18 September, 2019   By: Ruth Callaghan

By 2050, an estimated 3.5 million people will be living in the Perth and Peel regions. Keeping our city liveable into the future will mean striking the right balance between increased housing diversity and density, and protecting the things that make a place feel like home. 

It took 180 years from the development of the Swan River Colony for the population of the Perth and Peel regions to reach two million people. But in just 30 years from now, it is expected another 1.5 million will be added to that count. The widely cited estimate is that 3.5 million people will be living in Perth and Peel by 2050.

How do we ensure Perth can grow to meet that demand without losing the things that make our local neighbourhoods great places to live? It comes down to working with the community on building a more compact, connected city that works for everyone in it. 

Our sprawling city

Greater Perth already stretches 120km from Mandurah to Yanchep and has a footprint comparable to Los Angeles with a fraction of its population.

Our newly-built homes remain the second biggest in the world, with the average home 30 per cent bigger than 30 years ago. Three out of five of those homes is being built on the urban fringe, threatening the remaining 29 per cent of vegetation on the Swan Coastal Plain.

And this leads to unpleasant side effects, from the creation of an urban heat island that traps summer heat, to the loss of ground water and possible species extinction.

Sprawl is also expensive in terms of infrastructure and inefficient for moving people and goods. The negative impacts of urban sprawl on people’s daily lives, such as traffic congestion and increased travel times, are becoming more apparent, says Sarah Macaulay, RAC senior manager public policy.

“We know congestion and long commutes are having an impact on people’s lives and lifestyles. To manage congestion, we need to look to high-impact strategies,” she says. “And that includes better urban planning. Because the way our cities and towns and communities are planned greatly influences where we live, work and socialise, and how we move around.”

Community attitudes

A recent RAC survey asked those living in the Perth and Peel regions what they value in their local neighbourhoods and their views about urban planning issues.

It found more than half think urban sprawl negatively impacts them and their community.

A quarter believe sprawl increases congestion and commuting times. But views are mixed when it comes to limiting the expansion of the city through development of greenfield land around the fringes and concentrating growth in existing urban areas.

The survey revealed 55 per cent of residents felt a greater amount of urban infill development should be built in existing areas to help manage congestion across Perth.

East Perth waterfront
Higher density developments around activity hubs can be attractive places to live

But there was still strong support for single homes on single lots, reflecting WA’s ongoing preference for detached housing.

However, there was also support for more housing diversity and choice, including medium density developments of between one and four storeys in appropriate areas, including around train stations, shopping centres and smaller suburban activity centres.

Higher density apartment buildings were considered most suitable in and around the CBD and major activity centres. There was less enthusiasm for such developments in other locations.

So while there was support for infill development of increased densities, residents wanted them limited to specific areas.

There was also a generation gap.

Asked where they would like to live next, Generation Z respondents (born mid-1990s to mid-2000s) were nearly four times as likely to say an apartment appealed to them as their next home — 43 per cent, compared to an average 14 per cent for older generations.


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Macaulay says the survey results echo the need to deliver the right kind of housing at the right scale in the right areas, and transport had to sit at the heart of such considerations.

“Most planning experts agree that higher density residential and mixed-use infill developments should be focused around activity centres, which are vibrant hubs where people work, shop and socialise, and should be supported by quality public transport,” she says.

“We’re not talking about high-rise apartments, everywhere. We need more housing diversity and choice, to suit the needs of local communities, with access to essential services, amenities and transport options nearby, so people don’t have to rely on their car for all journeys.”

East Perth waterfront
The survey shows support for higher density developments such as East Perth

Rethinking higher density living

But can we have density, while preserving the things we love about our local areas?

The RAC survey found people tend to associate the term ‘density’ with overcrowding and many have concerns about potential negative impacts, such as increased traffic on local streets and noise.

Yet for some, higher density areas are attractive places to live because of access to transport options and local amenities, such as shops, cafes and restaurants.

A good example is Leederville, with its distinctive small blocks on leafy streets and a mix of heritage homes and modern apartments, centred around the shopping and restaurant hub of Oxford Street.

Oxford Street Leederville
Leederville's mix of heritage and new apartments centres on the Oxford Street hub

The suburb consistently makes the list of Perth’s most walkable, liveable and fast-selling areas.

But keeping the character of Leederville alive amid high demand for dwellings is a challenge — one being tackled by the community and business group Leederville Connect.

Vice chair of Leederville Connect David Galloway says the group’s goal is to retain and enhance the character of Leederville as an ‘urban village’ and incorporate new development.

“For 10,000 years, the high street was the place where human interactions happened. Then we had 100 years of cars and now 20 years of digital connection, so we don’t have to actually connect with real people any more.

“Despite that, we see an increasing desire for human connection and interaction,” Galloway says. Leederville Connect works with developers and government to drive designs that encourage human connection, support local work, and provide public spaces to meet and connect.

“We need more emphasis on what developments are creating at street level and how these buildings connect into the surrounding environment,” Galloway says.

“You need to think about what a community needs in terms of social infrastructure, from things like libraries, to kindergartens, all the way through to where you put your park benches so that people can sit,” he says.

Building to match the way we live

Another challenge is how we get smarter about the way we increase density and match housing options to meet changing household compositions.

Leederville, with its 2.1 people per household, is a good example of a suburb where the housing stock aligns with the demographics. More than 85 per cent of homes have three bedrooms or fewer, and 43 per cent have only one or two.

Scoot down the freeway to Atwell in the City of Cockburn, though, and 75 per cent of homes have at least four bedrooms, making it one of the lowest density areas in Perth.

The City of Fremantle is one area that has engaged the community to identify changes in household structure and options for more housing diversity, and then accommodated this through their planning process, including allowing more homes on a smaller footprint.

“Household sizes are getting progressively smaller everywhere but at the same time the size of the houses being built is getting bigger,” says Paul Garbett, director of strategic planning and projects at the City of Fremantle.

“We’ve got a lot of big, four-bed houses still being built on subdivided blocks, which uses the whole block up, resulting in a loss of all the greenery.” The struggle, he says, is to find a way of increasing density without people feeling like they are losing what they love — a challenge the City has addressed with some special planning controls for housing lots bigger than 600sqm.

Fremantle cafe strip
Areas such as Fremantle offer easy access to cafes, shops and other amenities

“We will let you build three houses rather than two, but the deal is they must be small houses and we strictly control the maximum size of the house to 120sqm, which is the typical size of the early post-war house.”

Each dwelling must have a minimum of 30sqm of outdoor space and 60 to 70 per cent of the entire development site must be retained as open space, with at least one mature tree kept or planted.

The rules have only been in place since March, Garbett says, but he is heartened by the reaction of local architects who have used the change as an opportunity to build on a history of small home experimentation in Fremantle.

“There’s a need for a real mix of housing types and no single housing type is going to suit everybody."

Engaging the community

Macaulay says the RAC’s survey has underscored how important it is to engage the community to understand their concerns and ensure density is done well.

“More than half of our survey respondents said they would like to get involved in planning for their local area,” she says. “Planning and development decisions have a major impact on local communities and people need the opportunity to have a say and be involved in the process at appropriate stages.

“If residents feel involved and they have a say in how their local area is being shaped, it can help create a sense of place and foster greater community spirit,” she says.

“Then you start moving the conversation from not in my back yard to demanding quality in our backyard.”

Images: Stewart Allen

Exploring urban density in Perth

Read more about what our Urban Planning and Connected Communities survey found out about what Perth residents know, think and feel about urban sprawl and higher density development.

Urban planning survey

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