Collaboration key to infill dream

The need to deliver a balance between infill and greenfield development is a long-held policy of UDIA WA and one that has been enshrined in policy by the State Government, most recently with the publication of Perth and Peel@3.5 million in 2018.

The Perth and Peel frameworks set an infill target of 47% with 53% of development still to occur in greenfield areas. As outlined in the frameworks, the aim is for most infill residential development to occur within activity centres, urban corridors and station precincts.

Perhaps most controversially, the State Government has set local government infill targets which have been met with mixed responses from stakeholders in local government and local communities.

While the need to limit what is often referred to in distaste as ‘urban sprawl’ is generally accepted, when it comes to delivering an infill project in an existing area, the engagement with local communities can be fraught with misconceptions and  fear about how a project might impact on a local area.

Former Mayor of Subiaco Penny Taylor knows all too well how infill targets can impact on a community, having navigated the adoption of the City of Subiaco’s local planning scheme (No. 5) in 2019 following significant community feedback and changes to density targets set by the State.

“I don’t doubt that local communities understand both the global benefits of infill and the reasons that now more than ever we need to go down this path,” Ms Taylor said.

“This doesn’t mean there isn’t a reticence in some communities, including my own, towards ‘local infill’.

“I think perceptions are changing. The first wave of infill we saw which started in the late 80s and early 90s was the creation, typically, of battle axe blocks throughout the metro area.

“Although this was probably less intrusive than modern infill development styles it created a suboptimal result. “What we are seeing now in the suburbs within the 10km ring of the CBD are some genuine medium density developments that through good architectural design minimise the visual bulk and scale as well as creating some aesthetically pleasing buildings.

“Unfortunately, some of the perceptions people have when they hear six storeys or nine storeys is of a building like the Telstra building in the city – a square, white box with harsh lines that takes up the whole block.

“With modern architecture nothing could be further from the truth.”

City of Melville CEO Marten Tieleman agrees that whilst communities have a good understanding of the role of infill development and the potential benefits, there are concerns with the quality, height and density of development and the quality and accessibility of community benefits being obtained in exchange for additional height, being experienced in specific activity centre infill areas such as Canning Bridge.

“Our experience is that the demand for infill development often comes from people already living in the local area who are seeking a different type of accommodation to suit their changing lifestyle and would like to remain within and connected to their community,” Mr Tieleman said.

“A challenge with infill development can emerge around the community’s expectation of what is a suitable scale and quality of infill development and additional traffic, particularly at the outer
fringes of an infill development area where it connects with more traditional residential areas.”

Mr Tieleman said the City’s Activity Centres provided opportunities for a range of housing types, with the extent of infill opportunities informed by the City’s Local Planning Strategy, Local Housing Strategy and the Activity Centre Plans themselves.

Quality on display
Ms Taylor says that the more examples that can be held up to show where infill has been done well, the easier it will be to reassure communities that amenity levels can be preserved and infill
density isn’t about bulldozing the neighbourhood.

“This will take time as bigger developments on brownfield sites are more attractive to developers as safe options, while smaller infill options are not yet,” Ms Taylor said.

“My personal view is that to ensure the ‘preservation of the physical things that make the community special’ while having responsible infill we need to be very deliberate and specific about the location of the infill.

“A nuanced approach that looks to locate pockets of density in appropriate places will best get the outcomes everyone is looking for.

“Lumping wholesale density onto an area and letting that work out for itself is an unhelpful way to go about it.”

Mr Tieleman says that in the Canning Bridge precinct, the ongoing engagement with the community highlighted community feedback regarding the scale of the development.

“As a result, our Council has initiated a review of the Activity Centre Plan with particular focus on building heights, transition zones, providing additional green space, improving connectivity
and quality of development,” Mr Tieleman said.

More power in local hands
Ms Taylor believes that we have seen a transition over decades of more power being placed in the hands of local government over planning issues; but given that power there is a responsibility to
use it thoughtfully.

