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Sep 3, 2017


“Victorians have a once-in-a-generation chance to make their mark on Melbourne by naming the five new underground stations to be built as part of the Metro Tunnel Project”

In this week’s Tw3, The Urbanist comments briefly on:

  • Should the new Melbourne Metro stations be named after locations?
  • It’s about time, not money: the real reason retirees keep their big homes
  • Questions raised about heritage listing of Hobart’s Wrest Point Casino
  • It’s smart to be dense: Melbourne sprawl to cost $110bn
  • Fake news: is smoking really increasing in Australia?
  • Let’s get to the facts on the Powerhouse move
  • Future Brisbane: New technology will ensure city’s dominance
  • Melbourne sky rail: Great wall of ‘cookie-cutter’ fences may cost taxpayers $1.75m
  • It’s time to take back the streets and make them safe for walking.

Should the new Melbourne Metro stations be named after locations?

But just days after the competition was announced, the people appear to be speaking with one voice: name the stations after their locations, readers are telling this paper. It would seem blindingly obvious: the main function of a station name, as Daniel Bowen from the Public Transport Users Association pointed out, is to tell travellers where in the city they are (especially as they will be underground).

Nonsense! Has Melbourne taken a big productivity hit because Melbourne Central wasn’t named ‘Cnr Latrobe and Swanston’? Did visitors start getting lost in large numbers after Spencer St Station was renamed Southern Cross Station?

Naming the stations according to their location might seem obvious, but think about this:

  • While it’s certainly the convention, there are nevertheless already a number of stations in Melbourne with names that don’t convey much that would directly aid navigation e.g. Southern Cross, Melbourne Central, Dennis, Ginifer, Westona, Jordanville, Ruthven. Travellers go to places, not stations. Residents look for the nearest station to where they work and tourists look on a map for their destination, then the most convenient station nearby. The station names could as easily be numbers
  • Even if a station is named after a location like ‘Spencer St’, ‘Arden’, or ‘Library’, travellers still have to know beforehand where their destination is located; usually a street address. I need to know where I’m going in Arden before I decide if I want to go there. Having a station that conveniently has the same name as the suburb is a trivial benefit
  • Place names have limitations. Spencer St is a pretty long thoroughfare (it goes up to Dryburgh St), so which end would ‘Spencer St Station’ signify? ‘Flagstaff’ doesn’t help much if your destination is the High Court Registry; it would be just as useful to know the Registry is near ‘Station 001’
  • Improvements in mapping and communications technology – especially smartphones – have made navigation easier. They’ve made the logic of naming stations after their locality much less compelling than it once was.

The advantage of  naming stations by their location is greatly exaggerated. Unquestioning acceptance of this trope rules out the opportunity these five new major public works provide for making an important cultural statement about the city. After all, this is the State with an interesting history of place names e.g. Mount Difficult, Mount Abrupt, Mount Disappointment, Mount Buggery, Mount Speculation, Mount Despair, Mount Terrible, Mount Useful; all of them great potential station names!

We surely know by now that naming anything after people with knowable biographies is fraught, but there are other socially significant possibilities; in particular, adopting traditional indigenous names with agreement could be a powerful statement of reconciliation. There are 24 stations on my rail line (Hurstbridge) but only one of them, Darebin, looks like it might be an indigenous name. There are a further 15 stations on the South Morang line with only one, Merri, that’s indigenous.

A caveat: the two new CBD stations are interchange stations so there’s an argument they don’t need new names. They’re effectively extensions of Flinders St and Melbourne Central stations, which they’re connected to via footways.

This whole naming exercise is clever politics. It draws attention to the Government’s infrastructure program while simultaneously showing its commitment to consultation. And since the Government has reserved the right to make the ultimate decision on naming (as indeed it should), it’s likely to be low risk.

It’s about time, not money: the real reason retirees keep their big homes

For retirees, the more time one has, the greater amount of home production is done and therefore the greater the need for a house. Since most retirees are empty nesters whose sizeable homes were once filled with at least two children, the family home is the ideal base to support their renewed focus on home production.

This is familiar stuff; see Are Australia’s 1960s suburbs really “emptying out”? But the author’s angle is enlightening; empty nesters have an abundance of time and use the space they’ve got to put it to good use. They’re not selfishly sitting on space they don’t use.

Trying to move empty-nesters out of “under-occupied” dwellings is a longstanding focus of policy, but there’s a host of additional reasons why empty nesters stay put, including:

  • Inertia – sentimental attachment to house; existing local friendship network; the disruption and effort of moving; loss aversion e.g. a garden developed over a lifetime. All these might be harder to deal with when older
  • Cost of moving – stamp duty, agents’ fees, removal costs
  • Cost of getting old house ready for sale
  • Town houses and apartments in the local area aren’t significantly cheaper
  • High cost of living in strata housing e.g. levies
  • Loss of control of living in strata housing e.g. forced repairs that in a house could be self-repaired or ignored.

