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Dealing with opposition to density

Opposition to change in built form or land use often stems from particular anticipated impacts, such as pollution or noise from noxious industry, or overshadowing caused by tall buildings; it also often has a psychological aspect related to emotional attachments to place. In Victoria, there are remarkably broad avenues for objection and appeal, including in comparison to other jurisdictions within Australia.

In most cases where a planning permit is required, any person may lodge a formal objection with the responsible authority (generally the relevant local government, but may also be a state government authority or Minister for Planning), and may appeal the grant of a permit through the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).

However, certain permit applications are excempt from this notification, objection and appeal process.

One common target for such opposition is higher density housing, particularly where this results in a taller built form. About 70% of total planning permit applications across Melbourne in 2009-2010 were open to objection and appeal. While 26% of total applications received objections, this rose to 35% of applications to build ten or more dwellings.

Densification is often opposed because it is quite different to what people are used to seeing in low density Australian cities. However, opposition has been found to increase where building design and street interfaces are poor, where there is no precedent for such housing in the local area, or where there is existing anger at political bodies and processes.

To some extent, the quality of design may mitigate impacts on potential objectors; however, it is clear that significant changes to built form, particularly with regards to building height, represent major change that is unacceptable to many on neighbourhood character grounds.

Whether these impacts should be considered broadly acceptable in light of the need to accommodate population growth, particularly in well-serviced areas, is a significant area for debate.

Opposition and objection can increase development costs through delays and costs associated with appeals, such as fees for lawyers or specialists. This can threaten development viability or pass the costs onto consumers. In some instances, formal avenues for objection are removed, such as for development within the CBD and outer suburban greenfield development, as well as social housing that built as part of the Nation Building program from 2008.

However, removing these appeal rights can increase resentment against planning and political processes, which can fuel opposition to other development or stymy public engagement in planning processes. Managing opposition poorly can cause anger and loss of trust, making it difficult for government to work with the community.

In addition, caution should be taken not to lay excessive blame for delays or failures in densification policies on objectors. A study that looked at higher density housing development in Brunswick across 2002-2007 found that while 80% of proposed dwellings had been approved, under half of the approved dwellings had at least begun construction by 2009, with higher density projects most likely to stall.

The authors of the study argued developers were making ambit claims in order to increase the value of the land and make capital gains without even having to develop.

So what is the best way to address local opposition to unwanted higher density housing? One answer may be to limit third party appeal rights, given Victoria’s extensive avenues for formal objection and appeal. However, this could lead to negative perceptions of the planning processes and missed opportunities to balance the need for housing supply with participatory planning processes.

Other options include providing more information about development, as there is evidence that this can help reduce anxiety among local residents.

More broadly, project-specific measures to address opposition, such as good siting and design, must be complemented with broader measures such as education on the importance of densification and housing supply, effective public relations campaigns and ensuring that planning legislation is consistent, particularly across the local and state levels.

Effective public debate about why higher density housing is important and what it could look like, as well as what sorts of planning controls could define and encourage high quality outcomes would be helpful to this end.

The question of how to address opposition to higher density housing is a thorny one for decision makers. While there are potential tools for excluding public participation and third party rights, it is clear that the heavy-handed application of these can generate anger and impacts from informal objection, as well as ignoring the potential for improved outcomes from engagement and negotiation.

In the conflict between policies promoting higher density housing, and local opposition to the implementation of these policies, it is apparent that a balanced approach is needed to ensure a consistent, engaging planning system that is able to achieve its aims with buy-in from the communities it transforms.

Alexander Sheko is a researcher at the University of Melbourne, working on the Transforming Housing project.

Lead image: supplied.

19 comments

Bilby's picture

Interesting article. The idea of limiting community appeal rights might be appealing in principle, but it could be argued that this does indeed raise the ire of communities disenfranchised from direct involvement in the way their neighbourhoods develop. The result? Political pressure from mass interest groups resulting in blunt instruments like the Neighbourhood Residential Zone being applied across vast swathes of the city. Had communities had more, not fewer, avenues of consultation, objection, appeal and genuine power in the planning of their neighbourhoods, would the government have seen fit to appease them with a blanket NRZ applied across whole residential zones?

