Melbourne’s public housing towers prove that more density is a mistake

Zoya Patel 29 July 2020 33
Public housing stock in the ACT

Public housing in Canberra consists of a mix of multi-level units and individual dwellings spread across the city. Photo: ACT Public Housing Renewal Taskforce.

It’s true that there is no single cause for the second wave of COVID-19 cases in Melbourne. Undoubtedly, this disease is incredibly contagious, and when combined with key trigger factors, its spread is inevitable.

But one thing we have learnt, and that public health and community development experts have been saying for much longer than the pandemic, is that high density and poor infrastructure in housing increase the spread of disease. The public housing towers in Melbourne demonstrate this clearly.

Not only do the towers house hundreds of individuals in single buildings, but the corridors, stairwells and lifts are not large enough to allow for proper social distancing. This means that it is virtually impossible to avoid the spread of COVID-19 once one active case is present.

The issue of social housing is one that has long needed to be addressed across Australia, and a move away from high-density multi-storey complexes towards a more effective and integrated approach has been called for by housing experts and community development advocates for decades.

While that important conversation is better served by experts, there is a broader lesson to be learned from this current crisis. When we compare the experience of the pandemic in capital cities with much higher density such as Sydney and Melbourne to the experience we have had in Canberra, it’s clear that our Territory is much better equipped for implementing effective social distancing and hygiene measures.

Our existing low-density structure means that suburbs are able to be largely isolated with people working from home and able to access basic amenities in their immediate vicinity, rather than having to travel throughout the city, increasing the risk of contamination.

Public housing in Canberra consists of a mix of multi-level units and individual dwellings spread across the city, which also has a positive effect when it comes to limiting the spread of the virus.

While there are numerous areas for improvement when it comes to ACT public housing (access to public transport and amenities for residents now located outside of the city centre, and the long waiting times for new residents are just some issues that could be improved), the focus on lower density to date has been to our benefit during the pandemic.

But we only have to look at the range of current property developments underway to see that increased density is on the cards for Canberra, and if the current government has its way, our city will have to discard the much-loved moniker of the ‘Bush Capital’ for ‘Apartment Central’.

High rise apartment developments are underway across the city, with a focus on driving more people to living clustered around major town centres.

Undoubtedly, this is going to irrevocably change the nature of our city and the way it functions, creating higher demand for access to the city centre, pushing more people onto the roads and into contact with each other.

There are many reasons for my distaste of the slew of apartments being built in Canberra, primarily because I disagree with public housing being moved further away from amenities, I’m confused as to who exactly is going to live in all of these (very expensive) developments, and because, frankly, I find a lot of them to be visually unappealing.

But even if you are a big fan of new apartment developments, it’s hard to deny that one of the key factors driving Canberra’s lower COVID-19 infection rate has been our ability to avoid congregating or coming in contact with groups of people outside our immediate bubble, something that is only possible because of our low-density, independent suburban infrastructure.

Pandemic or no pandemic, I think that is something worth celebrating and fighting to retain. These uncertain times offer an opportunity for reflection and redirection – the question is, will we learn from our wins or just our mistakes?

Zoya Patel is a writer and editor based in the ACT, and was the 2015 ACT Young Woman of the Year.

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33 Responses to Melbourne’s public housing towers prove that more density is a mistake
Acton Acton 7:48 am 01 Aug 20

Those of us who wish to live with green spaces, birdlife, changing autumn colours, views of distant hills and uncrowded areas choose Canberra. Those who don’t should remain in Sydney, Melbourne, Mumbai or Shanghai.

    chewy14 chewy14 11:33 am 01 Aug 20

    And those who lived here before you did, chose this area because of its value as farming land, yet you had no problem in being a part of changing the landscape into a city, did you?

    Will you be moving out to respect their wishes?

    Funny thing how areas and cities change over time, isn’t it?

JS9 JS9 1:40 am 01 Aug 20

“Undoubtedly, this is going to irrevocably change the nature of our city and the way it functions, creating higher demand for access to the city centre, pushing more people onto the roads and into contact with each other.”

Que? I’d love to hear the logic underpinning a hypothesis that having more people living closer to city centres will put more people on the roads…..

Logic does not seem a strong point in this article…

Steven Chaytor Steven Chaytor 10:45 pm 31 Jul 20

I am continually amazed by comments that say higher density destroys the bush capital, in preference for lower density. Talk about having your head in the soil of suburban sprawl. And yes, we need to do density better in light of public health, not abolish it. But something tells me it's not concrete that is the source of the spread.

    George Watling George Watling 2:53 pm 01 Aug 20

    Steven Chaytor the development of new suburbs doesn't need to be destructive. If we stick with Canberra's original garden city suburb designs we can increase the biodiversity of the land we build on. The older Canberra suburbs in Tuggeranong, Woden, Weston Creek, and Belconnen were built on old sheep paddocks that had very low biodiversity. Today, because their designs included many parks, open spaces, wildlife corridors, space for existing and new trees, and good sized blocks that allowed for gardens, they provide a high quality living for their residents and contain quite a few formally recognized biodiversity hotspots that are full of native plants and animals.

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 12:56 am 02 Aug 20

    Steven Chaytor If Australia stabilised the population there likely wouldn't be a 1,000,000 people to move here, unless other cities decreased by the same amount. But as neither side of Government is willing (outside of covid times) to stabilise the population and instead have polices to increase the population, unfortunately Canberra is headed for 1,000,000 people and beyond.

    Steven Chaytor Steven Chaytor 1:33 am 02 Aug 20

    Thanks Julie we'll agree to disgaree on that one.

