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With a population of two million people living along a 150 kilometre stretch of pristine coastline, Perth has one of the largest urban sprawls in the country.
On a good day, it would take two hours to drive from one end of the metropolis to the other — from Two Rocks in the north to Dawesville in the south.
Perth is also experiencing a huge land sale boom unmatched by any other Australian city.
The quick uptake of tens of thousands of dollars in government COVID-19 economic recovery bonuses for new homebuyers and builders mean an estimated 17,000 extra homes will be built in Perth this financial year.
But where will all these people live? The answer is nowhere near St Georges Terrace in the city's CBD.
COVID-19 economic recovery payments spurred Ben Gregory to buy a block of land at Honeywood estate, 33 kilometres south of Perth.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)Ben Gregory, 23, had been looking to build a home long before he was able to sink $55,000 of government stimulus cash into his first home.
In the manic rush triggered by the announcement of the State Government's Building Bonus grant and the Commonwealth's HomeBuilder grant, he purchased a block at Honeywood estate, about 33 kilometres south of central Perth.
"The websites weren't updating as fast enough as the blocks were selling," he said.
"Nothing was entirely accurate at that point; you just had to guess and then go and see if the sign on the block said sold.
"People were just ringing up and saying 'I'll have that one' not even looking at them.
"It was probably the quickest amount of time I'd spent $300,000."
A first homebuyer in Western Australia could claim up to $55,000 in grants this year.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)Mr Gregory said the availability of land was one of the main deciding factors for buying in Honeywood.
"I didn't want to miss out on land because if you don't get the land, you don't have a house and then you don't get your benefit," he said.
"A lot of my life is based around the city and just south of, so I wanted to get down close to this area."
Perth is lagging far behind on its urban infill target of 47 per cent by 2031.(Supplied: NASA)While the new sub-division exists within an otherwise semi-rural setting, Mr Gregory said he was happy with the level of infrastructure available.
"It would be really good if the train station came down a bit closer," he said.
"Typically younger people want to be close to the city.
"But I think (due to the grants) we're going to find in a lot of these areas where younger people wouldn't typically build in, you're now going to be getting younger homeowners mixed in."
Perth's biggest ever land boomAfter years of downturn in the property market, more blocks of land were sold in Perth than ever before, with 3,322 lots going in just four weeks.
WA recorded a record number of land sales following the introduction of home building incentives.(Supplied: Department Of Planning, Lands And Heritage)"Literally within the first two weeks of the stimulus measures coming into play, we saw a dramatic spike up to almost 1,000 lot sales in the first week, which is just absolutely phenomenal," Urban Development Institute of Australia chief executive Tanya Steinbeck said.
The bulk of those sales were concentrated in far-reaching suburbs like Ellenbrook and Alkimos.
Just 19 were located in the central metro region.
Ms Steinbeck said the tight construction turnaround required for people to access the grants meant the development of vacant lots in the inner-city region was all but off the table.
"The house and land products you would get in a greenfields environment is quicker and easier to deliver than what a lot of infill sites are," she said.
"There are more constraints from a land perspective and neighbours and approval processes with local government authorities in an infill context."
Planning experts say the grants expedited the delivery of new housing developments across the Perth metro area.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)Despite that, Ms Steinbeck said she did not think the building bonuses encouraged urban sprawl, rather it simply expedited the sale of new land.
"All they're doing is selling existing stock and then pressing buttons on new stages within a development that perhaps they wouldn't have done for another 12 months," she said.
Has the pandemic triggered 'suburban' sprawl?Curtin University urban planning lecturer Dr Courtney Babb said he believed a shift towards working from home favoured suburban living.
"Over a long period of time, it might change the dynamics about where people decide to buy a house," he said.
"They might trade off a longer commute for a more affordable home if they can work from home for a couple of days a week."
The $1 billion Northlink project services outer-suburban communities like Ellenbrook and Aveley with Perth's CBD via a new freeway.(Supplied: Main Roads WA)His university colleague Dr Shane Greive, who specialises in property research, said he believed the pandemic could spook people into reconsidering high-density living.
"People come into their buildings and they're like 'okay, I've got to press a button, the same button that everybody else pressed," he said.
"I've got to walk into in a little box, the elevator, where another 300 people have gone up, and they scratch their heads going 'is this what I wanted?'.
There's a push for more automation in public or shared spaces in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)"We've been pushing urban consolidation, but consolidation links with public transport, it links with high density living — and now there's a question mark over that."
Some are predicting a post-pandemic migration from the city to quieter, smaller regional areas.
Dr Babb said the government's fast tracking of several big ticket transport projects in the hope of steering the economy through COVID-19 would encourage sprawl.
"You'll have these longer-term structural changes of people choosing to live a little bit further out because there's a great road network that can get them to where they want quite quickly," he said.
Land clearing has begun to make way for a new passenger rail line to Yanchep, 55 kilometres north of Perth's CBD.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)Each of the passenger rail extensions proposed for Perth in the near future also have an adjacent freeway upgrade component.
