Heritage Overlay areas in the City of Yarra (source: Review of Heritage Overlay areas 2007)
Heritage Overlay areas in the City of Yarra (source: Review of Heritage Overlay areas 2007)

Writing in the Sunday Age yesterday, planning academic Michael Buxton charged Melbourne’s planning system with being in a mess or, as the Fairfax headline writer so imaginatively put it, the city is on “a high rise to hell”. Professor Buxton’s complaint is about the high rise residential development boom in inner Melbourne. It’s happening he says at the behest of “vested interests”, by which he means “big capital, unions and compliant government”.

He reckons “low quality” towers targeted at a “transient demographic” will result in the “destruction of one of the world’s grand Victorian-era cities”. The towers are “likely to become unliveable and be demolished within a generation, a shocking legacy to short sightedness”. He takes special aim at the proposed 16 storey development in North Fitzroy I discussed a few weeks ago (see Is 16-storeys OK in the inner city?).

There’s so much more in Professor Buxton’s polemic but I’ll restrict myself to the substantive bit; his idea that the alternative to high rise is to create something like the streets of Paris, Manhattan or Barcelona:

Substantial increases in urban density do not require high rise buildings. Many of the world’s densest cities are located in Europe and the Middle East with uniform building heights between 3-7 stories. New Melbourne six-story apartment blocks are achieving dwelling densities almost 20 times those of traditional inner suburbs.

So why don’t we ban towers in Melbourne and restrict all new residential development to six storeys like the beautiful streets of (central) Paris? After all, that part of Paris within the approx. five km radius encircled by the Boulevard Périphérique is very dense and has virtually no residential high rise.

The reality is Melbourne is starting a long way behind the City of Light in the density stakes. Melbourne’s inner city covers much the same area as central Paris i.e. about 90 sq km. It accommodates a resident population of around 320,000, or less than 10% of the metropolitan population. The centre of Paris, in comparison, has 2,240,000 residents; that’s seven times as many within much the same area.

The dominant historical housing stock in central Paris is six storey apartment buildings, but in inner city Melbourne it’s mostly single storey terrace houses with ground-level private open space and direct access to the street from the front door. Almost all of them accommodate a single household and have been extended upwards and at the rear, whereas much of Paris’s inherited housing stock has been extensively subdivided into tiny micro units that make the “shocking” new apartments under construction in Melbourne’s CBD look like penthouses.

Melbourne’s city managers can’t simply bring some modern-day equivalent of Baron Haussman in to bulldoze all those low-rise terraces and replace them with six storey apartment buildings. Even if the thousands of 100 – 150 sq m lots weren’t in separate ownership, huge swathes of inner city housing are protected by heritage overlays. There’s no clean slate; what exists profoudly shapes what can be done.

Save for a few major redevelopment areas like Fishermans Bend, most of what’s available to increase density are scattered non-residential sites, typically “brownfield” properties. But the supply of these is limited; they’re mostly privately owned and have existing income-earning uses. Some have their own heritage constraints and some require extensive decontamination. The development potential of many is limited because they’re small and cheek-by-jowl with existing housing; towers have mostly tended to be in locations – especially the CBD – where there are few existing residents to oppose development or where high-rise is already an established building form.

A practical but critical constraint to low mandatory height limits (the City of Yarra wants a four storey maximum!) is the price the owners paid for sites; in many cases it’s based on historical expectations about development potential.

Paris has a high residential density because there’s 90 sq km of near-continuous six and seven story apartment buildings. It’s helped by there being only a few large parks; a very dense network of streets; and rules that permitted extensive internal subdivision of old apartments into ultra-tiny units. The location of large corporates in La Defense no doubt helps too.

Inner city Melbourne is low-density compared to European cities (these were the early suburbs that provided respite from the “slums” of what’re now the backstreets of the CBD). But the demand for inner city living is very strong, reflecting historian Graeme Davison’s contention that “the most desirable ways of living in Sydney and Melbourne are increasingly dense, urban and cosmopolitan rather than sparse, mono-cultural and suburban”.

There must be sufficient incentive to draw forth the limited stock of non-residential sites suitable for redevelopment for housing. It’s essential to maximise the potential of the relatively small number of large and well-located sites, consistent with good planning practice, so we can afford to preserve all those spatially luxurious one and two storey terraces and town houses. So when a large site becomes available for redevelopment in somewhere like North Fitzroy (see Is 16-storeys OK in the inner city?), it’s essential its latent potential to increase housing supply in accordance with exemplary planning practice is harnessed rather than sterilised by “vested interests” i.e. existing residents.