Inside Story

“Density has to be likeable”

High-rise housing has many benefits and quite a few shortcomings. The challenge is to shift the balance towards likeability

Leanne Hodyl 1 November 2019 3337 words

Near neighbours: Melbourne’s changing skyline reflected in an apartment building near the corner of Lonsdale and La Trobe streets. Penny Stephens/The Age

Outside the kitchen window of my apartment, not far from Flinders Street Station, Melbourne’s newest tower has reached its zenith. At a topping-out ceremony in April, Aurora Melbourne Central claimed the title of Melbourne’s tallest CBD building. This eighty-eight-storey high-rise is designed to accommodate around 2400 people in more than 1140 apartments.

Since my partner and I moved into our ninth-floor apartment thirteen years ago, around 30,000 more people have moved in around us, most of them into high-rise apartments of twenty storeys or more. The city centre has been transformed, with more life on the streets — new restaurants, bars and shops — and more crowding as well. Swanston Street, just around the corner, is often congested with pedestrians.

While the residential market has been cooler over the past eighteen months, high-rise approvals from the pre-2017 boom have been coming to completion and developments like the Aurora continue to dramatically reshape the city’s skyline, just as they are doing in other major capitals. Another twenty-four towers are under construction in Melbourne’s city centre alone.

One of them, the hundred-storey Australia 108 building in Southbank, will be the tallest residential tower in the southern hemisphere — so tall that the original design had to be cropped by eight floors to avoid interrupting the flight path to Essendon Airport, nearly twenty kilometres away. Its proponents promise future residents an idyllic life:

We are all born with the ability to soar, but only the brave trust their wings. Australia’s tallest tower will go where no development has gone before, offering a cloudbreaking lifestyle 319 metres above the glittering Melbourne streetscape. With the city’s amenities within easy reach below and the boundless freedom of endless sky above, those who reside here will be part of a world that few others can imagine.

No longer are apartment towers found only in the centre of Australia’s capital cities. Sydney’s Parramatta and Melbourne’s Box Hill are being transformed into second central business districts, with high-rise developments central to the strategy. Twenty-storey developments are under way in regional centres like Geelong and Newcastle, with thirty-storey towers also under consideration.

This break with past patterns of development is dramatic. Australian cities developed at low densities compared with their European and Asian counterparts, creating significant sprawl and a high reliance on cars. Long commutes are the norm. But policies to promote urban consolidation and arrest this trend, first introduced in the 1990s, have become the planning orthodoxy. The Victorian government and the Greater Sydney Commission are seeking to create “twenty-minute” and “thirty-minute” cities, respectively, by establishing multiple urban centres where people can fulfil their daily needs on public transport, bicycle or foot within twenty or thirty minutes of home.

Integral to achieving these objectives is the high-rise residential tower. The terminology is often used loosely in Australia, with eight-storey buildings that would be dwarfed in the central city referred to as “towers” in the suburbs. Globally, it’s agreed that “skyscraper” refers to buildings more than 150 metres high, or about forty storeys, with buildings of more than 300 metres called “supertall” and those over 600 metres “megatall.” The Australia 108 building will be Australia’s first supertall skyscraper (although Q1 on the Gold Coast is 322 metres with its spire, and 275 metres without).

Increasingly, skyscrapers are for residential use. In 2012, an estimated 59 per cent of the world’s one hundred tallest buildings were residential towers, American journalist Tom Vanderbilt reports, up from around 20 per cent a decade earlier. Most of Australia’s major cities have been reviewing their central-city planning policies to respond to pressure for change. Perth, Sydney and Geelong are currently re-examining their central-city development controls, while Melbourne, Adelaide, Darwin and Newcastle have undertaken reviews in recent years.

Nearly 330 people are moving to the greater Melbourne area each day, making it Australia’s fastest-growing city. It is likely to be more populous than Sydney in ten years’ time. Along with the urgent need to reduce the carbon footprint of the city, the pressure to accommodate these new arrivals makes a compelling case for well-designed, high-density cities.

