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Inner urban conservation and development - An independent panel report on a proposal for Smith Street, Collingwood, under Melbourne 2030. Edited by Miles Lewis, August 2004. Info + Order your copy

Melbourne 2030: A Response

24 Jul 2004

Published in Urban Planning and Research Volume 21, 211 � 215.

Associate Professor Kevin O�Connor
Urban Planning
Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning
University of Melbourne

True to its heritage this document is comprehensive, wide ranging and at the same time locally specific in its application. It represents a Government response to the challenge created by population and household growth in the Melbourne metropolitan area in coming decades. Its underlying logic reflects recent thinking on the benefits of high density residential development, the clustering of land uses and the restriction of fringe growth to create a more compact city.

At its heart the Strategy relies on one interpretation of the way land use and transport interact in metropolitan development. This is that land use shapes transport patterns. This thinking is expressed in the Strategy in the creation of high density housing near railway stations, higher density new suburban settlement and the clustering of commercial land uses to encourage inter-firm links. These outcomes are expected to create a range of outcomes including the opportunity for change in the transport habits of future residents.

The Strategy will be implemented through just a few types of actions. These include a wide array of land use regulations (to control housing density and location as well as the location of commercial land uses), the designation of sub-centres, the specification of transport routes and population targets for municipalities, all reinforced through considerable effort applied to urban design and local area plans. With this small and old-fashioned array of instruments the Strategy is expected to reshape the distribution of houses and to a lesser extent jobs in such a way that a wide range of economic, environmental, equity and community development objectives are achieved.

The Strategy has great confidence in the power of design. That confidence is perhaps best expressed in the observation that the control of land release �will create communities rather than subdivisions� (Page 34). Apart from the fact that perspective seems ignorant of the success that has been achieved with current policies on land release, especially in the hands of developers like Delfin, that expression is an important one as it makes clear the mantra of the Strategy: control over physical layout is the way to achieve its objectives. Paradoxically the Direction statement that follows that observation makes little reference to the availability or accessibility of jobs or the provision of community infrastructure and services, all of which would seem critical to the �creation of communities�.

I believe this approach to a Metropolitan Strategy is very narrow and that narrowness will limit its ability to really influence metropolitan outcomes. That impression emerged from a number of specific questions that emerged as I read those aspects of the Strategy that are close to my research interests as well and was reinforced by broader concerns about the emphasis of the Strategy.


SOME QUESTIONS FOR THE STRATEGY

Why weren�t Transport Networks the main element of the Strategy?

Perhaps the greatest weakness in the Strategy�s approach is its over-reliance on planned and designed land use change to re-shape transport behaviour. As noted above the strategy seems to emphasis land use change to re-shape transport; it could of course
have given more emphasis to the other direction of this link and used transport actions to re-shape land uses. So, for example, one action in the Strategy could be to create major change in road and rail networks and services as its main focus. (at the time of writing seperate bus, train and tram �plans� are to be produced; they are subsequent to the strategy, not formative of it.

Public consultations stressed the want of better transport services. In response the strategy could have begun with a map that currently appears on page 147 and shown detailed actions that might for example double the frequencies along nominated routes in morning and evening services, especially those that access local work places. That much better accessibility would have induced land use change, with people making decisions about where to live based on the new patterns of transport, and commercial investors recognizing the opportunities created by new services in the network. In contrast, the Strategy offers �possible upgrading of transport services to big stand-alone centres�. Why just �possible�?. That seems a poor response to what was one of the greatest expressed need in public consultations. We are left with a sense that transport improvements are a consequential rather than leading part of the strategy.

Of course improving public transport would cost money. It will be argued below that the ignorance or naivety about the money side of the Strategy limits its potential impact on the metropolitan area.

Can we be sure that higher density residential development will induce the changes needed to achieve the Strategies objectives?

An important connection for the success of the strategy is that design driven changes in population and commercial densities are felt in changes in different transport behaviour.

�Focussing a substantial proportion of this development at activity centres that have good access to the Principal Public transport network will help to reduce car trips and decrease the share of trips that need to be made by car�. (page 32)

Although very broad brush research on the link between urban density and transport patterns, seen in the famous Newman and Kenworthy (1989) graph, seems to suggest these two aspects are linked, some more detailed work in local areas does not provide the same sort of evidence. Barlow (2000) analysed the patterns of journey to work for people living and working in Richmond and Port Melbourne. She found that as local population increased (associated with gentrification and higher density developments after 1990), travel distances to work, and the use of cars actually rose. That outcome is consistent with the local traffic problems in the City of Port Phillip which has had residential re-development mostly at medium to high density. Looking at other aspects of urban services, Troy et al (2003) have shown little association exists between higher and lower density areas and the consumption of water and energy. Healy and O�Connor (2000) found that the tendency or local populations to work locally (and so reflect a change in their transport behaviour) was most closely associated with the type of jobs rather than the density of population. That means the clustering of residential development at rail stations may not necessarily create rail transport users; what might be more important is improved transport services to places of work.