Michael Blythe Michael Blythe 10:11 pm 31 Jul 20

The towers aren’t the problem. It’s the people living in them. 🤷‍♂️

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 6:36 pm 31 Jul 20

“primarily because I disagree with public housing being moved further away from amenities”

Which is probably what will happen, some time down the track, when the people who pull the strings in Melbourne decide that the virus disaster will be a good excuse to demolish the towers, disperse the inhabitants to the fringes of the city, and “re-purpose” the land for far more lucrative purposes.

Once the borders are re-opened to import enough cashed-up buyers, that would be a very tempting strategy.

Wayne Lutter Wayne Lutter 4:31 pm 31 Jul 20

Gungarlin, say no more

Christopher Mawbey Christopher Mawbey 2:17 pm 31 Jul 20

Our cities can't keep spreading across food production land

Elroy Jones Elroy Jones 12:53 pm 31 Jul 20

What an utterly ridiculous article with a multitude of errors. To achieve Patel's utopia where everyone gets a garden without further sprawl, you have to halt population growth. That means closing our uni's and realising Barnaby's dream of decentralisation.

As the home of Fed Gov, while Aus grows, Canberra will organically follow. Density is critical in a city. You think housing costs are high now? Imagine a vacuum of 5000 dwellings being sucked from the market this year. Good luck buying let alone renting.

In relation to public housing - Government spends a huge amount of time and money ensuring housing is built near essential services. To suggest the ghetto model of the 70's was better for residents than the new salt and pepper model is uneducated dribble.

Riot ACT need to check these articles more closely. This one's on par with some of Trumps hydroxychloroquine trash.

David Newman David Newman 12:45 pm 31 Jul 20

Are you listening, Geocon? Are you still trying to put an eight storey development in where the buildings are only zoned for two?

Peter Major Peter Major 10:30 am 31 Jul 20

Ant hills are disease breeding grounds. Barr and the Greens failed housing strategy

Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 10:22 am 31 Jul 20

Some of the main problems with those towers, are not the apartments so much, although they could do with balconies, are the shared laundries and narrow internal hallways. That's more bad design than apartment living. I have seen some old apartments where on each level the access was along open, roofed outside corridors. There's some benefit to that; not being in enclosed spaces where the virus can hang in the air. That could also be an argument for shops on streets, rather then in enclosed malls.

Sean Lawson Sean Lawson 9:00 am 31 Jul 20

This is genuinely unhinged

    Lo Mien Noodle Mee Lo Mien Noodle Mee 6:50 pm 31 Jul 20

    Taiwan, Vietnam, Seoul, Hong Kong... all famous for their lack of density....

Rob Tomsen Rob Tomsen 8:08 am 31 Jul 20

Seriously canberra isn’t Melbourne

Juanita Dawson Juanita Dawson 8:04 am 31 Jul 20

What a silly article. Really apartment social housing means disease ridden. So everyone who spends a fortune on their fancy apartment is also a hub for disease!

    Darren Bryant Darren Bryant 9:25 am 31 Jul 20

    Did you actually read it though? It’s less about apartments, more about high-density living with limited space (cheap, poorly designed housing). Perfect conditions for the virus to spread.

Stephen Saunders Stephen Saunders 8:00 am 31 Jul 20

Agreed, public health experts have been warning for years, of the risks of high density and poor infrastructure.

While the Big Australia elite, starting with RBA, has been spruiking for years, the “advantages” of de-zoning and densification, as they gallop to grow Sydney and Melbourne to eight million apiece.

GSC commandant Lucy Turnbull may have handed in her hi-vis, but beware, the elite is keen to revert to business-as-usual.

Stacey Carpenter Stacey Carpenter 7:58 am 31 Jul 20

I’ve never been a fan of high density living. But I guess we have the privilege of not having to go high density

    Lucia Zorzi Lucia Zorzi 10:42 am 31 Jul 20

    The only issue is, are we prepared to accept more urban sprawl and loss of productive land, and the environmental impacts that accompany it??

chewy14 chewy14 7:49 am 31 Jul 20

So by the logic used in this article, the author also must fundamentally dislike high capacity (and density) public transport options.

Exactly like our new light rail system where social distancing is not possible without making the entire system almost useless for the amount of people it needs to carry.

So what we really need is a very low density city with no large scale public transport.

Can’t see any problems with that……

Monty Ki Monty Ki 7:48 am 31 Jul 20

What about terraces and townhouses? These seem to be largely missing from our urban mix and provide and great halfway between suburban houses and apartments. People can still have a courtyard to be outdoors, but the density increases without being ridiculous and risky. Terrace houses and townhouses would do well in Canberra, yet there are very few relative to houses and apartments.

    Monty Ki Monty Ki 8:40 am 31 Jul 20

    Ashley Wright yes, but this should also be applied to urban centres, like Civic, Belco, and Woden, where the infill is largely apartments.

Jim Rick Jim Rick 7:36 am 31 Jul 20

There is no high density public housing in Canberra. Nor is there any forward plan to build any. So what is the point of this article besides being some sort of political beat up.

    Amanda Evans Amanda Evans 10:17 am 31 Jul 20

    Jim Rick most of the new apartment buildings being built across Canberra are classified as high density and do contain a 10% affordable component generally.

Tania Shaw Tania Shaw 7:35 am 31 Jul 20

through good planning the ACT Government moved away from high density public housing when it demolished and sold the many tower complexes that had been built by earlier governments as part of the early Canberra housing for workers (eg. burnie court, ABC in civic, gowrie court). the more recent housing has been town house style and I expect strategic purchases in new developments has occurred. Our high density living is the monoliths that are privately developed and owned (how many little boxes can I put on this land - far more than the government envisaged when it was approved for sale) and will no doubt be heavily populated by renters.

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