Is Tiny Sprawl possible? Lessons from BedZED and the UK

One thing that concerns me about the growing popularity of Tiny Houses is the potential for Tiny Sprawl.

Like me, many people love the idea of a quaint little cottage surrounded by garden that would be both affordable and sustainable. However that means we continue to develop outwards, using land in an inefficient manner at the expense of our wetlands, green spaces and urban bush. We need to make better use of the existing urban footprint.

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Typical urban development in the UK

As I travelled through the United Kingdom last week, it struck me how much green space, fields, woods, farms and even castles there are between each of the towns and cities.

The UK has a population of 64 million people, two and a half times that of Australia, and it’s land mass is just 243,610 km². Meanwhile, just 9- 15% of the land area is classified as urban or is built on. This reflects my observation about the vast amount of green space in the densely populated country. To compare, Australia’s population is 24 million and land area is 7.68 million km².

So how do they do it? House a mammoth population on a tiny island and keep the local character and green belt in tact?

Traditional terrace housing in London

Traditional terrace housing in London

Yes, there is some high-rise, however mostly I saw lots of terrace housing 3–4 stories high (and terrace housing converted to flats). These terrace houses also had gardens with low fences so that neighbours could interact – no one seemed concerned about privacy but rather had a social neighbourly outlook.

People park on the street and traffic is slow and courteous due to the practical reality. There was no road rage I saw, but a polite patient car culture. If only that were the case in Australia!

The other notable feature was a public transport network I was simply envious of! The rail network is extensive and services run so frequently you never need to check a timetable. You can get anywhere you want to go with relative ease with fast and convenient transfers much like the “network effect’ described in the Greens’ Transit City proposal. Obviously the dense population developed around the UKs historic train network – something we can replicate in Perth sensitively and effectively.

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The iconic BedZED

On my train journey from Brighton to London, I was able to deviate to visit BedZED – the world-famous Beddington Zero Emission Development, just south of London. This 100 dwelling development is located a short walk from a train station and is a demonstration project based on the One Planet principles.

It includes solar passive design and passive heating / cooling through the iconic wind cowls on the roof and glass walls on the southern side with vents that allow heat exchange as needed. As a result, no energy is used for heating or cooling homes at BedZED, even in the depths of an English winter!

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Cars are kept in the edge of the development

There are a variety of dwelling sizes incorporated into this contemporary version of three-story terrace housing. Flats, townhouses and studios are all included – with a variety of tenure; 25% are affordable rentals, 25% is shared equity ownership, and 50% are on the open market – not that you can tell which is which. There is a community space known as the “Pavilion” that can be booked by residents and has regular events that are promoted to the residents through a community e-list.

There are roof gardens and walkways between the buildings and all cars are kept to the edge of the development meaning a quiet, safe and attractive environment. An onsite park includes exercise equipment, public art, allotments and children’s play equipment.


the parkland and "pavilion" in the distance

BedZED’s parkland and “pavilion” in the distance

BedZED is also the home of Bioregional International – the NGO that developed the One Planet Living principles. I had a tour and met the team made up of passionate young professionals from around the world who share a communal lunch each day. I heard about a major food chain creating their first eco-store, the development of a Baugruppen model for the UK and the various One Planet developments occurring in the UK.

Brighton One's community hub at the base of the apartment block

Brighton One’s community hub at the base of the apartment block

I also stumbled upon Bioregional’s One Brighton project earlier that day adjacent to the Brighton train station. It provides affordable and sustainable housing in one of Brittan’s most expensive property markets and features ground floor offices and small business, a community centre and garden.

In Fremantle, we are fortunate to have two One Planet developments underway (WGV and the DHA development on Queen Victoria Street), however I’d like this to become the norm rather than the exception in Fremantle. I’d like Council to offer incentives to developers that adopt the One Planet principles and plan sustainability and community into their development from day one. It is with this kind of thoughtful, sensitive design that we will be able to slow sprawl, reduce our impact and build better communities.


BedZED a demonstration of  sensitive urban infill

BedZED a demonstration of sensitive urban infill

So back to tiny houses… while they seem to be flavor of the month, they are not the most sensible solution to sustainability or affordability. They will play a role, but only a small one. To build better communities that are more efficient and maintain the character we know and love, I believe we need to look to terrace housing, maisonettes and mid-rise apartments in suitable locations – ideally incorporating One Planet principles from the initial planning stage, which includes community consultation.

And some tiny houses in backyards is ok 😉

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