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Is Melbourne’s Metro Strategy off to a bad start?

Jobs by municipality in 2006 (Source: Melbourne Metropolitan Strategy, Fact Sheet: Economy)

Work on preparing Melbourne’s new Metropolitan Planning Strategy finally went “live” on the internet yesterday with the curious slogan, A Vision for Victoria. Victoria?!

Although officers in the Department of Planning and Community Development (DPCD) have been working away privately for almost a year, this is the public launch of the Strategy. This is, so to speak, the kick-off (or bounce!).

On the strength of what’s delivered on the web site so far, we could be in for a pretty underwhelming game. The new site has a short explanatory video, ten Fact Sheets and a public forum for discussion (doesn’t look like the public can initiate threads though). Oh, and there’s a weekly photo competition with a $100 Apple iTunes voucher as the prize.

I expect things will get more serious when the planned Issues and Challenges Discussion Paper is published. According to the timeline on the site, it’s imminent. Although most people barely knew the project was underway, the release of the Discussion Paper will mark the end of the first of four stages leading up to the finalisation of the Strategy.

I’ve had a quick look at the Fact Sheets and a closer look at the one on the Economy. I’m not, to put it mildly, impressed by this particular Fact Sheet. In fact I’m surprised it was ever approved by the study team management, by DPCD, by the expert advisors group, and by the Minister for Planning, Mathew Guy.

My issue isn’t with mistakes or even mainly with what’s there – it’s what isn’t in the Economy Fact Sheet that’s the main problem. Given this is a metropolitan plan, I’m astonished at the absence of salient facts about the spatial geography of economic activities. It reads like no one in DPCD actually has any real idea how planning relates to the economy.

Unbelievably, there’re no facts about activity centres – indeed, activity centres aren’t mentioned. Literally. There’re no facts on how many centres there are in Melbourne, or where they are, or how big they are, or what proportion of jobs they have (or don’t have), or what functions they individually specialise in, or what infrastructure they have, or…….

Apart from informing us about the existence of Docklands and Southbank, there aren’t even any pertinent facts about the CBD, even though it’s by far the largest concentration of jobs in the metropolitan area and has a job composition that’s very different from the rest of the metro area. Nor is there any mention whatsoever of agglomeration economies, even though other key projects like the proposed Melbourne Metro will rely heavily on this concept to deliver an acceptable benefit-ratio cost.

Instead this single sheet of paper is padded with irrelevant data like Victoria’s (not Melbourne’s!) Gross State Product and export earnings. Readers interested in that sort of general stuff can go direct to the Budget Papers. If however they’re reading this particular Fact Sheet, they’re likely to be looking for spatially relevant economic data. And they want it on Melbourne, not Victoria.

Even where relevant facts are cited, you have to wonder if those concerned really get it. For example, while I’m pleased to see there’s a diagram (see exhibit) showing the great bulk of jobs in Melbourne are in the suburbs, I’m amazed that a non-standard definition of the Inner City has been used.

It’s assumed all the municipality of Stonnington is part of the Inner City (whereas usually only the Prahran portion is included). That means the Inner City as defined for the Strategy extends about 6 km to the west and north of Flinders St station, but 13 km east. It includes Chadstone Shopping Centre but not the Westgarth cinema or any part of Brunswick north of Brunswick Rd! It can’t be compared with previous DPCD publications or with the efforts of academic researchers.

Another key problem with this Fact Sheet is the data that is there is a ‘snap-shot’. It’s devoid of any time-series data – trends can’t be identified!

There’s another diagram which shows the contribution by output of various industries to Gross State Product. Again the relevance is questionable and again it relates to Victoria, not Melbourne. Just as troubling though is the decision to use output as the measure, when what counts for planning is employment, not dollars. That’s because employment provides a better indication of an industry’s demand on infrastructure than the value of its output.

Official publications that lack salient information and are padded with irrelevant statistics are a poor basis for genuine consultation with the public. This Fact Sheet has few facts of value that could underpin a genuine dialogue with Melburnians on how the Metropolitan Strategy and the economy are related. It’s pretty hard to engage when no one seems to know the facts that matter!

