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9 October 2019

The missing middle and dumb density

The West Australian

Opinion Piece by UDIA WA CEO Tanya Steinbeck 

For decades we have been building for the traditional, nuclear family of two adults and two children — and back in 2002 an extra child “for the country”.

The Great Australian Dream was a large house with a big backyard in which to play cricket, in a quiet cul-de-sac where you’d gather with the neighbours for a barbie and a game of footy.

As a result, three and four bedroom detached housing accounts for more than 82 per cent of Perth homes.

But with our shifting demographics, the housing choices we have today do not meet the needs of our population tomorrow. People aged 65 and over are the State’s fastest growing age group.

Families are splitting as the divorce rate increases, and millennials are more mobile than previous generations.

So what is the “missing middle”? Where should we deliver it, and how do we effectively transition from our single-lot residences to higher density apartments in the right locations?

The term Missing Middle Housing was coined by American Dan Parolek in 2013 to help fill a significant gap in the market within the many “walkable” urban places in the US. It describes a range of multi unit housing that is more compatible in scale with single family homes and is aimed to help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living.

Providing a range of price points and dwelling configurations, this type of housing is less imposing next to traditional single-storey homes and provides an effective transition to higher density apartments. The transition has been somewhat lost in the narrative around density, and it’s fundamental in order to deliver on the aspirational infill targets set by the State Government in a way that is not just accepted but encouraged by our communities.

Perth is beyond the experimental stage with medium density, with more questionable design outcomes resulting in gasps of horror from neighbours who, not surprisingly, say “not in my backyard”.

Without a strong design code to encourage innovative responses to the challenges of providing infill housing, we have ended up with “dumb density”. We need to retain and encourage tree canopies. We need parking alternatives that encourage walking and sufficient density that brings back local businesses.

The State Government is working hard towards this end. But as Dr Seuss says: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”