It is not clear that higher density residential development is necessarily desirable on social and equity grounds either. Recent work of high density residential estates in parts of the City of Casey for example shows that the small allotment, small street, zero lot line developments of the middle 1990s now correspond to areas receiving the highest social security support. Although the latter outcome has many causes, a contributing factor could be the lack of transport, as well as community and private space and the opportunity for housing diversity that the design-led solution has created. It also suggests that the strategy could in fact exacerbate some of the equity issues it has hoped to ameliorate. That will be especially so if it induces high density residential construction in locations without transport services, while the transport service rich part of Melbourne experiences less of this development.

These perspectives suggest that the Strategy has over-emphasised urban design-driven residential density controls. It is possible that the authors have over used the new urbanist thinking from the US. It is important to understand that movement is a response to a much more serious level of urban dispersal than is common in Melbourne where land release controls are much more rigourous than they are in the un-coordinated set of communities that draw development to the fringes of the big US metropolitan areas.

Can the Centres Policy be made to work?

A core part of the Strategy is a centres policy, expressed in the nomination of 115 locations in addition to the CAD. Centres policies are common in metropolitan regional planning, and the approach in the Strategy is a more complex version of approaches incorporated in Melbourne over 30 years ago. The current Strategy carries on many of the earlier ideas, but there are more centres and a clearly expressed hierarchy of places. The large number of nominated places would seem to contradict the idea that concentration of activity brings some particular benefits. With so many centres will anything be concentrated?

More importantly, the application of this part of Strategy may face some serious implementation problems. The Strategy suggests centres will accommodate retail and small office functions, high density housing, jobs in community services, secondary schools, TAFE Colleges, Justice and Community Administration, Sport and Entertainment facilities, and low-cost space for cultural activities and creative ventures. They will also act as transport interchanges and presumably will have some space for car parking.

How all this competing activity can be accommodated in what are small and (in many cases) congested spaces on land in a large number of small titles is not discussed in the Strategy. Accommodating even some of these uses in some of the centres will require additional land, and will trigger competition for space and increases in land value. It may require the demolition of existing housing (in some cases more expensive than surrounding stock due to proximity to the rail station or tram line). There are only a few opportunities where vacant land or air space over rail stations can be used. Land purchase in these conditions will not be cheap, nor will it be un-controversial. The only action mentioned in the Strategy to address these concerns is that effort will be put into structure plans and investigations (more design work to change one of them from a boring looking low-density to an exciting looking high-density area as shown on page 32). The Strategy also expects there will be a role for the Urban and Regional Land Development Corporation. There is no mention of compulsory purchase, or funds for purchase of development sites to achieve the local re-structuring of these centres.

Will the Urban Growth Boundary influence Housing Market Outcomes?

The strategy relies on a limit to the growth of the metropolitan area as a way of inducing compactness, an action that is central to its broad philosophy of building-up density. It is worth considering whether the restriction on land supply will constrain the operation of the market generally, and be felt in faster-than-expected increases in prices. The initial impact will be small as the boundary is currently a long way from the present supply. However the effect of a limit on supply could have a more serious social and equity consequence as gradual scarcity is expressed in more intensive use. That will underscore the housing quality differences between established areas with houses on large lots and new suburbs. That could etch an ever-deeper divide between the new outer and established suburbs.


SOME BROADER CONCERNS

The questions outlined above pick up a number of small details in the expression of the Strategy in local scale actions. There are more fundamental concerns with the reliance upon land use control and design as the key implementation mechanisms.

The Financial Implications

The first is that the strategy seems ignorant of the expensive nature of urban development That expense is created not only in the cost of its pipes, wires and roads, but in community services and the provision of other infrastructure, and of course its transport services. Australian metropolitan areas have for a long time been the location of very substantial public expenditure; although we are now in a low profile low government spending era, the reality that metropolitan areas are expensive places to build and run has not changed.

This Strategy�s dependence on density control carries the implication that higher density is somehow cheaper, a claim that has never been proven conclusively. Even if it does use less pipes and wires it will create more demand for transport as there are more people, and more schools and community services will be needed at an earlier time as numbers will build up faster. So it is probably not really any cheaper, and as noted earlier may in fact induce some costs that are not traditionally considered. In that context it would be good to see this Metropolitan Strategy include a way of managing development and service provision through budget and financial management techniques. So for example, a part of the strategy could have been a financial arrangement that would allow the frequency of some local transport services to be doubled as discussed earlier. Until that form of thinking is connected to the traditional zoning and regulatory structures the design approach can only be expected to have a very limited impact.

