Housing unaffordability in Australia affects an increasing proportion of people, and is at its most acute in Sydney.

In addition, the increasing impacts of climate change are more evident, and most existing housing stock is poorly designed to withstand increasing temperatures and heat shocks. Concurrently, improvements in health and well-being are creating a larger proportion of elderly people (ABS 2017). By 2066, people aged 65 and over will comprise more than 20 per cent of the Australian population. Some of these issues are noted in resilience plans and strategies many cities are developing to prepare for future shocks and stresses.

Resilience issues of ageing, inadequate and unaffordable housing are classed as chronic as they occur over the long term, whereas weather events caused by climate change, such as flooding or heat waves, are acute, and occur at unpredictable frequencies with high impacts (City of Sydney 2018; Rockefeller Foundation 2018). It follows our existing housing stock needs adaptation to accommodate chronic and acute resilience issues. Housing design follows standards and design preferences at the time of construction and become outdated over time.

Furthermore, over a geographic area the quality, age and condition of housing varies, as does its ability to accommodate variations in heat, humidity and rainfall. Distribution of populations varies in age demographics with some areas having younger or older populations. One paradigm gaining popularity is the circular economy approach, where urban resilience can be built upon sharing resources, goods and services, to support local economies and enhance social networks (Wilkinson & Remøy 2018).

The question is how can we best adapt our housing to address issues such as increasing temperatures, ageing populations and affordability. This article provides an overview of the housing stock in a selected Sydney Local Government Area (LGA) and explores priority areas for adaptation addressing economic, social and environmental sustainability and resilience issues.


Urban resilience is defined as: The ability of an urban system and all its constituent socio-ecological and socio-technical networks across temporal and spatial scales to maintain or rapidly return to desired functions in the face of a disturbance, to adapt to change, and to quickly transform systems that limit current or future adaptive capacity (Meerow, Newell & Stults 2016, p.39). Resilience planning and preparedness may require a focussed, rather than broader approach, that is a balance should be found in terms of which issues can, and cannot, be addressed, as each resilience concern may require a different approach.

To date, many studies concerning built environment resilience have focussed on street patterns, transportation networks and water, electricity, communication, and gas infrastructures. Innovations at the residential sector level could address some resilient issues concurrently, such as affordability, ageing population and adaptation for climate change. Let’s look at some ways we could do this.


Extreme weather is the highest risk to Sydney, with heat waves having the greatest impacts in terms of mortality and numbers of people hospitalised (City of Sydney 2016). Extreme heat has significant impacts on Sydney with 47.3 Celcius recorded in January 2018 in Penrith – the hottest day since 1939 (Australia Government – Bureau of Meteorology 2018).

The Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities (2016) calculated the cost of natural disasters at $9 billion per year, and estimate this will rise to $33 billion per year by 2050, without including the impacts of climate change. Reducing these costs is a priority (City of Sydney 2016). Many Australian cities and towns experience similar heat issues.


Many of Sydney’s highest impact stresses are associated with planning and investment to support the rapid growth and social changes of the population (City of Sydney 2016). Sydney is experiencing a loss of housing affordability and increasing and high rates of household debt (City of Sydney 2018), although house prices are declining in some areas as of late 2018/early 2019. At the same time, policy drivers, an existing stock of affordable housing, and diversity of housing types are lacking in Sydney (City of Sydney 2016).

Health infrastructure was assessed as the most vulnerable asset type (City of Sydney 2018). Rates of sickness and disability rises with age and older people tend to be higher consumers of health care services. The growing, ageing population is predicted to dominate health service planning over the next few decades. Climate changes, such as increased temperatures, exacerbate health issues in ageing populations and failure to address this challenge could mean poorer health and greater pressure on government budgets (City of Sydney 2016).


Nevertheless, a better match between housing design and people’s needs as they age is often disregarded (Yavari & Vale 2016). For aged people, key factors hindering the process of moving to a more appropriate dwelling are:

  1. Poor availability of suitable housing types,
  2. High costs and affordability of housing, and
  3. The suitability of location.

Limited housing choices for older people, as well as other personal factors, are leading to a demand for ageing in place (NSW Government 2016). ‘Ageing in place’ is a key strategy to reduce the cost burden of aged care on government and to encourage independent and active ageing ( Judd et al. 2014). It is seen as a win– win policy, and the often-stated preference of older people is to live independently in their own homes for as long as possible.

As such, modifications to make dwellings more accessible is a way to prevent forced downsizing in response to health crises (Judd et al. 2014). Different types of ‘internal moves’, such as de-cluttering, re-organisation, renovation and re-arrangement of bedroom and storage space (e.g. for care assistance) may enable people to remain in their homes. Elderly people should be provided with facilities to meet their physical and cognitive strengths, capabilities and limitations, and to match their body dimensions.

Accepting the need for longer-term thinking in housing design and adaptation, which reflects the uncertainty of future occupation and housing demand, is imperative. Otherwise, we are building in obsolescence in the housing sector through inflexibility and lack of adaptability. Research shows considerable proportions of the ageing population live in large houses with two or more spare bedrooms (Yavari & Vale 2016). In addition, apart from house size, families tend to spend the majority of time at home in the same spaces, i.e., ‘people who live in large houses actually spend most of the day living in a small area within the house’ (Khajehzadeh and Vale 2015, p.161).

