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Co-housing for Ageing Well

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City of Unley

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Main actors

City Government, Community / Citizen Group, Research Institutes / Universities

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Project area

Whole City/Administrative Region

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2019 - 2020

A collaborative housing model to assist older people to stay living in their communities.

The City of Unley’s population is ageing and many older people have limited options to downsize and stay in their community when their physical, financial and social needs change. Urban infill* can increase dwelling density but is not always age-friendly and can have detrimental social and environmental impacts.

The project used community co-design principles with older residents to inform new co-housing options. These were designed to retain street character for social cohesion, maintain deep rootzone and garden space for health and climate benefits and provide accessible co-housing with shared amenities to enhance resident’s interaction.

*In urban planning, infill usually refers to the repurposing of land in an urban environment for new construction.

Sustainable Development Goals

End poverty in all its forms everywhere
Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

Guangzhou Award

This project was shortlisted for the 'Guangzhou Award' in 2020.

City of Unley, Australia

Size and population development
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2016 the City of Unley had a population of 37,721 and the Adelaide conurbation had a population of approximately 1.306 million people. The 2016 data showed that the population of Unley is comprised of 51% female and 49% male. The 0-9 age group is recorded at 10%, 10-24 at 18%, 25-44 at 27%, 45-64 at 26% and 65+ at 19%. The average age of people living in Unley is 41. According to ABS estimates the population for the city of Unley in 2021 is forecast to be 39,371.

Population composition
According to 2016 ABS census data, 21.4% of Unley residents were born overseas with the United Kingdom, China, India, Greece, Italy and New Zealand having the largest populations. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people made up 0.5% of the population The main religious followed in the City of Unley are: No religion 38.7%, Roman Catholic 17.1%, Anglican 11.1%, United Church 5.6% and Greek Orthodox 5.1%. Other religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam are followed (1.6%, 1,6%, and 1.2% respectively). This is consistent with the increasing numbers of people born in non-English speaking countries over the past decade.

Main functions
The City of Unley, located on the traditional lands of the Kaurna people, is a local government area in the Adelaide metropolitan region of South Australia comprised of 16 defined suburbs. The City of Unley is an urban environment noted for its tree-lined streets, parks and private gardens. The protection of Unley’s trees and street trees is particularly important to mitigating the impacts of climate and the urban heat island effect. In 2020, The City of Unley was awarded a Tree Cities of the World designation from the Food and Agriculture Organiaztion (FAO) of the United Nations and the Arbor Day Foundation.

Main industries / business
The City of Unley’s economy is underpinned by five Mainstreet Precincts: Unley Road, King William Road, Goodwood Road, Fullarton Road and Glen Osmond Road. These Precincts provide essential goods and services, meeting places and attractions for visitors. They are home to approximately 1,200 businesses, many of which are unique, independent operators.

Sources for city budget
The City of Unley draws its budget for public expenditure largely from city land taxes (rates) with additional funds coming from fees, fines, operating revenues in addition to State and Federal government grants. Council rates make up about 70% of the revenue received by councils. The remaining 30% is made up of Statutory charges 3%; User charges 9 %; Grants and subsidies 14%; Investment income 1%; and Reimbursements & other 3%

Administrative structure
The City of Unley Council is made up of two parts: the elected representatives (councillors) and administration (council staff). Councillors are democratically elected by the residents and ratepayers of the municipality. The council sets the overall direction for the municipality through long-term planning and decision making. Councillors must attend formally constituted council meetings in order to take part in councils decision making process which includes reviewing council objectives and policies to ensure that they are appropriate to the needs of the community. All councillors are elected for a four-year term. The mayor is the figurehead of the council and is elected by their fellow councillors for a one or two-year term. Mayors may be re-elected at the discretion of the council. The CEO is the only staff member who is appointed by the council. The CEO is appointed for no more than five years at a time but can be re-appointed for further terms. Council staff are the resource that ensures the day to day running of the organisation and the delivery of council services and functions. Staff have a wide range of training and expertise.

From the latest Australian census data, 22.6% of the City of Unley’s population is aged 60 and above. This trend is predicted to increase, with the population of South Australia (where the City of Unley is located)  ageing faster than the rest of Australia.  By 2031, there will be more than 1 in 5 of South Australia’s total population.


The goals of the project were broad and cross sector including:

  • Raising State and Local government awareness of new infill strategies in urban areas that would enable ageing in place and provide environmental benefits.
  • Advocating for change in the State Planning and Design Codes that would enable local Councils to approve designs that redevelop existing character housing stock to provide 2 or 3 for 1 infill models.