Some observations:

  • Can empty-nesters afford to move into a smaller dwelling where they have to rely more on market-provided services to “fill” their time?
  • Is the number of “vacant” bedrooms a sensible way to count the capacity utilisation of housing?
  • Inducing large numbers of empty-nesters to “move on” to a smaller abode requires significant incentives; it’ll need more than just reducing stamp duty on the purchase of the smaller dwelling. Some Melburnians moved to Qld in the 1980s because of the combination of climate, beaches, cheap housing, and (no) inheritance taxes.

Questions raised about heritage listing of Hobart’s Wrest Point Casino

The casino was added to the heritage list due to its role in local tourism and it being the “only example of a late 20th century circular high-rise tower” in the state, Tasmanian Heritage Council chair Brett Torossi said.

The casino was indeed important for Tasmanian tourism; which in this case is code for the history of legal gambling. That doesn’t mean the building itself was important and must be protected; it just means the importance of the activity that went on within it to Tasmanian history should be recognised. There’s a host of ways we might remember its role e.g. film, books, models. That’s how we remember almost everything else about Tasmanian history, most of it of vastly greater impact than the Wrest Point Casino.

The building itself isn’t a palimpsest; protecting the structure only celebrates the casino but doesn’t tell us anything about it. With so many other ways of remembering and interpreting the social significance of the casino, it’s not necessary to impose the restrictions of preservation on the owner, or the cost of sterilising this location on the wider community. One of those costs is living in perpetuity with this 17-storey visual assault on the Hobart suburban beachside landscape.

This is an undistinguished building in architectural terms; being the first “circular” tower in the State is neither here nor there. Being the first “high-rise” in Hobart is of historical interest, so put it on the written record; it’s not enough to justify a permanent 17-storey monument on the suburban horizon. Not everyone thinks a casino is worth celebrating in the first place, much less with a giant 73 metre-high memorial.

It’s smart to be dense: Melbourne sprawl to cost $110bn

Mr Adams said research had found the cost of building 1000 houses on the periphery of the city would cost $300 million more than building the same houses within the fabric of the city. The difference is due to the ­increased costs of building infrastructure such as power and water, and increased transport and health costs in outer areas.

I’m amazed that these claims still get a run. The fact is we don’t know if it costs more or less to build on the fringe. We’ve known for years that the study these numbers are taken from is full of holes; some of the data goes back to 1974 and some is drawn from the USA and Canada. The study also conflates infrastructure construction costs with economic costs (see Does infrastructure cost a lot more on the fringe?).

As I’ve noted before, it might seem intuitively obvious that the cost of providing physical and social infrastructure in established areas should be only a fraction of the cost on the fringe, but most of the “spare” capacity in the inner 10 km ring this study examined is long gone (see Is unused infrastructure capacity in the inner suburbs all used up?). Retrofitting expansions or new works is difficult and expensive. Established areas are more intensively developed, values are higher, sites are smaller, access is harder, opposition from neighbouring land uses is more intense, and the cost of avoiding disruption of other activities is higher.

Note that the Victorian Government is spending $10 Billion to build nine kilometres of rail line and five stations in the city centre (Melbourne Metro). Compare that to the $0.6 Billion it’s spending to build eight kilometres of rail line and three stations on the fringe (Mernda). Some of this is due to differences in scale, but most of it is because Melbourne Metro must be a tunnel.

Fake news: is smoking really increasing in Australia?

In 2013, there were 16.4% of Australians aged 18 years and over who smoked. By 2016, this number had fallen to 15.7%. By contrast, the US rate for 2016 is 15.8%, a sliver higher than Australia’s 2016 rate. England’s rate in 2016, according to the long running Opinions and Lifestyle Survey, was 15.8%, again marginally higher than Australia’s.

This story is about the reduction in smoking, but what caught my eye was the proportion of the population who smoke is similar in Australia, UK and US, yet the price of cigarettes is wildly different. A standard pack of cigarettes costs US$19.83 in Australia, US$11.62 in the UK, and US$6.75 in the United States.

Tax increases suppress smoking but the returns are diminishing because the remaining smokers tend to be hard-core addicts. The poorest and most disadvantaged sections of the community are grossly over-represented among smokers. The taxation revenue they contribute in Australia is huge ($4.7 Billion in excise over 2016-20).

