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

Zoya Patel 29 July 2020 58
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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58 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.

    Steven Chaytor Steven Chaytor 11:23 pm 01 Aug 20

    George Watling I do agree. These established masterplanned suburb from the 80s now have more trees and biodiversity on them than the old pastoral stations. Same actually for Westerm Sydney and Melbourne. The issue though is CBR needs to plan to become a city of a million people. That means letting the city grow up, rather than out, should we want to retain the 'bush' part of the bush capital.

    George Watling George Watling 12:06 am 02 Aug 20

    Steven Chaytor who said Canberra needs to be a city of 1 Million people?

    Steven Chaytor Steven Chaytor 12:16 am 02 Aug 20

    George Watling the people wanting to move here. Surely a capital city wouldn't prevent the free movement of people to the city that was made to represent a nation.

    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 1:11 am 02 Aug 20

    Julie Macklin and while I appreciate many different views on this, I support population growth, above trend economic growth and infill urban planning. But I also respect the many different and opposing views to mine.

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 1:30 am 02 Aug 20

    Steven Chaytor Population growth is bad for the environment and for individual people, unless they are at the top of the income level. It's not sustainable.

    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. 🤷‍♂️

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