Melbourne is under pressure at a time when trust in planners is low. Planning schemes can be impenetrably complex and jargon-ridden, and approvals for new developments frequently appear to break the rules, especially on height. Victoria’s planning system is founded on performance assessments rather than prescriptions. In theory this is sound: clearly established design and strategic objectives are typically supported by preferred height limits and other controls. Developers are required to demonstrate that their proposal delivers sought-after outcomes rather than necessarily conforms to strict specifications.

In practice, this means that a thirty-storey building can legitimately be approved in an area with a fifteen-storey limit if it is demonstrated that the development meets overarching objectives. If a planning control states that a new development “should” be no taller than a specified height, that simply means it would ideally be that height but doesn’t have to be. And that means it is often much taller.

While the more everyday meaning of the word “should” creates an expectation that buildings will be delivered up to the maximum nominated height, and no higher, performance-based rules have the advantage of supporting design flexibility and site-by-site assessments. But the lack of certainty can undermine confidence in the planning process and create an unproductive tension between the community, local government decision-makers and the development industry.

Strategic planning reviews often rest on a vision for new urban character or a way of delivering new jobs and housing. Implicitly, though, they pose questions about what we value — about what we seek to create and what we seek to protect. At their heart, these are questions about identity, belonging, community, social equity and our relationship to the environment. As each urban area is analysed and new developments are proposed, we are implicitly being asked: what type of cities do we wish to be citizens of?

The proposal for a 210-metre luxury hotel development in central Hobart last year — within an eighteen-metre height-control area and four times the height of the tallest building in Hobart — angered community members who felt strongly that the proposal was at odds with the city’s human scale and valued heritage character. According to the architect, Peter Scott, that was exactly the point. “It’s not going to blend in,” he said. “It will be a prominent building. I’m not here to suggest that won’t be the case. It will become something that Hobart is remembered for.”

As those comments highlight, the debate is essentially between a future focused on iconography, tourism, lifestyle opportunities and the movement of global capital, on the one hand, and local cultural values and respect for history on the other.

As the new planning policies develop, broader community engagement can become more difficult. A high degree of technical literacy is required, together with the resources and capacity to prepare submissions or objections in a complicated legal and political process. Broader, more open-ended questions about a city’s future are constrained by the technocratic language that surrounds planning.

Many of the towers that sprang up near our apartment were assessed against lax planning controls that operated in Melbourne’s CBD between 1999 and 2016. When I toured major cities on a Churchill Fellowship in 2014, I found that towers like these could not have been built in Hong Kong, New York, Seoul and other recognisable high-rise cities — a finding that attracted much coverage when my report was released in 2015.

A review of central Melbourne’s building controls was initiated that year by the new Labor planning minister, Richard Wynne. High-rise towers in central Melbourne were being developed at four times the densities allowed in Hong Kong or New York. Fifty-storey towers were rising straight from the street-front, creating windy, overshadowed public spaces. Skyscrapers were constructed as close as four metres apart. Within the apartments were bedrooms with no windows. It was a low point for a city proud of its design legacy and its frequently touted livability. The elasticity applied in assessing developments against building-height and separation controls had stretched to the point of being meaningless.

Certainty returned with the introduction of density controls that cap a site’s overall “yield,” and mandatory requirements for minimum building separation. Restrictions on overshadowing now protect the Yarra River and key public spaces. The 2015 review also introduced incentives for public benefits, including new open spaces, laneways, community spaces and affordable housing, though the inclusion of commercial floorspace on that list has been contentious.

New apartment standards, introduced in 2016, include pragmatic measures such as minimum bedroom, living room and balcony sizes, minimum storage requirements, daylight standards and energy-efficiency requirements. But although they stress the importance of building separation, they don’t provide specific, measurable guidance.

Largely missing from these policies were measures to deal with the growing crisis in affordable housing — a term that wasn’t defined in the Planning and Environment Act until 2018. That’s an important step forward but is backed only by a voluntary affordable housing contribution for new developments. This leaves local councils with the responsibility to establish clear affordable housing strategies and targets and to encourage developers to deliver. The planning tools have been established, but there are no real carrots or sticks. It’s not a question of whether this approach will work, but of when the government will concede that a voluntary approach, without sufficient subsidies from state or federal governments, can’t deliver the required scale of affordable housing. Broadly, though, Victoria has established firm foundations and has the opportunity to refine its policies and practices.

