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THE ‘MISSING MIDDLE’ — doing it right

Updated: Apr 9

by Richard Johnston (B.Arch. Dip.T&C.Planning, Dip.Environ.Stud.)


This currently much-discussed topic needs some objective analysis and discussion. The context for this is the ACT Government’s policy for 70% of new dwellings to be within the existing urban area of Canberra and their apparent intention to relax planning controls on residential redevelopment to encourage ‘gentle urbanism’ (Andrew Barr, 2023).

In recent times the only forms of significant residential redevelopment that seem to be happening (or about to happen), at least in South Canberra, are:

  • Medium to high-density on ‘brownfields’ sites, such as former public housing estates, Yarralumla Brickworks, CSIRO land, remainder of Kingston Foreshore, future East Lake and 1 Dairy Road Fyshwick;

  • ‘knock-down rebuilds’ on single blocks, either as new single houses or some ‘dual-occs’ in RZ1, sometimes with additional dwellings in RZ2 zones.

Recent redevelopments in the Kingston/ Griffith area (photos Richard Johnston)


But no one is building relatively low-rise, diverse, ‘medium-density’ housing with generous on-site open space and tree cover in established residential areas, ie. the missing middle’. The most vocal proponent of the missing middle push, the ‘Greater Canberra’ group, proposes all RZ1 zoning be lifted to at least RZ2. If this is to occur through single house block redevelopment, it will likely be contrary to the tree cover policy of 30% for Canberra (already less than other, more ambitious jurisdictions) and despite the likelihood of losing amenity in the targeted areas will not result in a significant increase in residential density or an easing of housing affordability pressures, since these older, greener suburbs are already out of reach for those most affected by high property prices (and interest rates).


Developers who are permitted ‘high-rise’ buildings are motivated to go as tall and wide as possible, with little room on site for communal open space and tree planting. Slack planning controls allow this. At the other end of the scale, small builder/developers of single blocks find it easier and no doubt more profitable to have Code-compliantproposals, requiring no DA or public consultation. A very large new house in Griffith next to the one in the right hand picture above (occupying most of its 1,073 m2 block, with 5 bedrooms and a basement garage big enough for 14 cars -!) recently sold for $6 million. It is located in the RZ2 ‘Suburban Core’ Zone, near the Griffith Shopping Centre.


How does this huge single house contribute to meeting the Objectives of the RZ2 zone, particularly: a) ...housing is low rise and contains a mix of single dwelling and multi-unit development that is low to medium density in characterparticularly in areas close to facilities and services in commercial centres.? It is evident that the RZ2 Zone is not working as intended and needs urgent review as part of the ‘Planning System Reform‘ project. Again, there is no room for significant tree planting in this single block redevelopment.

There is a clear need for more diverse, human-scale and climate sensitive new medium-density housing (the ‘missing middle'). But this will not happen, and certainly will not provide ‘affordable’ housing, without government intervention, through much stronger planning controls and, ideally, a government redevelopment agency to facilitate high quality, sustainable redevelopment (see further discussion below).


Canberra can do better, and in fact it did, from the late 1970s when the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) initiated its ‘Guidelines for Redevelopment of Kingston/Griffith’ (see Appendix 1 to this article). The first of these is ‘Amalgamation Guidelines’ generally requiring sites of at least 0.4 hectares with increasing plot ratios for larger site amalgamations. There were also substantial requirements for on-site open space.

One of the first projects built under these Guidelines was the ‘Kingston Tower’ project near Telopea Park. This project, built 1980-86 on a 1.4 hectare site, featured a 15 storey apartment tower, 3-4 storey ‘walk-up’ apartment blocks, 2-storey terraces and a large amount of on-site landscaped open space with swimming pool and tennis court (on the roof of the ground level carpark). The tower units initially proved difficult to sell and there was community resistance to the proliferation of such buildings, so only one other one was built in the area. But subsequently there were other residential redevelopments notable for the generous communal open space they provided internal to the complexes – eg. see below.

The site in the left picture above is 1.3 hectares and contains 169 apartments in 2-4 storey buildings with generous landscaped communal open space including large trees. The one on the right is significantly smaller, 0.67 hectares, but still has 87 apartments in 3-4 storey ‘walk-up’ apartments and very generous internal communal open space. The residential density of both the above examples in ‘old‘ Kingston is about 130 dwellings per ha., or more than 10 times ‘standard’ residential, showing what can be achieved on larger sites.