The use of financial instruments in a metropolitan planning is becoming more common. Melbourne�s experience with water pricing provides a good illustration of the way that price can be used to influence demand. That illustrates that the strategy could address concerns associated with car use though actions like road pricing and differential registration costs for cars of different sizes. The management of land use could also be reinforced through differential rating costs and fees. Thinking on a broader canvas it would even be possible to create a transport levy for each property (included with rates) which could be set to reflect the current level of service provision. Commercial developments could also be expected to pay levies depending upon location with respect to transport services. The funds would be used to supply transport. The ideas outlined briefly here require substantial development; the disappointment is that the Strategy provides no signals that it even looked to such new approaches to address the issues facing Melbourne�s development.

Coordination and Privatisation

Modern metropolitan planning is cast in a very different public policy context than it was in the past. The privatization of the public sector agencies has left the planning system without the control over the traditional infrastructural elements that have for so long shaped metropolitan land use patterns. The water, energy, transport and telecommunications agencies are now more short-term market driven than were their pre-decessors, who were in effect market shapers. Strangely the Strategy has given little recognition of this new circumstance beyond statements that it will �work with� the new providers.

The issue of coordination is one that has be-devilled metropolitan planning over the long haul. That has taken on a new significance in the privatization era. The lack of a coherent framework to shape private provider behaviour is a disappointment of this Strategy. It may be that the broad framework of centres, corridors and the urban growth boundary could create a framework for co-ordinating private agency behaviour. That will only work where these firms have interests and capacities in the same set of centres or corridors. A more effective Strategy would provide financial incentives for them to act in particular locations. It would be good to see some innovations in that regard, but alas that thinking is not apparent in the document.

In the absence of that innovative thinking the planner�s sole influence on private suppliers is persuasion. Strangely that does not appear as part of this strategy, although a decision to monitor the strategy annually could be a de facto way of creating a common understanding of trends and activities and so influence the decisions of some urban decision-makers.

Finally, when considering urban infrastructure it is important to recognize that the State Government has a separate agency called the Infrastructure Planning Council; it is not clear whether the Strategy is part of the Council�s purview, or vice versa. The Infrastructure Planning Council has created a broad brush agenda of long term needs and possible projects. This list might in fact be more influential on infrastructure providers than the Strategy. It does have some financial considerations built in for example. It could also re-shape the metropolitan area in some serious and different ways. Perhaps the real metropolitan strategy is embedded in the thinking and actions of the Infrastructure Planning Council?


OVERVIEW

It seems to me that this comprehensive, impressive and locally specific land use management Strategy has emerged from an old stable at a time when there are some new runners around and new races are being arranged. The new race uses other ways to manage and change the growth of the metropolitan region in its new privatized, small government expenditure world. The Strategy�s local design emphasis allied to its financial and co-ordination weaknesses suggests it locally strong but regionally weak. Having said that the puzzle is why do we need such a large central agency dealing with what are essentially local area issues (like the design of a centre) when we have municipalities with responsibility for those local areas? Perhaps a key element overlooked in the strategy was the reinforcement (and better funding) of municipal planning?

My evaluation of this document has been coloured by reading Watson (2002). That lays out clearly the tensions that exist between the sense of a broader vision (in his case an international or national one) and its application in local action via the public service and through debate and criticism in the media. Its relevance to the Melbourne strategy could be that we need to broaden and deepen the decision-making skills, professional imagination and administrative structures across a much broader front if we are to apply the vision of this Strategy. If its application remains anchored in local area design-related issues and strategy plans, which will remain rich in potentially negative political capital (as was apparent in the Save our Suburbs movement), it is difficult to imagine the Strategy being very effective for the Government in the long run.

REFERENCES

Barlow, A (2000) An Analysis of Urban Consolidation in Melbourne. Honours Thesis. School of Geography and Environmental Science. Monash University.

Healy, E. and O�Connor, K. (2001) Jobs and Housing Location in Melbourne 1986-1996. New Insights on Metropolitan Development, Australian Planner 38 (1) 9-15. 2001
Newman , P.W.G. and Kenworthy. J.R (1989) Gasoline Consumption and Cities: A Comparison of US Cities with a Global Survey and its Implications, Journal of American Planning Association 55: 24-37.
Troy, P., Holloway, D., Pullen, S. and Bunker, R. (2003) Embodied and Operational Energy Consumption in the City, Urban Policy and Research (Forthcoming)
Watson, D. (2002) Recollections of a Bleeding Heart. A Portrait of Paul Keating PM. Sydney. Knopf. Random House.

Posted by Editor


Comments

From Kate on 8 Aug 2004:

What about government of, for and by the people Minister McLellahunty! Your planning ministry has brought us planning of, for and by rapacious developers. You are responsible for Banco/Malvernway ripping the heart out of Smith Street, and turning the surrounding streets into unlivable ghettos. The sooner you go the better.

 

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