The focus of policy needs to shift away from further cruel and inequitable tobacco excise increases to other approaches (see Is it time to rethink how smoking is taxed?). Note also this new study which found there’s no association between smoking bans in hospitality venues and reductions in smoking. Bans aren’t the moral high ground; they’re solely about the wellbeing of non-smokers. Since you’re asking, I’m a non-smoker.

Let’s get to the facts on the Powerhouse move

Initially many – including this newspaper – were swept up in the euphoria of the idea. There is no doubt that Parramatta, greater Sydney’s geographic centre, needs and deserves more cultural investment.

Whatever the merits of shifting the Powerhouse, the “geographic centre” isn’t the key factor that should determine its location. What matters far more is the location with the highest accessibility in the Greater Sydney Region for visitors to the museum, especially by public transport e.g. the address where the largest number of visitors can get there within a reasonable travel time and reasonable cost. It’s possible two campuses might be the optimal solution on this criterion.

Future Brisbane: New technology will ensure city’s dominance

Imagine, if you will, that it’s 2037 in Greater Brisbane. As we reflect on the past 20 years, it’s hard at times to imagine how we managed to dodge some bullets and capitalise on the wave of change that has swept the globe.

Former Qld Premier and Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Campbell Newman, imagines the Brisbane he wants to see in the future in this opinion piece (complete with researchers at UQ finding a cure for Alzheimers!). Mr Newman is doing what routinely gets dished up to us in long-term strategic plans; a politically exciting vision of a wonderful world that has a very low probability of being realised by the target year. Aspirations are a vitally important part of the planning process, but strategic plans sell the myth that they can deliver the perfect future.

These plans don’t examine the unreliability of their forecasts; they give only a token nod to the wider forces that are likely to shape the plan; they scrupulously avoid specifying unpopular but necessary actions required to have a chance of delivering on their promises; and they don’t acknowledge that the priorities and issues they purport to tackle are time-bound i.e. they’re today’s concerns. They don’t even start to tell us what we’re most likely to get.

Melbourne sky rail: Great wall of ‘cookie-cutter’ fences may cost taxpayers $1.75m

“The whole suburb is ruined really, the community has been broken by this,” she said. “All along the rail line people have taken the money and run away. One thing that’s gone unsaid is that the sound of the freight trains will be even worse when it’s elevated.”

Some observations:

  • The suburbs ain’t ‘rooned. The households who’ve sold to the Government constitute a small proportion of residents in these suburbs. Many of the houses will be sold to new households – or redeveloped for multi-unit housing – who’ll move in knowing they’ll have a view of sky rail. The forces driving the demography of this area are much bigger than the elevation of the rail line.
  • The Government insisted from the outset that the sound reaching nearby residents from the elevated line would be no worse than at present from the at-grade line. That remains a big unknown.

It’s time to take back the streets and make them safe for walking

Soon there will be 56 million Americans over the age of 65. They should be able to cross the street…Older people are dying in the streets because they take longer to get across the road. A British study noted that “the vast majority of people over 65 years old in England are unable to walk fast enough to use a pedestrian crossing.”

It doesn’t look like cars are going away any time soon, so they need to behave in a civilised way; they need to be tamed. Ageing baby boomers might be the group that forces the change.


Aug 20, 2017


Turtle, grasshopper, Jar Jar Binks, or…? (source: Redditt/evil buildings)

In this week’s TW3, The Urbanist comments on:

  • Melbourne is ‘most liveable city’ again. But it’s also harder, crueller, out of reach
  • Ill-judged and random – why Britain’s system for saving old buildings is a farce
  • Congestion Pricing Finds New Life in New York City
  • Is congestion pricing fair to the poor?
  • Pace of renewable energy shift leaves city planners struggling to keep up
  • The slowest street in Melbourne’s CBD: Three ways to get us moving faster
  • Walkable neighbourhoods boost health, build communities and deliver liveability, productivity and sustainability says Lucy Turnbull
  • Infrastructure for Mature Cities
  • Is There a Perfect Density?
  • Streetlights and crime in Houston: what’s the connection?
  • Forget the Past. Statues Represent Who We Want to Be
  • Residents in Brighton are outraged two blocks worth almost $4 million will be used to house five homeless people in temporary units
  • Opal figures show skyrocketing passenger demand on Sydney train lines
  • Food Deserts and Real-Estate-Led Social Policy.

Melbourne is ‘most liveable city’ again. But it’s also harder, crueller, out of reach

You have to go a long way off the red maps of the Melway to find affordable housing in Melbourne… This is the year homeless people became a visible and critical mass in the city… It’s peak hour all the time, everywhere: the whole city becoming one big Punt Road.