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32 Blocks's picture

Why do all these nimbys look the same - repressed, miserable as sin and conservative - with a 1955 mentality. If they can't handle urbanisation, why do they even live in a city - won't the countryside or the outback make them happier ?

I have zero time for nimbys but I have all the time for qimbys (quality in my backyard, no matter of how tall it is).

Discover Melbourne’s Past, Present and Future at 32blocks.org

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Bilby's picture

Conservative are they, Ohyesmelbourne?

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32 Blocks's picture

That's what I said - just look at their clothes !

Discover Melbourne’s Past, Present and Future at 32blocks.org

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Bilby's picture

Are we to assume that you are an avant garde bohemian, then, Ohyesmelbourne?

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32 Blocks's picture

:) I am many things and I wear many coats but one thing I am NOT is a narrow-minded, selfish, village idiot aka nimby.

Discover Melbourne’s Past, Present and Future at 32blocks.org

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Bilby's picture

Well, it's good to hear that you are broad-minded - presumably enough not to draw narrow conclusions about people based on their appearance or dress. Or to assume that all people who might be critical of the character of certain developments in Melbourne look, act or think the say way ...

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Wink Brand Design's picture

Interesting article. Determining the best way to address local opposition to unwanted higher density housing is certainly a difficult task. Agree that providing more information about development doesn't hurt. Effective public relations campaigns and consistency of planning legislation certainly help, but at the end of the day, opposition will still occur in some cases. To quote OhyehMelbourne, there will also be a "nimby" looking for something to complain about.

Wink Brand Design

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Nicholas Harrison's picture

Dealing with objections relating to over development and increased density in general is different to dealing with objections relating to more specific issues.

Often the real motivation for residents concerns is the change in the demographic mix that will result from increased density not the erosion of the physical character of an area.

People in the leafy eastern suburbs in places like Booroondara are often concerned that:

  • Higher densities will lead to more rental properties in the area and the type of people who live in rental properties are more likely to be undesirables.
  • People who rent are transients who don't care about maintaining existing community standards.
  • Renters are usually on lower incomes and are more likely to be on government assistance, commit crimes and use drugs.
  • The type of people who have kids and live in an apartment without a backyard care less about their children.
  • These people who are often foreigners who are more likely to talk loudly, cook foods that emit strange odours, set up massage parlors in their apartments, deal drugs and increasing may be terrorist sympathizers.

These concerns are often not just unconscious concerns that people don't want to admit to. These concerns are often directly raised in objections. The fears that people have in regards to these issues is so strong and deep rooted that it often overrides the desire to seem 'politically correct' and they can't let social niceties get in the way of protecting their family and neighborhood .

To these groups consultation means having the right of veto over the type of development they don't want in their neighborhood or making the process so long and complex that developers give up in frustration and other developers are discouraged from applying for similar developments.

They are also often the loudest voices and the most determined an organised and consider that they stand up for the 'silent' majority.

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johnproctor's picture

^ that is 100% true.

I've been in VCAT hearings where the procession of local objectors make veiled observations that people who live in apartments are poor, dirty, noisy, transient people who don't care about the neighbourhood.

They don't realise that to afford to live in an apartment in the inner or middle suburbs you still have to be in a reasonably well paying job, and that many of the people there are probably their childrens high school friends from Scotch or MLC or Xavier.

I have always been of the opinion that the best way to deal with the density discussion is to have genuine consultation at the strategic level with the strategic level (Structure Plans, DDO's, Zone provisions etc) giving enough guidance about setbacks etc. such that at individual application levels review rights could be severley limited because applications 'must' comply with the strategic guidance.

The community would tend to support higher densities as a principle in a strategic discussion, but are less inclined on an individual level. Obviously the Mary Drost's of this world are just flat earth and wouldn't support it in any circumstance.

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fluvox's picture

One way to stop objections to development is to actually design stuff that's nice. For instance, how about designing an apartment block in a classical architectural style instead of the typical glass boxes that presented here as good design.

