Opinion by MERRILL WITT
Earlier this year two strange bedfellows, Tony Recsei of Save our Suburbs and Chris Johnson, the former CEO of the developer lobby group Urban Taskforce, joined together to co-write an op-ed in the Sydney Morning Herald that was critical of the NSW Government’s push for more medium-density housing in Sydney’s suburbs.
When neighborhood activists and developers are on the same side of an issue, you know something’s wrong.
The pair didn’t mince their words. They argued that the implementation of the new Low Rise Medium Density Code “will destroy the suburban character of houses with distinctive architecture surrounded by flowers, trees and other foliage, and have a negative impact across much of Sydney.”
Concerns about Code
Residents and councils, not only in Sydney but across NSW, have echoed and amplified similar concerns about the likely detrimental impact of the code on their suburbs.
The Sutherland Shire Council, for example, has applied for a permanent exemption from the application of the code in its R2 Low Density Residential zones. In it submission to a recent independent review of the code, commissioned by Planning Minister Rob Stokes, the Council argued that “the blanket application of the code and ‘one size fits all’ development provisions do not address the differing residential characters throughout Sydney,”
In general, the code allows for buildings of greater bulk and scale than what is currently permitted in most councils’ Local Environment Plans (LEPs). The code also creates an avenue for complying development to bypass council approval, thus minimising the rights of neighbours and councils to object to impacts on privacy, overshadowing, view sharing, streetscape or desired future character.
Already, many councils are struggling to balance strong developer appetite for medium-density dwellings against residents’ worries about how all the new dual-occupancy attached dwellings (i.e., townhouses) and terraces are diminishing the look and livability of their suburbs. Sutherland Shire Council further observed that its community is “growing increasingly concerned about the pace of change and the impacts of increased density locally, which is expressed as visual intrusion of building bulks and privacy impacts, tree loss and change to streetscape character.”
Even pockets in some of Sydney’s most exclusive suburbs have not been immune to medium density encroachment in recent years. Last month, Vaucluse residents were shocked when a Woollahra Local Planning Panel gave the green light for two adjoining dual-occupancy attached dwellings on a street bordering a national park. Despite widespread local community opposition, which included a petition signed by more than 300 people, four four-bedroom townhouses were approved for smaller than average blocks on picturesque Greycliffe Avenue, directly opposite tourist drawcard Nielsen Park.
Fortunately, in response to the growing community backlash against medium-density development, the Government has granted the 50 councils that obtained a deferral of the code a further extension to July 2020. Mr Stokes said councils will now have “time to complete their strategic planning, including Local Strategic Planning Statements and Local Housing Strategies and update their LEPs, and identify and map areas of special local character.”
Reduction in bird life
Mosman and Lane Cove councils have already banned medium-density development in their R2 zones. Both of these councils are confident that they can meet the demand for more housing by restricting medium density to their R3 Medium Density Residential Zones, which are centred around transport hubs and shopping centres.
Some people argue that NIMBYism is at play in attempts to protect the single-dwelling character and heavily landscaped settings of established suburbs. But detrimental environmental consequences from overdevelopment in urban areas has been blamed in part for the disappearance of almost a third of the bird population in North America since 1970.
In a recent article in The New York Times, Three Billion Canaries in the Coal Mine, writer Margaret Renkl said she assumed the changes she observed in her Nashville neighbourhood over the past several decades, “fewer trees and wildflowers, fewer bees and butterflies and grasshoppers, fewer tree frogs and songbirds… were merely circumstantial, specific to a city undergoing rapid gentrification and explosive growth.” Confident that the common birds, at least, would have migrated elsewhere, she was shocked to learn that in the last 50 years almost 3 billion of them have in fact disappeared.
In Australia, habitat loss has been singled out as one of the main culprits for the precipitous fall in countless species’ numbers over the past few decades. At the recent parliamentary inquiry into the declining population of NSW’s koalas, Senior Ecologist at the National Parks Association Oisin Sweeney noted how people have now forgotten that 20 odd years ago koalas were often sighted in suburban pockets across Sydney and NSW.
More than meets the eye is definitely at stake in the fight to save Sydney suburbs from overdevelopment.