Recent articles in Urban Design Forum have questioned the form and qualities of contemporary suburbia. Specifically, increasing suburban densities and standards of open space have been raised as issues, but other topics could be added to the discussion. It seems clear that growth on the urban fringe will continue to be a major component of urban development activity for many decades. I suggest then that it is not only important to debate trends but also to emphasise that creating well designed ‘ordinary places’ – such as new suburbs – remains a key challenge for urban designers.
As Tony Hall pointed out in UDF 73, many new suburbs are being built at densities of 15-dwellings/ha, a substantial increase from the recent past. The Australian Bureau of Statistics notes that the average floor area of new dwellings increased by 39% in the 16 years to 2002/3, and by 50% in Queensland. The value of new homes has more than doubled in this period, in part due to their substantial increase in size. At the same time average lot sizes have reduced, but this has not been enough to balance price rises. As one response to increasing prices a trend has arisen whereby substantially smaller allotments are being developed. These small lots are usually 200-400m2 but are also sometimes less.
The challenges in delivering an acceptable standard of living on small lots are long understood. These include providing light and shade, privacy, outdoor space, quality streetscapes and car accommodation. As the detached house is clearly valued by Australians, these challenges must be addressed. The small lot suburb may be a contextually appropriate step towards more affordable, compact and sustainable suburbs. In the past this has sometimes been the case. For example, in Brisbane’s inner suburbs tin and timber cottages on small lots were also suited to the steep topography (another of today's challenges, certainly in south-east Queensland). Terraced solutions were adapted in other cities.
Small lots a quality alternative
If small lots are to provide a quality alternative to lower density conventional suburbs, focus is required from designers and planners. Small lot suburbs must be located in proximity to the amenities that density requires and supports, such as open space and public transport. In detailed design the challenges noted previously must be tackled. Perhaps some deficiencies with contemporary small lot housing comes from their adoption of setbacks determined by the conventional suburban context. In particular the paradigm of the 4-6m front setback to house or garage has to be challenged. A better solution may be to enforce a similar setback to the rear instead. In effect this would mandate adequate private outdoor space as well as better privacy, air and light. Front and side setbacks have traditionally been small or non-existent in the inner suburbs of many cities.
After adaptation for car accommodation, there is no reason why such setbacks cannot be reintroduced. Reducing the building footprint of small lot housing by enforcing two storey construction is not a likely scenario because of the impact on costs and affordability, which in many cases is the driver behind the re-emergence of the small lot. Small lot houses should contribute to positive streetscapes by maximising verandas or balconies at the front, and floor plans should give the option of front or rear outdoor living, adapting to site orientation and local views.
Turning to open space, it is worth noting that many home buyers today prefer low maintenance outdoor spaces. Indeed it seems many are happy to sacrifice them entirely. This can be accommodated using courtyards and decks for private outdoor space on a small lot, if public open space is available nearby to provide space for play and exercise as well as the amenity that comes with substantial bodies of greenery. And yes this local open space should be accessible on foot.
Great opportunities come about when local open space can be linked to higher order parks by linear open space, which doubles as protection of creek lines and riparian vegetation. Linking open spaces in the suburbs provides ready made walking opportunities that in my experience are highly valued and well used by residents. Protecting remnant vegetation in the right places can create a quality open space setting for new suburbs and should not be dismissed as a kind of environmental determinism. Further it enables legible neighbourhood boundaries to be established, which in a greenfield suburban setting is important.
Above all else, balance is needed in suburban design. Balance between affordable construction and reducing building footprints; between setbacks for cars and setbacks for back yards; between protecting vegetation and starting afresh; between design control and ordinary peoples’ wants and needs. Urban design has much to offer in the effort to create compact, green suburbs for the future.
Also in UDFQ 74: June 2006:
- Promoting transit-oriented development
- Urban Design Toolkit
- Six visions for King George Square
- Broadmeadows Central – Proposition 3047
- Competitions - East Darling Harbour
- Conceptual Tools - Understanding Urban Regions
- NZ Government raises the bar
- Organising Australian Urban Designers
- Developer’s dollars vs good urban design