Regrettably there then seemed to be a trend to smaller sites being acquired for redevelopment, with greater site coverage and consequent reduced communal open space. Some of the early redevelopments in the Kingston Foreshore reversed this trend for a while (see below) but more recent projects are typically on smaller sites and to much higher densities, with no communal open space (apart from on roof levels) and no space for large-scale tree planting. (The new building I am in on the Foreshore has 61 dwellings in 4-6 storeys on a site area 0.27 ha., giving a density of 226 dwellings/ha.)

Above is a whole ‘section’ (street block) early development on the Foreshore, containing 120 dwellings on a site of 1.1 hectares (density 109 dwellings/ha.). 11 of the dwellings are 3-storey ‘terrace’ style buildings, (shown on the left) with private courtyards and direct street access, while most of the remainder are apartments in 3-4 storey buildings. The communal open space of this development is very generous in area (more than 30 metres wide and about 27% of the block, clear of private courtyards) and well landscaped with large trees (picture on the right). The basement car parking is generally under the buildings, not intruding into the area for tree planting, which is a genuinely deep soil zone.


In contrast, the current Multi-Unit Housing Development Code, for RZ3, RZ4, RZ5 and Commercial Zones, would require only 20% of the block to be communal open space (minimum dimension 2.5m) and only 10% of the site needs to be planting area. Weirdly however, the Code has much higher standards for planting on blocks where the lease was granted before 1/1/2020, eg. at least 25% of block to be planting area, at least 20% of block to be canopy cover in deep soil zones, etc. If blocks are amalgamated and new leases issued, apparently the much lower standard would then apply. Why?


There is some new 2-storey town-house style redevelopment occurring in the Inner North, beyond Northbourne Avenue to the east and west (to Limestone & Majura Avenues on the east side). These areas are zoned RZ3 and are subject to the Inner North Precinct Code which requires block consolidation in some circumstances. Unfortunately most of the new developments are still on single or double blocks, limiting potential outcomes.


This planning approach could be extended to other areas where appropriate, but needs to require block consolidation (like the old NCDC Guidelines referred to above) to encourage greater diversity in new housing and much more generous communal open space and canopy cover. Appendix 2 is a ‘Redevelopment Feasibilty Study’ based on six blocks near Griffith Shopping Centre, currently an RZ2 ‘Suburban Core’ Zone) to illustrate this approach.


I recently came across an interesting book - “GREENING THE GREYFIELDS - New Models for Regenerating the Middle Suburbs of Low-Density Cities” (Palgrave, 2022 Open Access) by Professor Peter W. Newton (Swinburne UT - Melbourne), Professor Peter W.G. Newman (Curtin U – Perth) & others. Some relevant extracts are quoted below (in italics).


They introduce the concept of “greyfield precinct regeneration (GPR), for more effective medium-density redevelopment in ageing, established, well-located, low-density middle-ring suburbs of large, fast-growing cities that are primarily residential: the greyfields. These are areas where the value of built assets now lies primarily in the land rather than in the ageing buildings. The attraction of the middle suburbs is that they are generally well served with local services, facilities, and community groups built over several decades. However, they lack sufficient new housing supply to meet the demand for well-located, diverse, twenty-first-century housing.”


The authors talk about recent Planning Failure. They say: “Cities must reduce their urban sprawl, as not only is this kind of urban development ecologically damaging, it is the most seriously underprovided in social facilities and employment. To curtail sprawl, recent metropolitan planning strategies have highlighted the importance of urban consolidation to reduce automobile dependence by encouraging infill—redevelopment within the existing urban boundary—ideally integrated with transit. Metropolitan compact-city strategies in major Australian cities set infill targets to increase urban density, but they fall short of describing models to deliver on these targets.“


“Most states also have redevelopment agencies that work mostly on government land and try to demonstrate innovations such as the White Gum Valley (WGV) project in Perth through Development WA. However, the vast majority of development comes from the private sector, following the statutory guidelines provided by state and local governments, which are all set up for small-lot subdivision. Greyfields are not attracting the desired level of medium-density housing redevelopment (the ‘missing middle’), and the proportion of medium-density housing remains a relatively fixed proportion of the housing stock across the major capitals.”


“Greyfield infill development is following the statutory guidelines that allow piecemeal redevelopment approach of ‘knock-down-rebuild’, involving the demolition of older structures and replacement with either a new detached dwelling or small-lot subdivisions that have many shortcomings. Net housing yields and density gains in the greyfields are small (e.g., 1:1, 1:2–4). Small-lot infill subdivision of single properties typically results in loss of private green space due to more area dedicated to buildings and car space. Loss of green space has multiple negative impacts.”


