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Perth’s apartment phobia: Why people of the west prefer sprawl over high-density living

16th January 2018

Source: ABC Radio By Emma Wynne


The Perth suburban sprawl. It stretches 150 kilometres along the coastline and has a footprint twice the size of Tokyo — but with only a fraction of its population.

Data reveals that’s because the people of Perth are incredibly resistant to the idea of living in apartments.

The latest census reported “Perth residents overwhelmingly prefer to own their own home, and for that home to be a fully detached house”.

Just 6.6 per cent of residents live in apartments (the national average is 13.1 per cent). A further 16 per cent live in terraced or semi-detached homes, while the remaining 77 per cent live in a fully detached house.


Architect Shohreh Nematollahi is researching Australians’ attitudes towards apartment living for her PhD.

She has found that people are either afraid of living in an apartment, because of the compromises that come with high-density living, and/or fearful about having apartments built near their own home.

“When you live in a strata title dwelling, it means that you give up some of your freedom, for instance to make changes or do renovations,” Ms Nematollahi said.

“You have to share space with people in lifts, stairwells, lobbies, corridors.

“It’s giving up the kind of lifestyle they have been used to.”

She said because most Australians hadn’t grown up living in or near apartments, they could not imagine it for themselves, and certainly don’t want their children to grow up in an apartment.

She said people overwhelmingly still wanted the same big backyard and the privacy it afforded that they had growing up for their own families.

Resistance to change

This attitude is proving to be a major hurdle for town planners and local and state governments.

As Perth’s population grows and with it the sprawl, new schools, roads, public transport links, parks and other community facilities have to be built and serviced.


Experts have long pushed for Perth’s existing suburbs to densify, because the infrastructure needed to support a growing population is already in place.

But Ms Nematollahi’s research has revealed residents living in the older suburbs, close to the city, with big backyards and solid infrastructure, tend to be the most opposed to apartment living.

“Resistance is more likely to be high in wealthy suburbs,” she said.

“Usually wealthy suburbs are close to public transport and other services and are targeted for dense developments by government.

“Those developments create more affordable housing options for others to live in wealthy suburbs, but the community views dense developments as a threat to their local neighbourhood.”

According to Ms Nematollahi, these residents fear crime, parking problems and a decrease in their property values.

“My interviewees mentioned they don’t have trust in their local council that they have the capacity to manage growth smoothly,” she added.

Communities outspoken

Research on the impact of affordable housing developments in Sydney and Brisbane suggests residents’ fears far outweigh the actual impacts but community opposition remains, often overwhelming local councils.

For example, in Meltham, six kilometres east of Perth’s CBD, residents are campaigning to have development around the train station reduced from six storeys to three or four.

In the southern suburb of Como, locals recently fought, and lost, a battle to prevent a six-storey building from going up on a street populated by single and double-storey houses.

The block is just 700 metres from a train station and close to major bus routes.


But resident Susan Piper told ABC Radio Perth Drive the development did not fit in with the urban landscape of the area.

“I think if it had been a two-storey complex, that possibly would have been more palatable to the area,” she said.

She also said the development, despite not being built yet, had reduced the value of her home by more than $100,000.

“Look around the area, people just want to sell and get out.”

But 86-year-old developer Tony Fini is unapologetic.

He said he firmly believed projects like his — close to public transport and in well-established suburbs — are just what Perth needs and could even make car ownership optional one day.

“In 30 to 40 years there are going to be over 4 million inhabitants in Perth,” Mr Fini said.

“If we don’t plan now it’s going to be a disaster. People have to get used to living in apartments.”

While the Como residents ultimately lost their fight, the response on social media showed they were not alone in their reservations about higher-density living in Perth.

“It’s always the person making the money that says attitudes need to change, but my guess is they’re not the ones getting a monstrosity for a neighbour. Perth does need higher-density housing; what it doesn’t need are lots of big concrete boxes.” — Karen

“I’ve been living in an apartment for 10 years. I’m looking forward to getting out and living in a house with a garden. Enjoying trees, growing a vegie patch, a dog running around and somewhere private to sit outside and watch my kid play.” — Cate

“The only high-rise thing I want to see in the suburbs are trees.” — Sue


Ms Nematollahi said people with positive attitudes towards high-density living had often experienced that way of life in Europe or North America.

“There are two types of high density they have in their mind: the European style, where it is well managed, or there is the chaotic, polluted high density of developing countries,” she said.

“That’s why they panic a little bit. Which will it be here, the European model or the Asian one?”

“Having lived in Barcelona, New York and Hong Kong, I find that high-rise living gives a distinctly dynamic feel to a city. Perth’s single-level urban sprawl is a relic of times passed. Build upwards and get excited.” — Mike

“I’d pick high-rise any day. Lock and leave, building facilities (our own pool, gym, cinema etc). It’s great.” — Tim

Attitude change was likely to come only when it was forced on people, Ms Nematollahi said.

“Perth is still affordable, but in Sydney it’s at the point where many families there who want to be near good schools and good services do go and buy the units and apartments,” she said.

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