Density, when done right and in moderation, might be the most sustainable way to live. But for many, the suburbs are still the best place to raise a family. So what’s it like for a family living in an apartment? The Fifth Estate talked to a family living in one of the now-famous Nightingale apartments and also spoke to urban social geographer Sophie-May Kerr from the University of Wollongong about the challenges of higher density family living.
Kate Longley lives an idealistic life with her partner and toddler in an ultra-sustainable inner city Melbourne apartment.
That’s right, Kate has opted to raise her child in a medium density development in Brunswick, far from the comfort of the suburbs where there’s room for a backyard and a double garage to park a family station wagon.
And she couldn’t be happier. The couple started out as renters at The Commons – a highly sustainable apartment building designed and developed by Breathe Architects with rooftop gardens and bees, no airconditioning and no parking – before buying an apartment across the road at Nightingale 1.
Nightingale 1, also the work of Breathe Architects, is designed to be environmentally, socially and financially sustainable. What’s now known as the Nightingale model has since attracted the attention of the wider development industry and is largely considered a game changer in sustainable housing.
Kate says the community is the number one perk. And it’s no accident that there’s a strong sense of community in the development – the shared rooftop and laundry facilities have the dual purpose of creating efficiencies through sharing as well as providing opportunities for people to bump into one another and connect.
Between the two buildings there are 10 kids under four years old, so Kate says there’s a never a shortage of parents and kids to hang out with. She says they are all connected through a WhatsApp group.
“Someone will say ‘we’re off to the park’ or ‘getting a coffee’ or ‘see you on the roof’ so the kids are all hanging out together.”
When it’s hot, she says someone will set up the pool on the roof and “all the kids will come for a splash.”
“It’s pretty great and lovely to know they’ll all grow up together.”
Having a network of parents to reach out to for advice has also been useful.
“We share cooking of toddler snacks, swap storybooks and exchange toys.
“It’s certainly made my maternity leave and new to parenthood time a lot less scary/lonely.”
She says she also has a great relationship with her neighbours without children (“they keep us sane”), and has a household of babysitters to call on next door.
The central location also works well for the family (it’s a Nightingale model requirement that developments be situated in inner suburb infill sites located within 5-10 minute walking distance to facilities, services and public transport).
Both Kate and her partner work full time but there’s a child care centre around the corner.
There’s no place to park a car, even if they had one, but pretty much everywhere they want to go is in walking distance.
There’s a fruit ‘n’ veg market in the street, supermarket at the end of the road, and a pool, library, park and doctor all less than 10 minutes away.
Otherwise to get around they cycle or catch the train or tram (the development is well serviced by public transport). If they need to go any further like the airport, they’ll order a Shebah (all female car service that has baby seats).
With the apartments designed to stay cool and comfortable she says they’ve had no trouble going without airconditioning. A low cost recycled hydronic heater keeps things warm in winter.
Although the suburbs are considered a safer spot to raise a family, with quiet cul de sacs and contained backyards, Kate says the building her family is in feels very secure.
“We all know each other so it’s very rare you see someone you don’t know.
“All the neighbours love seeing my daughter around the building and always stop and say hello.”
Kate says most people she talks to think her lifestyle sounds great, “especially the community aspect.”
“Some people wonder how I can manage with a baby and no car, but because I’ve never driven I really don’t miss it or need it,” she says.
“I also think the Australian dream has changed. It was never our dream to have a massive house with a double garage far out from the city.”
The family of three have no plans to go anywhere as their child grows up.
“We never thought home ownership was on the cards for us. We thought it would be too expensive. Fortunately, we have been able to do it with the Nightingale model and we bought it as our forever home.”
But Kate’s experience is far from the norm
Kate and her family have indeed been lucky enough to secure their apartment in Brunswick because their experience is far from widespread.
According to University of Wollongong’s Sophie-May Kerr, an urban social geographer who researches the everyday lived experiences of families living in apartments with children, families with children are one of the fastest growing demographics living in higher density environments – whether this is be product of choice or affordability constraints.
And despite the demand for more family-friendly apartments, Kerr says design and cultural housing norms haven’t kept pace.
She told The Fifth Estate that the needs of families with children are rarely taken into account in apartment design.
Among the big problems are inadequate sound proofing, limited storage, inflexible spatial layouts and lack of family-friendly communal spaces.
Families “need space to live, grow and play” she says, which means apartments that are “functional, flexible and adaptable to different needs throughout the life course”.
With space at a premium, rooms shouldn’t be designed with just one use in mind. Bedrooms should also be playrooms, and lounge rooms suitable for both adults and children.
There also needs to be more affordable three and four bedroom apartments to accommodate the increasing number of families living in apartments.
“Apartments also need to include adequate storage space, recognising that along with children comes children’s stuff: prams, toys, bikes, boxes of clothing saved for the next child etcetera.”
Outside the apartment itself, she says people want family-friendly communal spaces such as backyards, rooftops, shared gardens, play equipment, hireable multipurpose rooms, gathering spaces for teenagers, gyms, pools or sound proofed music rooms.
Another pressing concern for parents is noise.
“In my own research parents raising children in apartments with poor acoustic performance faced emotional dilemma of trying to be a good parent and a good neighbour.
“Parents want to allow children to be children, but are ever anxious about annoying the neighbours.”
It doesn’t help that many neighbours don’t think children should be there in the first place.
“Research shows that dominant cultural norms frame detached housing as the appropriate place to raise a family.
“As a result, families living in apartments are made to feel out-of-place.”
Kerr said that despite evidence of shifting attitudes in certain demographics – “namely, wealthy families who choose to live in high rise apartments” – childlessness is still associated with apartment living.
“In my own research, I found that these attitudes had emotional implications and led to families feeling a contested sense of belonging as they constantly questioned their housing and parenting choices.”
She said these narratives need to shift in order for families to feel at home in higher density living.
“Developers who are seeking to design more family-friendly apartments can learn from these experiences.”