This is one of several stories last week that knowingly used Melbourne’s ‘most liveable city’ gong as a straw man to tell readers what a shit place the city actually is. It’s true Melbourne has serious problems, but so have Paris, London, New York, Copenhagen, San Francisco, etc (see Is Melbourne’s liveability gong mostly bullshit?). What’s lacking in The Guardian’s article is a comparator.

If the editor of The Guardian wants to give her readers an objective assessment of how “liveable” Melbourne is, she should commission a comparison of its virtues and evils relative to peer cities. Something like Monocle’s 2017 Quality of Life survey would be a good place to start. Like any metric it’s got issues too, but unlike the EIU’s league table its focus is permanent residents. It ranks Melbourne a highly creditable fifth, behind top-placed Tokyo but ahead of the usual darlings like Zurich, Portland, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Vancouver, and all the Scandi cities.

Ill-judged and random – why Britain’s system for saving old buildings is a farce

A fairly ordinary house on Northmoor Road in Oxford is listed just because JRR Tolkien wrote his novels there. While this is no reason to immediately demolish the place either, it’s not like he carved the original draft into the walls, or rebuilt the roof to look like a dragon. Is there really that much to be learned from observing the outside of a house where someone imagined a thing that everyone may have lost all interest in a hundred years hence?

Unless they house a museum, buildings that famous people lived in rarely convey anything substantial about the person or why they’re significant. Tolkien is already remembered – and more importantly, understood – by the huge number of people who’ve read his books and seen the blockbuster films they spawned. How could anyone who’s immersed themselves in Tolkien’s imaginative universe possibly think preserving his home in the real world is so important it must be listed? (see Should this movie set get heritage protection? and Does this building tell us much about social history?).

Congestion pricing finds new life in New York City

Eight years ago, a proposal to charge drivers entering the most congested parts of Manhattan was soundly defeated when it moved from the city to the state. Now the idea is being revisited again, with support from the governor.

Manhattan needs to charge for car use. It’s disappointing that one of the densest cities in the developed world and a world economic power house still struggles with such an obvious idea. It needs to reduce private car use and use roads more efficiently e.g. buses, bicycles, scooters. So do Australian cities.

Is congestion pricing fair to the poor?

It is appropriate to worry that priced roads might harm the poor while helping the rich. But we should also worry that free roads do the same, and think about which form of unfairness we are best able to mitigate. People who worry about harms to the poor when roads are priced, and not when roads are free, may be worried more about the prices than the poor.

We need a wiser, better informed discussion of congestion pricing. Time to review arguments like “we can’t have road pricing” and “we can’t tackle climate change” because they’d be unfair to those on low incomes (see Is congestion charging just too unfair to bother with?).

Pace of renewable energy shift leaves city planners struggling to keep up

An easy win for planners is to devise codes and planning scheme provisions to protect rooftop solar installations from overshadowing.

In some cases yes, but the risk here is solar access becomes yet another excuse (like heritage and neighbourhood character) to oppose increases in densities. We addressed sewage disposal via large-scale treatment plants rather than by local ones like septic tanks; and we’re increasingly addressing urban mobility by large scale systems e.g. trains instead of cars. On-site solar collection has a place, but we should be thinking in terms of large-scale solar collection too, preferably in locations where it’s most efficient.

The slowest street in Melbourne’s CBD: Three ways to get us moving faster

The report argues it’s time for traffic police to get much tougher on drivers who break that law. It proposes installing traffic cameras to catch and fine drivers blocking intersections.

Yes, drivers who queue across intersections are a pain but that’s not the main game. The article also says, “pedestrians are not blameless in blocking busy city intersections” and that clarifies the key issue; there’s too much space for vehicles in the CBD and not enough for people on foot. This is one of the densest and most productive few square kilometres in the country and has very good public transport service from all parts of the region, so the warrant for giving over so much surface space to cars is very weak. Restricting vehicle use (including taxis) would impose a cost, but there’d be a payoff in better amenity and faster walking trips.

Walkable neighbourhoods boost health, build communities and deliver liveability, productivity and sustainability says Lucy Turnbull

Really? Small country towns are often walkable, but they’re not necessarily sustainable, healthy or productive. Country folk seem to like driving. Some minority groups find that despite the walkability of small towns, they’re often not included in the community. Sydney’s CBD is walkable and so is Adelaide’s, but the former’s an economic powerhouse and the latter isn’t. It’s down to much more complex factors than walkability.

This sort of ‘silver bullet’ mentality is reminiscent of the ‘Cargo Cult’ that’s built up over decades around technology parks. Every town in the world builds one in the forlorn hope they’ll become the next Silicon Valley (see Do technology parks work?). Walkability is good in neighbourhoods, but it’s not the second coming; it’s not even close.

