Aug 31, 2015

Is the planning of new fringe suburbs getting better?

A press report about a new urban fringe suburb plays to the stereotypes of sprawl but the critics seem to have little idea about what's really happening with new outer suburban developments

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

The area covered by the draft Rockbank Precinct Structure Plan is shown in dark green (Source: MPA)

Here’s The Age last Friday reporting on the Victorian Government’s release of the draft Precinct Structure Plan (PSP) for a new suburb in Melbourne’s outer west (Rockbank development: Former green wedge to make way for sprawling suburb).

A former green wedge area in Melbourne’s west will make way for a sprawling new suburb, after the state government unveiled plans on Friday to transform the sleepy township of Rockbank into a new suburb home to 25,000 people…

The announcement marks the postscript on Labor’s Melbourne 2030 policy, which sought to contain new development to within growth boundaries. Previously, Rockbank had been designated a green wedge area, and Melton City Council envisaged just 1500 people living in the township.

The Age quoted RMIT academic Michael Buxton, who says the proposed development at Rockbank shows “everything that’s wrong with Melbourne planning”. There was a barrage of criticism on Twitter too. For example, Greens MP Ellen Sandell tweeted:

Yet again Labor expands urban sprawl to let developers build on Melbourne’s green wedges. Planning experts outraged.

Greens leader Greg Barber tweeted:

Melbourne doesn’t need more sprawl with public transport forever playing catchup.

The draft Precinct Structure Plan (PSP) for Rockbank was prepared by the Metropolitan Planning Authority. When it’s eventually fully built-out in 2046, the new suburb is expected to house the same population (circa 25,000) as existing suburbs like nearby Caroline Springs, or Bentleigh East in south east Melbourne, have now.

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There’re some important points to be made about The Age’s report on the draft PSP and the response of critics.

First, the new suburb already has a rail line (to Ballarat) and an existing railway station at Rockbank. The draft PSP says the station will be upgraded. Public Transport Victoria’s Network Development Plan recommends duplication of the line within seven years and electrification within 12 years.

Second, this new suburb is not going to be built in the green wedge. It will be constructed on land that was brought within the Urban Boundary in 2010. Indeed, advance notice was given back in 2008 when the update of Melbourne 2030, Melbourne @ 5 Million, clearly showed Rockbank was within the Investigation Area for urban development.

Third, the Melbourne 2030 strategic plan published in 2002 is irrelevant now. It’s intentions for the growth areas were superseded by Melbourne @ 5 million, published in 2008 (by the same Government); and subsequently by Plan Melbourne, published in 2014. The Minister for Planning, Richard Wynne, has indicated the Government will continue with Plan Melbourne with only a minor “refresh”.

Fourth, there’s nothing outrageous, much less surprising, about this land being developed for a new suburb. The point of bringing it within the Urban Boundary in the first place was precisely so it could be developed for urban use.

Fifth, it was a sensible and long-overdue decision to bring Rockbank within the Urban Boundary five years ago. Sterilising the 9 km of precious rail line between Caroline Springs and Melton so it couldn’t be used for urban development was always stupid policy (see Was Melton a bad idea? and Would a satellite city re-energise Ted Baillieu?).

Sixth, the term green wedges is emotive but it simply refers to all proximate non-urban areas outside the Urban Boundary. They include farms and conservation areas but also airports, sewage treatment plants, quarries, etc. Only one third of the land in the green wedges is publicly owned. Most of the land in the west is used for marginal agriculture and hobby farms (e.g. see Is sprawl undermining food security?).

Seventh, the draft PSP says the average density of Rockbank will be at least 16.5 dwellings per Ha. That’s the same as some of Melbourne’s old inner suburbs and higher than the 15 dwelling per Ha in the PSP Guidelines. It envisages at least 25% of housing will be at medium or higher density.

The 75% of lots expected to be used for detached housing is similar to the proportion of detached housing in inner suburban Coburg. The size of lots in Rockbank will also be modest; based on current development patterns, the great bulk will be relatively evenly distributed between 325 and 525 sq m (a quarter-acre block is 1,000 sq m).

Eighth, Rockbank railway station is 29 km from Melbourne Town Hall. That’s not as close as Carlton but it’s much closer than the larger Growth Areas in Melbourne’s South East e.g. Pakenham is 54 km from the CBD. In fact it’s the same distance from the CBD as long-established middle ring suburbs like Boronia, Doveton and Endeavour Hills.

Finally, I suspect few of those who criticised the announcement bothered to read the draft Precinct Structure Plan. The Vision is replete with references to transit-oriented development, cycling and pedestrian movement, promotion of high and medium density housing close to the town centre, walkability, neighbourhood hubs, tree-lined streets, and so forth. The PSP says it’ll have five schools, not a mere one as The Age contends.

