Old and new

We all know that the ‘character’ homes of Australia’s major cities changes depending on location.

From Queensland’s timber and tin to South Australia’s stone – they were usually constructed using local building materials available at the time.

I’m no architect but I really like looking at the differences between old and new housing styles – from the actual house, to the street layout – with the former being more my area of expertise.

I had thought that most new developments across the country were very similar. In some areas, they are. But this exercise did show me that there are local variations in built form, albeit minor.

Basically I searched the peripheries of major Australian cities on Google Maps to find new developments. Not exactly a scientific method, but I identified suburbs that had some constructed housing, with vacant lots still available.

What I found was interesting, and perhaps reflective of different tastes across different cities. From roof colours, to street patterns – each city was a little bit different in their new developments.

But the starkest difference was still the old versus the new.

Things that I noticed:

  • Older suburbs (L) have a similar gridded pattern across the major cities, whereas the new developments vary.
  • The topography of the hills surrounding Adelaide would have a major impact on its outer urban development style.
  • New developments have a lot less variation in colour palette, across the cities.
  • Less private green space in new developments. The shrinking (or elimination) of the backyard in Australia is well documented.

The houses from different time periods are interesting too. See this West End home with a total floor space of 160 sqm compared to this Yarrabilba home of 212 sqm.

Both initially built as modest family homes – the layout of our homes is very indicative of how our society has changed over time.

Character Houses versus Urban Consolidation

Balancing the protection of a city’s architectural heritage with the need to create new dwellings – who wins?

The Queenslander is the embodiment of Queensland traditional architecture. It evolved over time but these homes are generally made of timber, have large encircling verandas and tin roofs. This unique style was responsive to Queensland’s subtropical climate and were built from the 1850s until the Second World War.

Source: Brisbane City Council

Brisbane’s architectural history is protected through a few mechanisms at a state and local level, but here I’m focusing on Brisbane City Council’s protections.

‘Character house’ is the planning term for a house built before 1946. Brisbane City Council’s City Plan 2014 protects these houses from removal and requires extensions or alterations to complement the traditional building style. Any new houses must be designed at a similar scale to the character of the street.

The Character House overlay effects a substantial amount of Brisbane’s land mass.

Character House Overlay. Source: Brisbane City Council’s City Plan 2014.

But are these protections actually serving their aims?

I’ll use one example – 28 Whynot Street, West End. It’s zoned Character Residential (Infill Housing), which basically means that densification through additional dwellings construction is allowed but it must retain the original pre-1946 house and be of a compatible scale to the street.

The usual result of this is backyard subdivisions, which is kind of what happened here except the original house was demolished too.

Property Report for 28 Whynot Street West End. Source: Brisbane City Council.

Helpfully, in its interactive mapping Brisbane City Council provides an aerial image taken in 1946 as an overlay. It shows that this property had a pre-existing house but that the lot was subdivided and the house was demolished to make way for two new, contemporary houses.

Aerial images of 28 Whynot Street in 1946 and 2020. Source: Brisbane City Council.

Google Streetview confirms this. It also confirms that the Character House was demolished sometime between 2009 and 2013. So what happened here?

28 Whynot Street in 2009 and 2020. Source: Google StreetView

Again, helpfully, Brisbane City Council publishes development application documents online. The documents tell us that an application was lodged in 2007 to remove the Character House at 28 Whynot Street. They stated that the existing house had been “substantially altered and does not have the appearance of being constructed in or prior to 1946.”

Council wrote to the owners in December 2007 saying that the application was refused as, among other things, “it has not been demonstrated that the building does not represent traditional building character.”

This decision was appealed in the Planning and Environment Court, where the appeal was allowed and the application to remove the house was approved. There were no reasons attached to Judge Robin’s decision and while usually you can access complete court files of Planning and Environment Court matters online – unfortunately there were no documents attached to this file. So the mystery remains.

I can only assume the Court agreed with the owner that this wasn’t a Character House due to the modifications to the building. Whether or not this individual decision was correct or not is beyond the scope of this, but even Brisbane City Council agrees that the ‘character’ of the city extends beyond architecture.

