A place for a village...Gorgeous Maitland NSW, population 61,000. Birthplace of H.V. Evatt

Victoria’s Planning Minister, Richard Wynne, is sticking with his predecessors strategic plan for Melbourne. He says he’s only giving Plan Melbourne a “refresh”; it won’t be changed substantially when its released by the middle of 2016. (1)

One of the existing objectives that’s certain to stay is the idea of making Melbourne a 20 minute city. This is the appealing notion, inherited from the former Planning Minister Matthew Guy, that residents should be able to get to the great bulk of places they want to go – work, school, shopping, socialising – within a 20 minute walk, bicycle ride or public transport trip (see The “20 minute neighbourhood”: does it make sense?).

The rationale is living locally is more sustainable because it reduces the need for driving; increases the demand for smaller housing; deconcentrates travel-generating activities. It’s customarily argued that it will also improve health by promoting incidental exercise, as well as increase social capital.

The updated version of Plan Melbourne will retain this objective for a number of reasons; its traditional village values resonate with the planning constituency; it won’t take much from the budget; it won’t inconvenience anyone; and the Government knows it will be long gone before its ever called to account.

But in reality it’s just another case of marketing fluff. Consider jobs; all those highly specialised, high-paying jobs in industries like finance and government aren’t going to migrate from the CBD to numerous urban villages so workers can all get to work without driving.

Those industries want the benefit of agglomeration economies. Jobs in industries like manufacturing and transport aren’t going to forgo the benefits of large sites and proximity to freeways either. Of course residents won’t want them anyway.

Still, there are many other jobs that are a lot more generic. For example, take primary school teaching. If there’s any job that on the face of it is the perfect fit with the 20 minute city ideal it’s surely primary teaching.

Schools are pretty evenly spaced across the metropolitan area at a density intended to ensure young children can walk to school (a large number still do). Moreover, they’re all supposed to offer children the same basic education.

So on the face of it a job at one should be much the same as a job at another; primary teachers should be good candidates for the 20 minute city ideal.

However all schools aren’t the same; neither are all teachers.

Teachers’ residences aren’t conveniently distributed uniformly across the metropolitan area like primary schools. Many schools are in areas where fewer teachers live; on the other hand, the number of teachers living in some suburbs greatly outnumbers teaching positions.

Schools aren’t all the same. Some offer programs matched to the profile of their students, perhaps tailored to the socio-economic, ethnic or religious makeup of the student body. Some of the positions require specialist credentials and/or experience that not all teachers have.

Teachers vary in their skills, abilities, and personalities too. A particular teacher might not fit with the local school’s requirements. Principals also vary; some teachers might actively want to avoid nearby schools.

None of this is in the least bit surprising; it relates to all sorts of jobs. Cities are attractive places to live because they offer opportunities for workers to specialise and firms to agglomerate.

That’s largely why the average duration of the journey to work in Sydney is 35 minutes (and 70% of those commutes are by car; another 14% are by train but these take longer on average than car commutes).

There are some activities like grocery shopping that most people are happy to do locally, but when it comes to jobs and social networks they don’t live in cities of two to five million people so they can replicate life in a small country town (e.g. see Are big cities just collections of country towns?).

The 8% of Melburnians who live in the inner city can mostly take the 20 minute city for granted; they live close to the largest concentration of jobs in the metropolitan area and to the hub of the public transport system.

But they should be wary of extrapolating their good fortune to the rest of the metropolitan area. There’s only one CBD and one inner city; the largest suburban centre is an order of magnitude smaller.

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  1. It prompts the question why it’s taking so long to prepare a mere update to Plan Melbourne. The Andrews Government took office in November 2014 and Mr Wynne is giving himself until the middle of 2016 to release the “refresh”; that’s more than 18 months. Plan Melbourne was published in May 2014, so it could end up spending two thirds of its very short life under review. Meanwhile, the Minister makes major policy changes to planning rules without providing the public with the strategic vision behind them.