Growth Areas

Mar 5, 2018

What’s wrong (and right) with “suburban sprawl”?

Our major cities require a more sophisticated understanding of the role of fringe development in accommodating forecast growth than reflexively dismissing it out of hand as "sprawl"

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

New townhouses in Mernda, 26 km from the CBD in outer Melbourne’s North Growth Corridor

One of the essential tropes of contemporary planning is that expansion of the urban fringe is irredeemably bad. Here’s a report published in Domain last week on a new book,  Urban Choreography, Central Melbourne 1985, co-edited by City of Melbourne design and projects director Rob Adams (Cut back on cars, stem urban sprawl to improve Melbourne and its suburbs, authors say):

Fewer cars and an end to urban sprawl is the way forward for Melbourne and its suburbs, according to the authors of a new book taking stock of the city’s planning past… (The book) pinpoints areas for improvement, and for Mr Adams, the most important is stopping the spread of metropolitan Melbourne. “If I only had one wish, it would be that we don’t subdivide another single piece of farmland on the periphery of the city,” he says.

The go-to prescription to limit sprawl is to use tools like the Urban Growth Boundary to contain all or most growth within the existing urban fabric. It’s not easy though. The Urban Growth Boundary established in 2002 in the Bracks’ Government’s strategic plan, Melbourne 2030, sought to restrict the fringe Growth Areas to circa 30% of population growth; however in the face of falling housing affordability it was subsequently expanded a number of times, including by a whopping 430 sq km in 2010.

The Brumby Government updated Melbourne 2030 in 2008 with a new document, [email protected] Million, which recognised that the Growth Areas were accounting for about half of all growth. More recently, the Andrews Government’s “refreshed” urban strategy, Plan Melbourne, reinstated the 30% target.

What’s wrong with fringe growth? The key objection relates to the relatively low densities of new suburbs compared to the alternative of multi-unit developments within the existing urbanised area.

The main charges levelled against “sprawl” include:

  • High levels of car use (“car dependence”)
  • Inadequate public transport
  • Long trip distances and travel times, particularly for the journey to work
  • High cost of providing infrastructure headworks
  • Lengthy delays until essential community services “catch up” with population growth
  • High incidence of physical and mental health problems
  • Sterilisation of farmland and pollution of bushland
  • Large dwellings with high embodied and operating resource use, especially electricity.

But fringe development also offers advantages. After all, every city in history expanded at the periphery and, absent some insurmountable barrier like an ocean, they still do (see Why do cities still sprawl?). When affordability improves, the fringe tends to capture a higher share of population growth. Targets like 30% are based on periods of poor affordability when low to average income households struggle to buy a home.

The principal advantages claimed for fringe development include:

  • Low land costs per sq m
  • Low building costs per sq m
  • More indoor and outdoor living space, making it better suited to larger households
  • More privacy, both within and between dwellings
  • Greater autonomy e.g. no body corporate
  • Greater accessibility by car to suburban jobs and services
  • Greater scope for greening streets
  • Lower cost of providing infrastructure
  • Better infrastructure e.g. larger school grounds
  • Protects established suburbs from redevelopment

What’s instructive here is most of the claimed positives are private benefits, whereas most of the alleged shortcomings are social costs. Given prevailing prices (including implicit subsidies), households who want affordable housing are voting with their feet (or yes, their cars). Many of them would prefer a location closer to the city centre, but the refusal of governments and existing residents to increase supply of new multi-unit housing in established areas rules that out.

The fringe doesn’t provide all the benefits of the established suburbs, but then it costs a lot less, has other advantages, and for many households still represents their optimal trade-off. Are the social costs of providing affordable housing on the fringe acceptable? I long ago came to the conclusion that the problems associated with it are exaggerated (see Problems with fringe-dwelling are peripheral):

  • The impact of Melbourne’s expansion on productive agriculture is extremely small. The area of land used for agriculture in Melbourne’s vaunted Green Wedges comprises just 1.7% of all agricultural land in Victoria. The wedges are mostly made up of extensive areas of protected natural bushland, semi-rural uses like hobby and lifestyle “farms”; and urban uses like airports, sewage works, prisons, sporting facilities, quarries and more (see Is sprawl a serious threat to food security?)
  • 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?). The claim of “forced car ownership” is overstated (see Transport disadvantage in the suburbs).
  • Residents of fringe Growth Areas commute by car because they mostly work in the suburbs and because most jobs are in the suburbs. While most recent jobs growth was in the centre, the effect on the spatial distribution of jobs across the metropolitan area was tiny. Half of all Melbourne’s jobs are more than 13 km – and 70% more than 5 km – from the CBD (see The jobs are already in the suburbs). Four-fifths of suburban jobs aren’t in major suburban centres; they’re in dispersed locations which are much easier to access by car than by public transport (note that even for residents of Melbourne’s relatively accessible inner suburbs, the average commute takes 40% longer by public transport than by car).
  • There’s no reliable evidence that it costs significantly more on average to provide infrastructure on the fringe than it does elsewhere (see Does infrastructure cost a lot more on the fringe?). It’s likely though that the idea established suburbs have money-saving “spare capacity” doesn’t apply to all types of infrastructure (e.g. see Is unused infrastructure capacity in the inner suburbs all used up?).
  • Community services have always lagged development of new areas and always will. It happens in redevelopment areas too, as well as with services provided by the private sector. It’s largely a question of scale. I’m not aware of any research on how it’s changed over time, but my sense is new estates are vastly better serviced in the early years nowadays than they were in the past (see Are the politicians trying to con us on this one? and Is the planning of new fringe suburbs getting better?).
  • Detached dwellings in Growth Areas are larger than multi-unit housing in established suburbs, but their thermal efficiency has increased significantly over the last few decades. Moreover, the average Growth Area dwelling is much smaller than the term “McMansion” implies (see Why are new suburban houses so bloody big? and Are huge homes irresponsible?).
  • The claim that fringe development leads to poorer health outcomes – especially obesity – than redevelopment is perhaps the weakest criticism. It overlooks demographic and class-based explanations, self-selection, and the astounding increase in calorie density of affordable foods over the last 40 years (see Is it healthy to assume correlation means causation?, Does urban sprawl really make us fat?, Does living on the fringe make people sick?, and Is better health a key rationale for urban policy?.
  • Growth area structure planning today is a far cry from the stereotype of outer suburban wastelands. For example, the structure plan for Rockbank in Melbourne’s west envisages the great bulk of lots will be relatively evenly distributed between 325 and 525 sq m; average density will be the same as some of Melbourne’s old inner suburbs; and the share of lots expected to be used for detached housing is similar to the proportion in inner suburban Coburg (see Is the planning of new fringe suburbs getting better? and How dense are Melbourne’s outer suburbs?).

Of course, there are downsides to peripheral development just as there are to redevelopment in established areas, or to channelling growth to dormitory suburbs in regional centres (see Suburban sprawl or regional sprawl?). For example, there are high levels of car travel (kms) on the fringe; but there are other ways of tackling the associated impacts – like mandating cleaner vehicles – rather than demonising fringe growth. The key issue with “sprawl” is to evaluate the private and social costs in the context of the corresponding benefits.

Australia’s big cities need to accommodate immigration-driven growth both within the built-up area and, given the failure to significantly increase supply in existing suburbs and to address taxation policy, on the periphery. The consequences of implementing the wrong policies and getting the balance wrong are severe e.g. exacerbating chronically poor housing affordability.

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