University Of New South Wales: Family-friendly apartments are key to a compact city

Apartment living, a feature of the compact city, is a solution to urban sprawl and housing affordability concerns. However, apartment designs too often exclude families, making it difficult for parents with children to see their apartments as long-term homes, says Dr Sophie-May Kerr, a researcher at UNSW City Futures Research Centre.

Dr Kerr is examining the lived experiences of apartment dwellers in Australia. Her research documents the practical and emotional challenges faced by families who are at the forefront of a demographic shift away from suburban living.

“They recognise the benefits of the compact city such as walkability and proximity to services,” Dr Kerr says. “But families living in apartments experience a variety of challenges that need to be addressed if the compact city is to be inclusive of diverse household types.”

Apartment living for families is on the rise
Detached housing is ingrained in Australian culture and families are traditionally seen as belonging in the suburbs. Cities with apartments, on the other hand, are regarded as places for childless cosmopolitan living.

More families, however, are choosing or are constrained to apartment living because the ‘Australian Dream’ of detached housing is increasingly out of reach.

While not the expected demographic for higher density living, in Sydney, families with children now comprise comparable numbers to singles and couples in apartments,” says Dr Kerr.

The shift towards apartment living is driven by affordability pressures alongside location and lifestyle benefits.

“Cultural norms haven’t kept pace with the increasing number of families living in apartments, though it is very common in other parts of the world. Families in Australian apartments are still made to feel like they don’t belong,” says Dr Kerr.

“In my work it’s important to document the experiences of these families to learn from them what works well and what could be improved to make high-density spaces more inclusive.”

Existing apartment stock isn’t designed for families
Australians’ attitudes about who belongs in apartments is evident in existing apartment stock, which has an over-representation of one- to two-bedroom apartments designed with singles and childless couples in mind. Some body corporate by-laws even go as far as prohibiting children from playing on common property.

“Apartments are traditionally seen as short-term options or spaces suitable for smaller households like singles, couples or empty nesters,” says Dr Kerr.

And so families currently living in apartments struggle with poor sound-proofing, lack of storage, inflexible layouts, too few bedrooms, and absence of family-friendly communal spaces.

“We need to genuinely recognise families as legitimate apartment residents and property developers need to imagine them in the early stages of the planning and design of medium and high-density apartments.”

The emotional toll on families
Families currently living in apartments are also likely to experience feelings of shame and guilt about their housing situation, Dr Kerr’s research has found.

“In addition to putting up with lack of storage and poor soundproofing, for instance, families can also face judgement from others about their choice of living arrangements. That judgement can come from family, friends and even strangers, and it causes emotional strain for parents already trying to make living in an apartment work when it’s not designed for their needs,” she says.

“Families in apartments find it emotionally draining to justify their choices to others. If the compact city model is to be successful, apartments should be seen as homes where families belong.”

Dr Kerr says an overall improvement in apartment design and shift in community attitudes towards apartment living will ensure that families can feel like apartments are their ‘forever homes’.