Regional values, liveability at risk from suburbanisation

Australia’s in-demand regional towns are at risk of house price depreciation if they become carbon copies of major cities’ outer suburbs, as residents continue to prioritise lifestyle over inner urban locations and investors are attracted to higher rental yields outside of the big cities.

Aerial shot of Glen Junor in Gisborne, Victoria
Glen Junor in Gisborne, Victoria has been hailed as an exemplar of rural development. Photo: Hatch RobertsDay (Image source:

Australia’s in-demand regional towns are at risk of house price depreciation if they become carbon copies of major cities’ outer suburbs, as residents continue to prioritise lifestyle over inner urban locations and investors are attracted to higher rental yields outside of the big cities.

The migration phenomena that picked up over the pandemic has town planners and developers grappling with the challenge of providing housing and amenity for the new residents, but in a way that does not negatively impact the character and heritage of regional towns.

Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed more than 64,000 Australians moved from a major city to a regional town between January and September last year, seeking an improved work-life balance and lower living costs, as well as the open spaces that a rural location can provide.

Hatch RobertsDay partner Mike Day told Australian Property Investor Magazine that the regional migration that picked up over the pandemic was likely to be a lasting phenomenon.

“Many find they don’t need to live near metropolitan city centres and pay high living and commuting costs if they can work remotely,” Mr Day said. 

“This will require our regional towns to cater for the increased demand. 

“Developers and planners must ensure they maintain the character and sense of place in these towns and villages, or face local community backlash and lose the essence of what makes those towns so attractive in the first place.  

“We cannot develop these areas in the same way as new suburbs on the outskirts of our metropolitan cities.” 

While Mr Day acknowledged that it would take planners and developers considerably more time and effort to ensure future growth was done in a thoughtful and considered manner, there was ample evidence that maintaining the look and feel of a historic area had several benefits for developers and property investors.

“You can reap the rewards both in terms of the development industry endearing itself to the community and the council, but also in the longer term to make significant returns,” he said.

“When you have timeless urbanism and put a bit of thought in, values increase over time. 

“Whereas the suburban pattern is a retrograde step and you go backwards.

“These towns are quite fragile and they have so much character, and that’s the reason that people are seeking them out,” he said.

“It would be tragic if it was eroded by the conventional parties coming in and laying out the same old suburban framework.”

Mr Day said a challenge facing local councils and elected officials was that planning officers and other staff in regional areas may not be as well versed in good urban outcomes as their inner city counterparts.

“So one of the things we need to do is work much more closely with elected officials and officers at the councils, and we also need to pay heed to the local community much more than we do, and to involve them earlier in the process,” he said.

“In the past, community consultation and engagement processes were all done at the end, after you’ve put your plans in and were close to getting an approval.

“You have to engage with them early - they have a level of sophistication because they are usually well-travelled, they’ve been around the globe and Australia and they’ve sought out these country towns. 

“We have referred to them as local experts but I think that we need to engage with them earlier on, not at the end of the process.

“Bring them in early and the most important thing is to make sure they are a true representation of the community, not just a vocal, single-issue special interest group.”

Mr Day said instead of utilising development techniques and patterns prevalent in outer suburbs, planning experts and local authorities needed to embrace exemplar projects happening in inner city areas.

“There is a lot of good urbanism that’s happening in the inner neighbourhoods of the capital cities, where retail groups are building more compact urban models,” he said. 

“They might stack the parking or put the parking behind the buildings instead of having the parking at the front door. 

“It’s more of an urban condition that’s inviting and maintains the character and is more respectful of the surroundings.

“Housing diversity is important, but there is a perception in the minds of some residents and it's also prevalent at some local authorities as well, that density is a dirty word. 

“There is a fear of the old residential flats, but there are so many different alternative forms of residential housing now.”

Mr Day recommended seven planning actions for councils, developers and planners to ensure growth in regional towns were embraced by the community: 

  1.     Councils could develop building codes and guidelines which reflect and respect their distinctive local settings. Developers and planners should respect a town’s character by integrating complementary developments into the existing urban pattern rather than introducing conventional suburban subdivision patterns and built form.
  2.     Engage and consult early with the community. Local residents are inevitably ‘local experts’ that have travelled extensively. When they are involved early in the planning process they can provide feedback and advise the changes they want to see to create a town they are proud of and will love to continue calling home. Councils and planners can get meaningful input from the community through engaging with residents, planning design forums where the community and stakeholders explore solutions and design ideas through interactive workshops, and social media. By capturing residents’ feedback, designers and planners can ensure the community’s views are reflected in the design and development of any future projects.
  3.     Create jobs for the local community. Creation of mixed-use neighbourhoods or business hubs and Government projects will attract business and work opportunities for local residents. Residents are very receptive to development plans that provide local jobs, particularly for the youth of a community, which invariably assists in addressing many social issues.
  4.     Reinforce and expand existing walkable neighbourhoods. Compact, mixed-use, walkable neighbourhoods provide opportunities for social connection and a reduced reliance on cars. With remote working becoming more popular, living in closer proximity to local amenities can reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, and will also foster a stronger community and sense of belonging, particularly among new residents moving from major cities.
  5.     Provide housing diversity. Communities that combine single dwelling homes, townhouses, apartments, and specialised housing such as seniors housing integrated with the township, enables ageing in place and attracts residents of all ages and incomes. Regional communities are receptive to diverse housing options if they maintain the essence and unique character of their townships.
  6.     Maintain community engagement in perpetuity. Councils, planners and developers must get feedback from the community at all stages of planning and development. Interactive mapping and community forums provide locals with the opportunity to voice their opinions and achieve built form outcomes they feel meet local needs. Ongoing community input on regional projects will ensure the critical attributes of the town is retained.
  7.     Promote exemplar projects of regional towns and villages. There is the need for exemplary demonstration or pilot projects to be promoted more broadly as a way for the community to have greater acceptance of regional township projects. The sustainable peri-urban 20-minute neighbourhood examples of Glen Junor in the Macedon Ranges Shire, Victoria and Witchcliffe Ecovillage in the Margaret River Shire, WA are regional projects that have been embraced by the locals for its ability to retain open space and greenery. Serenbe in Atlanta, USA – a wellness community connected to nature – is another great precedence to look to, which has fostered a neighbourhood that focuses on fresh food, fresh air and wellbeing.  

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