Northern Lights in the South East

22 March 2017
John Nicolas, Partner, Brisbane

Scandinavian influence has become more visible in Australia over the past decade, with books, TV shows, movies, music and art hailing from, or inspired by, the region reaching a wide Australian audience.

Scandinavian design as an architectural ethos is reflected in simplified design, favouring form as much as functionality and clever use of limited space. Denmark, Norway, and Sweden all fell within the top five of the United Nations World Happiness Report 2016, coming first, second and fifth respectively. This is despite Sweden and Denmark having some of the most compact and condensed urban living patterns in Western society. Beyond design and the arts, is there something else to be learned from the happiest countries on earth about the way we should live in our big cities?

In the December 2016 quarter, the national median house price increased to just over $780,000, with Sydney achieving a record high of over $1.1 million. Brisbane still sits below the national median, at just over $540,000. Over the last 20 years housing prices have increased more rapidly and for extended periods of time.

There is an increasing shortage of property in major and capital cities. Housing prices are outstripping the average wage, staggeringly, by up to 12 times. Compare this to the 1950s when the average house price was just five times the average wage. Home ownership in Australia is decreasing, and it is possible that the home ownership rate could fall below 50 per cent as early as this year. Further, the number of first home buyers has nearly halved over the last decade. For Generation Y in particular, the great Australian dream of owning a quarter acre block looks like it may remain only that.

But Australia is not the only country carrying the weight of high property prices and a high cost of living. Norway, Denmark and Sweden frequently take top spots in cost of living indexes, and were respectively ranked the fourth, eighth and fifteenth most expensive countries in 2016. With high property prices, a high cost of living and a swelling population, these Scandinavian countries build their cities up, rather than out. They have embraced apartment living and concentrated infrastructure, as opposed to detached housing in sprawling outer-city suburbs. Arguably, higher density housing could provide more opportunity for people to access the property market. In addition, houses in high density areas are typically closer to transport links and lifestyle amenities such as cafes, entertainment and shopping. It is a strategy based on urban consolidation, rather than the urban sprawl that the Australian dream necessitates.

Generally speaking, the lifestyle in large Scandinavian cities is more compact. Infrastructure is dense, public transport is well connected and easily accessible, and communal outdoor space is within a 10-minute walk of your apartment door. Approximately 86 per cent of the population of Sweden live in urban areas, and the inner city of Stockholm is home to roughly 10 per cent of the country’s population. This manner of living in condensed areas and compacted space has given rise to a whole design philosophy associated with Scandinavian living that promotes clever use of space including multi-purpose living areas, ingenious storage ideas and use of simple colour, shapes and natural light to make spaces appear larger. These principles have been influential in Australian design on somewhat of a superficial level, but perhaps Scandinavian living ideals could be more substantially incorporated into the way in which we view our homes.

According to the 2011 Australian Bureau of Statistics, freestanding houses make up almost 75 per cent of private dwellings in Queensland, and less than 10 per cent of Queenslanders live in apartments. Arguably, Australia has been slow to adopt a lifestyle of apartment living simply because apartments have not been in large supply, or (with the great Australian dream looming large in the collective psyche) large demand. However, over the past 20 years the amount of high-rise apartment stock has doubled. As detached housing prices increase at a rate far greater than that of wage growth and the urban sprawl forces people further away from city centres increasing commuting time, it may be a pertinent time to reassess the dream of the large backyard and consider forgoing the private garden in exchange for communal living spaces and long car rides in exchange for short commutes by public transport.

Using Sweden as a case study, Swedish city planning appears to capture a holistic and collaborative approach to urban development. In Stockholm, a detailed and comprehensive city plan was prepared during a consensus-based process, whereby private organisations, public bodies and citizens were engaged. The resulting plan was detailed and not legally binding, however, because it was agreed to after rigorous consultation with all stakeholders involved, it reflected an integration of values and perspectives. As a result, the plan was followed not only within the inner city of Stockholm but also the surrounding suburbs. This focus on consultation and engagement resulted in a plan that was integrative, realistic and influential on the greater Stockholm area.

The Stockholm City Plan was adopted by the Stockholm City Council in March 2010 and it proactively identified targeted areas for growth. These areas were selected as being areas where growth could be managed sustainably, taking into consideration a variety of economic, social and environmental needs and so the local municipal authorities provided additional detailed development plans for those areas. These focused plans identify criteria for the type, form, and timing of development required in specific areas.  If a development proposal could satisfy the criteria it would be automatically approved by Council.

