The CEO of the Committee for Melbourne, Andrew Mcleod, advanced an interesting argument about the importance of growth when launching the Committee’s new report, Melbourne Beyond 5 Million, earlier this month.
He contended that Melbourne can get better as it gets bigger. His main argument is that Melbourne in 2010, with 4 million people, is double the size it was in 1960 and is, he says, unambiguously more liveable.
So is bigger better? I don’t think I have a definitive answer and I’m not even sure there is one, but I think it’s useful in light of the high population growth projected for Melbourne to canvass some of the issues.
The fear many people have is that a bigger Melbourne will mean housing is less affordable and roads and public transport more congested. Some people also think it would be less safe, less equal and have a much larger per capita ecological footprint.
But there are advantages in getting bigger. Larger cities are usually denser and have a lower ecological footprint than smaller cities. There is also an extensive literature showing that the productivity of cities increases with population.
There are different opinions on the underlying reasons but many observers, like Harvard’s Professor Edward Glaeser, think that big cities enable people to connect and learn from one another. They tend to be more diverse and offer greater specialisation in work, consumption, socialising and ideas.
There are more than thirty cities in the OECD countries alone that have a larger population than Melbourne. They must be doing something right if people want to live in them. For all the complaints made about Los Angeles, many more people seem to want to live there than in Melbourne. Many talented Australians aspire to move to LA to work in specialised industries like entertainment, higher education and technology.
Size involves some compromises. Higher densities are inevitable – Los Angeles, for example, is the densest city in the USA. Places like New York get by with smaller housing and with greater use of shared rather than private facilities and services e.g. parks and public transport (although the rich still use private cars and taxis). Density usually means more noise, more congestion and heavy reliance on technological and engineering solutions e.g. massive water supply and sewerage infrastructure. But as most Australians who’ve spent time in big cities like Manhattan will tell you, the trade off is greater diversity, more options and sheer buzz.
While there are risks, Melbourne starts with some important advantages in dealing with growth.
It already has a basically sound public transport system which Los Angeles does not (although LA is now investing heavily in transit). It is already denser than all but a handful of US cities and has scope for economical outward expansion in the west and north. Fortunately we don’t have the same tolerance for leap-frogged, large lot ex-urban developments that many US cities (including New York) display – new fringe developments in Melbourne are now generally subject to a minimum average density of 15 dwellings per hectare.
I also think our political culture is ultimately receptive to the need for “sensible” changes like road pricing, tax imposts on big cars, increased investment on public transport and a reasonable balance between higher density redevelopment in established suburbs and fringe expansion. Some of the supposedly “impossible” taxation and microeconomic reforms that have been put in place since the time of the Hawke Government suggest we have cause to be optimistic about what we can achieve.
Since most of the projected growth is likely to come from migration, I think Australia’s multicultural history indicates we are more likely to make a success of growth than stuff it up.
My point is that bigger cities have advantages as well as potential disadvantages, but most of the latter can be dealt with via sensible infrastructure investment and policies. The biggest threat would probably be bad management rather than growth per se. Nevertheless, not everyone would be a winner even if it were done right (some people hate Manhattan) but most probably would be.
Andrew McLeod’s contention that Melbourne in 2010 is unambiguously better than Melbourne in the 1960s is an interesting question that I’ll report back on – it might throw further light on whether or not “growth is good”.