I hope the quality of the Economy Fact Sheet isn’t indicative of the standard of the other nine, or the forthcoming Discussion Paper. I intend to keep a close eye on the development of the Strategy over however many months it takes (years, I expect). It’s about Melbourne but I think there’ll be plenty of issues come up that are of interest to residents of all cities.

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  • 1
    hk
    Posted May 8, 2012 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    One hopes that the targets set at the end of this exercise reflect the values and aspirations of most urban dwellers.

  • 2
    Russ
    Posted May 9, 2012 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Alan, I don’t necessarily think they need to discuss “activity centres”. They are a form of spatial labelling that don’t necessarily reflect the underlying structure; similarly, Victoria is as useful as a spatial entity as Melbourne, although both are basically useless unless discussing their relationship to external forces.

    The problem is those are the only facts given, and all the fact sheets are really underwhelming. I’d hope the fact sheets informed the questions being posed for discussion. And actually they do, but only insofar as the questions are so inane that they don’t need facts to inform them. The economy question is particularly bad, combining vagueness with question begging:

    What do you think the priority should be when planning for a productive city, where jobs are accessible from where people live?

    The most ridiculous aspect to the questions is that planning has had reasonable public prominence for the last decade, and people are quite familiar with the major issues. Unless the DPCD is trying to reinvent strategic planning, surely it makes more sense to address those, instead of anodyne things like “why do you like Melbourne”?

  • 3
    Willie C
    Posted May 9, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    A good post Alan… agree with almost all of your analysis. Really quite depressing, almost two years into the term of the Liberal Gov – after they scrapped M2030 – I would have thought they would clearly articulate why M2030 didn’t work and how the new strategy seeks to address identified issues.

    Instead, we get this wishy-washy garbage with a poor framework and, as you point out, really poor facts. Personally, I actually think its an insult to the intelligence of people who live in Melbourne… they’ve let some “communications team” run the show… clearly facts and informed debate will not be valued in this process. Instead, there is a twitter feed and a photo competition!! FFS!!

    The recent COAG report on capital city planning – http://www.coagreformcouncil.gov.au/reports/cities.cfm
    gave Melbourne a fairly poor score (although some would say they held back from considerably from panning the Victorian system). Why is the new strategy not using their findings and recommendations as the basis for moving forward?

    As for Activity Centers… no mention of them is appalling (although they are now called “Activity Areas” in DPCD – Victorian strategic planning at its finest!). What proportion of growth in jobs and housing will Activity Centers in established areas take? Or is it all too hard, best to just continually expand the Urban Growth Boundary (even though – no-one actually wants to live 50km from the CBD.

    Overall, agree with your title…. Metro Strategy is off to a very bad start… if this is all we have seen in 18 months… dont hold your breath. Frustrating…. what can be done? Email bomb the Minster??!!!

  • 4
    Posted May 10, 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    It’s frustrating. I looked at the Housing one and was struck by this passage:

    “Housing has become increasingly expensive in Melbourne over recent years. Since 2000 the median house price has almost tripled, increasing from $190,000 to $500,000 in 2011. During the same period the average wage in Victoria has also increased from around $42,500 in 2000 to $66,500 in 2011. However the proportion of income spent on mortgage repayments has increased for some households.”

    “Some” households? Well of course it has. But what proportion? By how much? There’s little attempt to map the changes in this kind of data in a way that’s meaningful.

    This is pure speculation on my part, but I’d suspect a combination of corporate communications people and management spiked any truly alarming or meaningful statistics from the documents. How it got such high-school-book-report style prose (“here are some facts about…”) remains a mystery.

    Not letting the public initiate threads in the forums is pretty cowardly, too. They could have at least let them (well, us!) have a general discussion forum outside of their carefully curated threads.

    Stephen: I excuse Comms – they wouldn’t have written or approved the content of the Fact Sheets, or even determined the topics (they might’ve suggested the idea of fact sheets, though). Whatever failings there are (and I’ve only looked at the Economy one in depth so far), I reckon they’re down to management. AD

  • 5
    Krammer56
    Posted May 10, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    Agree that they have split up employment in a meaningless way. Most of their inner areas are just dense suburban areas nowadays. The days where they supplied many diverse jobs for Melbournians are long past, and if densifcation continues, the remaining employment areas will probably eventually be turned into residences.

