Methven Park, Brunswick

There’s a controversy in Brunswick over the City of Moreland’s plan to site a toilet block slap bang in the middle of Methven Park (listen to 774 radio and read The Age, Pave paradise and put up a toilet block: Sit-in planned over Brunswick dunny plan). The former toilet block was demolished last week after three years of planning (!) but Council says the new facility can’t be located on or near the original site because of its proximity to a CitiPower substation:

New regulations about what can be built adjacent to such substations forced Council to identify another site.

This might seem a minor issue but I think access to public toilets is a key indicator of the quality of life in cities – see Are our trains going down the toilet? It’s especially important as the population ages, as the average housing density increases, as places attract more visitors, and as city dwellers become more mobile.

In this case, though, the story highlights another issue; what caught my attention were these paras in The Age:

The council argues that a factory on the northern side, where residents say a toilet block could (be) built may soon be demolished for apartments, making it an unsuitable (location) for lavatories.

Residents counter that this is putting the needs of future residents ahead of those in the area now.

Rather than putting the interests of future residents ahead of the interests of existing residents, this could be interpreted as Council weighting the welfare of future residents equally with the wellbeing of existing residents. Council recently told residents the proposed location “does not favour any of the current or future residents in the immediate vicinity over the other”.

It’s a small example of a perennial problem. Loading unattractive changes on to prospective development sites rather than siting them where it makes sense on planning grounds is yet another way existing residents reduce the pressure for additional housing to be built in their neighbourhood.

As I observed here, current residents feel they paid for a bunch of neighbourhood characteristics when they bought their dwelling and therefore have the right to keep the local area pretty much as it is. On the other hand, they think, future residents will buy into the neighbourhood knowing what they’re getting; something like a toilet block over the back fence from their new apartment will be compensated by a lower asking price.

No doubt too much shouldn’t be made of the impact of a humble toilet block, although I imagine it would make a park outlook from the back windows a lot less attractive for many prospective residents if it were close to their fence. Something like a public parking lot, a mobile phone tower, or a large electrical substation would be a more striking example.

The problem with discounting the welfare of future residents is the viability of any new development will be affected in some way by decisions that affect its market appeal. An unattractive public facility mightn’t make much difference in boom conditions, but when the market slows – as inevitably it always will – it could have a larger impact. It might mean that a development doesn’t go ahead. That could have important implications for dwelling supply.

As for the location of the toilet block, it seems Council is either lacking in imagination or it thinks it really is the politburo. The toilet block should be kept well away from the best part of this small park (about 120 x 100 metres). It should be sited near street parking where it’s accessible to both park visitors and travellers, particularly those who are disabled or infirm. Public toilets should be thought of as both local and district facilities.

Council should also be more forthcoming about the substation issue; in particular, whether it’s a non-negotiable constraint or, as these matters often are, a matter of additional cost. Whether it’s located nearer to existing residents or nearer the development site should come out the bottom of the process; not be fed in at the top.