Infrastructure for Mature Cities

The serve model flies in the face of the belief that public transit can induce profound changes in urban layout. In reality, some local transit-oriented development is possible, but the main center of New York will remain Midtown; so far Hudson Yards seems like a flop. In the suburbs, more extensive redevelopment is possible, with apartment buildings and mixed uses near train stations. But these suburbs, built after WW2, are less mature than the city proper. In fast-growing cities in North America outside the traditional manufacturing belt the shape model still has validity – Vancouver, still a relatively new city region in the 1980s, got to shape itself using SkyTrain. But in New York, there is no chance.

The proponents of infrastructure projects routinely describe them as “city shaping”. Sometimes they are, but mostly they’re not because they’re usually additions to mature networks (see Does this freeway make any sense?). The great transport shapings of Sydney and Melbourne happened in the second half of the eighteenth century, when the new technology of trams and trains provided a huge advance on walking, and again in the mid nineteenth century when ready access to cars provided the scope for private transport. But there are limits e.g. there’s not much evidence that Melbourne is different in important ways to other Australian cities because it alone had trams for the last fifty years. The biggest city shaper of the last 50 years was arguably the contraceptive pill.

Is There a Perfect Density?

In recent years, I have read numerous references to the phrase “Goldilocks density“: the idea that there is one level of density that is neither too high nor too low, but just right. For example, Lloyd Alter wrote some years ago that this perfect density is “dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can’t take the stairs in a pinch.

No there isn’t; and as a question it mostly makes sense for large tract development, principally on the fringe. The key challenge in Australia’s big cities is increasing density in established suburbs. What largely determines density is what’s viable given that the supply of sites for redevelopment is often limited, lots are small and difficult to amalgamate, they’re in diverse ownerships, they’re expensive, they’re often protected by heritage overlays, and even modest redevelopment is opposed by existing residents.

Streetlights and crime in Houston: what’s the connection?

Long story, short, the report argues, “given the complicated relationship between streetlights and crime, cities should not expect a direct impact of additional streetlights on reductions in crime.”

This finding highlights the need for a more sophisticated understanding of how design affects behaviour. The impact of planning and architecture on crime is routinely overstated by designers who want to increase their own importance. It’s routinely overdone by politicians who want to appear to be doing something without having to address the underlying causes.

Forget the past. Statues represent who we want to be

So if you’re considering the worthiness of a particular statue, here are three pointers: Pretend you’re from some very distant foreign country and view the dispute through that more objective lens. Second, focus on the future, and third, don’t be afraid to make some changes.

Important old books, films and art works that come to be seen as unworthy or even offensive by succeeding generations can be easily ignored. Not so with built objects; they’re in the public sphere. Moreover, there’s an opportunity cost if there’s an alternative use for the underlying land. Maybe protections on all public monuments, place names and heritage buildings should be sun-setted i.e. have a finite life that must be “reset” via a review process every (say) 50 years? Perhaps The Fourth Plinth program provides some inspiration.

Here’re some interesting takes on the topic: Confederate monuments aren’t history, they’re a cheap cultural memory and The Confederate statue debate: 3 essential reads.

Residents in Brighton are outraged two blocks worth almost $4 million will be used to house five homeless people in temporary units

Locals say their new neighbours could bring serious social problems and are angry at the lack of consultation by the Government.

This would make a classic episode of Utopia. Residents are outraged because they’re getting temporary accommodation for five homeless persons on their doorstep; advocates are outraged because the filthy rich residents of Brighton are outraged! So-called temporary buildings often become permanent (look at primary schools). This is a big site and it’s presumably in public ownership; it can accommodate many more than five people. It should be developed for multi-unit housing, including social housing.

Opal figures show skyrocketing passenger demand on Sydney train lines

Passenger demand for trains in Sydney has risen by almost 20 per cent on some lines in just a year, new figures show, underscoring the strain on the city’s rail network.

There’s a parallel with the rapid growth in train commuting in Melbourne over 2005-09 (see Can we have a mature discussion about the future of public transport?). At the time, public transport’s mode share in Sydney was static. Now the roles are reversed, suggesting the economic climate is a key explanation for the transit boom in Sydney.

Food deserts and real-estate-led social policy

The article contributes to widening critical discussion of the food desert paradigm and the policy interventions with which it is associated. It calls on urban researchers and practitioners to reframe discussions of food access and nutrition around the shortage of basic income and a need for higher wage floors.

There’s so much exaggeration of the issues around food security and food deserts. The problems aren’t caused by the physical environment and they can’t be cured by planning. The issue is income, not geography (e.g. see Are these outer suburbs “food deserts”?).


