Stop the lies: Density is what our cities need

Dr Tony Recsei recently wrote that resistance to high rise development is not simply about NIMBYism. I am guilty of regularly applying the term NIMBY. The reason I use it is that there appears to be a sense of entitlement surrounding the nature of the city. Specifically, this entitlement resides in those who are lucky enough own a home who believe that the city should remain the same as it was when they handed over their deposit.


If the city never changes, please tell me why there aren’t trams running to Randwick, why there isn’t a power station in Balmain and why people no longer use the Great Western highway to get to the base of the Blue Mountains? The reality is that all cities are in a state of flux. This is what makes cities great; their ability to adapt to changing circumstances through the development and repurposing of existing development to suit our needs. This is what makes blanket resistance to development so irrational. The city has never stood still and it shouldn’t stand still. Dr Recsei makes a number of claims about costs, both financial and environmental, to justify opposition to high-rise development and the status quo of farm destruction for greenfield development, some of which don’t stand up to critical analysis. This opposition stifles the ability of the city to provide affordable housing to its residents.

The value of a city is in the people

I am, like a lot of young people are, worried about the costs of housing, which appears to be well out of reach of a lot of people my age. Dr Recsei laments the costs of housing yet fails to understand how such high prices are generated. He correctly identifies restricted supply as being the primary reason for high housing prices. He also correctly identifies that restrictive government planning policies reduce supply, driving costs up. However, his solution of additional land releases fails to identify what types of housing people demand.

CC-SA 3.0, by Roy Googin

These apartments in New York are valuable partly because of their close proximity to lots of other people.

The value of cities come from being in close proximity to other people who provide you with services, entertainment and employment. Being further away from people reduces your chance of all three, or at the very least increases the time cost of attaining them by increasing travelling distance to them. This is why terrace houses in the inner city, many barely fit for human habitation, sell for three or four times standard housing in the outer suburbs. The value of a standard house in the inner suburbs is derived from being closer to the things that people want.

The only way to bring down house prices in the inner suburbs is to increase supply in the inner suburbs, not on the fringe. Doing this requires development of a variety of building types from medium to high density apartments.

With more burbs comes more cars and roads

Dr Recsei implies that high density building causes traffic. While adding people to a suburb may add to the traffic in that suburb, what is forgotten is that adding people to outer suburbs will also increase traffic in the inner suburbs as people either travel to those areas as destinations or travel through them on the way to the city.

The closest potential new land release areas are south of Minchinbury, 38 km from the city centre. A person who works in the city and is 40 km from the CBD requires four times as much road capacity to be built than a person who lives 10 km from the CBD.

Building additional houses in the outer suburbs has additional costs of infrastructure which someone has to pay for. Unfortunately we already do this, where people building new homes are required to pay for services such as sewerage, telecommunications, water and roads upfront. In much of the existing suburbs, these services have already been long paid for, upgraded and serviced at the taxpayers’ expense. This makes the creation of new housing stock more expensive than it needs to be, because we are not utilising existing infrastructure by increasing density in those areas.

The refusal to allow high density hubs in centres like Parramatta and Blacktown puts at jeopardy the existence of decentralised central business districts, which will only serve to increase dependence on the Sydney city CBD for employment and hence exacerbate the need to travel from the outer suburbs into Sydney CBD.

High-rise apartments are not deadly for the environment

Dr Recsei also claims that high-rise living is worse for the environment than detached housing. He points to a report by EnergyAustralia into the relative energy use of different types of housing. In the report, it showed that per person energy use in detached housing was 2.9 tonnes of CO2 per person, while in high-rise apartments 5.4 tonnes of CO2 per person was produced. These results will be partly impacted by the different type of occupant in these homes; individuals in the apartments will use more energy than large families in the same type of housing because more light, heating, cooling and appliance energy is used per person. Simply adding more suburbs will do little to bring down these individuals’ energy use, in fact they may even increase their energy use.

Even with ignoring the impacts of the type of resident on the results, the report he quotes demonstrates just how efficient high-rise developments can be. In that study they compare two high-rise buildings, Site A and Site B. Site A was guzzling energy, spewing out 6.5 tonne of CO2 per person per year. Site B, on the other hand, was only putting out 3.5 tonnes of CO2 per person per year. Simply by choosing slightly different heating, cooling and lighting options, site B was able to bring the energy usage per person into line with what we would expect from detached houses filled with families.

The answer is not that high-rise apartments are inherently inefficient and hence that we shouldn’t build them on environmental grounds. Rather, we should be looking at ways that we can make sure high-rise buildings are cleaner and greener like Site B.

Additionally, the above figures do not take into consideration transportation emissions. If a young person were to be forced to live 30km further away from the city in a greenfield development instead of a city apartment, they would be driving an extra 60km per day. Based on a small car fuel efficiency of 6.5L per 100km, they would be putting out an extra 2.3 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. This makes new detached housing on greenfield developments much worse for the environment than high-rise developments.

The arguments against high-rise development are easy to make when not taking into consideration the external infrastructure and environmental costs of continual expansion of the suburbs.

James Jansson is a mathematical modeller and leader of the Future Party.

Image CC-SA 3.0 Roy Googin