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Planning our cities: shouldn’t we expect better?

The Baillieu government has released the discussion paper for its metropolitan strategy. It seems to ‘tick the boxes’ but it could’ve and should’ve been better.

Average trip times in Melbourne. The discussion paper for the metro strategy proposes the maximum trip time should be 20 minutes.

It’s been a long time coming (almost two years!), but at last Victoria’s planning Minister, Matthew Guy, released the discussion paper for Melbourne’s metropolitan strategy on Friday (some press reports here, herehere, here and here. Also, see #metrostratlivetweet).

Titled Melbourne, let’s talk about the future, the 94 page document effectively starts the serious task of formulating the strategy to replace the former government’s long-term plan, Melbourne 2030. It outlines “some ideas and aspirations for Melbourne at 2050” and invites the public to contribute to “the conversation”.

The Minister’s foreword has the standard guff about the strategy making Melbourne “the most liveable and affordable place to live and do business in Australia.” That’s terrific, but it seems a rather undemanding ambition given the Economist Intelligence Unit judges Melbourne to be the most liveable city in the world.

Mr Guy nevertheless has high aspirations for the form of the strategy. He wants it to be  more than just another land use and transport strategy. It will go further and focus on “the economic, environmental, social and built form character of our city.”

I’m not sure what he means by that, but I hope he has in mind coordinating relevant capital and operational policies across all portfolios that impact on the way Melbourne functions as a city. I’ve discussed this issue before (here and here).

The discussion paper, though, isn’t the Minister’s work. It’s published under the name of the Ministerial Advisory Committee, chaired by Deakin University’s Professor Roz Hansen.

It might sound unlikely but this distancing seems to have worked. So far as I can make out, just about every issue that’s usually raised in the context of metropolitan planning gets a mention, even those more usually associated with the Greens than the Liberals and Nationals.

They don’t all have an emphasis that will satisfy everyone, but most boxes seem to have been ticked and there are even some exciting ideas here. I say “seem” because this isn’t a document that’s easy to follow – it’s almost like it was deliberately structured to defy easy comprehension!

The menu’s more limited when it comes to possible solutions though. The paper floats long-term ideas like a rail line to Melbourne Airport, but the government hasn’t sat still for the last two years pending the elephant-like gestation of the strategy.

It’s already committed itself to a range of projects and policies like, for example, the East-West freeway, a new zoning system, and significant residential growth in the city centre. It’s expanded the area of fringe land potentially available for development, signalled it will protect suburban streets from intensive redevelopment, and more.

There’s a sentence in Professor Hansen’s foreword that seems to capture the ambitions for the strategy:

If we make the right decisions now Melbourne will be able to deliver a suburban lifestyle to those who want it or a downtown lifestyle to those who want that.

I’ll leave discussion of specific issues to subsequent articles and consider more general matters now.

To my mind the document is a bit like coffee. The aroma is rich, warm and inviting, but the taste doesn’t quite live up to the promise. It’s a respectable enough effort as these sorts of things go (apart from the poor editing) and most will probably accept it with only a few reservations, but it could’ve and should’ve been better.

My main gripe is it reads like a check-list of  the issues. There’s a tick for lots of nice things like let’s have more jobs in the suburbs, let’s have more affordable houses, let’s have better designed apartments, let’s have shorter commutes, let’s provide services in outer areas, let’s have better governance, let’s have better public transport, and so on.

They’re clearly desirable aspirations and no doubt that sort of list has worth as a vision, but it doesn’t get at the central problem of how to make it happen. To add real value, a discussion paper should help with understanding the underlying causes of problems.

It should canvass the complex trade-offs and costs involved in addressing each one, as well as the consequential ‘downstream’ impacts on other objectives. It should provide meaningful data and evidence to explain problems and analyse the range of possible solutions.

The really big strategic issues – like where the city could go with density and public transport – demand a much more analytical approach.

A balance has to be struck between presentation and complexity. The discussion paper itself should have a more evidence-based tone and there’s scope to publish supporting technical papers – right now there aren’t any.

Another serious complaint I have, as I’ve mentioned before (see here), is the discussion paper commits to some key strategic directions, such as creating “a polycentric city”. That’s not what a discussion paper should do, or at least not lightly or without justification.

Its key purpose should be to identify issues and float options to address them, as the basis for discussion and debate. After all, that’s the very point of engaging with the community in the development of the strategy.

The idea of “a polycentric city” isn’t so obviously the best and only option that it’s beyond debate. It’s something I’ve favoured before but nevertheless I don’t think it should be treated as a given at this stage and essentially removed from further critical analysis.

My misgivings on this point are reinforced by the ridiculous assertion in the paper that 50% of Melbourne’s jobs “are concentrated in suburban clusters”. Even on a very generous definition of what constitutes a suburban cluster it’s actually more like 15%.

There are various propositions in the discussion paper that are more complex than the narrative suggests. I’ll come back and discuss them in more detail later.

No doubt that’ll be the sort of “conversation” the paper intends to engender. It’s just a pity it doesn’t make more of an effort to better inform those conversations and promote more rigorous debate.

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  • 1
    wilful
    Posted October 30, 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    I still haven’t read the document, but I had the pleasure of listening to my wife read choice bits of it out to me last night. It was so full of dead, Orwellian management-speak jargon that it was largely impenetrable. Hardly a solid idea in the whole thing. Sounded terrible.

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