A new Australian site, Other Cities, has just published a must-read article for anyone interested in cities. It’s an interview with Kevin O’Connor, Professorial Fellow in Urban Planning at the University of Melbourne.
This fascinating and insightful interview covers many issues from developer levies to public transport to cars to where university workers live. I find I agree in almost all respects with Professor O’Connor’s analysis and suggested solutions.
He starts with the idea that residents’ social, working, family and community lives tend to revolve around a limited geographical area centred on where they live.
Using his home city as an example, he argues there are really ‘five Melbournes’ – the inner city plus west, north, east and south regions. He provides an effective illustration of peoples’ home-centredness: “for most people their Melway (street) directory has half-a-dozen maps that are all well used, while the rest are virtually untouched”.
I’ve published data before that supports Professor O’Connor’s contention that Melbourne is regionalised. As discussed here in more detail, the residents of each of the city’s 31 municipalities display a highly localised journey-to-work pattern. For example, around 80% of workers living in Monash, Brimbank, Casey and Cardinia either work within their home municipality or in a contiguous one.
This is consistent with a point I’ve made here many times before – half of Melbourne’s jobs are more than 13 km from the CBD and 72% are more than 5 km. Moreover, the great bulk of suburban jobs – 80% – aren’t in the 31 largest suburban centres but rather are dispersed across the suburbs in smaller district and neighbourhood centres.
The VISTA data on travel patterns tells the same story. Cars account for around 90% of all trips by Melburnians and half of these are shorter than 5 km. Almost two thirds are shorter than 8 km. The corresponding figures for public transport are 21% and 37%, indicating its forte is longer trips.
The data also supports Professor O’Connor’s observation that the staff of universities tend to live near their workplace. More than two thirds of staff at the La Trobe and Monash university main campuses work within their ‘home’ region (see exhibit).
Melbourne University seems different at first glance – only a little over a quarter of the University’s workers live in the inner city (Melbourne, Yarra, Port Phillip municipalities). This apparently lower regional share is probably due to factors like its higher metropolitan accessibility and the high cost of housing close to the centre.
However the inner city is small geographically as well as in terms of its share of metropolitan population relative to the other regions. The inner suburbs seem a better measure. When Moreland, Darebin, Stonnington, Boroondara and Moonee Valley municipalities are added to the inner city, the share of Melbourne University workers living in the University’s ‘home region’ is 61%, similar to La Trobe and Monash.
This pattern is repeated for students – for example, 58% of La Trobe students live in the northern region. La Trobe is only 13 km from the CBD, so if inner city addresses north of the Yarra are also counted within the ‘home region’ the number rises to 68%.
As Professor O’Connor suggests, policy needs to come to grips with the highly decentralised, dispersed, regionalised and car-based pattern of suburban development. An effective centres policy is an obvious place to start, although it’s important to understand that most suburban firms have little appetite for the costs and congestion of large regional centres.
Flexible transport systems like cars and buses are likely to be the most plausible approach to intra-regional transport where activities are dispersed. The focus of policy accordingly needs to be on ways of improving their performance (e.g. see here and here). Proposals like the Rowville rail line, however, misunderstand what’s going on in our suburbs and cities.
While Melbourne’s CBD (including Docklands and Southbank) only has circa 15% of all metropolitan jobs, access to the city centre from all parts of the metropolitan area nevertheless remains of vital importance. The CBD isn’t the great job destination for suburbanites it once was, but the great majority of CBD jobs are still filled by workers who live in the suburbs.
No matter where you live, if you work for a major corporation or in certain industry sectors like insurance and business services, there’s a high probability you’ll need good access to the CBD. You can’t even do that quintessentially Melbourne thing of going to the footy unless you can get to the MCG or Docklands.
Similarly, you can’t see the latest teenybopper sensation, One Direction; or go to the opera, theatre or major public galleries; or lose your shirt at Crown Casino; or get your nose bloodied in King Street, unless you can get down town. For the vast majority of Melburnians, travel to the CBD is only occasional, but outside their home region it’s the only metropolitan destination most have in common.
Not surprisingly given views I’ve expressed before, I think Professor O’Connor makes a very important point when he says that reducing the size of lots and fitting more people into less space seems to be the only policy response that’s offered to urban sprawl:
I worry less about urban sprawl as a physical feature, and more about accessibility to services, and the fact that we are willing to allow housing and population growth, but have no plans in hand to match that with additional schools, doctors surgeries, hospitals, TAFE colleges and the like.
higher density redevelopment has been based on the idea that there is surplus capacity in the inner city. When inner city population development began it was quite reasonable to compare historical and current population figures and decide that the inner city was “under-populated” to an extent. However, over the last decade population growth has changed that situation.
You might not agree with all Professor O’Connor has to say, but you should find it thought-provoking and challenging. And it’s very readable. It will be interesting to watch the development of the Other Cities site, which will focus on in-depth interviews with people who’re involved with the built environment. Professor O’Connor is the first interview. The site is run by Sofia Anapliotis, David Morison and Nick Stephenson.