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The Zone: Homes for the ageing babyboomers


Michael Short

By 2053 Sydney and Melbourne will have eight million people and a pressing question is, how will they all be housed? By Michael Short.

The race for space: Shane Murray, dean of Art Design and Architecture at Monash University.

The race for space: Shane Murray, dean of Art Design and Architecture at Monash University. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones

[WHO] Professor Shane Murray, Dean of Art Design and Architecture at Monash University

[WHAT] We need to provide more housing options for Australia’s ageing and rapidly growing population

[HOW] Open up suburbs close to the centre of our capital cities to much more medium-density developments

We need to radically change the way we are planning for the ageing and rapid growth of Australia’s population, if we are to preserve and share fairly the rich quality of life for which our cities have become internationally recognised. The pressures are particularly acute because Australia is the one of the world’s most urbanised nations, with almost nine in 10 of us living in a built-up area.

By 2053 Sydney and Melbourne will each be home to almost eight million people, with Australia’s population  projected to double by 2075. Meanwhile, the combination of low fertility and increasing life expectancy will continue to produce profound changes in the structure of this expanding population.

In 2012, the median age of our residents was 37 years. That is forecast to increase to more than 40 by 2040. In that time, the number of people aged 65 and more will increase from 3.2 million to 6.8 million. The number of people 85 or above will all-but treble to 1.2 million and that age group will account for 4 per cent of the population in 2040, up from about 2 per cent today.

Today’s guest in The Zone argues that the 1950s suburban ideal of a large dwelling on a quarter-acre block has not only become financially and environmentally unsustainable, but that it is fundamentally blocking the development of the range of options we require.

Professor Shane Murray is the Dean of Art Design and Architecture at Monash University, a department that has been running a project called Space of Ageing, dedicated to rethinking housing and neighbourhoods.

‘‘The ageing of our population is a very positive thing rather than a negative problem, but it is certainly something we need to think about,'' Murray says. ''Particularly in terms of how we might accommodate that population, and particularly as it is more than likely that a much greater proportion of our lives, through ageing, will be lived out in our homes, rather than in support types of accommodation. This is a significant but also a quite liberating aspect of what is happening in our society.’’

A video statement by Murray and the full transcript of our discussion can be found at He will be online for an hour from midday to respond to questions and comments, which can be submitted from this morning.

‘‘We can no longer sustain a situation where a single elderly person is rattling around a large house when, often, if they had an appropriate choice in the same area where they live and where they are close to their family and friends, they might choose to move to a smaller dwelling that is easier to maintain.’’

Murray was invited to set up the department at Monash in 2008 after he’d spent many years as an award-winning architect and academic.

‘‘I have moved from someone who was a maker and a designer and a shaper of things, to someone who is a designer and a shaper of creative engagements that I hope can bring about how much more rich environment for us all to live in.’’

Two years ago he was awarded the Australian Institute of Architects’ award for services to architectural education. Now, driven by concern the diverse amenities and joys of our cities will become available only to a wealthy elite, he is seeking to inform and educate not just students, but all of us. 

He recently spoke of his vision at one of a series of five well-attended public seminars organised by a group of planning experts, who have set up an organisation called Future Melbourne Network (see link below).

The planning strategy, titled Plan Melbourne, recently unveiled by the Victorian Government will, unless fundamentally altered, undermine the wellbeing of millions of people, Murray argues. 

The strategy is the latest in a long series that has resulted in massive urban sprawl. What were supposed to be Melbourne’s inviolable boundaries have expanded by 50 per cent in recent decades; it is now about 150 kilometres from the eastern edge to the western edge of the city, a greater distance than that between the CBD and Bendigo. 

Other cities are experiencing the same type of expansion, rather than significantly increasing the density of existing suburbs.

Murray – and the Future Melbourne Network – believes Plan Melbourne, which has allowed councils to lock as much as 80 per cent of space away from medium-density development, will prevent the creation of housing options, particularly in the suburbs between 10 and 20 kilometres from the city centre.

This will force  people to choose between high-rise apartments in the central business district  or houses in expanding fringes bereft of amenities and core services including healthcare, education and public transport.

‘‘The real challenge is to have appropriate choice and an appropriate range of housing in the right locations. One of the things we do know from our research is that people have very strong attachments to their locations, not just necessarily their dwellings; more and more it is the place and the social networks that are important.’’

Recent research by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, found that the housing industry is not particularly well aware of the looming needs of the ageing population. The research revealed older people want to stay in their neighbourhoods, but in smaller homes, and that their primary concerns are affordability, community and not losing tax benefits and pensions. 

The findings buttress Murray’s position. ‘‘What we’re not doing in contemporary urban development is providing options for people to downscale or affordable options for new families to be established. Or providing the sorts of housing where in one situation the house could be a very good dwelling for an elderly person or couple and then equally be adapted to be a very good dwelling where a young couple could establish a family, or where, in fact, two unrelated people could live together.’’