"If you've got a road that takes 25 minutes to get into the city and a train that takes 25 minutes, a lot of people in Perth will still choose to drive," Dr Babb said.
"So that's going to have longer term effects on where people choose to live."
Why do we have such a huge suburban sprawl?The simple answer is because the homes in the outer suburbs are cheaper.
"The further out you go, the more affordable it becomes," said Ms Steinbeck.
Dr Greive said that was attractive particularly to first homebuyers.
"If there were affordable apartments in central locations near train stations, together with good quality schools and other family-friendly amenities, would first home buyers prefer these over buying on the outer fringe?" he said.
A coastal housing sub-division in Eglinton, 51 kilometres north of Perth.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)Ms Steinbeck said the city's linear coastline was a huge drawcard.
"It's the lifestyle, it's the access to the beach," she said.
"It's no surprise that when we look at how Perth has developed over time, there's a concentration of people right along the coastline.
"It's a fascinating conversation to have about if we started from scratch, would we still put the Perth CBD in the same location? Or would it be somewhere else?"
An estimated 17,000 new homes will be built in Perth this financial year.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)Dr Greive said the design of outer-suburban neighbourhoods left a lot to be desired.
"I see houses without any room for trees, where the back door is just off hitting the back fence," he said.
"I'm unwilling to accept that as anything called sustainability.
"So then I'm asking what is on offer? And I do think it's affordability."
Perth's best-value land is promised at a housing estate in Two Rocks, 65 kilometres north of the CBD.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)Perth is also lagging far behind on its urban infill target of 47 per cent by 2031.
Ms Steinbeck said a resistance to building up in some of Perth's wealthier established suburbs made inner-city living more expensive and drove people to the outer suburbs.
"You've got people on 800-square-metre lots with massive five, six-bedroom houses," she said.
"You cannot deliver a higher density product with the land value as it is.
"What we need to see is greater diversity in terms of one and two-bedroom products, which would get the price point down to an affordable level for people to be able to live in those infill suburbs."
But wait, is sprawl a bad thing?Not necessarily.
Ms Steinbeck said the cost of building infrastructure to service those far-reaching areas was enormous.
"When people are looking for a location to buy in, it's all about the surrounding amenity like public transport, access to health facilities, access to retail and cafes — the culture of the place," she said.
"If you're developing greenfield lands, one of the challenges is making that feel like a community when it's going to take a little while for the infrastructure to catch up.
"I think it's a bit of chicken (and) the egg, right? But equally, it can go the other way as well, where you can build a new land estate and you may have to wait ten years before the infrastructure catches up."
Urban Development Institute of Australia chief executive Tanya Steinbeck says people are usually looking for access to public transport, health facilites, retail and cafes.(ABC News: Benjamin Gubana)Ray Haeran, the planning director of urban planning firm URBIS, said a well-designed city had a balance of quality high to medium-density infill and suburbia.
He said for many families it was a lifestyle choice to live in the suburbs, where blocks are spacious.
"It ultimately will come down to what consumers prefer," he said.
"What you're seeing is that there are people who are prepared to forego that proximity of the city and go out to the 'burbs.
"It's more about making sure that that's not a forced requirement."
The community of Ellenbrook is about 30 kilometres from Perth's CBD and is home to almost 50,000 people.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)URBIS property economics director David Cresp said the further development of major centres outside of the CBD, like Joondalup, Midland and Mandurah would help strike a healthy balance.
"I think for a long time in Perth, we've been quite CBD centric," he said.
"I think if Perth continues to grow, we will start to have other strong regional centres become even stronger.
"A lot of people in Alkimos, for example, not surprisingly don't work in the CBD.
"They work in Joondalup, they work FIFO, they have jobs in that north-west corridor."
So will the sprawl get bigger?According to current estimates, it would take 33 years to build on all of the vacant land earmarked for development in the Perth metropolitan area.
These homes in Two Rocks are at the northernmost tip of the Perth metropolitan area. The land beyond the suburb is also earmarked for development.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)But Mr Cresp said he doesn't believe COVID-19 will extend the sprawl any further than already planned.
"Yes we're seeing a land boom, we've opened up the door to some people that wouldn't have bought and we've brought a lot of demand forward," he said.
"But has it changed where people are going to live? No.
"There is a higher likelihood that a first-time buyer is going to buy in a suburban area due to affordability reasons anyway.
"The people that wanted to buy in inner city areas still have got that option, they can still buy infill, there is still plenty of availability in apartments.
"It hasn't fundamentally changed the make up of the city, I don't think."
The developers of this sub-division 65 kilometres north of Perth's CBD say it contains the best-value land available in the city.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)Mr Haeren said he does not think the pandemic has disrupted the need for infill in our cities.
"The reality is there is no evidence or basis to suggest that density and COVID are intrinsically linked within a contemporary Australian society," he said.
"If you're in the slums of Mumbai, yes, it will have an intrinsic impact on how COVID is spread but within our Australian society, it's not going to have any impact.
"I don't think that there's any basis for it being a reason for not continuing quality planning around having good quality density in locations that can support it."
This article first appeared on www.abc.net.au
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