The perfect mix of infill and greenfield development?

Pity government town planners. Faced with the unenviable task of where to house Australian cities’ ever-burgeoning population, there is no solution that will keep everyone happy.

Australia’s population is forecast to double to 46 million over the next 60 years, according to the ABS. The solution is clearly not about flooding our CBDs with ever more high-rise apartment blocks.  Putting aside the growing backlash against turning our CBD streets into sun-deprived wind tunnels, there really isn’t the volume of genuine demand for this lifestyle choice. Wishing it to be otherwise and basing planning policy on that hope is madness.

Other radical – and ultimately unlikely – policy prescriptions are to encourage large numbers of us to move to regional cities or for a freeze on population growth. With the former, the economic gravitational pull of our big cities is so great that no marketing or incentive scheme to lure people away is ever going to achieve very much. And the latter is not on the political radar of any major political party. In a land of political squabbles, Big Australia is one of the few areas of political consensus.

That effectively leaves a policy mix based on two ingredients: more infill in our existing suburbs and an extension of city boundaries into greenfield areas.

The advantage of a strong infill component is siting new dwellings close to the job-making machine that is today’s modern CBD, and hence keeping commute times low. These new residents also gain access to existing amenity-delivering infrastructure, be it schools, hospitals or shopping strips. However, there is of course concern from incumbent residents about the potential strain on these community assets, as well as worries about streetscapes being ruined by shoddy development.

Greenfield plots are relatively cheap to develop – as land is comparatively cheap on the fringe – but they invariably leave governments with the costly problem of addressing insufficient infrastructure, and the new residents enduring long work commutes.

But what’s the optimal combination? In Victoria, the state government has recently released a policy discussion paper, Plan Melbourne Refresh, where it proposes a 70%/30% mix of infill/greenfield development to meet Melbourne’s projected 1.6 million extra dwelling requirement by 2051. It also just happens to represent the current blend of building approvals in the city. In Sydney, A Plan for a Growing Sydney – released by the NSW Government in December 2014 – states that around a quarter of new housing stock in recent years has been placed on greenfield sites. The report is quiet on what mix of infill/greenfield the NSW Government wants in the future to meet the needs of a projected additional 1.6m people by 2035, but the tone of the report suggests that infill development will be the dominant route.

Those of us fortunate enough to live in established suburbs clearly have to accept more development around us. But policy planners need to work harder at finding equitable outcomes, one where landowners who sell out to developers don’t gain a windfall at the expense of their erstwhile neighbours’ amenity and property value. It’s simply lazy to accuse anyone who has this concern about infill of NIMBYism. But on the flipside, if residents of established suburbs baulk at all reasonable infill proposals, then they need to expect higher taxes down the line to pay for infrastructure in the new suburbs.

There is a silver lining to this quandary for prospective first home buyers and investors. Whilst our capital cities may seem expensive to them at the moment, if they can find a way to enter the market, they can be supremely confident that strong population growth over the next 30 years will deliver the rising land values that will ensure their onerous commitment today was an astute one.