“Collectively, poor-quality infill development, perceptions of developer greed and overdevelopment, loss of green space, and erosion of suburban qualities stigmatise infill development, strengthening community resistance in the form of NIMBYism. It is not hard to feel sympathy for such NIMBY reactions, as there is no opportunity to see different kinds of precinct-scale development.”


The authors then go on to discuss what is required to address the ‘missing middle’:


Densities of (at least?) ”30–50 dwellings per hectare are necessary, rather than the 12 found in traditional car-dependent suburbs. This equates to terraces, multi-dwelling townhouses, and residential apartment buildings, with building stock between three and eight storeys high. But land assembly is a prerequisite. This will be critical to greening the greyfields and is a step that planning systems need to recognise as being the ‘missing step in creating the missing middle.“ The NCDC recognised this in the 1970’s, but it appears these lessons were lost under self-government as the interests of the development industry gained ascendancy.


Newton, Newman et al are unequivocal that if effective medium density is to be achieved it must be through land assembly, not single block redevelopment.


“Lot amalgamation usually requires the involvement of redevelopment authorities as facilitators for land packaging that delivers good-quality and desirable medium-density, mid-rise, mixed-use, transit-oriented precincts that local people will want rather than try to oppose them through NIMBY groups.”


“This does not need significant government funding unless the whole redevelopment process is done by government itself. The Building Better Cities Program in the 1990s set up land-assembly and development processes with state and local governments and multiplied the capital funds through partnerships with the private sector. A similar process of partnerships would be needed to generate the right land assembly, design, community engagement, and sustainability outcomes for place-activated and transit-activated GPR.”


The authors are also (quite rightly) concerned about the important issue of Urban Vegetation (as a response to climate change and ameliorating the ‘heat island‘ effect in cities): “Vegetation loss as a result of urban infill is a major problem in Australian cities. To counteract vegetation loss on private land, many councils are looking to maximise planting in the public realm. Dense and layered tree and shrub planting along streets can help increase shading, air purification, cooling, and noise reduction and slow the rate and speed of stormwater runoff to reduce urban food risk. Tree-canopy targets are usually the central focus for urban-greening or urban-forest strategies. The City of Melbourne, for example, has a target of 40% canopy cover on public land by 2040. Larger sites allow greater flexibility for site planning so that building and ‘grey’ infrastructure can be arranged to maximise on-site green infrastructure. Precinct regeneration on larger sites ideally provides opportunity for a redistribution of street space to green space and reactivation for resident use.”


They also say that: “A major cultural shift is occurring in Australian cities, with over 50% of households now preferring to live in a more urban, amenity-rich location. The reality is, however, that the processes that are likely to enable this transition are simply not in place, as the inner suburbs are now beyond the means of most, unless high-density apartment living becomes the option. GPR in the middle suburbs represents a solution to providing the sought-after medium-density housing supply and amenity provision—in the right places.”


“GPR faces multiple barriers to entry that necessitate new process interventions such as: • Locating prospective regeneration precincts in collaboration with local government and situating them in municipal strategic plans and housing strategies (ie.‘where’) • Creating innovative medium-density dwelling designs appropriate to higher-density precinct living in the middle greyfield suburbs that can deliver significant additionality beyond small-lot subdivision: regenerative redevelopment and a new urban fabric more aligned to urbanising suburban landscapes (ie. ‘what’) • Making GPR less risky…a set of development overlays and design guidelines to deliver appropriate regenerative redevelopment through new partnerships and processes (ie.‘how‘)“


“The planning principles set out in this book can be summarised as: • Halting car-dependent urban sprawl, with its associated negative economic, social, and environmental impacts through strategic plans promoting the growth and regeneration of 20-minute neighbourhoods in greyfields • Replacing the present redevelopment method set out in planning schemes that encourages small-lot subdivision or one-for-one redevelopment, and that is no longer functional • Redeveloping at larger scale with GPR projects in well-located, well serviced greyfield suburbs where there is high redevelopment potential • Using twenty-first-century technologies and net-zero planning processes to significantly reduce the high ecological footprints associated with carbon emissions, water use, and waste generation • Ameliorating local climate-change impacts at the same time with nature based solutions involving redesign, greening, and reactivation of local streetscapes and residential precincts.”


