Urban sprawl should go out, not up

Urban sprawl should go out, not up
Urban sprawl should go out, not up

Australia’s cities are heading in the wrong direction, according to American futurist Joel Kotkin, a world-renowned supporter of suburban development, who says we should be expanding outwards rather than looking to create our own mini-Manhattans.

Kotkin, who hails from New York but now calls Los Angeles home, is well-placed to comment on whether Australian cities are developing in the right direction.

Los Angeles sprawls outwards into never-ending suburbs while New York skyscrapers rise up to the heavens.

“I am from New York. You are not Manhattan,” is how he puts it rather bluntly, adding that there are only a handful of places in the world that are conducive to Manhattan-style living.

His criticisms are manifold, ranging from environmental to emotional.

He warns that high-rise living has the potential to ruin what is great about cities like Melbourne and Sydney – the ability to live 15 minutes from the CBD and have a backyard.

Secondly, he worries about who is buying up these apartments and argues that the market in Australia for high-density living is not big enough to sustain the number of apartments being built.

Instead, wealthy businessmen from overseas who want an apartment close to the city who are buying up many of the upmarket ones while Asian families looking for an apartment for their kids to live in when they are studying in Australia are snapping up the studios.

This makes these new suburbs vulnerable to what Kotkin calls the Hong Kong effect – suburbs that feel deserted, where there is no one on the streets.

Anyone who has taken a walk around Docklands after dark might have experienced something similar. Indeed many Australian-based property analysts have made similar observations, with the likes of Metropole’s Michael Yarney noting the large apartment uptake by investors and the sheer number of inner-city apartments up for sale at the moment.

Kotkin calls the move to build greener apartment blocks “garbage” and says all high-density housing does is raise the temperature.

If you want evidence of this, all you need to do he says is spend a summer in New York and note the difference in temperature between Brooklyn and Manhattan, he says.

So what does Kotkin suggest?

He believes Australian cities should be expanding outwards into low-density suburbs supported by better transport infrastructure, such as bus shuttle services and other rapid transport solutions.

“‘Telecommuting’ should be encouraged.  This is a work arrangement where the daily commute to work is replaced by home-based (or even café-based) mobile technology with employees only coming into the city when needed, and perhaps outside of the tradition rush hour,” Kotkin says.

Not surprisingly, Kotkin is very supportive of the government’s National Broadband Network infrastructure project.

With just months to go until construction of the first high-rise Barangaroo building in Sydney and the last parcel of land in Melbourne’s Docklands recently hived off to developers, the sustainability of these high-rise precincts will come increasingly under the spotlight.

His visit to Australia coincides with leaking of the so-called bank “blacklist” of more than 370 no-go apartment projects.

While none of the major banks owned up to the blacklist, if the blogosphere and Twitter responses are anything to go by, the general public are not overly enthused at the thought of Australian cities becoming awash with high-rise apartments (some apparently featuring windowless bedrooms) with many urging the list to be published.

This surprisingly supportive response, perhaps answers the question: Are we ready for Manhattan-style living?

Larry Schlesinger

Larry Schlesinger

Larry Schlesinger was a property writer at Property Observer

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