Is low-cost housing the future of urban living?

The demand for land and natural resources poses obvious threats to every sphere of city building, bending yesterday’s question marks into panicked exclamation marks over a sustainable future.

It is easy to fathom why the 21st century is dubbed as the urban century. According to a 2015 report by the International Organization for Migration, 54 per cent of the world’s population is now living in cities. This rapid mass migration shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon, and so it begs the question, are the cities ready to take in all these newcomers?

With global populations swelling to nine billion people in the next 20 years, of which half will live in cities, we’re facing a tight squeeze of unprecedented proportions. The demand for land and natural resources poses obvious threats to every sphere of city building, bending yesterday’s question marks into panicked exclamation marks over a sustainable future.

The king crisis hinges on housing. How can we simply accommodate the ever-growing masses in our burgeoning city centres? Naturally the solution has always been to meet the demand with successful models of affordable housing. But as history keeps showing us, ‘successful’ needs time to prove its salt. Currently our low-cost housing solutions are too short-sighted. Granted, the immediate costs are low, but the toll on society and the environment in the long run is dreadfully high.

We may be get faster at rolling out low cost housing solutions. But don’t be fooled. We’re all paying a very steep price for it. It’s time we pull back the lens and scope the issue wider, so we can redefine what this planet and our species can actually ‘afford’.

What’s affordable anyway?

Definitions vary and change, but generally, affordable housing refers to housing units that are affordable by that section of society whose income is below the median household income. In Australia, the National Affordable Housing Summit Group defines it as, "...reasonably adequate in standard and location for lower or middle-income households and does not cost so much that a household is unlikely to be able to meet other basic needs on a sustainable basis."

The point: when we talk ‘affordable’ we are talking strictly financial.

But there are broader implications to our designs than just monthly mortgage matching. We must also look at the knock-on effects of location, green space, access to transportation, median utility costs, overall conduciveness to personal wellness and match between physical asset and personal need. The rent may be low, but the neighbourhood is unsafe and remote. So not only is the commute expensive; the long-term health costs will be astronomical to a resident whose mobility is restricted to the safety of a locked, moving car over time.

Or what about the unavailability of healthy fresh food that wasn’t taken into account? Or the necessity for air conditioning systems in a cramped apartment facing rising temperatures every year? The unexpected cost of bus fare on the pay cheque? Or the impact of the glut of one-bedroom units when the low-income nurses who are trying to live near where they work require a three-bedroom house for their family?

Taking all these factors into account, the idea of ‘affordability’ demands a far more complex analysis.

The future is green

It requires us to think ecosystem over individual project. Sure, overpopulation is breathing hot on our backs and, more than ever, we simply need cheap roofs over heads. But the solution is not to slap down brick and mortar faster. A better solution is to design within the context of sustainability and lifestyle. If we want to ensure healthy cities, we have to build with green space and human connectivity in mind.

Parks, pathways and permeable open space change the way we live, play and interact with one another. Suddenly the pedestrian, not the sedentary driver, is at the centre of design, which immediately encourages healthier lifestyle habits. Strangers soon become neighbours with names and stories and a growing sense of place – vital elements to community building.

And of course green space provides a powerful economic elixir to the ills of global warming. Says University of Melbourne’s Associate Professor Nick Williams, “If we remove all greenery and replace all the soil with impervious surface, such as concrete, we’ll have more flooding. It will be hotter. And these things will kill people. But if we can dramatically increase urban greenery with more parks, street trees, green roofs and walls, our cities will be healthier, more attractive places to live and it will save governments money in the long run.”

The city of Melbourne is gaining a gutsy reputation as a global climate leader, pioneering sustainable urban renewal through its Inner City Urban Landscape Adaptation and Urban Forest Strategy Programs. Their plan to increase biodiversity and forestry, integrate open spaces and lay down greener growth corridors is offering a robust strategic framework for the evolution and longevity of Melbourne's urban forest. More canopy and healthier ecosystems will buffer all kinds of negative environmental externalities, like urban heat island effect, air pollution and storm water run-off, into the future.

It’s all our problem

So, there’s a better way, right? But how do we get there? First of all, we start by thinking big picture: we must think living, not just housing. Environmental sustainability, community, wellness benefits, and place creation all play a role in crafting these sustainable communities for affordable living. Collaboration must be at the core of vision and strategy. Partnership between local and national governments, developers, environmentalists and urbanists will always be critical to the process.

City councils are important players in urban renewal because councils are ultimately the ones who are responsible for managing and maintaining open spaces. And if rate capping rolls out, budgets will be under serious strain, rendering more than ever the need for other agencies’ involvement to pick up the tab. And legislation needs to fall in line as well. Without legitimate policy in place to support a more comprehensive approach to affordable housing, cities will remain hamstrung and hindered by previous paradigms of city building.

Government units, organisations, and companies alike strive to provide future-ready solutions that can counter the effects of urbanisation on the environment and the community. By collaborating, surely we could come up with a sustainable alternative to low-cost housing, and finally redefine the concept of affordable living.

About the Author

Alexis Walker is Aurecon's Manager for Infrastructure Advisory. Her role is focused on providing strategic advice to the Transport, Education, Defence, and Health sectors through business cases, feasibility studies, user-centred design, investment strategies, and technical advisory services. 

 This article is an adaptation of LinkedIn Pulse by Alexis Walker titled, “The cost of low cost housing”.

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