create well-designed, medium-density housing, like three to five-storey apartments with shared green spaces.

In practical terms, changing the zoning rules would provide more and cheaper housing options for people entering the market.

We know that in the current market, many young people can’t afford the big houses Canberra has to offer; many also don’t want or need huge blocks with big gardens to manage and would be very happy with a small backyard or a shared green space.

It would also allow older Canberrans to downsize and move to a small unit or townhouse within their suburb, allowing them to keep their social connections and familiar amenities.

We’d also like to bring more life and convenience to our suburbs and group centres by allowing’ shop-top’ apartments.

READ ALSO Broad roadmap to meet ACT’s natural resource challenges laid out in new strategic plan

The ACT Greens want a city with more carefully designed townhouses and small (three to five-storey) apartment buildings with shared gardens so that people can choose to live in smaller homes but still have access to green space or a veggie patch.

Central to this is also ensuring we keep good solar access for everyone and leave ample room for trees and green spaces to offset the heat island effect and give people direct access to nature.

Having a variety of housing across our current city footprint would allow us to meet the demands of our growing population without building never-ending suburbs on the outskirts of town, creating more traffic congestion as people are forced into cars to get to where they need to go.

The ACT Greens think it’s time to set city limits. Canberra already covers around 372 square kilometres – which is roughly the same north-south spread as greater London and around half the width. But London’s population is almost twenty times greater than ours.

We don’t need more sprawl, which sets us up for expensive infrastructure, poor services and long car commutes. We need more compact, connected and convenient city and suburban living with more options that suit more people.

The ACT Greens’ vision for housing aims to ensure that every Canberran has access to an affordable, comfortable home that suits their needs.

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments

I love how greens all want us to change how and where we live when I’m not even sure what environmental risk we are mitigating and how?

Meanwhile, corporate Australia are literally trashing the place, paying stuff all taxes and making large profits in the process – but they get a free pass.

But it’s ok because rezoning fixes the environment.

GrumpyGrandpa10:14 pm 01 Sep 23

Hi Greens,
When you say that
“many young people can’t afford the big houses……..many don’t want huge blocks with big gardens to manage and would be very happy with a small backyard or a shared green space” and so on, all I hear is ideological spin.

House prices in Canberra are expensive and part of that, is a result of limiting supply.

When 70% of new properties are high density, aka apartments, you limit the supply of houses and backyard entering the market and push up prices.

If you were genuinely interested in what people wanted, as opposed to your ideology, you would support letting people make their own housing choices without restrictions.

If there is demand for apartments and townhouses in inner locations, and it appears to me there is, then we need to do a better job of providing it. However, the same also applies to greenfield detached housing. The elephant in the room is that Greens/Labor have put forward no plan or mechanism for how to deliver infill cheaply, beyond the market redistributing ownership to the highest bidder – even worse, Greens/Labor they have been unwilling to provide greenfield blocks anywhere near the cost to develop thus effectively levying a lump sum tax via high land prices. Less greenfield in practice means more competition over less supply, and thus landowners have more market power to hold out for higher prices. A Labor/Greens 80% infill policy ultimately boils down to pay more, get less housing, unless the government takes plays a role to ensure equitable distribution rather than leaving it to markets.

I just wonder if some of the Greens pollies live in the biggest houses on the biggest blocks in the ACT

To some extent I’m sympathetic to the author’s views, viz urban infill. But “driven by profit” is a dud analysis. The kind of “if not for those greedy profit-driven tradies in their vulgar Hiluxes” take is pretty classist, living up to the Green’s elitist image. Why not mention immigration? No chance of limiting urban growth if the population is increasing rapidly. You ought to see the northern and western fringes of Melbourne, where multiple whole new suburbs pop up every year, and it’s still not enough.

Gregg Heldon8:30 am 31 Aug 23

I’m a townhouse owner in Tuggeranong who does not want to live in the inner north or south. I would prefer to live in a free standing house but our brand new (2 years old) townhouse is energy efficient and, for the same price, a free standing house would not be and we can’t afford the equivalent new energy efficient house here in the ACT. We would have to go to Googong or Tralee for that.
And there’s your problem.
Why is it that, for $700-750,000, I canjump across to NSW and buy a terraced, separate titled 3 bed house, brand new, but I can’t here in the ACT? How hard would it be for the ACT Government to get a builder to build a terrace of 2 and 3 bed single carport 6 star homes to sell for about $600k in various places around the ACT? How hard?
Also, why do they gradually put infrastructure into Googong and Tralee (schools, shops and sporting facilities) but they wait until a suburb is fully formed here in the ACT? How many people live in the Molonglo Valley? How little infrastructure does it have? It doesn’t even have a Servo. (I don’t think you can count the one at the RSPCA).
There needs to be balance. Accepting infill but creating new suburbs too. Maybe, as part of the infill strategy, looking at long forgotten brown field sites in Fyshwick, Hume and Mitchell to create affordable places for apprentices and young workers to live in so they don’t have far to travel for work.
There are other options than just 20 story blocks in town centres.

Shane Vaughan7:37 am 31 Aug 23

80% infill – where’s the detailed modelling that shows this is achievable without getting rid of the green/undeveloped pockets within our city already?