The City Plan specifically states that “leafy suburbs with big backyards will remain…[and] new buildings will be designed to reflect Brisbane’s subtropical climate, and the City’s heritage and character housing will be protected.” (City Plan 2014).

It wasn’t just the pre-1946 house that was lost at 28 Whynot Street. It was the green space that Brisbane City Council purports to protect.

The conflict between the aspirations of the planning instrument and their practical implementation are an example of the difficulty of balancing the need to create new dwellings with the political realities of densification.

What happened to Brisbane’s green belt?

I was recently undertaking a bit of a literature review about the history of urban consolidation policy in Australia, and I found reference to a proposed green belt around Brisbane/Meanjin.

Anyone who lives in Brisbane will know that our sprawling metropolis largely spreads unhindered between the Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast, and west to Ipswich. What would you think if I told you that at one time local governments were concerned about ‘unregulated growth’ to ‘distant settlements’ at places like Acacia Ridge, and that there were calls to cap Brisbane’s population to 600,000 people?

What is a green belt?

A green belt is undeveloped land that encircles an urban area. The concept predates modern cities by a millennia, but contemporary urban consolidation policy (containing new urban grown to within the existing urban boundary) is definitely a relation of the green belt.

Adelaide, designed by Colonel Light in 1840, is frequently cited as Australia’s most famous example, with a very well preserved green belt to this day. There are still agistment paddocks with horses grazing, walking distance from Adelaide’s CBD.

Colonel Light’s 1840 Plan of Adelaide. Source: https://adelaidia.history.sa.gov.au/panoramas/lights-plan-of-adelaide-1840

Brisbane planning

Brisbane has a bit of an interesting urban planning history. It became a local authority in 1925, after the amalgamation of multiple city councils and shires formed a mega council – the largest by population in Australia.

Town plans were iconic of the colonial/invasion period, but it was Brisbane which became the first city in Australia to establish a town planning department. At the time, Brisbane had a population of about 200,000 people (Brisbane Courier, 30 January 1925).

Brisbane local boundaries in 1925. Source: Fryer Library

In 1928 a plan was submitted to divide Brisbane into residential, industrial
and agricultural zones, but the town plan was shelved during the depression.

Proposed green belt

During the closing years of the Second World War, Brisbane again attempted to produce a planning scheme. At the time, local governments were concerned about the escalating cost of supplying infrastructure to new suburbs (Courier Mail, 19 April 1950) – an problem we still haven’t solved today.

In 1944, a draft planning scheme featured a 1.6-kilometre greenbelt around the city to contain projected post-war growth (McInnis 1944) through infill development (Courier Mail, 28 May 1948). This aimed to utilise the vacant or underutilised land within the city for new development, and prevent growth outside these boundaries.

The policy aimed to restrict population growth of the city to 600,000 people by preventing growth beyond 10 kilometres from the CBD (Courier Mail, 23 April 1948).

Any future excess population growth was to be directed into satellite towns beyond the green belt (Courier Mail, 19 April 1950).

The greenbelt proposal involved extensive land acquisitions (Courier Mail, 12 February 1944) and met with strong opposition (Courier Mail, 26 February 1949). The plan was never enacted into law.

Despite numerous drafts, the first statutory planning scheme for Brisbane was not adopted until almost 40 years later. The first planning scheme, enacted in 1965, provided guidance for orderly development and the greenbelt disappeared entirely (Low Choy and Gleeson 1998).

Since the 1975 town plan ‘urban consolidation’ formally entered the planning sphere in Brisbane. Consolidation is similar to the greenbelt idea, as it contains urban growth to within the existing city – but it doesn’t carry the same protections for surrounding natural or rural areas. Greenfield land can still be released for development – including almost 20,000 hectares between 2009 and 2017. These were all low density, suburban housing estates – some 50 kilometres from Brisbane’s city centre.

So, we still haven’t solved the problem of balancing housing demand (and peoples’ dwelling type preferences) with the real environmental, social and economic costs of sprawl.

