Renewing the Great Australian Dream 

Our Destiny is Density.

What will it take for Australians to understand the value of density?

Woods Bagot and ERA-co are leading a growing discourse in Los Angeles on “Renewing the Dream”, exploring the forces propelling the City of Angels’ shift from a car-oriented, low-rise landscape into a more diverse, dense, and complex metropolis.

Once a population that dreamed on four wheels, Angelenos are relinquishing their autotopian fantasy in favour of a more sustainable, affordable, and technologically-enabled model, renewing their dream to keep pace with the fast realities of a changing world.

Combining original research, design studies, and cultural essays, Renewing the Dream: The Mobility Revolution and the Future of Los Angeles allowed writers, urban planners, architects, and policy experts to put forward a multidisciplinary understanding of LA that considers how the incoming mobility revolution might allow areas now dedicated to parking and gas stations be reimagined for better purpose.

Thirteen-thousand kilometres away, Australia has its own dream that is just as desperate for renewal.

An expression of success and security, the Australian Dream is tailored to a quarter-acre slice of land and a house of one’s own.

An expression of success and security, the Australian Dream is tailored to a quarter-acre slice of land and a house of one’s own. Incomplete without a three-car garage at the end of a cul-de-sac, a hills hoist, and a barbecue, this dream is a product of the 1950s – a decidedly optimistic decade in our cultural history that saw cars become affordable for the first time, prompting the popularisation of motels, drive-ins, and the suburbs at large.  

Australian stamp depicting the Chrysler Valiant R Series sedan, 1962 (Australia 1997). In it, a couple enjoy the experience of drive-in cinema, showing the perks of mobile accessibility.

Australian stamp depicting the GMH Holden 48-215 (FX) sedan,1948 (Australia 1997). Children and a dog play in front of a milk bar in the background, showing the perks of mobile accessibility.

The rise of the Australian Dream prompted a country-wide suburban sprawl that continued through the 60s and 70s and up until today, where it has become clear that – as an urban model – the dream is not sustainable.

Despite this, many Australians still view home ownership as the ultimate symbol of success. The perceived space, privacy, prestige, and freedom associated with owning a detached house with a yard big enough for kids and a dog is as compelling now as it was 80 years ago.  

Profoundly ingrained in Australia’s psyche, the ongoing appeal of the Australian Dream is partly owed to a fondness nurtured by seminal Australian film and TV depictions. Running for 39 and 36 years respectively, Australian soaps Neighbours and Home and Away explore small (and big) dramas in a suburban setting, while Kath and Kim and The Castle – a 1997 film voted the best expression of Australian identity in 20101A nationwide survey in which over one third of people (37 percent) voted The Castle as the best representation of Australia. Australia Day Council of NSW (ADCNSW), 2010. – provide beloved-if-satirical takes on the habits and values of modern suburban Australians.

Varied, interesting and sociable, the high-density lifestyle could be the antidote to the loneliness epidemic.

The Castle links identity with homeownership. Over the course of the film, tow‑truck driving, working class “battler” and Kerrigan patriarch, Darryl, defies a government agency’s attempts to compulsorily acquire his family’s home. Against all odds he succeeds in his appeal to the High Court, establishing the legal precedent that “a man’s home is his castle” – effectively codifying the ideology of the Australian Dream as law and recording a victory for the “ordinary man”.

Australians needn’t search too hard for examples of the value that density can bring. New York, Vancouver, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Seoul are all thriving examples of the incredible value of density. Highly liveable and thrumming with personality, each city allows people to live in neighbourhoods where everything is at their doorstep, where cars are for weekend excursions only and a walk to the corner store involves many ‘good mornings’ to friends and neighbours. Varied, interesting and sociable, this lifestyle could be the antidote to the loneliness epidemic afflicting more populations in contemporary society.

Short Lane, for example – a Woods Bagot-designed apartment building in Sydney’s Surry Hills – offers an exemplar for low scale, mixed-use city living, seeking to integrate nature and community within a compact, urban context.

Knowing this, why is Australia still leading the global average in largest house size?1World Population Review (2024), Country Rankings, House size by country, accessed 12/03/2014, The typical suburban detached dwelling necessitates car use, eliminating the incidental pedestrian interactions that enable community and connection. Add a high fence to the scenario and the Australian Dream can become a fortress of loneliness and seclusion – a weighty problem when we consider that loneliness is linked to shorter life spans, poor physical and mental health, greater psychological distress, and general dissatisfaction2In August 2022 more than one-third (36%) of Australian adults reported experiencing loneliness at least some of the time in the week before the survey (during lockdown, the percentage was 46%). Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2023), Australia’s welfare 2023 data insights, catalogue number AUS 246, AIHW, Australian Government. .

The cracks in the Australian Dream don’t stop there: the pressures urban sprawl place on our cities from both an infrastructure perspective and environmental cost are astronomical. Increased urban heat, congestion, pollution and waste, as well as mounting pressure on increasingly scarce resources like water and energy, combine with detriment to our natural environment.

Inspired by our work in the US, Woods Bagot and ERA-co have undertaken a comparison of low-, middle- and high-density living – not just from an urban perspective, but at an individual level.

Mindful that people are the driving force behind successful places, our team measured the qualitative factors that matter to the individual. Our research considers the new parents deciding where to raise their family; the 25-year-old choosing where they will live in a new and lonely city; and the empty-nesters looking for their place to grow old. This lens has allowed us to focus on the elements of community, mapping how density makes a difference, from access to key facilities, to our sense of belonging within a wider group (high-density can mean the difference between meeting 30 people on a typical 100-metre walking trip compared to 12 in low-density areas).

We hope that the outcomes of this study might help to shift some hearts and minds to a new Australian dream: one that prioritises sustainability, community, accessibility, and vibrancy.

Sarah Kay, Principal.

Sarah’s architectural career spans two decades and three continents, building lasting
client relationships and delivering projects in London, Melbourne, Sydney and New York.
She has a deep understanding of the challenges, both local and universal, facing global
organisations keeping pace with a fast-changing world. Sarah is focused on adding value
to her client’s businesses through foresight and vision to the future. Some of the world’s
most successful organisations, including Google, Lendlease, Bloomberg, LinkedIn, and
Macquarie Group, return to Sarah for her fluency in the languages of design and business,
and her ability to guide clients through changes that result in enhanced user experience
and productivity.

Talk to Sarah Kay about Renewing the Great Australian Dream 

Read about some of our high density projects.