The Good, the BADS and the Green in Future Apartment Living

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The Good, the BADS and the Green in Future Apartment Living
Productive and green communal open space with deep soil canopy trees – Breese Street: Render by Milieu

Written By Julia Frecker

With Melbourne’s projected population growth of an additional 4 million people by 2051 (DEWLP), we are faced with the complex equation of an ever-increasing number of people within a constant amount of urban area. This leads to the inevitable outcome of stacking people on top of each other to conserve our rapidly depleting liveable space.

In a reaction to the unfortunate association of apartment dwellings with a lower standard of living, the Better Apartment Design Standards (BADS) were introduced in 2016 by the Department of Environment, Water, Land and Planning (DEWLP), with an inclusion into the planning scheme in the form Clause 58 for Apartment Developments in early 2017. 

It forced developers and architects to focus heavily on better layouts, access to daylight, windows and ventilation amongst other things. It worked to redefine the well-worn narrative of the shoebox apartment that is cramped, dark and stuffy.  

Out of regulation was born resolution and grew respect for apartment living. It was a collective realisation that if you are spending most of your life in a dwelling, you should feel that it is not just liveable but an enjoyable space too.  

Whilst bringing change for more liveable multi-dwelling developments, the inclusion of greenery and open space into the standards always felt like an afterthought. The communal space objective aimed to provide open areas for the residents of the apartment.

The standard is:

Developments with 40 or more dwellings should provide a minimum area of communal open space of 2.5 square metres per dwelling or 250 square metres, whichever is lesser.

However, there is no strong enforcement for the provision of greenery within these standards. 

The standards for Landscaping in the BADS only aims to “maximise landscape opportunities.” For most apartment developments, a communal open space usually means an easy to maintain, mostly concrete communal area. In this case, the potential for maximum landscaping is minimal. 

The requirements for this standard are that an apartment proposal should “consider landscaping opportunities.” In terms of a guideline, this is not a strong enough incentive or enforcement to get people to creatively think about that communal open space. There is no enforcement or encouragement for developers, architects and the like to truly aim to maximise the access to greenery and landscaping in a way that would create lush communal areas. Or create areas that have a tangible impact on urban heat island and increase permeable surfaces. 

The most critical breakdown of the BADS and the plight for access to greenery and open space is that the standards for a minimum area of communal open space only apply to developments with 40 or more dwellings. Meaning that apartment proposals providing anything below this are not required to provide any communal open space. Developments that aren’t considered intense enough to trigger the provision of open space can, therefore, get away with not providing any green escape for those apartment residents. 

Apartments have historically been situated in inner-city areas with higher height limits, but in this new era, apartments are common everywhere from Epping to Bonbeach, Ringwood and beyond. More and more people are opting, or indeed, needing to live in apartments, in a more diverse range of locations. Therefore, the standards need to keep up with the urban changing fabric.

The diversity of apartment locations around Victoria, and the Better Apartment Design Standards shortfalls have necessitated a follow-up paper in the form of the Better Apartments in Neighbourhoods Discussion paper by DEWLP.  The paper is currently open for public consultation here with submissions welcome till 27 September 2019.

It addresses the key issues associated with Green Space and the Better Apartment Design standards of 2016, these include:

  • Despite the current planning rules, landscaping is often an afterthought in the building design and planning process. Canopy trees, which improve people’s well-being and provide urban cooling, are often either too small or not provided at all. 

  • Developments of 40 dwellings or fewer will often not have communal open space which means that residents may not have access to a garden. 

  • Some apartment buildings at street-level do not contribute to green streetscapes.

(DEWLP 2019)

It is cheering to see the proposed changes as a direct reaction to the dubious attempt at the inclusion of green space in the 2016 BADS.  

The question is if the new standards were to be introduced, could they ever strive to meet the success of the Minimum Garden Area Requirement for the inclusion of greenery and garden area in new developments?

The Minimum Garden Area Requirement (Practice Planning Note 84) has been the most effective planning practice for enforcing the provision of garden area. Although often causing developers and homeowners alike to tear their hair out, it has been critical in protecting the leafy green character of the General Residential and Neighbourhood Residential zones. The Planning Note is enforced, making it planning practice and creates a strong, fixed standard that ensures the garden area is retained and protected. The stronger wording of the practice note itself, “The minimum garden area requirement is a mandatory requirement that must be met and cannot be reduced,” is successful in conveying the necessity of the provision. Concurrently with Clause 54 and 55 Rescode standards, the Minimum Garden Area Requirements has been undeniably effective in retaining the character, and general enjoyment of urban streets and dwellings. 

The introduction of the Better Apartments in Neighbourhoods discussion paper, with proposed changes to the BADS, is coming at a perfect time. The language involved in the discussion paper is already noticeably more strongly worded.

For landscaping amongst the proposed standards it reads that;

(2.4)“Canopy trees should be provided at the number specified in column 2 of Table D2” 

It focuses on boosting the provision of deeper soil trees with larger canopy potential. This means communal areas and private areas would be more enjoyable. This ensures that the landscaping being provided isn’t just low-level; swallow plants and trees that don’t provide shade or lushness. The provision of a few small trees does not feel conducive to the holistic living experience that is yearned for with apartment living.

The Good, the BADS and the Green in Future Apartment Living
Proposed standards for deep soil areas and canopy tree requirements – DELWP

It could be worded more strongly with ‘must’ rather than ‘should’ however, it shows that these new standards the provision greenery has been more closely considered. It will hopefully put the provision of greenery to the forefront of apartment developments, rather than the afterthought it was becoming. 

Furthermore, in regards to the provision of communal space involves changes to the open space standards to include all apartment developments. As a result, the less than 40 dwellings slipknot has been removed. The discussion paper is proposing that:

(2.5) “Developments with 10 dwellings or less should provide a minimum area of communal open space of 25 square metres. Developments with 11 or more should provide a minimum area of communal open space of 2.5 square metres per dwelling or 250 square metres, whichever is the lesser”

This means that apartments developments of any space can be awarded the luxury of communal open space, regardless of size and intensity. Of course, the token greenery and open space in apartments will never compare to the leafy character of neighbourhood gardens associated with the Minimum Garden Area Requirement. However, as a trade-off for the amenity of inner city living, access to greenery that is intertwined into the urban living experience should be prioritised. The policy should reflect this in a way that both encourages and champions its inclusion.

The Good, the BADS and the Green in Future Apartment Living
Vertical forest lines the side of apartment building: Bosco Verticale, Milan – Photo by Stefano Boeri Architetti

The future holds an ever-increasing need for apartment living and often the lack of access to greenery can be a deterring factor. In reality, it has the potential to take the forefront as a feature to promote a new development and peak people’s interests. The Bosco Verticale development by Stefano Boeri Architetti in Milan instantly rose to prominence due to its green façade and vertical canopy planting. Closer to home, The Commons and the Breese Street developments have championed greenery as a way to marketing to the public.

The proposed changes to the Better Apartment Design Standards are critical for better prioritising and applying greenery, landscaping and communal open space to apartment developments. The benefits of access to greenery for physical health, mental health and for offsetting urban heat absorption and the reduction of impermeable surfaces are well known and well researched. Greenery is critical for the development of urban areas, making them more enjoyable to be in, and in maintaining people’s desire to live in apartments. It’s a necessity for the future and as the urban fabric changes around us, the policies in place must help us protect and promote such critical greenery.

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