Characteristically of city plans in Sweden, the Stockholm City Plan is built on a framework that preserves and interacts with the natural environment wherever possible, which is intended as much for human health as it is for ecological benefit. Green spaces in Stockholm are connected rather than isolated so that no matter where you live in the city, you are no more than 800 metres from a park of at least 12 acres.

However, urban construction is not just centred on green areas. Heavy investment has been made in extensive and well-connected public transport such as subway systems and light rail. Residential development is concentrated in these areas with good transport links and as a result almost a quarter of Stockholm residents own vehicles.

The Stockholm City Plan also incorporates a densification strategy that looks to make better use of current urban infrastructure and redevelop existing areas, rather than spreading the population outwards. By way of example, Stockholm is expecting a population growth requiring additional apartments to be built by 2030. In order to start facilitating this growth, the Council is redeveloping the city’s old port and industrial area to a predominantly mixed-use area, which will incorporate medium density apartment buildings with commercial storefronts. Reusing brownfield land will create an additional 12,000 homes and 35,000 workplaces, all without increasing the footprint of the city.

These key features of the Stockholm City Plan are not so different from the priorities under South East Queensland’s up-and-coming planning regime. The South East Queensland Regional Plan (SEQRP) both succinctly summarises the achievements of the local governments in the South East Queensland (SEQ) region to date, and outlines the goals (both holistic and practical) for the future development of SEQ. The final regional plan will be launched following six months of community engagement and should reflect community priorities relating to how our lifestyles will look in the next 25 years.

This plan for the future of SEQ so far seems to indicate that our idea of what makes a “home” may be getting smaller on an individual level, but larger on a community level. This is exemplified through the provision of diverse housing such as townhouses and apartments, reducing the median size of new residential lots to increase density, and the protection of greenspace networks. Looking at the three key priorities under the new plan, the focus is on:

  1. Emphasising and enhancing public as well as active transport;
  2. Having greater regard to innovative planning and design in order to create sustainable and accessible urban spaces that will benefit the community socially, economically, and environmentally; and
  3. Developing a more sophisticated approach to determining urban land supply.

The SEQRP also relies on information that was gleaned from community consultation, and articulates what may be considered a change in how we are viewing high density development around the state. The draft regional plan states that younger generations are more open to higher density housing closer to services, employment and public transport and that residents believed that higher density living would provide easier access to CBD and town centres, jobs, shopping, entertainment and recreation. Perhaps most reflective of Scandinavian planning concepts, residents believe that quality lifestyles and high density living can be achieved through utilising mid-rise developments that incorporate mixed use and climate-responsive design. High density doesn’t necessarily mean high-rise buildings.

The draft plan further identifies that affordable living is more involved than just considering the cost of renting or purchasing a property. It takes into account other lifestyle factors such as travel time and energy, the size and type of housing we choose to live in, the services and resources we use living in these properties, and the costs to the wider community of particular types of housing. In order to provide affordable urban living, the strategies presented are:

  • creating a greater range and choice of dwellings in well serviced areas that are close to jobs and well connected;
  • investigating how existing under-utilised inner urban areas can be adapted andmodified to provide more housing; and
  • ensuring that new developments create communities that are suitable for people throughout their life.

These strategies, among others, encompass a holistic, long-term, and perhaps sustainable view of urban development in SEQ.

The environment of home ownership has certainly changed since the post-war inception of the great Australian dream. The economic climate, environmental priorities and disproportionate increase of property prices as compared to wage growth means that owning a quarter-acre block with good links to jobs and amenities might not be as accessible as it once was.

As the population grows against this backdrop it may become necessary to assess how we can provide more people with greater access to the green space, transportation, jobs and amenities they desire in a metropolitan, urban community. Compact and condensed living doesn’t need to signal the end of space, privacy and the backyard barbecue. Instead, it means that some of the experiences are shared. When considering the community input that was reflected in the Draft SEQRP, changes to our urban lifestyles may be necessary. And if those happy people in the north are anything to go by, perhaps it’s a change worth making.

Authored by:

Brad Marland, Partner
Hannah Brown, Solicitor

This update does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. It is intended only to provide a summary and general overview on matters of interest and it is not intended to be comprehensive. You should seek legal or other professional advice before acting or relying on any of the content.

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