There's been an interesting debate flare up over here on the subject of density, the environment, and the anti-development attitude of many of the neighbourhoods. It kicked off with this piece in the East Bay Express (a paper covering Berkely, Oakland & the neighbouring areas) - You're Not an Environmentalist If You're Also a NIMBY
Environmentalists who think globally say suburban sprawl and the destruction of rural farmland must stop. ... And some activists who have fought developers for years are now embracing them and calling for so-called "smart growth" or "infill development" — dense urban housing near mass transit. And they note that downtown Berkeley and Oakland, along with the major transportation corridors between the two cities, are nearly perfect for transit-oriented development.
But for the inner East Bay to grow the way it should, it will have to overcome the region's well-developed not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) sensibilities. In Berkeley and North Oakland, in particular, liberals who view themselves as environmentalists have been blocking dense housing developments for decades. They have complained about traffic, overcrowding, and the potential destruction of neighborhood character. But among those who are paying attention to the causes of global warming, there is a growing realization that no-growth activists have to step back and look at the bigger picture. Climate change has forced a paradigm shift in the environmental movement. If you live in an urban area, you can't call yourself an "environmentalist" and continue to act like a NIMBY by blocking new housing.
There's a number of interesting things mentioned in the article, but one of the most important was that requirements on "green building" and on providing 20% affordable housing within a development each threaten to make new developments unfeasible, and that these requirements may be getting used by the NIMBY crowd as tools for blocking development without having to actually say so (as the article says, "After all, who could be against affordable housing and eco-friendly buildings?").
That struck a chord up here in Seattle, which itself has a strong thread of both eco-thinking (they like the trees, the salmon, and snow on their mountains) and NIMBY-ism (they scuppered a bill that would up-zone around the newly opening light-rail stations), leading to talk along the lines of "something must be done ... but my neighbourhood's not the place". A very good recent piece
in Seattle's daily paper points out that it would probably be easier to convince people to accept higher density developments if they could see more good examples of it.
The truth is, 15 years after the city first adopted a strategy of developing dense, mixed-use urban centers and villages, I don't think there's one they would proudly point to when trying to sell the concept to new neighborhoods and proclaim: "this is what we want to do for you."
Heck, I live in a Ballard townhouse. I love all the stores and restaurants within walking distance, many of which could not exist without all the new residents. But I can't argue that Ballard's many blocks of townhouses are an attractive model. Neither can city officials, which is why they're busy overhauling design rules for townhouses and other multifamily projects.
It's all enough to make people think denser housing can't be attractive and livable, if they've never visited a city that's more than 100 years old.
Certainly, while we've been over here, we've been struck by the fact that so many of the newer, medium-density developments that we've seen are just plain ugly - there is certainly
. Much of the problem there seems to lie with the restrictions that the buildings have to comply to, all of them well-meaning with the intent to preserve some of the feel of "old Seattle", but combining together to more or less prescribe their design. This article
lays it out nicely
To try to keep housing within reach, developers have been allowed to squeeze four town homes on what used to be a single-family, 50-by-100-foot lot. Regulatory requirements to shoehorn in amenities once taken for granted — such as off-street garage parking, driveways, a scrap of yard and a privacy fence — are so prescriptive and inflexible that they have resulted in cookie-cutter vertical design.
Architects derisively describe them as "four-packs," like four beer cans jammed together. The code requires a garage for parking, so the ground floor is all garage. But no one wants to look at four garage doors, so typically a driveway splits the four-pack down the middle so that the garage doors face each other across a shadowy, blacktopped courtyard hard to drive in and out of.
The living space typically sits above, like a medieval farmhouse built over the barn. Required setbacks from property lines force each town home be tall and skinny, energy codes limit experimentation with windows, and well-meaning height limits create monotonous gable roofs. Square footage is eaten by stairs, and the beer cans shade each other and their neighbors. The "yard" is a cell-like postage stamp enclosed by a blank cedar fence that walls away the sidewalk.
It's legal. It's relatively affordable — say, $500,000. And it's as homely as it is dull.
The point of all this for Adelaide? It's going to be easier to get people on-board with building new, denser developments if we have good examples that they can see and say to themselves "yes, that's what I would accept in my area", and so the first examples need to be good ones. Allowing ugly developments on the grounds that density is enough of an end by itself is going to galvanize resistance to development in the places where we need it. The city needs to find what options can be built under the current planning/building regulations: if the results are going to get pushback, then they need to find what parts can be changed to really make a difference (height? parking? setbacks? floor-area-ratio?).