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Miscellaneous

Sep 3, 2017

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“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.

Decentralisation

Jun 28, 2017

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Bendigo suburbia in regional Victoria could be set for more “overspill” growth from Melbourne

The Liberal/National Opposition in Victoria is pushing its policy of “decentralising” a large share of Melbourne’s future population growth to the regions. It released a formal policy document last week, Looking forward 2050: managing population growth for all regions.

The key benefits claimed for the policy are a reduction in growth pressure on the existing Melbourne metropolitan area; faster access for regional residents to the metro area; and an improved economic and social outlook for existing regional populations e.g. more local jobs to service the new residents, more government services, more social opportunities.

The Opposition isn’t talking about them, but there are also potential downsides. The main one is the incremental cost of providing trunk transport infrastructure connecting regional centres to the metro area, but there’s also likely to be loss of economies of scale in delivery of government services. New residents will likely live at lower density than if they’d settled in Melbourne, be more car-oriented, and live in new suburbs built on more environmentally valuable land. Some existing regional residents will resent the change in the social and physical character of their towns.

Some points to consider:

  • Despite what it claims, the Opposition’s policy isn’t decentralisation in the standard sense of creating new jobs in regional centres like Whitlam tried to do without success in the early 1970s (see Is regional sprawl better than suburban sprawl?). Rather, this is a policy to create regional dormitory towns housing workers who commute to Melbourne on fast transport infrastructure.
  • Since at least one worker in each household would commute to the metropolitan area, I don’t think it can be argued regional dormitories would reduce agglomeration economies in Melbourne. Indeed, there’s an argument it enhances the attractiveness of Melbourne for business by providing a wider range of locational choices for workers.
  • It doesn’t put an end to sprawl. It essentially shifts part of the metropolitan fringe from outer suburbs like Werribee and Melton to regional centres like Ballarat and Bendigo i.e. it replaces suburban sprawl with regional sprawl.
  • While I expect it would mostly attract households who would otherwise have settled on or close to the metro fringe, regional living is also likely to have wider appeal e.g. it might be attractive to some CBD professionals who can’t afford an inner/middle metro suburb but wouldn’t be seen dead in the likes of Melton or Sunbury (public servants!).
  • As I noted here, the policy is likely to be a political winner for the Opposition. It’s promising voters a solution to big city woes like increasing traffic congestion, poor housing affordability and redevelopment pressures in established suburbs, while simultaneously promising new economic opportunities to the regions and better transport links to the capital.
  • The policy capitalises on the inevitable. Regional dormitories have already started emerging because some households find the higher commuting costs are outweighed by the lower housing costs. Given continued strong population growth, the demand for regional dormitories will continue to grow because existing metro area residents oppose intense redevelopment of their neighbourhoods.
  • What might be a small impact in the context of metropolitan growth could have a very big impact on a particular regional centre, especially one that attracts a disproportionate share of settlers. That impact could be both positive (more local jobs) and negative (unwanted changes in social character).
  • The keystone of the policy is provision of high quality trunk transport infrastructure connecting regional centres to the metro area. It’s usually argued that would be some form of high speed rail. It’s likely to be very expensive to build and operate, and will benefit a relatively small number of travellers for decades. It’s also inevitable there’d be irresistable pressure to upgrade intercity motorways.
  • Importantly, providing dormitories for metro workers is probably the only way that regional centres with a poor economic outlook can grow and provide jobs for locals.

I understand Infrastructure Victoria is assessing the costs and benefits of diverting some population growth from the metro area to the regions. That’s an important exercise because I don’t think it’s obvious that regional sprawl is preferable to suburban sprawl and/or redevelopment of established metro suburbs. “Decentralising” population but not jobs isn’t containing Melbourne; it’s spreading it out.

Links

Apr 20, 2017

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Links

Mar 31, 2017

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Growth Areas

Mar 30, 2017

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Mernda primary school in outer suburban Melbourne

ABC News published a long article on Tuesday looking at how family life in the booming centre of Melbourne compares to the sprawling fringes (see City vs sprawl: A tale of two Melbournes). The story devotes 2,300 words and 19 photographs to comparing the wellbeing of one family living in a Southbank high-rise with one family living on a new estate in outer suburban Mernda.

