Acceptable density: reinventing the Sydney Terrace for the 21st Century

ONE of the great ironies of modern Sydney is that its most liveable and sustainable suburbs are the ones designed over a century ago. The main reason? Terrace houses.

Victorian and Federation housing was the mainstay of Sydney suburbs until World War II. It is characterised by small lots, attached housing, and street frontage. Because it was designed before the advent of the car, it was pedestrian focused and close to transport. It is less land hungry than later housing models, but provides a form of higher density living far more desirable than badly designed apartments.

Real estate agents know it – Sydneysiders love terraces. So why do they appear reserved for the inner city? Why is it that most of greater Sydney misses out?

We examined this very question as part of the McKell Institute’s “Homes For All” report. If terraces are so valued and prized, why aren’t developers building more of them?

The answer turned out to be simple: Current council restrictions make terraces all but unviable. If a developer wishes to build terraces, they will typically require a rezoning and a sub-division application, which often take years to process. Some councils even require terraces to have underground or off-street parking, making them either prohibitively expensive or simply not terraces at all. The result of this baffling approach is that developers end up building either McMansions in sprawling suburbs or high-rise apartments. The former isn’t sustainable and the latter isn’t popular.

Council restrictions also mean that when a family on a quarter acre block wants to improve the value of their home there is really only one option – a knock-down rebuild. One in six new homes in Sydney is one of these but they are simply new houses replacing old ones, not providing any new accommodation.

But what if we allowed people to build a terrace or a semi on their block, especially in suburbs near a train station? Each quarter acre block could hold two or three houses, instead of just one. An owner could, for example, rent out one, have a family member in the other and sell the third. This city has many train stations which are surrounded by low density, quarter acre blocks.

The state government should hold a design competition to update the terrace in line with modern family needs. Once a pattern book is developed, the government should encourage small lot, terrace or semi-detached housing within a 600-metre radius of every train station. It could do this by exempting such housing from planning approval for a sub-division or development application, so long as it complied with the standard in the pattern book. That would get the ball rolling nicely.

Recently Planning Minister Brad Hazzard announced he would like to see a move toward terrace living, noting how terraces are more environmentally efficient and provide “communities with heart”

Here is a final innovation the minister should consider to make his vision a reality. Developers will require advice and guidance to break a long-held habit.

This is a role that can be filled by the government. Like cities all over the globe, Sydney should introduce a housing and urban renewal authority to help the private sector deliver the homes we urgently need. Such an authority can support not just big developers, but small developers too, who currently provide a sixth of Sydney’s homes.

The terrace should not be an option available only to those in Surry Hills or Glebe. It is an idea whose time has come once again.

Tim Williams is CEO of the Committee for Sydney and Sean Macken is director of Macken Strategic Planning Solutions.

  • Duncan

    “a form of higher density living far more desirable than badly designed apartments”

    But what about well-designed apartments? Edinburgh, Paris and Barcelona (amongst many others) seem to have cracked it, and flatted living provides more density, and is arguably better-suited to our increasingly childless and solo living households. Semi-detached houses around train stations doesn’t seem the best use of well-connected land.

    • Tim

      I think my let out clause here is that i meant literally ‘badly designed’ apartments. That is ,I’m for ‘well designed apartments’ of the type you describe.There just aren’t that many of them in Sydney .Atr the same time we stopped providing a form of density which they did well here.

      Thanks for the reply


  • Brian

    Your article notes the gap between the demand for a certain housing type (terraced) and its supply by developers, and points to local authority planning policy and regulation as the key barrier in addressing the gap from a supply side. Is it really conceivable that the property developer market has not found some way around such a barrier, or to have the barrier removed, if there is a genuine demand (and of sufficient scale) for such a housing product. Or or are there other factors at play which help to explain the demand/supply gap? For example, is the demand for the terraced product negligible in the context of the overall demand for housing, or does the terraced product lose its appeal at certain distances from the city centre? Or is there a lack of expertise or familiarity in the developer community with this housing product which is acting as a further barrier to supply? Maybe it is all of the above but it points to a complex problem and perhaps some limitations to the terraced housing product as the core part of a housing solution for Sydney.

    Thanks for your article, definitively food for thought.


  • Jarrett Walker


    The single-story terrace is one of the marvels of Sydney, and probably its urban design idea most worthy of export. I lived in one for two years in east Redfern, and marveled at how spacious it felt in so little space, including an entirely private backyard (so long as everything is one story nearby).

    • Duncan

      It sounds like you’re describing miners’ rows, Jarrett!

      I think I’d prefer an upstairs to increase the density (and thus the consumers for local services) though. Bedrooms upstairs isn’t such a hardship.

  • Julian

    Provided the design process can overcome the past problems of earlier terrace housing (rising damp, poor sub-floor ventilation, poor natural light and internal ventilation, security and privacy) modern terrace housing is certainly part of the solution. However, it does remind me of modern townhouse developments to an extent and they have not taken off as a mass form of housing accommodation.

  • Stephen Driscoll

    Tim, I hear that Landcom has been working on this for a couple of years and has come up with some great designs which it is rolling out in its North Penrith development. You should contact them to see what they are planning.