Council is in the process of renewing its future housing strategy and lately Councillors have been grappling with how we can we meet predicted population growth and promote housing affordability while still maintaining the amenity of our small communities and ensure necessary infrastructure.

I often here people claim that we should stop all development and effectively say “sorry, we’re full” to future residents. Not only is this impossible (local Councils have an obligation to facilitate enough housing to meet projected demand) but it would also result in house prices skyrocketing, creating homogenous, gentrified communities where only the wealthiest can afford to live.

Over the past two decades, Ballina Council has re-zoned hundreds of hectares of rural land for residential development. We’re now at the stage where we are running out of land that is suitable for further “greenfield” development. This is because much of the remaining land is constrained in some way, for example, it may be classified as state or regionally significant farmland, be flood or bushfire prone, impacted by highway noise or contain areas of high environmental value. There is also a question about whether more of this kind of sprawling “greenfield” development is desirable for our Shire.

So if we don’t want to build out, then maybe we need to consider whether its time to build up?

Australia’s have a love affair with big houses, but we’ve given up on the dream of the quarter acre block. A drive through any of our Shire’s newer housing estates and you’ll mostly see a sea of 3–4-bedroom detached dwellings on a block usually less than 500sqm. This is great if you are a growing family, but not so good if you are a young person looking to buy your first home, a single parent or a retired couple looking to downsize.

Making housing more affordable is not simply a matter of building more houses. Housing stock must meet the needs and the budget of different purchasers.

Low-rise medium density housing is often described as the “missing middle” in housing stock. In the context of planning limits in the Ballina Shire, medium density housing is likely to consist of a range of different styles of housing usually between 2-3 stories. Examples include the more traditional dual occupancy/townhouse, shop-top houses and “live/work” units (housing above an office in a mostly residential area), mixed-use residential/light industrial precincts (like Byron’s Arts and Industry Estate), manor houses and 2-3 story terrace houses.

Increasing density is also important if we are going to reduce carbon emissions enough to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees. Smaller houses cost less to cool and heat, use less water and force us to think carefully about how much we consume.

It is important to recognise that medium density housing is also not suitable for every location. We need to start by increasing density close to CBD areas. Co-locating housing with amenities and public transport will reduce car dependence and encourage active transport. Sustainability considerations such as materials, energy and water reuse need to be built into the design from the outset.

With our population predicted to keep growing for at least another 50 years before it eventually peaks towards the end of the century and recent research by the Regional Australia Institute showing that 1 in 5 city dwellers have plans to move to the regions, its time to re-think the way we live and include medium density as part of our community’s housing mix.