One way of addressing downsizing within the property is suggesting ways to subdivide it to allow people to age in place and generate some income, or release capital with the rest of the house in the form of affordable rents. These rented spaces could link in with some form of assistance for the aged person(s) – whether it is cleaning, shopping, taking them out or sitting with them for some hours per week, which can be comprehended as a circular economy feature for the property.


The circular economy has the potential to change the way we design, build and manage our built environment. Compared to the existing, extractive industrial model, the circular economy is restorative and regenerative. Relying on system-wide innovation, a circular economy approach aims to redefine products and services to design waste out while minimising negative impacts. Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural and social capital.

How might this approach manifest itself in respect to ageing populations, housing affordability and sustainable housing adaptation in Sydney? The 2013 report Towards the Circular Economy: Economic And Business Rationale For An Accelerated Transition, from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey (2013), outlined opportunities in an economy that is regenerative and waste-free.

It sets out six principles:

  1. All materials are recycled infinitely in technical or biological cycles.
  2. All energy is derived from renewable or sustainable sources.
  3. Human activities should support ecosystems and rebuilding natural capital.
  4. Human activites should support a healthy and cohesive society and culture.
  5. Human activities should support human health and happiness.
  6. Resources are used to generate financial and other forms of value.

A circular economy aims to minimise waste and maximise reuse and recycling, moving from an open ended, linear model of production consumption to a circular one, in which wastes are reconceptualised as resources (Wilkinson & Remøy 2018). Adapting the existing housing stock attempts to keep existing materials and assets in use in a profitable manner, which can positively contribute to the emergence of a circular economy that could improve urban compactness measures such as density, mixed use, and intensification (Mahriyar & Rho 2014).

Given the issues for Sydney, such as additional space in the form of spare rooms in existing property, ageing people with health and social needs, and a housing stock unsuited to increased temperatures, the six principles above can be applied. Other questions arise, such as: How big is the problem? Can we tell whereabout in an LGA the problem is likely to be most acute?


Data was collected on one Sydney LGA, the Inner West (IW) and inner city LGA. Residential stock was evaluated to determine housing density, size and typology. Population data and density was also examined and found density is high at 5,429 persons/km.

Twelve per cent are older people (65 plus). Housing stock is 24.7 per cent owned, 28.4 per cent mortgaged and 43.6 per cent rented. 64.5 per cent of dwellings have two or three bedrooms, however average household size is 2.4 persons.

Lone person households accounted for 27.5 per cent of total households in 2016. The percentage of households with rental payments equal to, or greater than, the stress level of 30 per cent of household income has increased since 2011, affecting 15.9 per cent of total IW population. Healthcare and social assistance businesses employ 11.1 per cent of the total employed population locally, while 20.2 per cent provide unpaid assistance to persons with disabilities, or care for others. 14.2 per cent of the IW population lives with a disability in private dwellings, and 4.5 per cent need assistance for core activities.

Fifty-sex per cent of occupied housing stock has spare bedrooms, which indicates current inefficiencies. Some of this stock could be sub-divided and the spare bedrooms used to generate extra income. Local small businesses in healthcare and social assistance could grow to address these circumstances, enabling people to work close to home. Circular economy principles relate to supporting a healthy and cohesive society and generating value from existing resources.


Thematic maps identify areas which require action to address affordability, increasing temperatures and ageing populations. Yavari & Vale (2016) argue medium density terraced housing offers the best potential for subdivision, because they are narrow, longer in depth and back lane access can be used as a separate entrance. In Sydney’s IW it is possible to locate areas that are most affected by high temperatures in heat waves (red and orange colours in Figure 1) and which have greater percentages of population vulnerable to extreme heat (darker shades of red in Figure 1). Superimposing one map onto the other shows the west is heavily affected. The northern parts deserve special attention and can be designated priority areas for action.

Although the east is affected by extreme heat, the vulnerable populations are small. Analysing tenure type and dwelling structure (Figure 2), areas offering better potential for building adaptation are identified, which are mostly rented and medium density dwellings. Areas in the east offer great potential and areas in the west offer good potential for adaptation. This analysis indicates which areas offer the best potential for adaptation and have the greatest need in terms of providing more suitable housing for elderly people in extreme heat.


Sydney’s IW has varied stock in terms of age, quality, tenure, affordability, condition and performance. It is experiencing issues related to an ageing population, housing affordability and increasing temperatures. Some stresses are acute, whereas others are chronic. We need to manage these issues, so that people can age in place and be comfortable and secure in affordable houses. We need to plan for the future, analysing if, and where, planning legislation needs review and developing technical capacity to adapt buildings.

Physical and technological criteria for building adaptation are known. Economic and environmental conditions present desirable and feasible outcomes for adaptation. We need to identify some exemplar case studies based on IW residential stock to demonstrate the technical measures possible and compliance issues involved in adaptation, as well as the total costs and benefits of retrofit. In terms of the urban resilience issues, it is possible to propose a new model: subdivision of existing underoccupied housing to provide older people with home and care assistance in return for an affordable rent. It is a model being explored in Canadian cities (Anderssen, 2018). In this way the circular economy can deliver sustainable and resilient adaptation in Sydney’s IW and elsewhere. Maybe it’s about time we started ‘going round in circles?’



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This article was first published in the ANZPJ May 2019 edition. Visit the ANZPJ library to read past publications.