Acceptable density: reinventing the Sydney Terrace for the 21st Century
ONE of the great ironies of modern Sydney is that its most liveable and sustainable suburbs are the ones designed over a century ago. The main reason? Terrace houses.
Victorian and Federation housing was the mainstay of Sydney suburbs until World War II. It is characterised by small lots, attached housing, and street frontage. Because it was designed before the advent of the car, it was pedestrian focused and close to transport. It is less land hungry than later housing models, but provides a form of higher density living far more desirable than badly designed apartments.
Real estate agents know it – Sydneysiders love terraces. So why do they appear reserved for the inner city? Why is it that most of greater Sydney misses out?
We examined this very question as part of the McKell Institute’s “Homes For All” report. If terraces are so valued and prized, why aren’t developers building more of them?
The answer turned out to be simple: Current council restrictions make terraces all but unviable. If a developer wishes to build terraces, they will typically require a rezoning and a sub-division application, which often take years to process. Some councils even require terraces to have underground or off-street parking, making them either prohibitively expensive or simply not terraces at all. The result of this baffling approach is that developers end up building either McMansions in sprawling suburbs or high-rise apartments. The former isn’t sustainable and the latter isn’t popular.
Council restrictions also mean that when a family on a quarter acre block wants to improve the value of their home there is really only one option – a knock-down rebuild. One in six new homes in Sydney is one of these but they are simply new houses replacing old ones, not providing any new accommodation.
But what if we allowed people to build a terrace or a semi on their block, especially in suburbs near a train station? Each quarter acre block could hold two or three houses, instead of just one. An owner could, for example, rent out one, have a family member in the other and sell the third. This city has many train stations which are surrounded by low density, quarter acre blocks.
The state government should hold a design competition to update the terrace in line with modern family needs. Once a pattern book is developed, the government should encourage small lot, terrace or semi-detached housing within a 600-metre radius of every train station. It could do this by exempting such housing from planning approval for a sub-division or development application, so long as it complied with the standard in the pattern book. That would get the ball rolling nicely.
Recently Planning Minister Brad Hazzard announced he would like to see a move toward terrace living, noting how terraces are more environmentally efficient and provide “communities with heart”
Here is a final innovation the minister should consider to make his vision a reality. Developers will require advice and guidance to break a long-held habit.
This is a role that can be filled by the government. Like cities all over the globe, Sydney should introduce a housing and urban renewal authority to help the private sector deliver the homes we urgently need. Such an authority can support not just big developers, but small developers too, who currently provide a sixth of Sydney’s homes.
The terrace should not be an option available only to those in Surry Hills or Glebe. It is an idea whose time has come once again.
Tim Williams is CEO of the Committee for Sydney and Sean Macken is director of Macken Strategic Planning Solutions.