Commentator OHYESMELBOURNE is likes to lay the boot into the "stuffy" people yet her own tumblr account is full of picture of nice places that have no relation whatsoever with modern architecture. Places which "stuffy" people are trying to preserve.

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32 Blocks's picture

LOL I have dealt with Residents Associations for many years and the only things that these village idiots are trying to protect are their views (as if they own them), their property value, traffic (of which they are part of the problem and most refuse to use public transport) and the fact that they hate change (they are under the impression that it is still 1955). In a nutshell they are extremely selfish individuals who are only there to protect their own interests - to hell with everybody else.

oh.yes.melbourne stands for intensification, more public transport, the combination of old and new (preservation of heritage but that doesn't mean that you can't build something new alongside it) - I am a qimby (quality in my backyard) no matter how tall it is. I know that I live in a city (not some country town) and that a city evolves.

As for never featuring modern architecture - WRONG ! ... http://oh-yes-melbourne.tumblr.com/post/121397899803/why-we-melbourne-ar.... My twitter account is full of tweets regarding new developments (if there isn't enough images to feature on my blog then I tweet about them).

Like I have said before, let's help make these miserable people happy and buy them a one-way ticket to Alice Springs.

Discover Melbourne’s Past, Present and Future at 32blocks.org

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Peter Maltezos's picture

Funny I understand where both OhYesMelbourne and Bilby come from.

My own experience would reflect OhYesMelbourne's views mostly and I would add that NIMBYs can often be racist as well. Yet, I often hang out with the Fitzroy Hipster/concerned citizen types that are genuinely concerned about neighbourhood character and all architecture, hope you are one of those Bilby and not just a smug arsehole like some are.

I collect, therefore I am.
thecollectormm.com.au

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Bilby's picture

You can make your judgement on the basis of what I write, Peter! I've never once said on here that I am against development of the city, though, that's for sure. I often highlight good design and buildings around town, but if I don't critique the poor outcomes when I see them, it seems few will. I'm not talking about so called NIMBYism, but destruction of culture and heritage, the creation of poor amenity and street level design, and the implications for quality of life and civic participation.

By all means, build great stuff in my urban surrounds, but the heritage assets that surround me and make up that "backyard" are no more mine than yours in my view. In other words, when it comes to culture, history and heritage, there can be no "Not in My Backyard" because, the backyard belongs to us all. That's why I advocate so strongly for the retention of heritage places and good adaptive reuse of historic built fabric - precisely because it is not "mine", but belongs to everyone.

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Bilby's picture

... might as well add a project as an example of a great urban development (from today's Dezeen):

http://www.dezeen.com/2015/06/21/brutopia-aluminium-clad-apartment-compl...

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Mark Baljak's picture

Interesting idea, could you see it getting up locally?

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Bilby's picture

Yes, I believe it could work well here. I think this one in West Brunswick from a few years back was a version of this idea: http://www.westwyck.com

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Simon wxtre's picture

The issue I believe is people object to cheap, unattractive apartments being constructed in their neighbourhoods. The modern construction industry has bad name for not being sympathetic toward heritage and historic buildings. There is no context, aspects are some of the building designs are experimental. In recent years, residential and commercial building in Australia has embraced the use of alternative external wall cladding systems. Many street spaces are altered by using these experimental designs instead of constructing traditional designs and materials. These products are not meeting the performance requirements for damp and weatherproofing, fire performance, energy efficiency and acceptable construction.

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Bilby's picture

I don't have a problem with contemporary materials in heritage areas as such (as long as they are functional and meet code, as you say). If anything, I think design in heritage areas needs to be more experimental and inventive - not more conservative and traditional in style. Traditional materials can be used in incredible new ways, though - e.g. Frank Gehry's new UTS building is made of brick - but what brick! What I can't stand is when a developer flattens a unique and remarkable historic space (such as the Lyric Star Theatre in Fitzroy), replaces it with uninventive units, and then pretends to be paying homage to "... one of Melbourne's very first theatres" . What cynical opportunism in marketing terms, and a significant cultural loss to our city.

http://www.smaprojects.com.au/projects/current/lyric
https://sites.google.com/site/starlyricfitzroy/building

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