Baby boomers – people born between 1946 and 1964 – are particularly set to encounter a housing conundrum. So many of them have most of their wealth invested in their homes, and would relish the opportunity to free up some of that capital to help finance their retirement – were options available. 

But, Murray argues, the supply of smaller dwellings in local medium-density developments is so limited that there is an insufficient financial incentive to make the change. He is hopeful, though, that the baby boomers might become rebels with a cause, and demand that planning rules become more flexible.

‘‘There is a real opening for individual families to put pressure on markets to seek this sort of accommodation and also for developers to think about in a more clever way the requirements and desires of this ageing population, which is really driven by the baby boomer cohort. They have shaped every market that they had gone through and they will really reshape the whole profile of housing as we age.’’

Single women aged 50 and over are the fastest growing type of household in Australia, yet they, too, have few options in the middle suburbs, where life is enriched by a diversity of services such as entertainment, eateries and public transport. 

Other typical household types, such as divorced people, single-parents and people whose partner has died require medium-density options.

And Murray is concerned that many young families simply can't afford to live other than on the urban fringes.  ‘‘We know a family that is forced for affordability issues to live in an outer-suburb really suffers in their overall fuel costs, their access to work, their access to education, their access to medical services. This is really detrimental to those families, when you compare all that to the sort of advantages they might have if they were able to be in the suburbs.’’

He says research shows that the extra fuel costs associated alone can add up over the years to hundreds of thousands of dollars for those living on the urban fringes.

A paradox of Australia’s fixation on single dwellings on a quarter-acre block, is that so many Australians love Paris and New York and other cities with much higher densities than those of our state capitals.

‘‘One of the things that we really need to look at is the quite remarkable richness that four-to-six-story development judiciously applied can bring to our suburbs. Because what I think is advantageous with that model is it is a density that can be accommodated if well done, but it is also a density that can still retain aspects of the landscape character of an area – it does not have to be totally transformed.’’


NEXT: Kirsty Albion,  National Co-Director at Australian Youth Climate Coalition


  • The planning laws introduced to lock new residents out of Liberal suburbs are going to backfire as other Councils also succumb to knee jerk pressure and lock up their areas as well.

    This is all and well for opportunistic politicians seeking a few votes in one election, it's not a solution for Melbourne's housing crisis. When the chickens come home to roost in a few years we will find ourselves not only behind the eight ball but also off the pool table.

    The smug looks of the elderly housed affluent will not placate, or house, the desperate and anxious young

    Melbourne needs more homes, a lot of them. And this Planning Minister's solution of highrise bird cages, whilst wonderful for Liberal Party benefactors and Chinese investors seeking to park money overseas, are not the answer to our children's housing dilemma.

    Date and time
    August 18, 2014, 7:47AM
    • Thanks Socrates. I agree that long-term leadership around planning, housing and new design alternatives is definitely needed - one that can hopefully be separated from election cycles, We really do need a range of housing types that diversify the current offering that is predominantly apartment towers and single dwellings.

      Shane Murray
      Monash University
      Date and time
      August 18, 2014, 12:07PM
    • And none of these developers (or their paid planners) can do maths.

      Baby boomers were born in the 20 years from ~1940 to ~1960. The ones born in the 40's are retiring now.

      By the stated target year of 2053, these retiring boomers will be around 110 years old. And the younger of this tribe will be aged around 90.

      Sounds to me that that again this developer lobby is pushing its profit wants instead of focussing on retirement villages and high level aged care hospitals for the whole life cycle of needs in our communities.

      Date and time
      August 18, 2014, 1:24PM
  • I believe that possibly the biggest change will occur through new and cheaper strata titling arrangements.

    I am a classic case. 55yrs old looking to downsize to a smaller more efficient home near a mid-sized centre that will also release some capital.

    However all I see are cookie cutter unit developments that will cost me money over the years. When I am 70 years old I don't want to spend $800 a quarter of my meagre pension on body corporate fees.

    To get more efficiencies through infill development then developments will almost certainty be some form of community titling with associated body corporate fees. I can also see the spivs and sharks moving into this arena, because they see the potential inflated profits to be made. Once the oldies move in to live in these places - then they are unlikely to move on.

    So Shane how do you see this problem being addressed?

    Also I have been going to a few display homes lately looking at the small lot dwellings and I don't see any unique housing for older people here. It is just the same type of development (3 beds & 2 baths) fitted onto a smaller lot. So not a lot of innovation in this space.

    Date and time
    August 18, 2014, 7:48AM
    • Let’s look at some facts.

      “What were supposed to be Melbourne’s inviolable boundaries have” not “expanded by 50 per cent in recent decades”. In 1971, the Board of Works set aside 2,670 square kilometres for green wedges and 2,359 square kilometres as urban land. The expansion of the urban growth boundary by the current and the previous government has increased the urban area to 2,787 square kilometres (disguised by the expansion in the total planning area). That is an 18 per cent increase, not a 50 per cent one.