Jul 4, 2017


What the redevelopment of the Great Western site will look like

The Age reported last week that “another of Melbourne’s heritage pubs will be knocked down for apartments” with only the facade retained. The 160-year old Great Western Hotel in Melbourne’s CBD has no heritage protection and will be replaced with a 26-storey apartment tower.

Beer sales were down to around 15 barrels a week when the Great Western closed last year, compared to 42 per week in the early 2000s. So it’s no surprise it’s joining the 30-odd traditional pubs that’ve succumbed to redevelopment in Melbourne over the last five years.

Another historic pub lost? Justifed by the indignity of facadism? And to make matters worse, the openings proposed at street level are so wide users and passers-by will get little sense of the old building?

Sounds awful, but it’s not as bad as it seems. We can take some comfort in the fact Melbourne still has “about 450″ typical pubs. That’s a lot. Moreover, in terms of finding a place to socialise, Melbourne now has over 9,000 liquor licences.

More importantly, the building isn’t subject to a heritage overlay for a reason; it isn’t important enough. At the start of the year, I cited this Heritage Victoria document that says the Great Western was extensively altered in the 1940s and is now “of little architectural or for that matter historical importance” (see Does this building tell us much about social history?).

I noted the frank way the author described the hotel’s architectural significance:

The superposition of the corner motif, on the parapet, is a ludicrous gesture and, though it is easily removed, its existence accentuates the total abuse already suffered by the rest of the facade.

It’s regrettable the building was so extensively and unsympathetically altered in the past, but retaining the facade has little to do with historical significance. It’s faux history; it’s creating ‘olde worlde’ charm. This is a theme park approach to history little different from the pretend Doric columns on the front of some new suburban McMansions.

In this view, heritage – faux or otherwise – becomes just another component of urban design. Council’s urban design section put its view forcefully:

We strongly encourage retention and integration of this valued form into the development proposal from an Urban Design perspective to maintain a tactile, visually interesting and high quality masonry base, with a taller form set above.

The developer didn’t want the facade because it restricts the flexibility of the design; the original proposal was transparent at ground level. I prefer the look of a quasi-podium as now proposed that differentiates the ‘base’ from the ‘tower’, but that could be achieved more efficiently – and more honestly – without requiring retention of the facade. One of the downsides of the approved design is a “splayed” corner recommended by Council officers to improve pedestrian flow in King St can’t be implemented because it would compromise the facade of the existing building.

The Great Western doubtless has a fascinating social history; capturing that in media would make a far greater contribution to appreciation of Melbourne’s heritage than keeping the (current) facade. It appears though that it hasn’t been adequately documented; Council should get on to that (see Does this building tell us much about social history?).


Jun 30, 2017


(Image by Joseph Bsharah via So bad So good)


What’s Turnbull’s airport rail adventure all about?

The funding the Turnbull Government says it will provide to Victoria in next month’s budget for a rail line from the CBD to Melbourne Airport is about politics, not good policy

Does Sydney Airport really charge train travellers too much?

The assertion that rail travellers pay a $7.96 access fee to Sydney Airport on top of the Opal fare is wrong and lets the NSW Government off the hook

Is an airport train to the CBD the whole story?

The Victorian and Federal governments have different strategies for Melbourne Airport rail but there’s a lot more to the transport task at Tullamarine than a train to the CBD


Western Sydney: proposed metro/light rail network

Guest writer Dr Garry Glazebrook describes what a comprehensive plan for a metro rail network supported by feeder light rail services in Western Sydney should look like

Is all-night weekend public transport value for money?

Melbourne’s move to all-night public transport on Friday and Saturday nights is certainly appealing but there are many other ways such a huge sum of money could be spent

Melbourne ‘fantasy rail map 2070’

Adam Mattinson’s 2070 fantasy rail map incorporates almost every rail line ever proposed for Melbourne, as well as historic lines decommissioned during the 1950s and 60s

The Melbourne Subway Map (a rail fantasy)

A fantastical vision from mapmaker Adam Mattinson of what a subway underneath Melbourne’s inner suburbs could look like if it were as connected as Tokyo’s famous system

Should Doncaster BRT be a priority?

A private proposal to build and operate a Bus Rapid Transit system in Doncaster looks promising but taxpayers will ultimately pay for it; so it’s vital to make sure it’s a high priority


Is this (suburban) motorway a good idea?

The Andrews Government’s decision to build Melbourne’s North East Link lacks transparency and analysis, but the idea of suburban motorways shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand

Has Albo really found a congestion hollow log?

Anthony Albanese gets it wrong on traffic congestion. Australian cities need politicians who’ll tell us what’s really going on and what really needs to be done


What’s the heritage value of this office block?

