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 theage.com.au/federal-politics/the-zone. 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