The Initiative took the innovative ‘Alternative Infill’ housing model and the international principles of co-housing and applied local co-design with older residents to innovate and adapt for local culture and needs. Exploring what shared amenities were desirable and the spatial budgeting priorities of the older community created a new “co-housing Lite” to meet the needs of an urban Australian population. Applying accessibility and livability standards created a new quality of dwelling not currently included in urban planning policy.

The project developed a unique ‘spatial budgeting’ codesign workshop process to engage older residents in its conceptualisation. Mirroring a financial budgeting exercise, residents were given a map with 50m2 for a private dwelling and another 50m2 for communal space. Participants were then given cut-outs of living spaces at various sizes (eg: large, medium or small bedroom, large, medium or small kitchen, etc) and were tasked with choosing how they would tailor their downsized living spaces based on the available space

Real life dwellings were used as exemplars for the redesign process. Older residents from the local council area attended an interactive workshop where they were tasked with individually identifying the degrees of sharing, they could imagine living with, and those that would be barriers or outright ‘deal breakers. Draft designs were prepared to illustrate to example co-housing models for two different site sizes and residents determined the spatial budgeting and priorities for their needs.

Embedding outcomes in the planning and design regulations will enable co-housing to pass local planning approvals in the future. Ongoing work is planned to create design guides for architects, training for local planners in assessment of cohousing designs and governance structures for residents to ensure successful site redevelopment long term.

The lead agency for the project was the City of Unley who provided project management and local planning expertise alongside other local government agencies who collaborate with the public State Planning Commission and Department of Infrastructure. Coincidently, both institutions were undertaking a project to consolidate current local planning codes into a single state-wide policy. Thus, research in action directly affected new policy. Innovative public- community partnerships supported this by using older residents to codesign cohousing with our partner in design expertise the University of South Australia.

Council provided project support and administration, exemplar design sites, and professional expertise on current planning approval and process. The State commission provided input regarding the new code development. Specific design expertise was provided by the faculty of Architecture at the University of South Australia.

The project was successful in achieving a change in attitude towards co-housing and an appreciation of the benefits it can bring to all ages but specifically older individuals. The attitude change was across the public community, local government and State Australian government departments.

Outcomes included a suite of innovative cohousing designs sympathetic to local housing styles yet designed to promote ageing in place. A submission was made to the State Government to propose new planning codes that could facilitate the transfer of these new cohousing concepts into reality.

A submission to the new State Planning and Design code to facilitate well designed infill aligning to the projects defined cohousing principles has been achieved, and if successful will have an initial State-wide significance and is likely to raise interest nationally

Older individuals wishing to age in place in their community often find limited options to downsize when their housing no longer suits their needs or when they wish to avoid living alone. The urban infill favoured by developers whilst increasing dwelling density is not necessarily age-friendly and has significant negative impacts on streetscape, environment and community spirit.

Resistance was encountered in the community to the concept of co-housing based on a lack of exposure to this form of social housing in Australia. The co-design workshop allowed participants to explore what individual and amenities they would feel comfortable to share with resulting in a new form of co-housing suited to the Australian culture.

Conceptual planning obstacles were encountered early on by the design not fitting the established planning and design codes. Developing a full suite of designs supported by technical drawings allowed planning professionals to consider new legislation that could allow such beneficial co-housing to be built.

Australian cities are struggling with the challenge of providing increased infill housing numbers and diversity for older people in suburbs well-connected to government, health, recreational, commercial and civic services, without the destruction of existing neighbourhood character. This phenomenon has been widely described (refer Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute). The Cohousing for Ageing Well project is a direct response to AHURI’s data, which indicates that housing options that allow residents to age within their community is desired by residents.

Shared learnings include the benefit of cross public- community partnership, the value of cross disciplinary experts and the vital insights of older residents to the design process. 

By bringing all the parties together a new concept of co-housing was established which challenged public stereotypes about sharing space, met the cultural expectations of the community, aligned with the principles as established overseas and met the pragmatic requirements of both local council and State planning process. Rigour was ensured by the involvement of University experts and creativity was boosted by engaging with architects that could challenge the dwellings usually designed for older adults.

The design report and submission documents to our local Planning and Design code along with the methodology for the co-design workshop are available for other cities to utilise to engage with their residents to explore new cohousing options

The designs, if embedded in code, will be Australian State based - therefore covering all local governments and suburbs.

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Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation
Guangzhou, China

Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation

Institution | Urban Award

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