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EcoDenCity for Sydney, following in the footsteps of Vancouver

EcoDenCity for Sydney, following in the footsteps of Vancouver

Read Editor Alastair Taylor's blog post on the parallels that can be drawn on the EcoDenCity initiative in Sydney and the Planning Zone reforms currently underway in Victoria here.

A new initiative by Urban Taskforce Australia seeks to address the issues in housing Sydney's diverse and growing communities. Named EcoDenCity, it echoes many aspects of the approach Vancouver took in the last decade to address its growth. 

In June 2006, the then Mayor of Vancouver, Sam Sullivan, launched an initiative called Ecodensity. This initiative sought to address Vancouver's vast and growing ecological footprint by committing to environmental sustainability in all future planning decisions. The central tenet of the Ecodensity initiative is that high quality densification, in itself, is one of the most effective sustainable measures a city can take to reduce its ecological footprint. The benefits of a denser city are numerous; it allows people to live closer to workplaces and amenities, promotes more efficient and cost-effective public transport, reduces trip length which in turn encourages walking and cycling, promotes the use of green energy initiatives, reduces both infrastructure costs and duplication and limits urban sprawl.

Despite the benefits of densification, the very idea and even the word itself, is often met in the community with fear and derision. At the extreme end of community concern are the NIMBYs and their cries of 'Dubai-ification' that are often levelled at development proposals not much taller than a two storey house with a pitched roof.

But it is these same communities who must absorb the millions of new residents in our cities in the next two decades. Furthermore, within these communities, a growing proportion are seeking more cosmopolitan lifestyles that only urban areas can bring, further propagating the need for high-density housing.

In a pitch to both those who see the need for densification and those who fear it, Urban Taskforce Australia last week launched the concept of EcoDenCity, which spells the need for housing Sydney's diverse and growing communities and the variety of ways this can be achieved. The launch of the EcoDenCity publication and website was supplemented with a presentation by Chris Johnson, CEO of Urban Taskforce Australia, along with a panel of community, council, and government representatives.

Recognising Sydney's diverse population, the presentation wound through seven residential development types proposed by Urban Taskforce as the answer to a growing Sydney. The seven types are: R2; R4; R6; R8; R12; R25 and R35+. The 'R' represents 'Residential' and the number indicates building height in storeys. Each of the residential development types was then defined in relation to their most likely demographic, population density, location within the metropolitan area and amenities they are likely to support. The following diagram summarises the attributes of each residential type.

R2, R4 and R6 were said to be at or below tree canopy height and therefore suitable for normal suburban streets. In the case of R6, setting back the top levels to reduce apparent height was particularly effective in achieving good scale on the street. R8 was singled out for being the maximum height before expensive fire sprinklers and other controls were required. R8, along with R12 saw the shift in location to urban renewal sites, urban corridors and town centres. R25 and R35+ represented towers to be located in major centres and the CBD respectively, with a shift to smaller floor plates and a more tower-like structure.

One of the biggest fears communities have of densification is the idea that it encroaches on open space that the community might enjoy. However, if a development site or new suburb has been mandated a maximum density, a developer can opt for medium density (R4 to R12) and more open space or low density (R2) and little open space. It is often the views of the surrounding communities that determine which the developer will choose to build.

In reality, most developments in existing areas as well as many new suburbs contain a mixture of heights in their built forms to attain a desired density. On a suburb scale, higher densities and taller buildings may occur on busier roads, near shopping centres or transport hubs and taper towards lower densities further away. On a development site scale, tall buildings may occur where they impact less on the neighbouring fabric and taper down towards the boundaries. To illustrate this, the following diagram explain how these mixed-height buildings can achieve a range of desired built forms, open space and density outcomes.

Some of the scenarios presented in this diagram correspond to developments that are either built or under-construction in the Sydney metropolitan area. Examples of these were displayed in the Urban Taskforce presentation, with developments ranging from a suburban scale of 100 people per hectare to an urban scale of 1000 people per hectare. It is interesting to note that every example development in the presentation contained 25% to 35% open space, regardless of their urban or suburban settings and all had their place in metropolitan Sydney. Some examples are listed below.

Oran Park

Oran Park is a low-density development of about 100 people per hectare on the outskirts of Sydney. Whilst it has higher density than many suburbs built in the last 40 years, 75% of the land area is either 2 story housing or open space, giving it the same feel and look of neighbouring suburbs. The increased density comes mostly from a compact urban town centre with only 25 % of the suburb containing development of 4 storeys or more, up to 8 storeys.

Harold Park

Harold Park is an urban infill development in the inner suburb of Glebe in Sydney. Surrounding the site are many heritage-listed two-story terrace houses, so a sensitive solution was required. With 35% open space, the remaining 65% of land area consists of building heights of 4-8 storeys. In particular, the use of setbacks on the top few floors significantly lowers the apparent height of the buildings. At a population density of about 300 people per hectare this type of development is suited to middle ring suburbs as well as heritage inner suburbs.

