Change in shares of existing and projected metropolitan population, Melbourne (source data: VIF 2014)

Like other metropolitan strategic plans, Plan Melbourne argues it’s no longer sustainable to accommodate most of the city’s expected population growth by continuing to expand in outer-urban Growth Areas.

In the future, it says, Melbourne will need to become a more consolidated and contained metropolis by “facilitating more development in established areas”.

It appears to put its money where its mouth is. It envisages 61% of the 1.6 million new dwellings required out to 2051 will be constructed in existing developed areas. The fringe Growth Areas are expected to accommodate only 39% of them.

That seems to be the way to tackle sprawl and create a more compact city. Over time, the proportion of dwellings in the inner and middle ring suburbs should increase at the expense of the Growth Areas.

What we’re really ultimately interested in, though, is where Plan Melbourne proposes people will live. That differs from the dwelling construction task because household size varies geographically; it’s higher in the outer suburbs where there are lots of families and lower in the inner city where there’s a higher proportion of singles and couples.

The first exhibit shows the existing geography of population in Melbourne in 2011 and the projected distribution in 2031 with Plan Melbourne. It’s based on the demographic projections underpinning Plan Melbourne published in Victoria in Future 2014. (1)

What might seem surprising given Plan Melbourne’s apparent concern with arresting outward expansion is that the share of metropolitan population living in the Growth Areas is projected to increase significantly over the period i.e. from 23% to 31%. (2)

Possibly even more remarkable in view of the emphasis on compact urban form is that the proportion of Melbourne’s population living in the more accessible established middle and inner suburbs is expected to fall sharply i.e from 66% to 57%.

The inner city is the only part of the existing urban fabric where the share of population is projected to increase (3). However the increase is small (one percentage point) and, moreover, it’s from a small base i.e. the inner city’s current share of metro population is only 11% (see first exhibit).

This outcome is explicable in terms of where the growth is expected to take place. The Growth Areas account for just 23% of the metro population at present, however as the second exhibit shows, they’re projected to take 51% of the projected increase in population over the period.

On the other hand, the middle and inner ring suburbs account for 66% of the existing population but are projected to take just 30% of the growth.

The inner city is certainly expected to punch above its weight; it’s projected to account for 19% of the increase in population over the period but, as noted, the increase is from a fairly small base.

This analysis illustrates two key issues. First, notwithstanding its rhetoric, Plan Melbourne maintains the current policy of accommodating a large proportion of growth on the urban fringe.

In fact the projected share for the Growth Areas is much larger than the 38% target in Labor’s 2003 urban strategy, Melbourne 2030. It’s still higher, moreover, than Labor’s watered-down 2008 revision, Melbourne @ 5 Million, which raised the target to 47% (see What’s happened to the compact city?).

Second, it illustrates the strategy’s high reliance on two areas – the Growth Areas and the inner city – to absorb the greater part of expected population growth. Although it only has 16% as many residents at present as the inner and middle suburbs combined, the inner city is nevertheless projected to accommodate 43% as many additional residents as these areas.

The very low proportion of growth planned for the inner and middle ring suburbs is a direct result of the Government’s policy – reinforced in Plan Melbourne – of protecting established suburbs from redevelopment pressures (4).

Plan Melbourne greatly diminishes the locational choices of Melburnians by continuing to limit the supply of new dwellings over a very large area of the city.

The reduction in the scope for infill development inherent in the new zoning structure is likely to limit the range of housing types and price options. It puts immense pressure on urban renewal schemes to take up the slack and comes with the risk that the inner and middle suburbs projected 30% share of population growth won’t be achievable.


  1. Note that this analysis of projected population is out to 2031; VIF 2014 does not provide data at this level for 2051.
  2. The Growth Areas are the municipalities of Melton, Wyndham, Hume, Nillumbik, Casey, Cardinia
  3. For the purposes of this article, I’ve adopted Plan Melbourne’s concept of the “Central city and surrounds” as the definition of the inner city  (i.e. the municipalities of Melbourne, Yarra, Port Phillip, Stonnington, Maribyrnong). The Inner Suburbs is Banyule, Boroondara, Glen Eira, Hobson’s Bay, Moonee Valley, Darebin, Moreland.
  4. Plan Melbourne’s target of placing 39% of new dwellings constructed out to 2051 in the Growth Areas isn’t ambitious; its the same as the actual level achieved over 2004-12 (see Will “protecting” the suburbs safeguard affordability?)
Share of population growth 2011-2031 compared to share of metropolitan population in 2011 (source data: VIF 2014)