What to do with suburbia?

The Australian Dream – The pandemic roll-out of suburbia over the last 75 years has largely been driven by a combination of cheap land, abundant fossil fuel and an opportunistic housing industry who structure their “product” around high-volume, lower-quality “house and land packages”. Australia’s ongoing love affair with this model of suburbia has been extended by artificially low fuel prices and the continued release of rural land for new subdivisions on the city fringes.
The free-standing suburban home model has failed to adapt to changing demographics, diversified cultures, shrinking household sizes and varied lifestyles. Architects involvement in the volume housing of the suburbs– if at all – is usually restricted to the finessing of elevations or the specification of finishes within a pre-determined plan type, carefully configured to minimise cost per sqm and thus maximise floor area for any given budget.
Right now in NSW and particularly in Sydney, there is a unified call to arms from government , economists , developers  and communities  to address the shortcomings of the suburb. A NSW planning system review currently underway has clear ambitions to facilitate the densification of the suburbs. Research from political think-tank groups such as the McKell Institute (Labor Party) and The Committee for Sydney (Coalition) suggests emerging bipartisan support on this issue. Developer groups including The Urban Taskforce and The Property Council of Australia are lobbying for planning overhaul.
Howard Kunstler is the author of The Long Emergency  (among other books) and one of the USA’s most outspoken opponents to the suburbs. He trawls global conference circuits evangelically proclaiming the imminent death of suburbia from a variety of terminal traumas – peak oil, water wars, food scarcity and more. Kunstler’s sermon parks suburbia right alongside the automobile and aeroplane as an oil-chugging luxury that cannot prevail in a post-carbon world.
There are many truths to be found in Kunstlers doctrine, and plenty of hype too. But the reality is that even if half of his predictions come to bare the suburbs of America are beyond the tipping point and heading for deep, deep trouble. My own experience and research suggests that Australian suburbs are not far behind.
Urbananisation in Australia is hitting a few tipping points of its own. In the last 10 years market demand for inner ring housing has overtaken fringe and green-field development bucking a ‘flee to the suburbs’ trend that has been prevalent since World War II. Recently, auction clearance rates for inner suburbs have outstripped outlying areas by nearly twofold.  Apartments are about to overtake free-standing houses in number as the dominant housing typology in the Sydney property market. The cause behind these trends is elusive though most probably a combination of the desire for better public amenity and infrastructure, and a lack-of-confidence vote in the State Government’s capacity to deliver on future out-reaching infrastructure projects.
Baby Boomers are downsizing and retiring into smaller homes closer to health and cultural facilities. The younger Gen ‘Y’ trend away from the accumulation of worldly possessions towards life satisfaction through social connectivity to a network of friends, online and off. When they finally move out of their parents’ home they more often than not trade sub-urban life for a more connected urban life.
What the trend away from the suburbs also represents is greater acceptance of a denser, more public lifestyle amongst the general population. A trend where people forego private amenity – think private lawn, backyard pool, home theatre and the like – in exchange for public or ‘shared’ amenity such as parks, streets, squares, pools, cinemas and libraries.
Across the city, ‘Quality of life’ or ‘amenity’ in the public realm is slowly being re-valued against the private amenity suburbs are renowned for. This is great news for architects and good news for the city but not so good for the value structures of the vast tracts of land given over to the suburbs.
It is productive for a moment to project the course of these demographic shifts and imagine their log-term impacts on the suburbs through a series of questions. How can the suburbs be made attractive and affordable for our adult (Gen. Y) children? Can urban diversity through both use and building type be retrofitted to the suburb without a fundamental reworking of land title and infrastructure? What mechanisms or innovations might catalyse the shift within existing housing market structures?
The suburb was seeded as a concept through the Garden City movement around 1900 in reaction to congestion and unhygienic conditions found in inner city slums. In Australia architects have been complicit in the emergence and growth of suburbia and what was later coined The Australian Dream, from as early as the 1940’s. Around this time builder architect teams brought to market new house and land packages in the new land subdivisions – A commercial innovation previously unheard of.  Companies such as Sun-line Homes and Pettit and Sevitt worked with architects such as Neville Gruzman, Harry Seidler and Michael Dysart to bring beautiful and efficiently designed homes to the market at an affordable price-point.
