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The Fifth Estate
Green buildings and sustainable cities – news and views
There is a clash between heritage preservation and housing density in Sydney. Is it time for a middle ground solution? The YIMBYs make their case.
The YIMBYs (yes in my backyard) invited me down to their launch last month at The Lady Hampshire hotel in Camperdown. I was disappointed not to be able to go but I was there in spirit. I was also nearby, just up the road in the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPA) with a golden staph infection, enjoying some time out in a public ward.
A near-death experience and being confronted by one’s fellow citizens dying around you gives one perspective. I was just glad our public hospital system worked so well for me; someone could have zoned the whole city Residential 2(a) Low Density and whacked it in a conservation area for all I cared. Density be gone; housing density certainly seemed like a non-issue at that moment. God bless those YIMBYs for pushing that one along. Thanks to everyone up at RPA too, by the way.
But as I popped the last hospital-issued pain-med, noise about housing and density seemed everywhere. Has density’s day arrived? Is Destiny’s Child reforming? Well, if it’s anything like the last decent housing DA I had approved, we will know in 18 months’ time — after three or four amendments of the original idea, our planner getting a new job at another council, and the file just sitting there for months, culminating in a successful NSW Land and Environment Court appeal.
Density delayed is density denied. My six day stay in RPA reinforced to me time is finite in a personal sense, unlike the time allocated to Sydney housing projects.
The new Labor state government appears to be a friend of density. Premier Chris Minns wants housing density near the new Metro rail stations (if they ever get built) and our Minister for Water, Housing and Homelessness, the feisty Rose Jackson, is on board too. But as Elvis would say, this area of policy needs “a little less conversation and a lot more action”.
Urban planning is a sad profession; full of so much interest and complexity in an academic sense, but so lacking in practice. I get why people become drawn into the venal parts. The management of cities is dominated by what I call counter-intuitive resonance. That’s where the solution often does not look like the solution; where actions that often make the problem worse seem to be commonly accepted as the answer.
Urban transport is the classic example. If you attended any kind of urban studies course at a university over the last 40 years or so, you’ll know there is no one promoting large roads through the middle of cities as the solution to urban transport problems.
Cars are bad, walking and cycling are good, and we should be building public transport systems, so the research and experts tell us. But, then when it’s time to apply this education in the real world, the car is still king.
Right now, Sydney is planning to delay or maybe postpone various new Metro rail stations without a whisper about a delayed motorway. That’s because cars, motorways, and making it easy to drive everywhere looks right to most people. It’s the intuitive solution.
The real solution, letting congestion do its job, forcing people out of cars and reclaiming space for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport looks a bit nasty. And there are some unsavoury cultural opinions that ring with a lot of people. We often hear things such as “I don’t want this place to look like Hong Kong”, and you wonder who is talking for whom. Low blows seem popular and resonant.
Housing density is wrapped up in this conundrum in so many ways. I suspect the NIMBY rear guard is fighting against the Metro rail dreams of the last Liberal government. And these big projects are so tied up in the last government’s business model: build stuff and sell stuff.
When the new government doesn’t want to sell stuff, these big projects start to look financially risky. And when Metro rail means high density housing, the best way to stop that grubby housing is to be financially responsible and take out the artery. Bondi lost a rail station on this basis 20 years ago. But that’s not the only obstacle housing density faces in this city.
Heritage protection is an idea that has appeal, resonance and the intuitive high ground.  Of all the off-the-shelf arguments against housing, heritage is the last bullet.
Once the infrastructure is there and there is nowhere else to go, heritage is the politest way to stop housing. It’s like one of those comedy action movies where the hero is just about to be done over by their nemesis and they distract them: “Look at that building…Isn’t it pretty?”. The soft edges of an older structure seduce; simply utter “I could live here”, and bang, you’re done; you’re a supporter of heritage!
The fact that heritage seems to be the issue du jour gives me hope. because it is the last and most imaginary objection to change you can have.
And heritage is the ultimate counter-intuitive issue to have resonance. Old things have warmth and familiarity that is comforting, and who doesn’t want that in their neighbourhood?
But when you have a closer look at the heritage lobby here, its vision for the future isn’t anywhere I want to be. Spike Milligan called Woy Woy “Australia’s biggest above ground cemetery”. Welcome to heritage-listed Sydney. Buildings aren’t like people; it’s more fun looking at the new ones.
While the metro stations that may or may not get built are coming or going, the Inner West Council (IWC) is doing its land use planning. After quietly postponing its housing investigations around Metro rail stations last year, it is busy heritage-listing anything that isn’t tied down.
At its June 2023 meeting (at which a matter I have an interest in was discussed, a surprise listing of four small houses on large sites), the council proclaimed everything must go heritage: electricity substations, pubs, but most importantly, large swathes of viable urban land soon to be near Metro rail. Well, if we can’t agree on the future we can agree on the past.  
The listings I was against came from neighbours writing heritage reports about their next-door neighbours’ land (it’s more fun if it’s a surprise).
 There are economic consequences to heritage listing large parcels of viable urban land.  It creates development scarcity that enriches adjoining unlisted land. When the beneficiaries of the process appear to be lobbying for it and local councillors see a chance to serve their constituents – well you know where this is heading.  I call this a virtue trap or more cynically it’s just a good old fashion spot rezoning.
The assumed virtue of some heritage advocates rankles me.  Most people who participate in and scheme to change planning controls have a dog in the fight.  It’s the one that say they are doing it for you often a big one too.