“I fear that we are now in a position where local government as a whole may lose some of the powers they have been given due to obstructionist and unreasonable behaviours of a small minority of councils,” Ms Taylor said.

“Growth needs to happen, especially in inner-city local government areas. If local governments refuse point blank to negotiate with the State Government, as some have in recent years, then the  result will inevitably be that local government as a whole will likely see a dilution of planning powers; and unfortunately will have no one to blame for this but themselves.

“This may seem unfair on those local governments who are doing the right thing but could be the inevitable consequence to all from those which are not.”

Ms Taylor says that a nuanced infill density approach can only work if local governments work with State Government and all involved.

“The minute litigation is raised and behaviours become obstructionist, the opportunity for nuanced, small scale precinct planning is lost,” Ms Taylor said. “No-one wants to risk projects that are bogged down in a local government fight.

“While there are Councils that love operating like this and see these behaviours as a way to win, this is exactly the behaviour that may actually result in the local government losing its voice and losing its role in playing an important part in shaping our community for the future.”

Delivering on quality
Blackburne is one example of a developer that is successfully delivering infill projects at scale in several inner and western suburbs including Subiaco and Claremont.

Executive Chairman of Blackburne, Paul Blackburne says that while community views are gradually changing, there remains some who view multi-residential development as low quality ‘flats’.
“Developments, like One Subiaco and The Grove, which are much higher in quality, with lots of amenities and are designed specifically for owner occupiers and downsizers. These projects help change that perception,” Mr Blackburne said.

“The uptake of purchasers who live in the local area shows that delivering high quality projects in infill areas is helping meet the market demand and quickly changing perceptions.

“Perth is a very nuanced and sophisticated market so quality design is of upmost importance.”

According to Mr Blackburne,  the local community are not necessarily anti-development, they just don’t want to see low quality development.

“When we meet with residents, we explain our process, experience and aims for the project,” Mr Blackburne said.

“They are much more welcoming when they understand that we want to add value to the local area.

“People who were often considered anti-development soon become our advocates and often purchase when they understand the quality of the project and the value added to the local community.”

Working together
Moving forward, a combined approach from industry, local and State Government that aims to assist community stakeholders in understanding the intended benefits of quality infill development is needed.

Ms Taylor suggests that litigation and threats of litigation by local governments is the worst way to get positive infill development.

“Certain councils will pull this threat out early, and to some extent it can work. I don’t need to tell your readers that some developers will simply not even consider projects in some local governments,” Ms Taylor said.

This means the State Government needs to take on a much clearer leadership role in this space.

“My thoughts are that the State Government needs to be clear on why infill development is a positive outcome for the state and share this regularly,” Ms Taylor said.

“Local governments can lead their community in engaging by saying what they do want for their community.

“Things like new schools, disability access, upgrades to public facilities, a whole range of local community infrastructure can all be part of the discussion of what will make a great community with additional density, along with where density of varying sizes could be appropriate.”

Mr Tieleman says the State Government has an opportunity to support industry and local government in promoting the importance and the benefits of infill development in line with forecast population growth.

“Infill is often presented as a mandatory State Government imposed target to meet metropolitan wide objectives, with local governments left to pursue the facilitation phase, when in fact we need to do this to accommodate for future populations and generations, and to do this in a sustainable way,” Mr Tieleman said.

“Additional collaboration between industry and government in promoting the reasons for a policy promoting infill, additional promotion of the benefits to the community and continued focus on good design outcomes would assist this discussion.”

Mr Blackburne adds that the best outcomes are achieved when planning frameworks actively encourage infill developments and are less prescriptive regarding the outcomes.

“This encourages higher quality developments which benefit the community as a whole,” Mr Blackburne said.

At the end of the day, it will the projects being delivered today that will influence greater acceptance moving forward according to Ms Taylor.

“Let the great examples of nuanced infill density that are in the pipeline and emerging show how infill density can be suitably achieved in existing communities,” Ms Taylor said.