Density in Sydney: Do as I do not as I say

The Sydney Morning Herald’s article on Sydneysiders “in revolt” over development is interesting, but the numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt.

There is certainly a lot happening in Sydney, and any glance across the skyline reveals the number of cranes that dot the horizon. After decades of under building, Sydney is now playing catch-up, with a record number of new houses being built.

This is changing our city, and for many this change is both hard to comprehend as well as disruptive. When asked do we want more of this change the answer from many of us is a not surprising “no”.

But when you drill a little deeper you get a different and more important insight into the thinking of Sydneysiders. The Committee for Sydney conducted our own research earlier this year into the housing preferences of our fellow citizens. We, like the SMH, asked them where they think new housing should be built, on the urban fringe or in existing suburbs?

Our numbers were only slightly different from the ReachTel Poll, with a majority in both polls (in our case 50 per cent) saying most new housing should be built on the urban fringe.

However, when you dig little deeper, other things emerge from the polling. In our research, while a bare majority support housing at the edge, it’s not uniform across all ages and demographics. For example, young people (18-34 years) are far less likely to support urban sprawl (44 per cent) than those aged over 50 (58 per cent). Similarly, among those that live within five kilometres of the CBD, just 39 per cent support building more on the fringe.

All polling needs to be taken with a grain of salt because such surveys only tell us what people think, not what people do. Economists and behavioural psychologists have long known that there is often a big gap in people’s stated preference and their revealed preference. What they say they want and what they actually want.

And we see this in Sydneysiders’ housing preferences. People might say they don’t like higher density but, when given the choice, more of them try to live in higher density neighbourhoods. We know this because we know there is more demand for properties in higher density neighbourhoods. Whatever metric you choose – land values, property prices or rents – it’s more expensive in higher density neighbourhoods than in low density ones. They’re higher because they are in more demand by our fellow citizens, notwithstanding what they say to the pollsters.

Now some might say this is because high-density neighbourhoods have more employment opportunities, but these areas are also popular with retirees. Where once people retired “up the coast”, now increasingly people are retiring “down town”. They like to be in places where they can walk, access services they need and which are livelier.

It is also not because people are being forced to live in high-density neighbourhoods against their will. Most of Sydney’s suburbs are still at very low densities at less than 15 homes a hectare. If people really want a detached house in far-flung suburbs there’s no shortage of choice.

So why are people saying one thing to the pollsters and doing something different on the ground. Why are people spending more and more of their precious income on getting something they say don’t want? The answer to this is complex, but last year the Committee tried to answer it in a discussion paper on Density Done Well.

In the paper we looked at what was driving the relentless conflict in Sydney over development, the so called “planning wars”. And the answer was quite simply that Sydneysiders are not against development – they are against bad development. They don’t like development that clashes with the existing fabric of the neighbourhood. They don’t like buildings that are too tall, or which overwhelm the local streets. They don’t like development that is poorly designed, ugly or boring.

In this the Committee agrees with them. Although we have seen some great homes built, it is arguable whether we have seen any decent new high-density neighbourhoods built since the ’30s. And are any a patch on the quality of places like Potts Point, Randwick, Mosman or Crows Nest? These are all relatively high-density suburbs, yet are also still very sought-after places to live.

The Committee believes that increasing urban density is not only important but essential if we are to house our growing population. Moreover, the Committee believes that increasing urban density is a desirable thing to do, even if we were not a growing city– that the benefits in terms of health, the environment, social cohesion and productivity are too great to miss.

However, we believe we must do so in a more considered and clever manner. We need to get smart about urban density and start building neighbourhoods of the quality we once were famed for. Only then will we start to see people again reconciling where they tell pollsters they want to live with where they actually live.

Tim Williams is chief executive of the Committee for Sydney.

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