My thoughts on the relationship between design quality and urban density five years ago sparked many discussions with colleagues as well as considerable feedback, both positive and negative. Significant positive change has occurred in Western Australia in a relatively short space of time, including the emergence of ‘community benefit’ which is an important part of this discussion.

The Continuing to improve design quality remains the key to encouraging a shift towards apartment living and achieving higher densities in Western Australia. In the past poor outcomes inhibited this shift, however we have recently made significant progress in this area. The State Government’s Design WA built environment policies have established a clear framework and assessment criteria for design quality. Wider use and reliance on Design Review Panels (DRPs) have also been a positive development. When embraced by all participants and functioning as intended, DRPs are a collaborative process assisting applicants to develop and refine outcomes by harnessing the expertise of a range of design professionals, who often also possess valuable ‘local knowledge’.

The importance of design quality is illustrated by recent change in suburbs such as South Perth. South Perth has been proactive in terms of high density development, which is an important objective, however hasn’t fully influenced or controlled design quality. Some poor outcomes particularly relating to streetscape interfaces have established conditions which aren’t conducive to generating and maintaining a vibrant, active public realm and strong local communities.

In comparison, apart from a pocket along Vincent Street, areas such as Leederville have not yet seen significant development. Labeled NIMBYism by some this is partly due to a strong and at times fiercely protective local community. A number of important elements laying a platform to achieve successful outcomes may have now aligned though. The ABN development recently increased Leederville’s daytime population and delivered streetscape as well as laneway interfaces which activate the surrounding context. The City of Vincent has also recently invited submissions for innovative developments in two large carpark sites. In the next few years Leederville will see a number of large scale developments and can learn valuable lessons from areas such as South Perth.

The Town Team Movement, which facilitates a grass roots community led ‘place’ based approach, has played an important role in galvanising and empowering local communities. Increasing inner urban densities is an important objective meaning higher density development is inevitable. Some local community groups such as Leederville Connect have found proactive ways to contribute to and influence development outcomes. Leederville Connect Design Group in particular has spent a number of years engaging with its local community to develop a body of resources such as the Leederville Character + Shared Spaces Design Guide, amongst many others. These resources give developers a better understanding of the areas history and unique character whilst also identifying social infrastructure opportunities that will meaningfully contribute to the specific needs of the community. This is an invaluable body of ‘local knowledge’ as extracting this from scratch requires significant energy and time. Many developers are willing to contribute to local communities and are also open to being pointed in the right direction.

EG and its design consultants Cameron Chisholm Nicol Architects and Hatch Roberts Day, amongst others, have been designing a significant mixed use development including build to rent and build to sell housing in Frame Court. This team undertook a thorough consultation and engagement process with the local community, Leederville Connect as well as the City of Vincent over a number of years. A Local Area Social Infrastructure Study and comprehensive Local Development Plan laid a platform for a considered Development Approval submission. This proposal includes a series of landscaped public plaza spaces, a high quality streetscape interface, numerous community use spaces, an affordable housing component, public art, rain water capture initiatives referencing the sites historical topography and meaningful strategies to mitigate the bulk and scale of the development. At least some of these initiatives resulted from the dialogue between developer, design team and local community. This is a best practice engagement model setting an exciting precedent for future large scale development in the area. Each high quality outcome involving local communities in a meaningful way slowly alters attitudes towards development and builds confidence within the wider community.

Developers are increasingly seeking significant discretion over and above local planning frameworks. If the site as well as surrounding context are appropriate this can be negotiated in the best interest of both local communities and developers. Increased height and plot ratio should be accompanied by high level community benefits including exceeding policy requirements in areas such as landscaping, deep soil zone, sustainability, provision of community space, public art and highly interactive ground plane streetscape interfaces. Community use spaces such as pocket parks, children’s play-spaces, co-working spaces and artist spaces amongst others provide a much needed level of amenity for communities. As well as the proactive work being undertaken by some local community groups a number of local councils are currently drafting their Community Benefit Local Planning Policies. In order to successfully increase inner urban densities it’s essential we also leverage the social infrastructure or community benefits attuned to each community’s needs from development.

A high proportion of buildings within our built environment are not designed by architects. Design quality is a broad term encompassing many diverse aspects and criteria. As one of many performance indicators, I’ve increasingly noticed a correlation between use of skilled designers and spatial efficiency. Many property owners save a few dollars employing lesser skilled designers only to end up spending a lot more constructing inefficient buildings. Each square meter of building constructed costs between $2k to $4.5k, depending on typology and level of quality. Mandating the use of architects to design buildings of a certain size, type and complexity is a topic I’ve often steered away from as it could be seen as coming from a position of vested interest. If we are serious about improving design quality we should consider this as a next step. Architects working collaboratively and embracing meaningful community engagement models are best equipped to deliver high quality outcomes.

Achieving higher built environment design quality and increasing urban densities in Western Australia are inherently linked. In the past few years the topic of community benefit has emerged which is also an important prerequisite. The introduction of Design WA, further reliance on DRP’s, proactive energy of local communities, development of community benefit polices and meaningful community engagement models have significantly strengthened the framework to achieve successful outcomes. There is certainly a lot of work still to be done however there have also been many pleasing advances in the last few years.

June 2022

Image - SODA Apartments in Northbridge by Gresley Abas Architects