Key issue

The Age’s framing of Rockbank as being built on (former) green wedge land and at variance with (the defunct) Melbourne 2030 plan makes no sense in the context of 2015. That sort of historical comparison might have a place in a journal or perhaps in an opinion piece, but this was a news report. It seems calculated to manipulate the prejudices of its readers; it’s a style of news reporting that’s more about the exigencies of a declining business model than the ethics of journalism. (1)

There’s an important and continuing debate to be had about what proportion of urban growth should be accommodated on the fringe, but there’s no question it will have to take some (see Does this strategic plan really spurn sprawl?). Even the feted Melbourne 2030 envisaged 38% of projected population growth would be in the Growth Areas.

The important issue with Rockbank isn’t the draft PSP – it’s a pretty good start and is the result of extensive consultation; it’s how well successive governments respond in providing all the infrastructure and services the draft PSP says are required to support Rockbank as it grows over the next 30 years to the projected 25,000 residents.


  1. Curiously, The Age agrees Melbourne 2030 is defunct. Here’s a line from an editorial in 2010: “As The Age has noted before, Melbourne 2030 is effectively dead”.
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9 thoughts on “Is the planning of new fringe suburbs getting better?

  1. hk

    A well structured essay focused on the present.
    Unfortunately the essay (nor the PSP) makes no reference to the challenges of housing an ever increasing ageing society. How will the fringe suburb planning cater for a society who prefer to age in place at home when it exceeds 30% to 40% of the population by 2051?

  2. Jacob HSR

    85% of strata units built in New South Wales are defective on completion.

    A whopping majority!

    So there is a consequence to allowing an unlimited number of dog boxes.

  3. Dylan Nicholson

    FWIW, I’d personally prefer to see that more efforts were being made to ensure that the already developed area of Melbourne was being used to its maximal potential before the need to look at extending out past Caroline Springs (and yes, it may be much closer to the CBD than Pakenham, but any significant new development that’s outside the edge of the de-facto urban boundary is a case of a extending sprawl, and everything that entails). Greater Melbourne is still a very sparsely populated urban area, and could absorb another million or so residents within existing suburbs without becoming particularly dense by modern international standards. But I’d accept that within 15 years there’ll be little real choice but to expand further – the question is whether there will be any technological or other major societal changes in that time that may dictate different choices to what we might make today.

  4. Dylan Nicholson

    Vivienne, are you suggesting the powers that be are going out of their way to encourage those 2.7 million people to come here? Or that they’re not doing their job by preventing them from trying to find a better life here?

  5. Vivienne Ortega

    DELWP: future population of Victoria

    To boost Victoria’s population to 10 million by 2051, there will be a natural increase of 1.7 million (births over deaths), 95,000 from interstate migration, but the bulk will be from net overseas migration, of 2.7 million!

    It’s far from being inevitable. This is about propagating urban sprawl, and housing growth, in an admission that our economy has become reliant on inflation rather than productivity, innovation, or making things.

  6. Waffler

    Vivienne – Natural growth is just under half of the projected population growth. Interstate migration takes the total to just about half. Even if we halved the immigration rate (which would take it to along term low) Melbourne would still grow strongly, just a bit more slowly.

    Yes it might take another 5 years, but it will happen. The task for planners is to do the best they can to plan for it.

    James – Many of the drivers of poor indicators ascribed to outer urban areas have little to do with growth but more to do with these councils including long-term socially disadvantaged communities such as Broadmeadows and Cranbourne. Others indicators (e.g. number of family violence incidents) can be at least partly explained by the stage in the life cycle of many residents (e.g. high proportions of families, financial stresses of mortgages, etc) and it is not at all clear that if they were located somewhere else that the outcomes would be materially different.

  7. James

    Good critique of the news story Alan. I still bemoan the ugliness and environmental impacts of sprawl – and there is no denying that outer urban areas suffer more in almost every key indicator. Will Rockbank be any different? I don’t know. But the odds are stacked against it. Let’s hope it’s future residents make an informed choice to live there.

  8. Vivienne Ortega

    It’s assumed that the professional skills of planners can cope with Victoria’s population explosion, to 10 million people, by 2051. It’s assumed, politically, to be an inevitable result of high natural growth, of more births than deaths, and net overseas migration.
    In actual fact, our natural birth rate is low, but what will drive most of the growth is immigration flows! (not inevitable). If Victoria was flourishing, with high standards of infrastructure, wealth, stability, full employment, productivity etc, then there could be *some* justification for pumping up our numbers – but sadly this is NOT the case!
    We already have entrenched poverty and disadvantage, massive infrastructure deficit, high rates of crime, massive youth unemployment and increasing homelessness! Why build more suburbs and homes if they won’t be affordable? The government is handing over our State to for the benefit of property developers, and the banks!
    The green wedges were formed by the Hamer government, to ensure Melbourne does not become a monolith of housing, but with the planned population push, the pressure on them will be enormous, and there needs to be a review of our future – and why the growth!

  9. ynotds

    This is accurate and useful. Thanks Alan. Usually when I see opinions on local issues from this side of town they have unfortunate and consequential holes. Not this. Given the way piecemeal pocket handkerchief estates originally cluttered randomly up Melton Highway from Sydenham, some planning is a huge improvement.

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