      It is not “about 150 kilometres from the eastern edge to the western edge of the city”:
      “Using GIS, I measure at most 75 km from the western edge of Wyndham to Lilydale in the east and 85 km to Pakenham in the south-east. If I measure instead from Melton (putting aside that it’s separated by 9 km of green wedge from the continuously urbanised area), I still get less than 80 km to Lilydale and less than 100 km to Pakenham.” (Alan Davies, urban planner, in “Is Melbourne pushing the boundary (too far)”?)

      Councils cannot “lock as much as 80 per cent of space away from medium-density development” as even the neighburhood residential zone allows dual occupancy almost everywhere.

      A single elderly person might like “rattling around a large house”.

      Why do we have the fatalistic attitude that we as a people cannot contemplate living anywhere else than the capital that the British settled 180 years ago. No one with any power is willing to confront the real issue behind both suburban sprawl and urban sardineification: the unrestrained population growth that will see Melbourne a living hell when it reaches the planners’ “inevitable” 8 million people, on its way no doubt to the planners’ “inevitable” 16 million.

      Chris Curtis
      Date and time
      August 18, 2014, 8:19AM
      • Housing? The answer.....
        Our government will create a business opportunity for their wealthy supporters.
        Large, very basic, housing estates (ghettos) where people live in exchange for all of their income, pension, superannation.
        People will be forced into such housing making others wealthy in the process whilst they and their families live in poverty - asset stripped.

        Won't happen? Just look at whats happening to Aged-Care in this country.
        Abbott ideology. Haves and Have-Nots.

        Date and time
        August 18, 2014, 9:27AM
        • This is a very important article that highlights the need for planning laws that provide for appropriate development that will benefit our society across all our life cycles. We are so limited with our housing options as we age and much research has shown that the provision of a range of service-integrated housing models work brilliantly overseas and is much needed in Australia (see research by Professor Andrew Jones). Such independent housing options would also reduce the need for expensive residential care accommodation that many older people see as an option of last resort.
          One vital aspect missing from the article however is the need for public and social housing to address the needs of older people who don't own their home and are forced to rent in the insecure, expensive and unadaptable private rental market. Home ownership rates amongst older people have been declining for 20 years and we must prepare for a future where the majority of older people may be renters. There are enormous opportunities for redevelopment of ageing public and not-for-profit independent living units in middle-ring suburbs of Melbourne into medium density housing as recommended in the story. Government investment is needed to make this happen and we could see affordable housing models for older people in good locations increase significantly if this concept was grasped. If action is not taken soon then this valuable housing and land will be sold off due to prohibitive maintenance costs and the opportunity will be lost. Where are our government visionaries to make this happen?

          Jeff Fiedler Housing for the Aged Action Group
          Date and time
          August 18, 2014, 9:34AM
          • Yes Neil, strata titling is a very pertinent to future housing redevelopment. I can't really speak to what inflated profits might be made from new titling arrangements, but what we have done is look into forms of cooperative housing development for small scale infill. So far, not-for-profit organisations and local governments have expressed a lot of interest in "brokering" opportunities between communities or collectives. This could facilitate more appropriate housing design which address the quality and long-term operation costs you mention... If you're interested, here's a few links to the work:




            Shane Murray
            Monash University
            Date and time
            August 18, 2014, 12:23PM
          • Jeff thank you for your comments I certainly agree that appropriate rental based alternatives are required for our elderly population. We have undertaken some research in this area where we examined the feasibility of redeveloping Public Housing stock in Melbourne to provide more appropriate social housing solutions that would also benefit an elderly cohort. This will be published online in a forthcoming and publicly accessible AHURI (Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute) report towards the end of the year. We have also recently begun an Australian Research Council Linkage project working with Housing Choices Australia which will investigate methods for designing age friendly dwellings and neighbourhoods. We believe that a productive relation ship between the Public Housing sector and not for profit Housing Associations could ensure an appropriate redevelopment of public housing stock to be retained for both social tenants and low income renters. Governments could take a leadership role in this through a judicious renewal of their public housing assets.

            Shane Murray
            Monash University
            Date and time
            August 18, 2014, 12:50PM
        • An excellent article raising important issues government in Victoria seems reluctant to acknowledge. A couple questions:
          If redevelopment at worthwhile densities is to occur in middle suburbs, how do we preserve heritage, and, in some respects, special character? The latter term has long been tainted by conformist aesthetic ideologies, but there is much more to our suburbs than period colour schemes and gable roofs. How do we avoid them losing their identity? One would think this is an important point to address for many residents.
          Also, some have suggested that to persuade home/land owners in the middle suburbs to push back against protectionist zoning we need to communicate the reduced value of their land if greater restrictions on development yield are adopted. However, land value is affected by scarcity as well as redevelopment potential. If there's only a set amount of housing in well serviced suburbs, this will drive prices up in itself, exacerbating affordability and inequality issues. Is there research/evidence around this and how do we get an informed, genuine public debate around these complex issues?

          Cream Brick
          Date and time
          August 18, 2014, 10:42AM

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