June 17, 2010

In praise of medium density

Let’s start with a note of reality: here, in the Eastern Suburbs, we live in what is potentially the most sustainable area in Sydney. Why? Because, (and let’s be kind here and include the City of Sydney area immediately east of the CBD) the city east region contains Australia’s most densely populated suburbs.

I’m reading Stewart Brand’s new book, Whole Earth Discipline. Those with long memories might recall that in the 1970s Brand published the popular Whole Earth Catalog, a compendium of tools and ideas for sustainable living as it was envisaged at the time. Then, rural was seen as sustainable and we left the cities in droves for intentional communities and small towns on the land. Now, urban is sustainable and it’s sustainable because there are more people per kilometre, which means that supplying essential services such as water, sewage, energy, public transport, broadband and so on are cheaper because the supply lines are shorter. By this measure, New York City would be the most sustainable city in the world, and that is just what someone that Brand quotes asserts.

The other advantage of higher urban density is that more people equals more diverse interests which equals more viability for specialised businesses and organisations that support those interests. Whether those specialised businesses are specialist bookshops, specialised food or specialised music, and whether those specialised organisations are Slow Food, Transition Towns, climate change groups, spiritual/religious groups or Permaculture associations, the higher the population density, the more viable they are.


Apartment living the most sustainable

In his book, Brand also claims that apartment living is the most sustainable form of urban dwelling. This makes sense because you get more people on less land and less urban sprawl and, again, you get economy in the provision of services.

People have been living in apartment blocks since the time of ancient Rome, even before in the North American south-west. Here in the coastal east of the metropolis, the apartment block, townhouse and duplex are our main types of medium density dwelling. Whereas some folk on the northside rise up in panic at the prospect of modest blocks of apartments appearing among their underpopulated streets of detached houses, the city east has embraced the walkable compactness of apartment living and rejoices in streets lined with a delightful, visual cacophony of architectural styles spanning the decades from Streamline Art Deco, through bland 1960s red brick walkups to light-filled modern.


Renter or home owner

How do we go about making all of these medium density dwellings efficient in terms of energy, water and waste? Modest starts have been made but there is far to go and it is here that sustainability thinkers need to apply their innovative ideas. Let’s take a couple examples that point to solutions.

In Coogee, residents of an apartment block became tired of throwing away their kitchen scraps. So, they asked council for a workshop in composting and installed their own compost bins that produce fertiliser for their small, shared garden patch and for pot plants in their apartments.

Down Maroubra way, a young woman and her partner thought the patchy lawn at the front of their red brick walkup a little too boring and unproductive. Why waste good urban land, she thought? So, she spoke with the other apartment owners and sooner rather than later a crew from TransitionSydney turned up and converted that patch of lawn into a food garden, adding a few young fruit trees and a compost down the side of the building.

Look around as you walk the streets and you even see the occasional apartment block rainwater tank storing the liquid abundance that falls on our roofs.

My own experience is similar to that of the Maroubra woman. Our apartment block’s small garden was somewhat scatty in appearance but, supported by a woman upstairs who likes growing and cooking, the body corporate agreed to the construction of some raised vegetable beds. We did a plan for the entire garden area and it has now been reconstructed to house the vege and herb beds, compost bins, socialising area, clothes line, flowers and, soon, a few little fruit trees and shrubs. We retained some of the naive trees that had been growing here for some time and transplanted the small frangipani. Unfortunately, the landscapers erroneously cut down the variegated pittosporum instead of the African olive (a weed species), though that has now been removed too. More space for edibles.

What is good to see is that all three city east Councils and City of Sydney offering Green Renters workshops. Why this is good is that, commonly, rebates are offered to home owners but nothing to renters, creating an unwanted bias in a part of the city that has a very large renter population.

Bill Mollison, one of the developers of the Permaculture design system, wrote that we must return food production to the city where it has always been. This is only common sense and it is being done in the east in small home and balcony gardens and in a growing number of community gardens.

But we have to do more than this to move towards sustainability. The challenge now for the innovative among us (and the innovative in our local governments) to develop systems for apartment blocks that harvest and store rainwater where it falls, convert apartment kitchen and garden wastes to compost and that make apartment living more energy efficient. By housing more people in a smaller area, the bicycle routes, already defined, by which local people move about contribute to the energy efficiency of apartment and medium density living. But we now need to think about walkable suburbs. Perhaps what we need is a network of walking routes through our urban east that are shaded by the spreading foliage of trees in summer and that create a pedestrian/scooter/skateboard (the latter two being used for commuting in the east) network between urban the nodes of town centre, education and services.

Written by Russ Grayson


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  • Russ...medium density does not take into account the damage caused to natural ecosystems. No bluetongue lizard, no possums, few if any wildlife corridors. Nowhere on this earth needs more people. Dont forget that!

    Caroline Ball
  • This is great article Russ, thank you. Regarding Caroline's comment above: apartment living does not have to mean no wildlife corridors, this is a planning issue. Imagine Sydney's future with medium density apartments replacing the single dwelling houses but without turning the existing gardens into paved areas or parking spaces (as was the old tendency).
    Here in my apartment garden in Bondi I can report flourishing populations of several kinds of lizards including multiple breeding pairs of blue tongues, so many I have no need for any kind of snail or slug control in my organic veggie patch. We have annual nesting bird returns and a massive population of brown antichinus often mistaken for rats. True we have no possums and some actual rats and since the neighbors got chickens (we love them) we get the occasional feral fox visit but I have been amazed at what one rambling garden with sporadic indigenous plantings can support in the middle of a highly built up manicured area.

    Edwina Blush

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