Guest writer Grant Wyeth (@grantwyeth) is a Melbourne based freelance writer :
It is a great positive that Melburnians are interested and engaged in the city’s development. However, the rapidly changing nature of this development is making many people uncomfortable, and as a result some starkly selfish perspectives, detrimental to the city, have emerged.
Traditionally it has been the conservative political tribe who have had a fear of change. Modern conservatives are currently in a confused state where the economic ideas they advocate create the substantial change they feel threatened by, which is pretty amusing to watch. However, when it comes to urban issues in Melbourne it is progressives who have been most prominent in their freakouts, with a strange and aggressive suspicion of construction, and in particular, height.
Unfortunately, this suspicion is at odds with the conventional progressive totems of concern about the environment and empathy for the less well off. Both of which are assisted by increased density and height.
The inner-urban dream still maintains some aspects of the Australian dream. A backyard is still considered a birthright, and as a result the vast advantages of density are surrendered to the protection of a romanticised “local character”.
In the CBD, the market currently caters for students and young professional from regions with cultures used to dense living. Leading to derisive comments about Melbourne becoming an “Asian city” (which anyone with an eye on the future should relish, not reject).
Developers see no reason to create dense housing for people who are hostile to the concept. So the market at the moment directs itself towards the values of those interested in living in the CBD with items like car parking, swimming pools, gyms, that raise the cost, but would not be deemed necessary by lower-income earners who have more pressing concerns.
Hopefully this culture will evolve in Melbourne with an increased understanding of its benefits and importance. Yet many progressive publications still publish uninformed feelings that demonise height and density, instead of evidence-based arguments explaining its benefits.
In particular, much concern has recently been raised about the size of apartments being built in the CBD. However, if these smaller sized apartments prove unpopular their cost on the rental market will decline and they will become affordable to those who have greater issues than dinner party functionality. Proximity and connectivity are the primary concerns of the financially unstable. The subjective tastes of the financially stable are luxurious absurdities to them.
The idea that these buildings will become “slums of the future” says more about the prejudices of those using the phrase than the buildings themselves. Access to the city is paramount for the people that provide the low-skill but functionally essentially labour the city relies on. Quite frankly, if you don’t like the look of them then you can clean up after yourself. Not giving these people access to the greater opportunity of central areas is an extra level of disdain towards them.
Which makes fretting about an “oversupply” of apartments another absurdity of the progressive narrative. “Oversupply” is an oxymoron to anyone bar landlords. With rents not dropping at the current vacancy rate of 7.8% it would indicate that the vacancy rate needs to increase before the market responds. Vacancies should not deter further construction.
Property developers need to think long-term, pricing people out of the inner-city now will have an impact on their continued work into the future. The demographic that both wants and needs central proximity will provide a constantly flow if the conditions are right.
While the progressive narrative has become divorced from any objective definition of progress, conservatives still remain conservative. This has been proven by the new Neighbourhood Residential Zones (NRZ) created by Planning Minister Matthew Guy.
These NRZs, that will allow councils to restrict development to two stories in selective suburbs, are a blatant attempt to maintain a steady increase in house prices in areas with wealthy residents. This will force less financially secure residents away from these well-connected suburbs with good public infrastructure and increase the city’s poorly connected sprawl.
There is a major danger in concentrating like minds and like wallets too heavily in geographic areas, which is what these new NRZs do. It may make politicians’ work easier, but it is a very unhealthy social segregation.
It was a poor decision by the Minister as these suburbs, through the Sandbelt and the inner-east, will always vote Liberal. He could have made a decision that was economically, developmentally, environmentally and ethically responsible without taking a hit at the ballot box. But he weakly chose to protect the myopic interests of the elite to the detriment of the city as a whole.
Unfortunately, in a wealthy country such as Australia, politicians seem to think this is their role. Which leads to question of whether democracies can still serve the needs to the poor when the vast majority are wealthy?
The growth and change of Melbourne is both a beautiful and inevitable thing. But with a reflexive fear of change being present in both our political tribes, maintaining an open and accessible city for those who require its opportunities the most will be hindered. The conversation needs to change away from selfish and counter-productive protectionist sentiments, and towards making the city’s growth inclusive.