    Even more alarming is the lack of any conversation about where the trends are going. We have heard a great deal about how the CBD has lots of high-paid white collar jobs and all the discussion has been about how important they are for the future of Victoria and that agglomeration benefits will help these jobs grow in fuutre. However, as you have pointed out many times, the vast majority of jobs aren’t in the CBD.

    Having 20% of residents in growth areas and only 13% of jobs is not sustainable – from either societal or environmental perspectives.

    What is the future trending towards and is this something we want?? That would be a more useful basis for intelligent discussion.

  • 6
    JJBB
    Posted May 17, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    We need to direct public / private capital and expertise toward green precinct pilot projects like NEO ( See FACEBOOK – NEO – Nunawading Emissions Offset ) which is based on the Nunawading Activity Centre.

    We will then have a sustainable innovative blueprint for urban redevelopment throughout Melbourne that, addresses all stakeholders concerns, and builds a future for Melbourne that we can all be proud of.

  • 7
    Smith Adam
    Posted May 20, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this article. It’s interesting to see that others have picked up on the lackluster response for how we use online technologies to capture the public’s views and ideas to develop successful plans. In my view, this website has missed a very significant opportunity to effectively engage with thousands of Victorians on the development of the new Strategy.

    Several month’s back, I wrote an article in The Melbourne Review (http://www.melbournereview.com.au/read/191/), outlining the great potential of this opportunity, for the first time, to be used as an important tool to help overcome people’s apathy and negative views towards planning. There was a real chance to start to engage with the ‘silent majority’, the people who slip through the net when using conventional engagement activities.

    Since the development of the last Metropolitan-wide planning effort of Melbourne 2030 in the early 2000s, internet and mobile technology has advanced, along with our understanding of how to use it. So why does this website look like it could have been created in 1998?

    There are numerous examples of websites that provide precedence for how to effectively include people’s ideas in the creation of better places. This website demonstrates to me a very basic understanding about how to create interesting, dynamic content that stimulates wide-spread interest in the project (with the exception of a few nice videos). Nor has the content been integrated into a well-designed platform that not only entices people to participate, but captures meaningful and purposeful responses that can be used to shape the Strategy itself (the concept of crowd-sourced planning).

    What I see here is a prime example of tokenistic community consultation. Ironic, given that a key objective stated by the Government was to engage with all Victorians on the development of the plan. Incidentally, in my view this response confirms rumors swirling within the planning industry that the Strategy has in fact already been written, and this process is just going through the motions of public participation.

    Unfortunately, it appears that the effort of developing a new plan (which most practicing planners would say is necessary), and the time, energy and money to create it, is quite simply a political exercise. The likely outcome of this process is that Melbourne 2030 will be re-branded with the new Government’s name on the front cover, and people’s negative attitudes toward planning will be reinforced.

    Most importantly, the opportunity to create ownership of the new Strategy has been missed. This was a key fault of Melbourne 2030 that resulted in a culture of oppositional, reactive and politically-driven planning. Seems to me its back to business as usual.

  • 8
    John_Proctor
    Posted May 21, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Maybe the problem is that Melbourne2030/@5 million were in general pretty good pieces of strategic planning (implementation was poor) and the ‘management’ is struggling to come up with something particularly different to sell as the new government’s ‘new’ plan.

    no doubt there’ll be some themes that grow (Guys ‘grand CBD’) and some that fade into the background (activity areas?) but generally it’ll be
    - more density in the inner city
    - ‘ongoing change’ in the middle suburbs probably more focused on a few key activity centres rather than every 2 bit shopping strip wiht a bank, post office and bus stop
    - jobs in places that jobs already are (CBD, Laverton/Dandenong South/Monash/Knox/ Kingston/Hume industrial/business precincts, Box Hill/Airport/Dandenong ‘activity centres’)
    - continual widening of the urban growth boundary for “affordable housing”.

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