Central Park

Central Park is a development on the fringe of Sydney’s CBD, with excellent rail and bus services on its doorstep. Half built, it will soon cater for a density of 1000 people per hectare with 25% open space and roughly equal amounts of R8, R12, R25 and R35+ buildings on the remaining land. It is a development clearly aimed at those wanting an urban lifestyle and the amenities it can offer.

Following the EcoDenCity presentation, each of the panel members gave a short response with respect to their backgrounds in industry, community and government. They are summarised below:

Peter Spira - General Manager, Meriton

Peter commented on the 50-year history of Meriton and noted that in that time, apartments have gone from a choice of last resort to first resort. The stigma of apartment living has well and truly disappeared and a whole new generation of young adults - mostly the children of baby-boomers - have in the last 15 years embraced the urban cosmopolitan lifestyle.

Geoff Turnbull - Spokesperson for REDWatch

Geoff spoke of his concerns regarding the EcoDenCity initiative, citing the examples used in the presentation and unintended problems these developments might cause to the existing community. Traffic and transport problems were mentioned in regard to the ‘Erko’ development, which despite being close to Erskineville station, trains were often at capacity and passengers at the station were unable to board. Lack of schools, or places to put them was cited as a problem when an influx of new residents into an already existing area occurs, as has been recently reported in the media. Geoff spoke of the large segment of social housing residents in his community and argued that there was no consideration for their amenity and no provisions for fostering a social mix between them and the new residents. Also mentioned was a complaint that in the preparation of the new planning laws for NSW, the various interest and community groups were segmented during consultation, and an argument was put forward for integrated discussion involving all relevant parties. In response, Chris Johnson suggested that many of the major concerns Geoff raised like public transport and community facilities were outside the scope of developers. Developers also paid Section 94 contributions to government which should be directed towards the funding of such amenities. 

Sima Truuvert - Director of City Planning, Randwick Council

Sima spoke about the main urban activation areas in the Randwick Council area, surrounding the Anzac Parade route and the University of NSW/hospital precinct. She reiterated the concerns of local residents, namely lack of privacy, loss of views and overshadowing and that to overcome these concerns, the need for transparency is crucial.

Ross Grove - Councillor, Holroyd Council (former Mayor)

Ross explained his time as Mayor of Holroyd Council as one of success, going from the second slowest council for DA approvals to being a top 10 performer. With new LEP’s, DCP’s and slashing Section 94 developer contributions by 30%, the council fostered a culture of growth that residents could adapt to. By articulating clarity of vision, the council were able to stymie NIMBYism. By communicating the benefits of development, including life choices, diversity of housing for different stages of life, providing more affordable housing options and improved infrastructure for the area, residents were able to accept this vision for growth. Most importantly, by showcasing to the residents that building higher densities in the central areas where they would be better suited to, the ‘quarter acre block’ prevalent in the Holroyd Council area would be protected.

Trish Oakley - Executive Director, Community and Stakeholder Engagement, NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure

Trish stressed the need to cater for growth in a sustainable, workable way and the importance of not doing so in an adversarial way with the community. The current planning system was said to be very inaccessible to the community and that any new planning system must engage people at the strategic planning stage. She welcomed the EcoDenCity initiative, and emphasised strongly the need for community consultation.


Final thoughts

The idea that density can drive a reduction in the ecological footprint of a city is an idea lost, either reflexively or perhaps conveniently, to many of those who would otherwise champion every other measure of sustainability. Density can be done badly or it can be planned. If planned, it would be better still to include the community in the discussion.

Urban Taskforce's EcoDenCity initiative recognises that some locations are ideal for lower densities and some locations are ideal for higher densities. It showcases the different physical forms each density level can take. It prepares for a population growth of 1.5 million people in Sydney in the next twenty years as well as the growing popularity of urban living. It might well be incidental, but by pursuing higher densities, it is in sync with sustainability and the reduction of Sydney’s ecological footprint. The EcoDenCity initiative may well be a self-serving vision for the industry that created it, but it is a positive plan for the growth of our cities. It's time for the community and their representatives to do the same. ‘Not-in-my-backyard’ isn't good enough. Instead of ad-hoc campaigns against ad-hoc densification, it would serve the community well to instead band together and demand better quality densification at the strategic stage.


Further Information:

EcoDenCity for Sydney: Urban Taskforce


Chris Johnson - Chief Executive Officer, Urban Taskforce


Peter Spira - General Manager, Meriton

Geoff Turnbull - Spokesperson for REDWatch

Sima Truuvert - Director of City Planning, Randwick Council

Ross Grove - Councillor, Holroyd Council (former Mayor)

Trish Oakley, Executive Director, Community and Stakeholder Engagement, NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure.


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