Enabling change in our Society, Environment and Economy (SEE)

Urban Infill

Negotiating the Risks – the good, the bad and the ugly?

The decision of the ACT Government some years ago to adopt a planning strategy of urban infill (as opposed to allowing urban sprawl) as a way of responsibly meeting the needs of a growing Canberra population has much to recommend it from a sustainability perspective.

Discussed and researched under various names and concepts such as ‘sustainable cities’, ‘smart growth’, ‘growth management’, and ‘new urbanism’, urban infill promotes sustainable growth in cities.

However infill projects can lead to unintended impacts on local communities and adjacent homeowners, particularly in urban core zones where multi-unit multi-storey developments are now permitted in Canberra.

When well-planned and executed, urban infill may bring many benefits:

  • Existing infrastructure and services can often be used more fully and efficiently.
  • Can be more attractive to home buyers as housing is often closer to offices, shops and other amenities.
  • Promotes environmental sustainability through allowing people not to own a motor vehicle.
  • Reduces fossil fuel use through shorter travelling distances for those who choose to still use vehicles.
  • Can allow people to enjoy a healthier lifestyle through promotion of walking or cycling to work or to the local shopping centre.
  • Homes may potentially be more affordable.

Yet adjacent landholders, particularly those with an interest in living sustainably, may have their lifestyles significantly impacted upon by these multi-unit developments.  For example, changes to solar access can result in an existing vegetable garden being no longer viable due to overshadowing and loss of sufficient daily sunshine.

Other potential impacts include:

  • Significant overlooking and loss of privacy in your outdoor living / relaxing areas as well as those rooms facing the development.
  • Loss of sunlight to your backyard fruit trees, vegetable and herb gardens.
  • Loss of sunlight and warmth to your outdoor living areas at times when you use them most.
  • Increased noise (and light pollution at night) from substantially increased vehicle parking and movement potentially very close to your side and back boundaries.
  • Loss of your vista to the surrounding landscape including loss of a sense of living in a ‘garden city’.
  • Reduction in (or even complete loss of) adjacent vegetation including mature trees.
  • Living in an relatively lifeless environment  “… surrounded by dead things – buildings and walls …” (quote from the 2005 NZ research study noted below).

CraceA 2005 study  by a group of researchers from Lincoln University (Christchurch NZ) surveyed neighbours’ interpretation of urban infill.

They found that infill housing as a growth management strategy is not always well received by residents.

Previous studies had shown that New Zealanders were “vehement about protecting their privacy” and it was this, along with access to sunshine, that study participants most valued.

The study highlighted the huge resentment felt by those whose private space was overlooked by residents of adjoining developments.

Much of the resentment sprang from the changes many people had to make to their lifestyle to cope with the “theft” of their previously private backyard landscape. Ninety percent (90%) of those surveyed stated that sunlight was ‘important; or ‘very important’ to them, yet reduction in solar access is one of the major things impacting properties adjoining higher density urban redevelopment projects.

What can you do about this in the ACT if you receive notice of a development application in your area?   Several things are critical if you wish to preserve some of the enjoyment, privacy and amenity you currently have in your home and suburban environment:

  1. Protect your interests, it may be that no-one else will!  You must submit a response within the specified period to the ACT Planning Authority (ACTPLA) if you want your concerns considered and interests protected. A non-response may lead to assumptions that you approve of the development. Due to the wording of the relevant section in the Planning and Development Act 2007, not responding will shut you out of the approval evaluation process thereafter, even if significant changes are made to the development application due to rejection of the original application.  If you don’t respond, you will not be notified of any of these changes and you will not have the opportunity to comment again.
  2. Take the time to obtain and carefully study the development application documents.  Note boundary setbacks to proposed buildings, estimate building heights and stand in your yard to try to visualise where the new structures will be and the impact this will have on your lifestyle.
  3. It is in your interests to acquaint yourself with the Territory Plan and its relevant housing codes (e.g. the Multi-Unit Housing Development Code). These documents can be found on the ACTPLA website at www.actpla.act.gov.au.
  4. In the current Territory Plan there are ‘statements of intent’ and Code Rules and Criteria seemingly protecting local suburb character as well as your solar access, privacy, and amenity interests.  However, under a ‘Merit Track’ approval path (i.e. most domestic housing development applications), the application of the building code Criteria are at the discretion of ACTPLA approving officers based on whether the development application ‘reasonably’ meets the Criteria.  This reasoning process is subjective and thus may not be in your best interests, particularly if you have not lodged reasons why the development should be not accepted as is and the developer has argued strongly, or even simply presented plans, for a ‘stretching’ of the planning intent and criteria in their favour.
  5. Seek advice, talk to affected neighbours about the issues, and put everything in writing.  Verbal communication is often not worth the paper it is written on!

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References:  [1] Vallance S, Perkins HC, and Moore K, 2005, The results of making a city more compact: neighbours’ interpretation of urban infill, Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, Vol 32, pp715-733.

This story was submitted by a SEE-Change member who has asked to remain anonymous.

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