Suburban sprawl a poor option, says planning expert

By Rachel Borchardt in Brisbane

An obsession with suburban developments is “building-in poverty” across Australian cities, according to one of the nation’s most respected urban planners.

Professor Rob Adams, director of design and urban environment at Melbourne City Council, said governments must get the message that high-density housing solutions were a better option than inefficient suburban communities.

“A thousand houses built on the periphery of your city will cost $300 million more than 1000 houses built within the footprint of your city,” Adam told attendees at the Local Government Association of Queensland’s 2009 Infrastructure Symposium.

He added that families bear the brunt of that cost through “commuting and finding their way to the services that they actually need”.

“What we’re doing is actually building-in poverty. Not only is it unsustainable, but in fact it is costing those families who think they are buying a cheap house on the periphery.”

Adams advocated unit developments of up to eight storeys around activity centres such as railways and major bus and tram stops.

He cited the turnaround of Scottish industrial city Glasgow, which in the 1980s abandoned decentralisation and encouraged residents to move back into the heart of the city. It is now a thriving financial centre that has dramatically reduced its social problems.

Adams also urged symposium attendees to take the message back to their communities that planting trees is one of the simplest and cheapest ways to change a city.

“Asphalt holds heat and those increases in temperature mean you’re going to use more air-conditioning, you’re going to get heat stress and your infrastructure will start to break down. So if you can get trees in there it tends to lower those temperatures by a couple of degrees.”

Adams claimed that if government were to plant trees en masse around Australia’s major centres it would get $5.60 of value out of every $1 spent. The calculation takes into account the so-called “heat island effect” that occurs when urban areas have significantly higher average temperatures, leading to higher use of air-conditioning and exacerbating pollution levels.

For those still hell bent on chasing the Australian dream of living in a home with a backyard, Adams said it was clear that suburbia would have to become more self-sufficient through means such as solar power, rainwater tanks, water recycling and perhaps even a veggie patch in the back yard.

“We should be driving forward with a productive suburbia that supports the other parts of our cities.”

Related Story: Queensland councils tackle infrastructure challenges

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