One ring to bind them all? The challenge of the urban middle ring and beyond.

As the reader of this blog would have picked up (thanks, whoever you are!), I have been to a few cities around Australia and the western world over the last decade looking, listening and learning from local experiences. Here’s a photographic record of last year’s alone.

One learning I got from all this is that most of the major cities I’ve been to are doing okay at reinvigorating their downtown and with inner city renewal. Mixed use is booming in these areas, there are lots of new housing projects going up and people are moving back there in droves, particularly the millenials and empty nesters. In my home town of Brisbane, inner city towers are de rigeur – here is a radio interview I did recently about that.

And why not – these areas are very well located to employment, entertainment, public transport and allow people the option to walk or ride a bike to where they need to get to if they are so inclined. And above all, many people love the buzz or vibe that goes with inner city living, and are quite happy to trade “place for space”.

And many places are doing much better with their new suburbs, building in more housing diversity, modified grid street layouts, centres that are not just shopping centres, and more thoughtfully designed and located public realm.

While all this is going on, the middle ring suburbs and beyond, built largely in the between-wars and post war eras and dominated by the single family house and the spaghetti street patterns of the cul de sac, are a protected species. Their residents love the lifestyle and housing there, and usually strongly resist even modest change like the occasional dual occupancy or small multiple-unit developments. I get that, and am not advocating that these areas should be targeted for major change now. I support current planning initiatives for a “seven percent solution” in Brisbane and elsewhere that seek to accommodate major urban growth in centres and around transit. This is good planning coinciding with smart politics – no politician with a view to getting re-elected is going to advocate major change in the middle ring suburbs.

20140404-080528.jpg
Brisbane’s middle ring starts around Carindale (on the right hand side where the culs-de-sac are)

However, the situation in these suburbs is likely to change as the big demographic waves of the baby boomers and millenials sweep through the coming decades. These are the big bumps in the demographic profiles of most big communities in the western world, and the ones whose housing preferences have been influential in shaping our cities. For several decades of the second half of the twentieth century, the baby boomers were having children (who have now become millenials) and had a strong preference for big detached houses as the place to rear their families. This helped drive suburban growth. But research in the USA indicates there will be a massive mismatch between sellers and buyers of this housing. It’s really just a numbers game, because the big demographic wave of the baby boomers built and / or occupied them, and subsequent waves are smaller in numbers, and it seems that neither the boomers or the new family forming generations will have the same appetite for single family homes further from the inner city

Add to this the likely continuing increase in fuel prices and traffic congestion, and I reckon this love affair will start to lose its shine. This is likely to mean that a lot of this housing stock will be ripe for other use or their owners will be looking for other ways of making them useful. What will that look like? A straight market adjustment where supply exceeding demand drives down the prices to bargain basement levels? Will these areas become homes for those lower on the socio-economic scale or will we see wholesale redevelopment of these areas? Or maybe the big houses will be internally reconfigured into 2 or more self contained units, a bit like the grander inner city homes of many cities have been over the years – New York brownstones, London’s Victorian era homes and even Brisbane’s bigger timber and tin homes (although a lot of these have been reconverted back into single homes as a market of well heeled buyers emerged for the inner city).

I have heard some commentators observe that the future of our cities, and even our future as a species, depends on how we redefine our suburbs. This is a central challenge for our cities over the next two decades. There is already a lot of work out there about this – Retrofitting Suburbia, Greyfields to goldfields etc.

But right now, for most communities, this is a step beyond what they are prepared to consider or accept. It will be interesting to see how this evolves as these big demographic changes and other factors sweep through the western world.

My recommendation to those interested in planning for the next 20-30 years: start thinking about this now!

Greg Vann
April 2014;

Discussion:

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  1. Good work Mr Greg Green shoes!
    It is interesting how the changes in life’s desires, away from the 1/2 acre to a lock-up and go apartment impacts on planning. We still have a large proportion of residents (baby boomers) who resist the change, and use their veto power to slow change down, forcing planning outcomes we as planners do not agree with via popular vote or communi pressure.

    I believe the swing will come if, as you say, younger people no longer purchase their parents properties, and these properties lose desirability and subsequently value / prices drop, so forcing cheap sales and redevelopment happens to bring renewal.

    For me, as a mad about planning planner, the key lies in diversity, and choice. Just like many rural residential areas in the peri-urban areas became nasty with plenty of unlawful land uses, and subsequent loss of amenity, so can trendy innercity areas fall as well, if there is no choice to live elsewhere.