I work in Preston and I ride through Comas Hill every weekday on my way to and from school. I have to say, I've been surprised to see the sentiment, "Halt the Highrise" being expressed in an area that I've always imagined to be more environmentally and socially conscious than most. Black and white signs emblazoned with this slogan are posted in the shop windows and on almost every fence I pedal past. My concern and curiosity prompted me to check the website to see exactly what it is that's upsetting so many residents. And from what I can see, the community is objecting to a small number of medium density housing developments on the basis that they are "out of character" with the local neighbourhood.
I found this objection concerning. Surely, in order to create a sustainable future for our country (and our planet), the character of our neighbourhoods needs to change, and it needn't be for the worse. Big houses with big backyards, are not, and cannot be for everyone. Low density housing for the masses means cities that sprawl over the horizon, chewing up countryside and bushland and necessitating ever-lengthening roads to carry residents of far flung suburbs in and out of the CBD each morning and afternoon. The other option, the option our planet's future depends on, is the option that provides medium and high density housing in the inner city. This will keep our cities compact and give more people the option to live in happening inner-city suburbs like Thornbury, close to the city (where many of them work), within a walk or a bike ride to services and amenities like council pools, libraries, public transport, markets and, of course, good coffee.
In an effort to understand where the residents of Comas Hill were coming from I tried putting myself in their shoes. Perhaps, I thought, I’d feel differently if my peaceful, parkland neighbourhood was being threatened by a number of four storey, medium density housing developments. And then I pictured my street – the row of tightly packed townhouses, the three storey flats at the top of the hill and two more blocks of four storey apartments at the bottom of the hill along Harrison Street.
Sure, they’re not an attractive bunch of buildings, nor do they carry particularly good environmental credentials. They do however contain a great bunch of people, neighbours and friends, who talk to each other and care about each other. The more I thought about it, the more I realised, that despite its medium density housing, my little corner of East Brunswick has a whole lot of character and a sense of neighbourhoodiness that would put Ramsey Street to shame. Here in Merri Corner we stop and chat in the street, we collect each other’s mail and water plants when someone is on holiday, we’ve exchanged spare keys and homemade jam; the boys who used to live next door would walk the dog and I used to pop over for a beer and a chat after work. The couple on the other side dropped over not one but two batches of homemade hot cross buns for Easter and it’s definitely our turn to have them over for dinner. When it comes to community, we are living the dream.
This sense of community has always existed but it’s even more evident now that the garden has come along. In fact, I suspect that the relatively high density of people living in my neighbourhood is the very thing that made our community garden possible. So many of us, in such a small area, without backyards in which to grow our veggies gave the project enough impetus to push through the tiresome process of council approval and grant applications and blossom into reality. It works because so many of us are just around the corner from the garden, we can pop down after work to do some weeding and turn the compost or drop into each other’s houses to plan the latest project over a cuppa.
Perhaps there is an objectionable aspect to the Comas Hill developments that hasn't been made clear on the protest website. But higher density housing in and of itself needn't be a bad thing. Rather than campaigning against new developments altogether, surely it makes more sense to put your energy into lobbying to make sure that developers produce beautiful and environmentally sound buildings which are in character with the surrounding suburbs and that councils plan for an increase in the local population. Thornbury is a beautiful suburb with a strong sense of community. Rather than viewing any change as for the worse, why not work together to make it change for the even better.