And to be fair to the IWC, the mayor and deputy mayor and other councillors voted down one heritage matter and my matter got some support. They got the generational issue at play – theft. Sydney Council meetings are an acquired taste. More Mogadon than espresso, but in the debris is the odd diamond. The YIMBYs spoke but were outnumbered by aged heritage buffs.
But what was interesting about this local council meeting was the composition of who was for heritage and who was against.
The people against heritage are young and those for it are old. YIMBYist Justin Simons from Summer Hill stated: “I like museums but not museums of detached houses where the admission price is $2million plus, because I can’t afford that.”
He also stated that conservation areas age populations. And when you look at current median ages by suburbs in the IWC that is true. As of the 2021 Census, the median age in heritage-listed inner west suburbs Haberfield and Balmain is 48 and 42, respectively. Whereas in more laissez-faire Marrickville and Dulwich Hill its 37 and 38, respectively. Young people should fear mass listings of dwelling houses in established areas, because at least on a statistical level, it does seem to lock them out. I am not a heritage fan because it has become boring, too inflexible and I am sick of great new buildings getting dudded; I didn’t realise it was anti-young people too!
Urban density is complex and wrapped up with so many issues. Some people think it solves a lot of problems, such as inequality, climate change, climate risk, low productivity growth, obesity, and even falling fertility rates. Whether you agree with the density enthusiasts or not, it’s too big an issue to see through heritage glasses only.
Communities do not have to choose between housing and heritage. There are middle ways. Sometimes communities have to suck up a few tall buildings in locations where the City has just paid billions for infrastructure.  But it’s probably mostly going to be the middle way for most of established Sydney.
One method could be shifting the focus from listing average late 19th-century and early 20th project homes to listing the historic subdivision pattern and allowing a new and diverse group of buildings to development on that pattern.  And let’s face it, what’s knocking a terrace house down, compared to the time the local pub took the Resches off, change builds resilience.
One of the hidden treasures of Sydney is its small lot subdivision pattern. Density does not have to be vertical; additions to townscapes can be expressed in more hidden and horizontal ways.
The focus of future subdivision in older areas could be further subdivision of that small lot pattern. Historically, that’s what happens in established urban areas. The most uncharacteristic development in these areas is the lack of change the heritage mindset imposes on them. Before someone decided to freeze the evolution of these parts of the city, they were changing.
We should look to adaptive reuse and additions to existing heritage buildings such as better dual occupancy and secondary dwelling provisions, and in some cases infill buildings in backyards. Be more discerning about what is listed.
A heritage listing is a sentence without parole in Sydney.  As needs and values change, surely some of these prime sites can live again. 
A conservation area should also have a permissive zoning regime, so that older houses with spare rooms can be better utilised. This type of development also empowers households to solve their own housing needs, whereas now the focus for additional housing is all about larger developers and sites. More capacity in planning rules can give households a say in their own future. This debate does not need to be a winner-takes-it-all game, but if there needs to be a winner, go the YIMBYs.
Philip Bull is the principal of Civic Assessment a development consulting business, focused on development and social impact assessment. He has worked in the planning departments of Woollahra, Botany, South Sydney, Randwick, the City of Sydney and Waverley Councils. More by Philip Bull, Civic Assessment
Philip Bull is the principal of Civic Assessment a development consulting business, focused on development and social impact assessment. He has worked in the planning departments of Woollahra, Botany, South Sydney, Randwick, the City of Sydney and Waverley Councils.
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So much of this article resonated with me, not least the problem with people who use extreme counter-examples: “I don’t want this place to look like Hong Kong”.
I admire your tolerance for IWC gatherings which seem to combine the forces of preconceived notions on all sides. I’m also amazed by the NIMBYs fighting against low-cost housing in the IWC area, which is often well-integrated with medium density conversions and sited near transport hubs.
I’ve lived in a lot of “heritage” areas of Sydney and while there are lmany pleasant residential streetscapes, the truth is that they are also filled with poorly-maintained shockers, or interspersed with pebble-dashed and faux-Grecian “customisations”. The best-maintained Victorian/Federation/etc houses are also likely to be a facade to expensively updated interiors that would be unrecognisable to their original tenants.
How many thousands of these buildings do we need to maintain a historical record? Many of them are not only unsuited to modern living patterns, but to modern bodies. The average person is 15-30cm taller than those who lived in terrace houses in the 19th century: beds barely fit, the plumbing is often confined to the back of the house and ill-suited to midnight visits to the loo.
I cringe when I see a handful of derelict terrace houses knocked down and replaced with “modern” terrace houses when a low density arrangement of duplexes might serve everyone much better.
The only reservation I have against a lot of modern development in Australia is the terrible choices in exterior materials which seem to deteriorate far more rapidly than “heritage” facades. How is it with all the advances made in materials science that we have new constructions along King St and Enmore Road that are almost instantly weathered, water- and rust-stained. I looked at a new upscale apartment block in Marrickville recently and wondered why the brickwork was so conspicuously uneven at street eye-level. Where are the masons of yore?
Thanks for the comments. The best masons and brickies are in rookwood these days.
The trouble with heritage housing is its polar opposition to the needs of increasing density. In many urban areas, the weatherboard houses can be preserved by relocation to a semi rural town, where there’s a need for additional housing, then rebuilding on the original sites with appropriately passive design townhouses.
If done on a larger scale by local/state government, the scope could upgrade decaying inner suburbs with new 3 or 4 storey community style developments with ample shared open space and less space wasted on parking and side-streets. The potential for improvement in the housing quality, community amenity, accessibility, environmental impact and reduced waste is enormous. Furthermore it sidesteps any issue with the escalating costs of building alongside or within complex and unpredictable heritage buildings.