The true innovation in the house and land package lay not only in the in the design or typology of the homes but in the financial model through which they were delivered. Potential buyers gained the confidence to proceed by inspecting and experiencing demonstration homes first hand. Meanwhile the construction company minimised their outlay and risk by avoiding any speculative construction. “It was the clients who bore the cost of replicating the house on land they had purchased themselves.”
Fast forward to today and the same financial model persists in the suburbs, minus (to a large part) the spatial intelligence of the architect. Where the architect once brought their professional knowledge and nous to the suburbs, volume housing companies have now moved to a market-driven model. Homes are assembled to meet a client driven wish list. Decisions are driven by the clients limited knowledge of what neighbours have built, what they see in the magazines and their taste in colours and materials. The normalising effect of popular opinion generates the predominant housing typology with very little real choice.
Sydney is described as one of the least affordable cities in the world. Whilst this is true when the metric pits average household income against average housing costs, it often fails to consider the leveraging of personal wealth through home mortgages. A high earning family banking their income into the most expensive family home they can finance makes sound investment sense. If this family are paying off their house with over 30% of their large income however, they would be defined as suffering ‘housing stress’. Understandably the affordability index is somewhat skewed.
Currently in NSW the sale of a family home is not subject to capital gains tax. The effect this tax concession has on housing stock (no doubt unintended) is that household investment in property is often consolidation of into one large home. Spare bedrooms, home theatres, duplicated living spaces and rumpus rooms are used to grow family investment without necessarily serving a deep programmatic need.  Indeed, it has been estimated that there are sufficient bedrooms located in all the oversized houses across Sydney to solve Sydney’s affordability ‘crisis’ altogether.
Research by The McKell Institute, an independent, not-for-profit, public policy institute, addresses long overdue reform in Sydney suburbs head on. Amongst their list of 40 things we can do to improve supply and affordability are the gradual phasing out of capital gains tax in favour of fair and universal annual land tax (McKell Institute).
This tax reform would gradually shift the trend away from single oversized family home investments. Household investment portfolios would be freed up to diversify both in number and frequency with a land tax based on land value held in place of a transaction tax at the time of sale.
The McKell Institute are also lobbying for the provision of “more medium density housing in the form of “21st Century Sydney Terrace Housing”. The terrace housing type is recognisable and tried in Sydney and would be a good start along the road to greater density and diversity.
Rapid evolution through the emerging sharing  and service  economies, exemplified by companies such as GoGet , Aussie House Swap , AirBnB and Share-shed are all recalibrating notions of urban space, ownership, ‘value’ and ‘return’. The new transactional relationships, many peer-to-peer, are beginning to reshape the city in small ways.
What was once considered a private residence might be optimised in these new conditions through design for its fitness as an Air B’n’B rental with capacity to generate income for the owners whilst they are on holidays. Additional zones of privacy or security within the main dwelling would allow precious or delicate possessions to be cordoned off from guests. The potential for subdivision within the dwelling itself would allow the owner to make two independent sub-lets within the one home. Or even allow the owner to remain living in one half while they Air B’n’B the other.
Emphasis is slowly shifting away from mass-production at a price-point back to better quality and serviceable products. In a service economy, where you pay for the service not the ownership, quality and longevity of products trump price every time. It is worth contemplating the effect this might have on future construction in the suburbs.
UTS is embarking on a three year project exploring “The role of Sydney in a globalised context… asking how the city might work and what it might look like if it started to operate as one of a cluster of global metropoli.”  My Adapturbia studio sits within this larger space of enquiry and imagines many of the abovementioned tax and planning innovations are in place. It calls on the spatial reasoning skills held by architects to re-look at diversification and densification for ‘mum and dad’ investors at the increment of the single suburban lot.
The studio aims to re-imagine the single lot suburban subdivision and its nuclear home. Research within the studio speculates on the future of the suburb as students proceed through archetypal housing analysis and innovative housing prototypes. The final output of the studio sees students develop and reiteratively test their own housing typologies. The output of the studio is projective in that it does not strictly adhere to current planning laws, rather it intends to offer a series of alternative futures through which current laws might be questioned or recalibrated.
(This writing is a long hand version of an article by Adam that was published in The NSW Architecture Bulletin 2014)