References

Low Choy, D.C. and Gleeson, J. (1998) ‘A Green Belt Too Far: The Abortive Green
Belt Proposals of the 1944 Brisbane Draft Town Plan’ paper presented to 8th
International Planning History Conference, Sydney, Australia, 15-18 July 1998.

McInnis, R.A. (1944) Recreation and Open Spaces – The Green Belt, internal Council
minute, Brisbane City Archives 460/52/4.

Urban Street Design

What do these two streets have in common?

A street in West End (2km from central Brisbane) and a street in Heathwood (20 km from central Brisbane). Source: Google Streetview

Not much at a first glance. One is high density, within walking distance of central Brisbane. The other is a peripheral suburban development.

What they do have in common is that all these buildings were constructed in the last decade, and these streetscapes both completely lack any public realm.

What is public realm?

It’s the other place we go when we’re not at home or at work. It’s public spaces that encourage organic social interaction.

And it’s something that conventional urban planning has struggled to deliver, at high and low residential densities.

Why do we need change?

Our cities and our streets should be vibrant places where people meet, travel and interact. They should be pleasant spaces where people of all ages and abilities feel safe, that are pleasant to travel in.

Streets also make up 80% of the public space in our cities (NACTO 2013).

Current urban design and planning simply aren’t meeting the complex and diverse needs of our cities.

Our growing cities aren’t just places to live and work. Our streets aren’t just thoroughfares for us to travel from home to our place of employment.

Streets must be adaptable and resilient to changing needs and conditions – they can be centres of productivity, of social interaction while also accommodating cars, bikes and pedestrians – if designed properly.

A new way forward?

Last year the Queensland Government announced a new street design code for residential development. While it won’t effect existing layouts, it may be a new way forward for new developments.

Tree lined streets, actual footpaths ensuring pedestrian connectivity, greater access to more parkland and more public open space.

Work published in Land Use Policy and Urban Geography

Work by Rachel Gallagher, Dr Thomas Sigler and Associate Professor Yan Liu has been published in two international journals.

Ad hoc redevelopment in inner Brisbane

In a recent paper published in Urban Geography we analyse the influence of the underlying urban frame – being the structure of streets and property parcels –on the urban form. Using ArcGIS, we plot property boundary change over time, over seven suburbs in inner Brisbane and analyse what changes to urban form occur following the boundary change.

We found that redevelopment was characterised by ad hoc redevelopment, favouring parcels that were easily transformed. Most redevelopment occurred on properties with a detached house, which are attractive to small-scale developers. The observed developments were generally contrary to the aspirations outlined in relevant planning schemes, which encourage targeted redevelopment that is of a mixed use, concentrated around existing transport or activity centres and of a higher density. In fact, the difficulty of property boundary change may in fact incentivise further urban sprawl.

Rezoning does not guarantee positive development outcomes

We also undertook research to analyse how urban consolidation can be achieved despite the fixity of existing parcel sizes. In a paper recently published in Land Use Policywe look at where parcel reconfigurations in the same Brisbane inner suburbs can be used to achieve densification. Redevelopments which resulted in the construction of apartment buildings were analysed, and our findings show that most apartment buildings were constructed on amalgamated lots on brownfield land.

We found that rezoning to high densities did not guarantee redevelopment outcomes – and that the difficulty of assembling the parcel sizes required for higher density development may inhibit the ability to deliver high amenity developments which provide a benefit to existing and future residents.

Both papers contribute to the growing need to review our planning framework so that both government and developers alike can overcome the constraints of property boundaries, and the purported benefits of urban consolidation can become a reality.

About

My name is Rachel Gallagher – I’m a geographer, urban researcher and I am a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland.

My background is in geography and planning. I used to be a solicitor specialising in planning and environment law, and have more recently worked in urban policy development and implementation at a state level.

I have qualifications in law, urban and environmental planning and science, and have most recently completed my Master of Philosophy. My research analysed property boundary change for residential infill in the inner suburbs of Brisbane, Australia.