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

Zoya Patel 29 July 2020 66
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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66 Responses to Melbourne’s public housing towers prove that more density is a mistake
Acton Acton 7:23 am 31 Jul 20

The author presents thoughtful and convincing reasons why Canberra should reject the current Labor/Greens obsession with multi storey apartments, high density living and the consequent removal of green spaces and suburban tree canopy. The real beneficiaries of densification and uglification are corporate property developers and commission chasing real estate agents. The real losers are the young people of Canberra.

    chewy14 chewy14 1:26 pm 31 Jul 20

    It’s actually an extremely ill thought out, short sighted and thoroughly unconvincing piece.

    To reach her goal you would either have to stop the city growing or have massive amounts of urban sprawl. Neither is a good idea for long term sustainability of the city.

    Seeing as the ACT doesn’t actually have that much available land, you would be promoting large cross border developments over time and all the transport, infrastructure and social problems they would cause.

    Young people benefit from densification.

    The alternative is for them to live tens of kilometres from where they would have to work, with limited and long transport options, which is exactly what has happened in places like Sydney and Melbourne.

    The real beneficiaries of the type of city you are suggesting is preferable are older, inner city property owners who get to have their cake and eat it too.

    Which demographic do you fit into again?

Jesse Mahoney Jesse Mahoney 7:30 am 31 Jul 20

Please... Who let this be published?

"our city will have to discard the much-loved moniker of the ‘Bush Capital’ for ‘Apartment Central’."

Well you keep up low density urban sprawl and you knock over all the bush.

    Alex Burleigh Alex Burleigh 8:53 am 31 Jul 20

    Jesse Mahoney all those ‘unspoiled’ sheep paddocks as far as the eye can see, whilst families get shoved into 15 story apartments. It’s a disgrace

    George Watling George Watling 6:22 pm 01 Aug 20

    Jesse Mahoney Canberra's older suburbs aren't urban sprawl. They're built on the garden city model. The suburbs in divisions of 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.

    Jesse Mahoney Jesse Mahoney 10:35 pm 01 Aug 20

    George Watling they were low biodiversity because they were committed to paddocks.

Ally Ryan Ally Ryan 7:33 am 31 Jul 20

They should build tiny house clusters with shared gardens. 1. They have good accommodation and 2. Somewhere to socialise and grown food or whatever brings them joy (no, not that stuff 🤣). They’re cheap to build, low carbon footprint, can have solar, and composting toilets which would bring down infrastructure costs like septic or town sewerage

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 11:45 am 31 Jul 20

    I like the 'idea' of composting toilets, especially the useful compost produced, but even the best ones do have an odour. The basic plans I chose for my house did have composting toilets included, but my modifications didn't include them. I prefer a flush toilet, running off tank water. Not having water attached would also make the composting toilets harder to clean, so that's a practical reason not to have them too. The tiny houses (at least for first homes) and shared gardens though is a great idea. I would like to see the shared areas in some apartment blocks given over to vegetable gardens. One of the reasons I wouldn't live in an apartment while I can still garden, is that I grow a lot of my own food.

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.

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.

    Raffy Sgroi Raffy Sgroi 9:17 am 31 Jul 20

    Jim Rick yep! Because this Government rather to keep most of the unit unoccupied!!

    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.

    Elroy Jones Elroy Jones 12:37 pm 31 Jul 20

    Raffy Sgroi Non are unoccupied - Canberra's vacancy rate is less than 2%

    Raffy Sgroi Raffy Sgroi 1:44 pm 31 Jul 20

    Elroy Jones 33 units in Kaleen were released to non profit organisations 15 months after the were completed! Chapman has half empty for the past 10 months.

    Elroy Jones Elroy Jones 1:47 pm 31 Jul 20

    Raffy Sgroi Ah apologies, I misunderstood your comment.. I was speaking about the vacancy rate for privately owned properties.

Max Robinson Max Robinson 7:37 am 31 Jul 20

The problem is the people inside the towers. Not the design necessarily

    Elroy Jones Elroy Jones 12:38 pm 31 Jul 20

    Exactly! The author seems unable to understand high density is a result of high population.

    Martin Miller Martin Miller 10:03 pm 31 Jul 20

    Max Robinson what are you saying exactly?

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.

    Gregg Heldon Gregg Heldon 7:54 am 31 Jul 20

    Monty Ki agreed. The government needs to be approving more of these type of developments. Variety is the spice of life, including in housing. Every buyer/family have different wants and needs for their home.

    Ashley Wright Ashley Wright 8:03 am 31 Jul 20

    Monty Ki new suburbs like Moncreif, Taylor and Casey have this.