In my view, Canberra could recapture the kind of innovative and well-regarded residential redevelopment such as was occurring in the 1980’s & 90’s, with a combination of improved planning controls focusing on achieving a good diversity of housing and substantially increased communal open space and canopy cover, and appropriate land assembly (block consolidation). The NCDC Redevelopment Guidelines [Appendix 1 to this article] point the way here and are simple, clear and in many other ways superior to the current Territory Plan. These Guidelines were administered with discretion by technically competent architects/planners, skills which appear to be sadly lacking in the current planning authority. There probably needs to be a government agency tasked to assemble parcels of land for redevelopment, to undertake the kind of patient negotiation required, both with the immediately affected land owners and the local community, and also to craft appropriate redevelopment controls. It would be critical for the success of such initiatives (as Newton, Newman et al note) that the community sees significant advantages and environmental benefits in the redevelopment of ageing residential areas and is happy to move from being NIMBYs to YIMBYs.

Richard Johnston, 29 June 2023


APPENDIX 1

GUIDELINES FOR REDEVELOPMENT OF KINGSTON / GRIFFITH NCDC 1977


SUMMARY (by Richard Johnston)

1. AMALGAMATION GUIDELINES Generally the Commission is seeking comprehensive redevelopment on substantial parcels of land...any site measuring less than 0.4 hectare would not be sufficient.


2. DENSITY GUIDELINES Generally the greater the area of land assembled the higher the density that will be permitted...the following plot ratio indicate the maximum intensity of development which will normally be permitted. (a) Site area between 2,600 and 4,000 m2 – plot ratio 0.7 (b) Site area between 4,000 and 5,200 m2 – plot ratio 0.8 (c) Site area between 5,200 and 6,000 m2 – plot ratio 0.9 (d) Site area above 6,000 [no maximum plot ratio specified]


3. PLANNING CRITERIA (a) Site coverage not to exceed 40% of total site area (b) Building Height not to exceed 3 storeys except in area indicated on attached map (this showed towers spaced out along the frontages to Telopea Park or Wentworth Avenue) (c) Open Space 11 m2 of usable open space to be provided per habitable room or 50% of the gross floor area, whichever is the greater. Of this total open space requirement generally not more than 40% may be provided in the form of private gardens, courtyards, patios or private balconies. (d) Car Parking and Roadways [detailed requirements, now superceded] (e) Redevelopment schemes to conform to the existing Master Plan for Kingston.... (f) Redevelopment schemes to be designed in such a way that every dwelling unit receives a satisfactory level of privacy... [etc] (g) Redevelopment schemes to achieve a high degree of environmental quality...


4. DESIGN GUIDELINES (a) – (e) [building materials and colours] (f) Any redevelopment should respect the scale and proportion of the existing residential buildings... (g) Carparking enclosures... (h) The existing landscape character should be reinforced ...


5. DEPARTMENT OF CAPITAL TERRITORY RESPONSIBILITIES [block consolidation, inclusion of Government houses, informing of neighbours]


SUBMISSION REQUIREMENTS

Developers and/or lessees are advised to discuss redevelopment proposals with the Commission prior to the preparation of sketch plans.

Where a scheme is submitted for part only of a section or street block, and where that scheme is the first proposal for that street block or section, it must be accompanied by a conceptual masterplan for the whole section or street block...

Although strict adherence to the initial masterplan by subsequent schemes will not be insisted upon, some conformity with the agreed concept will be sought.


APPENDIX 2 SECTION 53 GRIFFTH – REDEVELOPMENT ‘FEASIBILTY STUDY’

Existing development Section 53 Giffith - Aerial photography July 2022 ACTmapi


REDEVELOPMENT FEASIBILITY STUDY – BLOCKS 1-3, 8-10 SECTION 53 GRIFFITH


1) SINGLE BLOCK REDEVELOPMENT Say: 2 detached houses (2 storey) 12 ‘townhouses’ (2 storey) TOTAL: 14 dwellings (22 d./hectare) COMMUNAL OPEN SPACE: 400m2

​2) SIX BLOCK REDEVELOPMENT

6,432m2 SITE Say: 18 ‘garden’ apartments (3 bedrmx160m2) 18 upper-level apartments or 36 2-level or small TOTAL: 36-54 dwellings (56-84 d./hectare) COMMUNAL OPEN SPACE: 1,980m2 (30% site)

Richard Johnston

B. Architecture, Dip. T&C Planning, Dip. Environmental Studies

Life Fellow, Planning Institute of Australia

29 June 2023




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