Another fashionably handsome modernist building with debatable claims to social and architectural significance is the subject of a heritage battle in Melbourne


Is a cycling “freeway” the way to go?

The schematic proposal for a veloway the Andrews government says it’s going to build as part of the Western Distributor looks good but there’s room for improvement

If it’s not OK to walk it, why is it OK to cycle it?

A simple but shocking image showing how infrastructure purportedly provided for the benefit of cyclists, expects them to ride in situations they feel are dangerous

Should walking and cycling trails be like freeways?

Melbourne’s new Darebin-Yarra Link will be more like a freeway than a shared walking and cycling trail; it’ll be hard – and unsafe – for nearby residents to get access to it

How big are the public health benefits of riding to work?

Those who cycle to work have better health prospects than those who commute by car or transit but it’s unlikely all the public health benefits would scale up if a lot more of us cycled

A Bicycle Boulevard for Melbourne?

There’s an opportunity for the Victorian Government to recognise the key role Yarra Boulevard plays in supporting cycling in Melbourne by giving more of it to riders

A fantasy cycling map for inner Melbourne

Here’s master mapmaker Adam Mattinson’s vision of what a high-quality cycling network could look like in an Australian city. At present, unfortunately, it’s sheer fantasy

What are the prospects for dockless bike share in Australia?

Dockless bike share faces a much bigger challenge in Australia than in countries like China, especially given new entrant oBike must make it work commercially


Have the Premiers finally ‘gotten’ New Urbanism?

A visiting Canadian expert appears to have done what the locals couldn’t: inspired most of the Premiers to improve the health of city dwellers through better urban planning

Is Sydney the new New York?

The Sydney Morning Herald’s comparison of small parts of Sydney with leading world metropolises might grab the attention of readers, but it’s rubbish

Are Australia’s big cities dense enough?

The extensive suburbs in the middle rings of Australia’s east coast capitals explain why the “missing middle” is so much less dense than in comparable Canadian cities

Where’s the toilet?

The location of a humble toilet block in a park might seem a minor issue, but it’s big news in inner suburban Melbourne and highlights some larger issues

Can security bollards be done better?

It’s regrettable it seems necessary to install heavy bollards in Australian cities to protect against vehicle attacks. But it could be a way to improve public spaces

Why has walking to school stumbled so badly?

The proportion of children driven to primary school has raced ahead over the last 30 to 40 years. The standard solutions won’t change that by much, but there’s hope

Could the average trip to work nearly double by 2030?

The average one-way commute could increase by 28 minutes by 2030 according to Melbourne’s Herald Sun. Sounds horrendous but it’s scary tabloid journalism


Do residents of green places live longer?

It’s arguable whether greener residential areas reduce mortality but there are plenty of other good reasons to promote planting more trees, especially along streets


The outlook for infrastructure is improving

Guest writer Dr Garry Glazebrook reckons the federal budget shows the Coalition is at last heading in the right direction on infrastructure funding


Does the Grenfell Tower fire mean we should stop building residential towers?

The Grenfell Tower fire was the result of flawed policy on public housing, not some inherent flaw in the high-rise residential building type

Are towers inherently wrong for public housing?

St Louis’ famously demolished Pruitt-Igoe public housing project has a lesson for the debate over high-rise stemming from the Grenfell Tower fire; it’s not really about the architecture


Suburban sprawl or regional sprawl?

It’s probably a political winner, but it’s not obvious the Victorian Opposition’s new regional sprawl policy is preferable to suburban sprawl or redevelopment of established metro suburbs

See Urbanist Digest, Volume 1, 2017


Apr 7, 2017


Ladies Liberty and Justice (source: The Atlantic)


Can we have a mature discussion about the future of urban transport?

With 90% of motorised travel in capital cities currently undertaken by private transport it’s time for a grown-up assessment of where to go with urban transport policy

Should public transport be “returned to the people”?

There are calls to bring management of Melbourne’s train and tram systems back under government control. Might be a good idea, but first let’s see the evidence

What’s government done to make public transport better?

A look at what successive governments have done over the last twenty or so years to improve the attractiveness of train travel in Melbourne

Is it time for a 40 kmh speed limit in cities?

It won’t be easy politically, but living with cars in Australia’s cities means “taming” them, starting with setting a default 40 kmh speed limit

What’s the future for Essendon Airport?

It didn’t take long for the blame game to emerge following yesterday’s tragedy at Essendon, but it’s better to find out what really happened and why before making policy

A proposal for a Melbourne Ring Metro

Melbourne needs an orbital or “ring” light metro linking major suburban centres to take radial trips off the road system, argues guest writer Dr Garry Glazebrook

The problem with Transurban’s proposed motorway

Guest writer Russell Smith sets out the arguments against Transurban’s proposed Western Distributor motorway in Melbourne’s inner west


Does this building tell us much about social history?

