SYDNEY // The move towards high-rise living in Australia's largest cities is creating unhappiness and psychological problems among residents, academics say. Researchers have found that a large number of people who live in blocks of flats feel trapped by their surroundings because of poor design, cramped conditions and a lack of open spaces.
With population growth exacerbating chronic housing shortages, authorities in Sydney are planning to build 640,000 new homes, 70 per cent of which are destined to be high-density accommodation. There are concerns, however, that such massive development will create an unsustainable society where poorer families will be marginalised and pre-school children left isolated in large residential blocks.
"There was quite clearly a recognition that some of the children that came out of the high-density housing were not as socially developed, their parents kept them in front of the television and they didn't interact very well with the kids they went to school with," said Bill Randolph, the head of the City Futures Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, which carried out a study of the effect of high-rise living.
"It changed over time but that early part of their life was spent very much cooped up indoors and that is an experience for a lot of low-income families. That is a problem and I don't think our planners really understand quite what they are doing when they plan these things. You've got to plan appropriately for the communities that are out there," he said. The University of New South Wales team also found that Sydney's flat dwellers often did not fit the typical profile of young singles or wealthier "empty-nesters" whose offspring have left home.
A survey of 1,597 residents found that 38 per cent were on low incomes, most of them did have children and many saw living in a flat as a matter of necessity rather than choice. The results of the university-sponsored survey, which was presented at the fourth Australasian Housing Researchers Conference in Sydney last month, also showed that about half of those occupying flats in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia's most populous cities, would prefer to live in a house and did not see high-rise living as a long-term option.
As Australia's largest metropolitan areas prepare for a building revolution, Mr Randolph said more research was needed to ensure that mushrooming housing projects were socially and environmentally sound as well as being family-friendly. "Firstly, it has got to be affordable and secondly it has to be appropriate. If you've got three or four kids, you are going to need more than two bedrooms so family-sized accommodation is a critical part of the mix and then get an affordable housing component out of that. There's no point having three-bedroom flats that nobody can afford," he said.
One vision of the future of such expansive cities as Sydney is that they will move away from low-density suburbs with detached homes and gardens to become high-rise, car-free hubs with sophisticated public transport networks. "We've been showing for the last 10 years that cities everywhere are coming back in and getting denser and that process has reversed a 50-year trend," said Peter Newman, professor of sustainability at Curtin University in Perth.
"Suburbia is dying on the fringes. You can see that in American cities there are many new suburbs that are abandoned now. They are part of the subprime mortgage meltdown and the most car-dependent suburbs are now dying," said Mr Newman, who insisted that a new generation of compact Australian cities would have to radically conserve resources and use less land. "There will be no choice about this because we cannot continue to sprawl. The carbon and oil is just not there in the future to drive those sprawling suburbs and neither is the economy and I would submit neither is the culture.
Development would also be driven by convenience, he said. "People don't want to live further and further out where the dream has turned into a nightmare of no facilities locally, no community and appalling conditions on the freeways whenever you have to go anywhere," Mr Newman said. Crafting greener and socially attractive high-rise blocks will be a challenge to developers, said Matthew Benson, an urban planning consultant in Sydney. Mr Benson said many Australians would need a great deal of persuading to give up their dream of owning their own house in favour of a flat.
He said people looked at a flat building and saw it as characterless or "faceless". Despite these reservations, Mr Benson said he believes Australia's cities with their seemingly endless suburbs will eventually have to contract. "The perception has been historically that there is so much land in Australia that you can just keep building detached houses on their own allotment, [but] people don't necessarily always want to live in a detached house on a big block of land. They do want to live somewhere within walking distance of shops, workplaces and public transport," he said.