Mar 20, 2017

Is sprawl still the number one bogeyman?

Sprawl was the headline city planning issue for more than half a century, but its salience has faded over recent decades. Urban policy-makers need to reassess their priorities

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

The expansion of Melbourne’s urbanised footprint over 132 years, from 1883 to 2015 (source: Plan Melbourne 2017-2050)

Victoria’s Minister for Planning, Richard Wynne, indicates in the foreword to Plan Melbourne 2017-2050 that one of the primary objectives of the strategy is “stopping Melbourne’s urban sprawl”. The plan itself tells readers Melbourne already “covers approximately 9,000 square kilometres”. It goes on to say:

It is unsustainable to keep expanding Melbourne’s outer-urban growth areas. If the city continues to expand, the natural environment will be impacted, commute times to employment and services will grow longer, and socioeconomic disparities across the city will increase.

The document offers little evidence to support these claims; it seems sprawl is so self-evidently a bad thing that opposing it doesn’t require the bother of substantiation. But looking forward from today to 2050, is sprawl still the defining issue it’s been in strategic plans for the last 50 years or so?


The exhibit, which is also taken from Plan Melbourne 2017-50, suggests it’s time to review the old ways of thinking. It provides three important pieces of information.

First, the claim Melbourne already “covers approximately 9,000 sq km” is grossly misleading. That’s a measure of the area within administrative boundaries; these extend well beyond the built-up area and include the “green wedges”. As the exhibit makes clear, the urbanised or built-up area of Melbourne is much smaller, around 2,500 sq km (if areas with fewer than 4 persons per hectare are regarded as non-urban, Melbourne covers just 1,714 sq km).

Second, it’s evident Melbourne has a long history of outwards expansion that pre-dates the car. The construction of most of the state’s extensive rail system in the late nineteenth century and the subsequent electrification of the metropolitan system by the 1930s, fuelled strong fringe growth between 1883 and 1954. Increasing car ownership after WW2 saw even stronger peripheral development between 1954 and 2001, but it was already an entrenched phenomenon.

Third – and this is the important bit – the exhibit indicates fringe expansion slowed dramatically over the 14 years from 2001 to 2015. To get an idea of the scale of the change, compare the 17 years from 1954-1971 to the most recent period. The length of the intervals is similar but the area of land developed for urban use in the earlier one is much larger than in the latest period.

Although there are a number of factors contributing to the declining scale of sprawl, a key one is the increasing preference for living in established areas. Since 2001 only around one third of new dwellings were built in Melbourne’s fringe Growth Areas. Plan Melbourne 2017-2050 expects the trend will continue; 65% per cent of new dwellings constructed in Melbourne over 2015-2050 are projected to be in established areas.


But not only is the fringe less important than it was in the era when the term ‘sprawl’ was coined, new outer suburban developments are very different from those of the past. Plan Melbourne notes that in recent years, average residential densities in the fringe Growth Areas have increased to around 18 dwellings per hectare. Medium density housing – like these townhouses in Mernda – is increasingly common in new outer suburbs.

The structure plan for the new outer suburb of Rockbank 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, and tree-lined streets. The average population density of Rockbank will be the same, or higher, than some of Melbourne’s old inner suburbs at the last Census.

The structure plan envisages at least 25% of housing will be at medium or higher density; that will provide a similar proportion of detached housing as 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).

The diminished scale and increasing density of fringe development means the negatives routinely attributed to “sprawl” – like impact on the natural environment and longer travel times – aren’t as big an issue as either the Minister or Plan Melbourne claim. They’re in any event grossly over-stated.

The focus of new fringe development in Melbourne is now in the north and west where the “natural environment” was degraded long ago by low value agricultural and recreational uses (see Is sprawl a serious threat to food security?). Moreover, the average journey to work trip time is much the same in Melbourne’s outer ring suburbs (38 minutes) as it is in the middle ring suburbs (37 minutes) and inner ring suburbs (37 minutes). The average trip time for all purposes is also much the same i.e. 22-23 minutes. (see How big is the “transport divide” between inner and outer suburbs?).


Every city in history has expanded to a greater or lesser degree at the fringe. Land is cheaper on the outskirts, it costs less to build low-rise, opposition to development is limited, and some residents value space over accessibility. It’s no surprise fringe development has traditionally provided a relatively affordable housing option for first-home buyers and households who want lots of space.

Melbourne will inexorably and necessarily continue to expand at the fringe, but recent history and current projections indicate it will be at a much lower rate than in the second half of the last century. Fringe development comes with issues – like high car orientation and initial service deficiencies – but it’s apparent “sprawl” isn’t as big a public policy issue as it once was.

City policy-makers need to reassess their priorities. They could start with improving the delivery of services on the fringe and giving more attention to increasing opportunities for Melburnians to live in established suburbs (e.g. see Is 16 storeys OK in the inner city?). It’s also timely to undertake a sober assessment of the increasingly fashionable option of sending growth to regional centres; it’s likely to produce worse outcomes than “sprawl” (see Is Regional sprawl better than suburban sprawl?).

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4 thoughts on “Is sprawl still the number one bogeyman?

  1. Horst (Oz) Kayak

    The ABS defined Melbourne Statistical Division (MSD) totally encloses 31 LGAS. There is no definition problem in what comprises the MSD. Obviously there are huge tracts of land still farmed and additional zones defined as green space. Discussion on land available for re-zoning to be build on requires clear definition of possible land-use. The predicted 2051 predicted population can easily be housed sensibly and sustainable within the existing MSD boundary of 8000 or so sq km. Sprawl is an emotive word that adds little to rational discussion. Intelligent debate could focus more on travel time. Time-space geography modelling could possibly lead to more sustainable land use patterns being developed by Government in alliance with the Private Sector.

  2. Andre Brokman

    I did a map recently where I measured the urban area of Melbourne to compare it to Sydney’s. I found Melbourne’s urban area to be approximately 2000 square kilometres but I’m not sure a Melbournian would agree with my definition of Melbourne. You can take a look at the map via this link: and the spreadsheet (which is in it’s very early phases) can be found by following this link:!AqbEMz3tnyn6h-Zy3LJskwfi1FSH2Q The relevant facebook post with a little info about my maps can be found here:

    I thought it might be at least a little bit relevant to see one measure of Melbourne’s actual size.

  3. Roger Clifton

    If we could move house as easily as we move flats, living in the (sub)urban sprawl need not be a prison term for the life of the mortgage. If renting became the norm, the house-and-yard dwellers could be as mobile as their inner-city counterparts.

  4. Guest

    Makes you wonder how Tokyo or Barcelona copes with “sprawl”.

    Declaring something “unsustainable” – what does it mean? It is such a salt-and-pepper term these days – put on everything and anything to season it. Isn’t drawing a containment line and expecting all development to occur within it also “unsustainable” in the sense that local residents will object, thus nothing will get built, rents and housing costs will skyrocket and the whole area will be unaffordable, leaving future generations worse off than today?

    We have to question the whole philosophy of where a home requires a big huge loan that takes 20-30 years to pay off. In other, product markets, mark ups are say 10 – 20%. What if housing were just the land cost, production cost + 10%? Or that we could buy a home and pay it off in under 10 years? Every other good or service in society seems to be affordable and plentiful, housing should be among those too.

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