    Jay Mah Jay Mah 8:31 am 31 Jul 20

    These are a significant component of the urban mix in every new suburb. This has been the case for over a decade.

    And urban infill, particularly on the fluffy blocks, is delivering this into older suburbs.

    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.

    Jay Mah Jay Mah 8:43 am 31 Jul 20

    You're looking at the immediate centres of those urban areas. It's purposefully a stepped design, delivering for the needs of many including both housing and business.

    Amanda Evans Amanda Evans 10:03 am 31 Jul 20

    Monty Ki yes you're right, many more of these really is the answer for a city like Canberra.

    Amanda Evans Amanda Evans 10:09 am 31 Jul 20

    Jay Mah that's not the same at all. Look at Urambi Village, Swinger Hill etc. They provide for greater amenity for both residents and neighbours.

    Most of the Fluffy blocks are a disaster for their local community and for overall amenity. On the 700m2 to 800m2 blocks, there is insufficient space for even a shade tree and residents invariably park all over the street, blocking footpaths.

    A duel occupancy on on a larger say 900m2+ block can deliver a better outcome.

    Monty Ki Monty Ki 10:10 am 31 Jul 20

    Amanda Evans yes! Room for trees and community spaces is the key to good social design. Terraces and townhouses fit nicely into that medium density, community friendly arrangement.

    Daniel Loudon Daniel Loudon 10:34 am 31 Jul 20

    Right on

    Taylor Eggleton Taylor Eggleton 11:05 am 31 Jul 20

    Daniel Loudon wheres this graphic from?

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……

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??

    Howie Grace Howie Grace 11:09 am 31 Jul 20

    But who pays for not going high density? low density means we need more infrastructure (usually roads) and increased commute times and traffic for those far from the centre. The future is in mixed density with high density corridors, allowing for good transport and infrastructure planning, but also allowing space for nature and leisure.

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.

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.

    Juanita Dawson Juanita Dawson 2:51 pm 31 Jul 20

    Darren Bryant no different to the higher priced apartment living

Daniel Loudon Daniel Loudon 8:05 am 31 Jul 20

It doesn't matter how spread out the housing is if you are all going to the same workplaces, supermarkets, restaurants etc.. The determinant of success in dealing with COVID is more about effective public health measures, not the design of cities.

Car dependent sprawl causes lots of health issues of its own. Social isolation and staying in bubbles, is a necessary evil in times of Covid but it's also a killer in its own right. The point about distance from services is significantly more true for low density housing (which will need to be built further and further from town centres) than for apartments.

You may find the apartments ugly, and many of them are, but that's on the developer and on planning laws, not on the type of housing itself.

The "ugly" of sprawl manifests itself in more pernicious ways; car accidents, chronic health issues. You still have houses built on the cheap, they just aren't visible to people working in the city.

There are lots of lessons to be learned from COVID, even around planning (more pedestrian/cycling space has a lot of value), but "low density is good" isn't one of them.

    Amanda Evans Amanda Evans 10:14 am 31 Jul 20

    Daniel Loudon we live in a suburban city in the bush. Good urban planning is critical to successful health outcomes. People need both physical and visual access to nature to keep both physically and mentally healthy. There is an enormous amount of research into this, so your statement isn't actually correct.

    During our lockdown earlier in the year, people who had a access to a garden basically didn't really suffer the sense of isolation and punishment as those without it.

    Easy access to a private garden, bush or parkland is essential for healthy outcomes.

    Daniel Loudon Daniel Loudon 10:26 am 31 Jul 20

    I don't disagree with anything in your comment. Good urban planning is key to public health outcomes - as I mentioned about sprawl having negative health effects. I was making specific reference to a pandemic.

    Access to nature and green space are super important, and there are low density modes at living that fail that, and can be medium and higher density modes of living that reach it. I live in an apartment but have easy access to a courtyard, Telopea Park, the lake etc.

Rob Tomsen Rob Tomsen 8:08 am 31 Jul 20

Seriously canberra isn’t Melbourne

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....

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.

Peter Major Peter Major 10:30 am 31 Jul 20

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

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?

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.

Christopher Mawbey Christopher Mawbey 2:17 pm 31 Jul 20

Our cities can't keep spreading across food production land

    Amanda Walsh Amanda Walsh 7:31 am 01 Aug 20

    Christopher Mawbey Absolutely! I grew up on the south coast, and it horrifies me to see the farms, some of Australia’s most productive land (which, let’s face it - we don’t have a lot of compared to our total land mass), chopped up into 400-500m2 house blocks. And most Aussies today don’t grow anything on their land - except lawns!

Wayne Lutter Wayne Lutter 4:31 pm 31 Jul 20

Gungarlin, say no more

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