Building up… ask the Phoenix Apartment owners how they feel about that even though they should have expected it!

Subdivision of RZ1 blocks, just how many blocks are there greater than 750m2 with end of life houses where the best outcome is demolition, and shaped appropriately to fit 2 useful sized houses on them?

20% infill is probably closer to the achievable number than 80%

And as for live where we work – sure great idea, until you get a new job on the otherside of town!

The main problem is that if we are to live in a sustainable city, then we cannot do that in a city where the population increases continuously.
Consequently, the Australian Government must control immigrations levels better than at present. It is not possible for any parameter to grow sustainably.

I agree with these sentiments. Many other cities around the world have realised there is a much better way of town planning than urban sprawl. It is referred to as Transit Oriented Development (TOD).
I made a decision some time ago to downsize into an apartment complex next to a major transport route .. an apartment complex with a footprint of 6 suburban blocks housing 230 residential spaces over a commercial ground floor.
I might use my car 3 times a week.
How many other residents in apartment blocks have reduced the daily drive to their workplace.
It suits us .. might not suit others.
We all talk about global warming .. but very few are willing to act.

I agree we need a comprehension view on what needs changing with density, transport, and environmental assumptions. Could I add to the list a requirement for best practice in design, construction, and coherency for a world leading capital city. Something we can all be proud to show to the nation and the world.

I do hope you actually read the inevitably negative comments Rebecca. It might give you an insight into just how very out of touch the Greens actually are with the general population and why you will NEVER be a credible political party without attaching yourself to the Labour party.

There is a very good reason why the most expensive properties not only in the ACT but EVERYWHERE are large single houses on large parcels of land that are conveniently located as this is exactly where and how people want to live.

Rather than being crammed into tiny high density living situations, people would prefer to move out to the outskirts of the city so they can have an actual house as you can plainly see based on all these properties selling without issue.

Your latte sipping hipster crowd may be a big fan of being crammed into shoebox apartments near the city but the general population is horrified by the prospect.

We also have zero interest in you trying to force your duplexes and apartment buildings into the areas we live as all it will do is devalue the property values of the assets that we have worked, usually our entire lives to afford.

You go live however you like but leave the rest of us alone and stop trying to push your agenda onto us.

“Governments, including ours, need to start making different choices, or things will only get worse.”

Could not agree more. We can start by drastically cutting back on the entire population of Canberra that is being imported on an annual basis to support the “big Australia” agenda. After we establish a sustainable level of immigration we can start looking at your plans to ruin the character of the cities we live in… if it somehow becomes necessary. Spoiler: It won’t be.

Trish O'Connor2:01 pm 30 Aug 23

hear hear! the Greens have sold their soul and should change their name. Canberra is becoming a concrete high rise jungle with the Greens going along with every destruction of trees and green spaces. So no credibility Rebecca.

Have you ever asked the people who actually live in RZ1 areas, what they want?? Most people live in those areas for the space etc etc and have probably paid a premium for it , but hey who cares , just let everything become dual occupancy with parking on the streets, bugger up the suburbs like molonglo valley

MischaSimmons1:41 pm 30 Aug 23

Exactly right. Good point! I agree entirely.

devils_advocate10:38 am 30 Aug 23

So the greens want urban infil to reduce urban sprawl.

Does this mean they’re going to do something about the planned $55,000 in lease variation charges PER UNIT?

(Which is paid on top of multiple rounds of stamp duty and other government fees required to bring a project to market)

Marea Fatseas10:31 am 30 Aug 23

While saying they want to ensure good solar access and enough room for trees and green spaces, the ACT Greens seem reluctant to include mandatory rules in the new Territory Plan to require this. It will be left to non-statutory design guides that the community has not even seen yet, and non-statutory technical specifications. The Greens can do better than that!

agree with this

I quite liked the Jon Stanhope article that pointed out that “Andrew Barr has approved the purchase of thousands of hectares of rural land for housing while at the same time claiming scarcity of land as a reason for reducing the supply of detached dwelling sites, is nothing less than mind boggling.” Easy to google and find

Stephen Saunders8:45 am 30 Aug 23

Fake Greens support endlessly “growing population”, but also “affordable” housing and containment of “urban sprawl”. Same with Liberal, Labor, Teal, and Nationals. We Australian voters are always spoilt for choice.

Greens are wack, they say they want urban infill, then they oppose the DHA development at Lawson.

The Greens should be calling for limits to immigration and promoting a tough stance on asylum seekers if they don’t want Canberra to grow. The ACT is 80% comprised of Namagdi NP and the boundary was always arbitrarily drawn. The real limits on growth are not the availability of townhouses or units but the ability to establish medical services. Doesn’t matter how many hospitals you build your patient waiting times will always be high if no doctors and surgeons want to live here when they can live on the Northern beaches of Sydney!

There are quite a few aspects where the ACT Govt does not want to invest is social infrastructure in Belconnen and especially Tuggers to enable more of the city to carry the densification and infill load. Similarly, it is cheaper for the Govt to plonk far more people into the Inner North and Inner South because in the earlier era those areas were built with more parks, better roads, libraries, pools etc.

Michael C, Plus that’s where most people would chose to live if given a chance. Shorter commutes mostly too. Many smaller cities in other parts of the world could likely fit in that area.

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.