Somewhat surprisingly, one question that hasn’t been asked often during this process is whether high-rise towers are suitable for people to live in. The question is poorly understood and relatively unexplored by researchers. Understanding the experience of living in high-rises is complicated by factors including economic status, the degree of control residents have over where they live, the location of the building in the neighbourhood, population density, life stage, gender, culture and dwelling design. Of the studies that have been done, many involved people — students or public housing tenants, for example — who didn’t necessarily choose what type of housing they live in, which may have distorted their conclusions.

Much of the stigma associated with high-rise housing dates back to the 1960s and 1970s, when tower living was first embraced as an efficient, cost-effective method of delivering affordable social housing. This modernist vision of high-density living was driven by a desire to impose order, rationality and standardisation, to take advantage of mass production, and to provide clean air and light.

The reality did not match the lofty expectations, with growing concerns about crime, health and safety, and children’s welfare. In Australia, this housing type was soon seen as unsuitable for family living, and high-rise housing as a preferred public housing model was abandoned. Internationally, high-profile demolitions of high-rise public housing estates such as the Pruitt–Igoe complex in St Louis in 1972 became signifiers of the dramatic failure of modernism’s utopian high-rise vision.

This perspective had shifted again by the 1990s. High-rise housing was no longer developed primarily for residents with little or no choice, but rather for those with the widest range of choices who sought luxury living in the best locations. This shift aligned with the adoption of compact-city policies and changes in lifestyle preferences. High-rise housing in the central city, with easy access to trendy, vibrant neighbourhoods, became a place of privilege, and new high-rise residential developments were marketed on the basis of amenities and facilities both within the building and within the neighbourhood.

The Aurora, for example, offers the opportunity to experience a “new paradigm in urban living,” with a twenty-five-metre lap pool, sauna, steam room, sundecks, plunge pool jacuzzi, gymnasium, yoga zone, dance barre studio, private dining and lounge spaces with self-catered kitchens, BBQ deck, karaoke room and a private cineplex. The building is the first in Melbourne to have a direct underground link to Melbourne Central station and the future State Library metro station — the kind of access that is already common in Hong Kong, Singapore and other high-density cities with mature metro rail networks, and is not only practical but also appealing to residents who like to feel they live in a large, contemporary, connected metropolis.

The scale of these developments requires complex financial models and construction programs. Residents of the Aurora tower, for example, moved into the lowest floors six months before the upper structure was complete — a form of staged development now common as a financing strategy, enabling contractual settlement of lower-floor apartments to help pay for the construction of upper floors. Residents live with craned building materials sliding past their windows for the first year, separated from the construction noise by twenty empty floors.

Implicit in these housing models are assumptions about who lives in high-rise housing at the moment and who will live there in the future, and a broad acceptance that residents are happy to trade off apartment size against amenities. In 2016, almost 30 per cent of apartment residents were in the twenty-five to thirty-four age group, while 11 per cent were children aged up to fourteen years. Buildings are still largely designed to appeal to professional singles and couples, younger people and students, rather than to families, with all studies of behavioural problems identifying higher rates of incidence among children living in high-rises (although some problems are alleviated by access to green open space).

But the perceived disadvantages of high-rise living tend to reflect more obvious everyday concerns: dependence on unreliable or slow elevators, for example; physical safety above ground level; who one’s neighbours are; a sense of overcrowding; and feelings of detachment from a sense of home or community. Many of these issues can be dealt with through building design.

To help overcome these perceptions, high-rise buildings are often marketed as “vertical villages” that allow a range of social encounters distinctly different from other housing types. But whether jacuzzis, karaoke rooms and swimming pools provide the opportunity to form community is poorly understood. In developing programs to address social isolation in apartment buildings, the City of Sydney found that just over half the residents of apartment buildings felt that they could get help from neighbours if needed.

Also relatively unexplored by researchers are other perceived advantages to high-rise living, including views, a sense of getting away from street-level life, relative peace and quiet, enhanced privacy and opportunities for anonymity, and the convenience of not having to perform maintenance tasks. What evidence we do have suggests that residents will be happy in high-rises if they don’t have small children, don’t plan to stay long and are socially capable.

