Backyards and spare blocks are gradually disappearing in our major cities and this uncontrolled piecemeal development is having a massive impact on urban water systems.

Infill development is necessary to house Australia’s growing urban population without sprawl, but according to research from the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities (CRCWSC), very little thought has been given to its effect on urban water systems.

What happens, according to director of NMBW Architecture Studio and Monash University Professor Nigel Bertram, is that when permeable vegetation is replaced with impenetrable manmade materials such as homes and pavements, it creates runoff and puts pressure on stormwater systems.

That’s not the only downside of conventional infill development – Professor Bertram told The Fifth Estate it also exacerbates the urban heat island effect and the liveability of a suburb.

Instead of a garden, people living in poorly designed infill developments are just “looking into a fence”. A lack of canopy can also create privacy issues with neighbours able to peer straight into people’s homes.

Professor Bertram is part of a CRCWCS research project trying to determine if it’s possible to design infill development that addresses this big set of challenges.

It won’t be easy, but the research findings so far suggest water sensitive infill development is doable.

“We’re finding that as you densify the middle suburbs, it’s possible to not make them worse, but also better.”

The team, which consists of architects and planners as well as urban heat and hydrology experts, has managed to come up with a range of housing typologies that allow for densification without giving up on green space.

At its core is clawing back more space on each block for greenery by shifting design priorities and using space more economically.

At the moment, outdoor spaces such as strips down the sides of homes are considered “leftover and useless”. Instead, these areas should be considered for greening potential – especially if the soil is deep enough to plant a tree.

It’s also about using space better. For example, car spots and garages take up a lot of space and are typically considered for just one use. If there’s somewhere on the street to park a car then perhaps that spot reserved for a garage can become garden instead.

Other options are communal gardens and other shared amenities that are more economical in their use of space. More flexible home designs, where rooms are multi-functional, can also help.

The researchers also looked at the issue on a precinct scale. The trick is forging a better relationship between the private and public realm.

For example, a treetop canopy on the public street can improve the amenity of homes. Conversely, a tree canopy in private courtyards at scale can provide coolness and privacy.

Professor Bertram says although a more coordinated approach would be “mutually beneficial,” it’s not common practice. “It’s very much site by site.”

Cities should aim for a mix of dwelling types so that retirees don’t end up stuck in giant homes because that’s the only option.

Driving change will require plausible options

A lot of these ideas are really just best practice design in Australia and around the world but the problem is many in the industry aren’t thinking this way.

“The challenge is making these ideas plausible in Australia.”

That’s why the research has used real life case studies all around Australia to prove that it’s possible on real sites.

There needs to be an attitudinal shift across all built environment disciplines, including planning. At the moment, urban planning is “broad brush” and focused on zoning and height limits.

“It should be ‘can you make a good liveable house at that density and at that scale?’”

Planning deep root zones for trees should also be a priority.

Resistance is to be expected

Professor Bertram says it will not be easy for the industry to change when it’s “always more efficient to do what’s always been done”.

“As you can imagine, there’s a lot of resistance to change in this space.”

The goal of developers is often to get the most floor space on each site, which regularly starts with wiping the slate clean of foliage and trees and making the site dead flat.

But thanks to the multi-beneficial nature of the researchers’ suggested typologies, Bertram says it could be an opportunity to build a more favourable perceptions of infill development.

“There’s lots of community resistance to infill development and that’s because it’s usually done poorly.

“But if it’s done well, it can be a net benefit – better quality of life for inhabitants, reduce heat stress of urban locations and have huge benefits for the environment.”

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4 replies on “Our suburbs are sleepwalking into stormwater disaster with missing middle  ”

  1. Are there any avenues to take action and encourage better development? Any ways to put pressure on developers and amplify the message that people want better planned housing – amplifying the value of access to nature, trees, privacy, etc. Is The Fifth Estate aware of any groups lobbying in this space?

  2. smaller blocks and infill makes it harder for planners to take into account privacy, overlooking, over shadowing. How can they possible mitigate these things or refuse an application based on them. They have been set up to fail. Really anyone who decides to live on 300m2 block in an urban fill area has given up their right to light and privacy. You have traded it in for the benefits of infill living.

    not to mention impact on parking in some of these areas. Mum has a car, dad has a car, the two teenagers at home have a car, the daughters boyfriend has a car – and times this by every second house and we wonder why our streets and verges are full of cars. Perhaps its time for a house block to be a private car park and people walk to their cars.

  3. What a pathetic situation, building energy efficiency is advocated by Governments, shading, orientation, does anyone care, not developers, not councils that allow zoning to fester the modern suburban housing commission style project homes, on small allotments, same basic plans, different colour schemes, lots of concrete driveways, no areas for medium sized shrubs, or trees that could cause tree roots to undermine failed basic design concrete slabs and driveways.

    Some housing estates only have on entry and exit road into an estate, what happens should there be a major fire or exceptional disaster, how do people get away?

    It’s no good ’whinging’ now the “horse has bolted” how do you fix these manmade disasters?

    To attempt to motivate Councils and the various Governments to forgo the long lead times of asking the people for change, say rescind permits of over development where works have not started.

    The created heatsink issues mentioned with concrete tiled roofs, concrete drives are just the start, what about with increased high temperatures, more airconditioning used keeping the areas around homes that are so close together hotter, no radiant shields installed at roof level to control solar radiation that heats excessive amounts of mandated bulk fibrous insulation in roof spaces making homes ‘hot ovens’.

    Not everyone can afford solar panels which won’t supply electricity when it fails to the home, unless there is battery backup, something Governments don’t advertise. Remember 1.3 million Victorian homes are likely to lose power supply in the upcoming months.

    When is there going to be someone brave enough in the media to get smart and promote the correct ‘formula’ to protect people from the onslaught of climate change?

    Governments look after big business, while the lower income people get ‘bled’ and exist in misery in their hot homes, they have no choice.
    The 2010 Senate Inquiry Home Insulation Program recommendations had a roadmap towards the truth, but Governments and big business quashed the recommendations.

    Did I mention the silence for action of the 2018 Parliamentary Inquiry into Biotoxin issues of mould and condensation that are killers and misery makers because of questionable insulation policies.

  4. Urban sprawl is bad for many reasons, high density is bad for different reasons so lets stabilize our population by lowering immigration to 70,000/ year.

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