High-density living in ACT would have pitfalls
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High-density living in ACT would have pitfalls

Proponents of high-density living ignore the research that points to its negative impacts, Patrick Troy writes.

I have a colleague who proposes that we should have a new law that would enable us to issue writs for vexatious and egregious infantilism and gross inanity in a public space.

I have resisted his arguments but after the rants reported in the columns of The Canberra Times, I tend to concur with him.

<i>Illustration: Pat Campbell</i>

Illustration: Pat Campbell

The defence of the lazy and ill-informed that they are entitled to their opinion and to foist it on others, however lacking in substance, is irritating. They are entitled to be dense even if it is embarrassing to see ignorance publicly paraded. In exploring the ways in which we develop our cities, we should at least look to the evidence before pursuing policies that involve public investment and affect the lives of ordinary citizens.

There is no credible evidence that the higher the density of the city, the greater the wealth, health and creativity of its inhabitants. There is even less that higher urban density reduces the stresses that produce climate-change pressures, that housing is cheaper or that it automatically leads to better transport.

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If we are to take seriously the claim that high density is the source of all new ideas, we would have to explain how the creativity and inventiveness of the digital age appeared in low-density cities and towns. We would acknowledge that the physical determinist conclusions that might be drawn from such association are as false as the kind of dichotomy between ''progressives'' and ''conservatives''.

We would have to ask if the ''conservatives'' are those who defend the environment and want to ensure that citizens maintain contact with nature and with fellow citizens.

There is good data that indicates that increasing urban density leads to increased energy consumption which intensifies environmental stresses. Increased density also leads to greater stresses on the water resources available to or exploited in our cities.

The higher the density, the lower the chances of a city producing a significant proportion of its food or of managing its own wastes.

There is strong evidence that increased density is leading to child-unfriendly development and that households are now living under greater housing stress than they were - we are busily engaged in creating a situation where families are increasingly forced into cramped housing.

Through the strata management of higher-density housing, an increasing proportion of households find that their lifestyle and modes of expression are limited by rules which have been established by others. Moreover, we are now aware that increased density leads to increasing disputation between residents.

Those who age in higher-density housing (especially if they rent) are subject to high levels of stress due to their insecurity of tenure. We note, too, that even those in units who own their property may find themselves being forced to sell should their body corporate decide that the site should be ''redeveloped'', a situation now facing unit dwellers in NSW. Is that what ''progressives'' want here in the ACT?

The peculiar attempt to cobble together a coalition to form government by committing large sums to build a light rail between Civic and Gungahlin is interesting. No one explains how building a small line to connect a suburb to Civic will be transformative.

Nonetheless we are assailed by those who claim that increasing density will lead to all manner of good things. The implication of the view is that the Civic to Gungahlin light rail line is simply the first element of a major light rail network - it would have to be if it is to have any chance of it being ''transformative'' of Canberra as a whole.

It is theoretically possible that this expensive little light rail track will be extended to something else but we have no indication what that might be, how much it will cost, how long it will take to be completed or that it will be transformative - whatever that means.

The pathetic document Transport for Canberra: Transport for a Sustainable City, presented as a plan for Canberra for 2012-31, gives few clues. The report does not explore the way Canberra might be connected to regional centres such as Goulburn and Yass although it is clear that the connection between Canberra and Yass is a significant transport corridor.

The idea that the Civic to Gungahlin light rail is to play such a transformative role is strangely not referred to in the Transport for Canberra report. Nor does the report explore other options for developing a major public transport spine connecting the major centres in Canberra or to Yass and Goulburn. It hardly pays attention to the possibilities for a faster train service that might ultimately connect Canberra to Melbourne and Sydney (in the way originally conceived in the planning for Canberra).

What is clear is that the proponents of higher density are the same hucksters who argue for breaks for real estate ''developers'' with no thought given to the great majority of citizens who live their lives preferring the quiet enjoyment they gain from the circumstances in which they live. The continuities, connections and sustenance that households desire cannot be delivered by herding people into the cramped coops they are offered by the so called ''progressives''.

Paradoxically, as we face the prospect of climate change and the uncertainties of a neo-liberal economy, to be conservative is to be radical. It is conservative to protect and nurture the gains we have made in the urban life we have developed and not to risk all in pursuit of a chimera offered by developers or their advisers.

Canberra under conservative influence does not stand still but provides the framework for a vibrant active community. In addition to arid caricatures of ''progressives'' and ''conservatives'' and the transformative effects of high-density development, we now have the claim from another quarter that increasing density makes for greater sustainability.

This in spite of the evidence that the per capita embodied energy consumption in such development is substantially higher than in more traditional housing. Moreover, the per capita operational energy consumption is no less.

It is also a fact that such development has less chance of producing much of the food consumed by its inhabitants compared with traditional development. It is strange that none of the proponents of such forms of development reveal to us the basis of their conviction. They seem most comfortable ignoring the research evidence about the environmental impact of their proposals and the generations of experience that found expression in the demand for the more traditional forms of development.

Canberra's administration needs to focus on the social and economic life of the city.

It needs to explore the ambitions and aspirations of its citizens, how they want to live, and do so in an environmentally sensible way. It does not need to listen to the lurk merchants and spivs who would try to sell them the local equivalent of a Sydney Harbour Bridge or a streetcar named desire.

Professor Patrick Troy is at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University.

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