The resident-only facilities in these buildings, which are becoming more luxurious, contrast with serious failures in building quality. Significant safety issues associated with high-rise buildings include flammable cladding and structural failure that have resulted in recent high-profile evictions of residents from their homes. In July, the Victorian government committed $600 million to deal with flammable cladding in the 500 private buildings identified as the highest risk. The problems posed by the cladding and by structural shortcomings in buildings are also making it harder for apartment buyers to secure loans. These shortcomings are combining to significantly undermine confidence in the high-density apartment market.

The latest wave of apartment living has spread quickly in Australia, and much of the research has occurred in cities that have been building high-rises for much longer. The results can be intriguing: one study found that living on the eighth floor of an eight-storey building is perceived as a different experience from living on the eighth floor of a twenty-storey building. “Those who live on high floors experience the advantages of height absolutely and not relatively,” reported the researchers, “and therefore incorporate them into their image; while those who live on the lower floors would seem to experience the disadvantages of large numbers of people to a greater extent than those who live higher up.” In Hong Kong, the average apartment dweller prefers to live no higher than the twenty-ninth floor, while in Singapore it is the twentieth floor. Perceptions of height seem to change over time as the urban context changes.

These findings imply an evolving relationship between the identities and experiences of residents living at heights. But few people are asking how living in high-rise buildings shapes residents’ imagination and their perspective on the city and the wider world. Does living in close proximity to others in highly managed communal spaces lead to more open-mindedness and acceptance of others? Or could it be bad for social cohesion? How does our city’s psyche change as we build taller and taller?

The high-rise apartment is still a home. A key attribute of a well-designed home is the capacity to adapt it over time to suit residents’ needs as they change over the life course — as they study, work, have families and grow older. But high-rise buildings are very difficult to adapt. High-rise housing is located in the parts of our cities that have the highest level of services and access to jobs. Does it make sense to create buildings in the best-serviced parts of the city that only suit a limited segment of our diverse population for a limited period in their lives?

Even in the relatively small building I live in, with its thirty-five apartments, negotiating significant maintenance expenditure or dealing with rare cases of antisocial behaviour can be complicated, time-consuming and potentially expensive. Multiply the number of apartments and the challenge of dealing with problems can be immense.

High-rise housing is a particularly long-lived asset, extremely difficult to adapt, redesign or demolish. Potentially hundreds of individual owners need to agree to any proposed changes. Globally, only five residential towers taller than one hundred metres (approximately thirty storeys) have been demolished, the most recent in 1978. Regardless of their quality, the towers emerging across the city are here to stay. Whether they are good for people to live in is therefore an urgent question.

In 2016 almost one in ten people in Australia spent census night in an apartment. Among people aged twenty-five to thirty-four, the figure was one in five. As well as reflecting urban policies designed to create sustainable communities, the high-rise apartment is an increasingly common and conspicuous marker of how cities are being redefined and societal values questioned. They represent financial and technical innovation but also raise difficult questions about the long-term social sustainability of Australian cities.

A sensitive and rarely considered question is the degree to which resistance to taller buildings is a proxy for other concerns. As buildings become taller and neighbourhoods denser, community profiles change. Is the fear and anger in community resistance partly a rejection of the “others” who may come into an established community? It’s a question that needs to be tackled more openly and honestly.

Higher residential densities bring the opportunity to deliver sophisticated planning outcomes. They include opportunities for density bonuses and value capture, which involve contributions from developers towards community benefits in exchange for additional development yield or height. These smart mechanisms can deliver affordable housing and improved livability, including new open spaces. Increasing the number of high-density neighbourhoods in our inner cities has the potential to reduce long commutes, reduce high car dependency and create the opportunity for more people to live in the best-serviced parts of our cities.

We need good high-density housing models to prove this can be done, and these can include well-designed towers. As Melbourne and other Australian cities continue to evolve, we need more public debate about the cities we want to create and more research and proven models to demonstrate how high-rise, high-density housing can best meet the long-term housing needs of our diverse communities. As Alexandros Washburn, the former chief urban designer of New York City says, “density has to be likeable” — it can’t simply serve a rational city-planning purpose. •

Funding for this article from the Copyright Agency Limited’s Cultural Fund is gratefully acknowledged.