Preserving the built fabric of old buildings conveys little about their social and cultural history; it should be mandatory that protection comes with interpretation


Will population growth ruin a city’s liveability?

Population growth brings risks and will change the character of a city like Melbourne if it continues, but it’s more likely to make it a better place for most residents

Why do inner suburban residents oppose development?

Existing residents oppose major developments because they feel they’ll be worse off. The benefits to them are vague while the costs are clear and painful

Is regional sprawl better than suburban sprawl?

There’s a strong push to divert more metropolitan growth to regional cities, but the case hasn’t been made that capital cities are “too big” or that it’s the best strategy

Is Plan Melbourne really, actually…a plan?

It’s taken since 2014 to prepare, but despite the name, the “refresh” of Plan Melbourne doesn’t deliver on its most basic pretension; it’s not really a plan!

Is sprawl still the number one bogeyman?

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

City vs sprawl: is this a useful comparison?

This comparison by ABC News of living in the city centre with living in the fringe suburbs is long but it’s ultimately unconvincing; it doesn’t compare apples with apples


Australia needs a massive infrastructure fund

It’s time to facilitate $200 billion investment in key infrastructure projects like inland freight rail and a national electricity grid, argues guest writer Dr Garry Glazebrook

A proposal for a National Electricity Plan

We need to respond to Australia’s electricity crisis with a comprehensive National Electricity Plan argues guest writer Dr Garry Glazebrook


Can design make cities safer for women?

A new project shows the urban geography of harassment and assault suffered by women at the hands of men. The scope for design to mitigate offensive male behaviour is limited

Connectivity isn’t the same as social connection

Increased connection via walking and cycling paths sounds great but it can erode social connection, argues guest writer Dr Brenda Mackie; it’s not a guarantee of ‘liveability


Will these changes seriously improve affordability?

The Victorian government says “it’s tackling housing affordability head on”, but its new housing initiatives are mostly about keeping up appearances


Is this week’s Grand Prix worth the cost?

Victorian taxpayers will spend around $60 million subsidising this year’s Grand Prix and a further $360 million to the end of the current contract. Time to share the cost


How dangerous is cycling?

Statistically, cycling is much safer than prospective riders imagine, but it’s what they imagine that matters; it still seems too dangerous to generate widespread uptake


Dec 12, 2016


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.


Nov 24, 2016


Sydney finds a way to increase housing supply as well as keep a lid on tall towers
All that “spare” land! Sydney finds a way to increase housing supply as well as keep a lid on those tall towers

Is this “secret” report on airport rail newsworthy?

Another Sunday, another manufactured controversy by Fairfax, this time around a “secret” report on Melbourne airport rail from “a high-powered group of advisers”

Is the bicycle helmet law such a big deal?

The mandatory helmet law isn’t a first-order issue for cycling; the evidence that repeal would boost cycling significantly isn’t convincing. The main game is infrastructure

Can the politics be taken out of infrastructure planning?

Infrastructure Victoria’s draft 30-year strategy was only public for a few hours before politicians started putting the presumptuous upstart back in its box

Is Fairfax off-track (again) on Melbourne airport rail?

It’s only been a week, but The Sunday Age was back again yesterday with another fabulously titillating invention about a rail line to Melbourne Airport

Is Infrastructure Victoria’s 30-year strategy any good?

The draft report published last week by Infrastructure Victoria is arguably the most important contribution to cities policy Victorians have seen for decades

Should cyclists and walkers be separated?

Instead of cyclists and walkers sharing paths, Infrastructure Victoria reckons they should be separated. That’d be money well spent to avoid making enemies cycling doesn’t need

Does infrastructure cost a lot more on the fringe?

The answer is no one really knows, but policies with huge implications for the way cities work continue to be advanced on the assumption that costs are a lot higher on the fringe

Can the spirit of this lost pub be recaptured?

Melburnians lost more than bricks and mortar on the weekend when the Corkman hotel was demolished without a permit; they also lost yet another pub

Where to next with the Corkman hotel?

It’s now time for a sensible discussion of what might be done with the Corkman hotel. Let the law deal with the culprit and focus on the best use of the site for the city

Could terrace houses make Cherrybrook like Surry Hills?

Recreating the character and community of the inner city in the middle and outer suburbs would require much more than building a similar physical environment

Do politicians care about the cost of infrastructure promises?

Politicians are prone to understating the cost of transport projects resulting in too many poor projects getting up ahead of what should be higher priorities