The city centre or a growth area is a relevant choice for some households but, despite its scale, the ABC’s effort at illuminating the issue is unconvincing. For starters, it’s shallow to extrapolate from a sample of just two households to draw broader conclusions about the relative merits of sprawl versus city living. I know it’s standard practice in the mainstream media to try to “humanise” stories by starting with a profile of a “real” person, but the practice is fraught because it inevitably frames the story around the circumstances of the featured “talent”. For example, an outer suburb like Mernda will invariably look bad if the story starts by highlighting the plight of a single parent struggling to pay petrol bills.

At least it’s customary to offset this potential bias by providing some hard data. For example, it might be indicated that single parent families made up only 13% of all families in Mernda at the 2011 Census, less than the average for Victoria. In this case, though, the ABC doesn’t provide any data. The two families aren’t there just for “colour”; they’re the entire story!

That’s why it matters that the two families aren’t even vaguely comparable. The Mernda household comprises single mum Kristie Ferraro and her four boys aged between three and twelve, Dylan, Diesel, Ryder and Tripp. She pays $355 in rent per week for a four-bedroom house:

Money is tight. They cut off the water last week because of a late bill.

The Southbank household is made up of Rodney McMurtrie, a commercial airline pilot, and Melanie McMurtrie, a stay-at-home mum caring for their five-year-old daughter, Chloe. The McMurtries own their 3-bedroom apartment which, we’re told, has “$1-million-plus views”. They still own their previous house in Mernda and have the wherewithal to buy “the biggest place we could afford in the location we wanted to live in.”

The upshot is the outer suburban Ferraros get high petrol costs, social isolation, poor public transport, inadequate services, a small backyard, and don’t even get a bush setting. But it’s the family’s best option:

Kristie doesn’t want to move. She likes her house. Four growing boys in a three-bedroom apartment in South Morang wasn’t sustainable.

The city-centre McMurtries, on the other hand, get a wonderful view, great accessibility, good schools, and can avoid driving. They’d ideally like more space (a fourth bedroom) but are happy with their decision.

The only downside of city living with a child, says Rodney, is that when you want the grandparents to babysit, someone has to do an hour round trip in the car.

So what we get here is life in Southbank from the perspective of a relatively well-heeled nuclear family, compared with life in Mernda from the perspective of a single parent family in precarious financial circumstances. That doesn’t seem like a sensible way to unpick the merits of city life versus life on the fringe. Nor does it seem a valid basis for the big claim the McMurtries and the Ferreros constitute “a tale of two Melbournes”.

Mernda doesn’t have as many well-heeled residents as Southbank, but it isn’t dominated by households in financial difficulty. Many Mernda residents are second and third-time home owners. While weekly household incomes at the Census were higher in Southbank than Mernda ($1,837 vs $1,597), the latter nevertheless reported an appreciably higher average household income than the entire Melbourne urban area ($1,597 vs $1,337).

The McMurties clearly prefer Southbank to Mernda, but life for households like them – and those with average household incomes – would undoubtedly be a lot easier in Mernda than it is for the Ferreros e.g. the cost of petrol and the failings of public transport would be less of an issue. I think ABC news would’ve been better advised to compare the McMurtries life before and after they shifted from Mernda to Southbank.

The city “versus” sprawl set-up is in any event questionable in the case of the Ferreros. It’s not a matter of competing options; they can’t realistically live in the city centre or even close to it. Any city centre or inner city apartment going for an affordable rent would be way too small for one adult and four children.

The point I’m making is about the way the media handles issues, rather than the relative merits of life in the city and life on the fringe. It’s relevant to note though that, while sprawl was the headline city planning issue for more than half a century, its salience has faded over recent decades as the share of households going to the fringe declined (see Is sprawl still the number one bogeyman?).

Growth Areas

Mar 20, 2017

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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.

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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?).

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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?).

Growth Areas

Nov 28, 2016

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The irrigation district at Melbourne's Werribee South
The irrigation district at Melbourne’s Werribee South – an area worth saving

A new report by researchers at Melbourne University finds Melbourne’s foodbowl produces 47% of the vegetables consumed in Victoria. But population growth and continuing urban sprawl is putting the city’s foodbowl at risk. In Melbourne’s Food Future, the authors argue:

As Melbourne grows to a population of 7-8 million people by 2050, it will need at least 60% more food. If the city’s footprint continues to grow as it has in the past, the capacity of Melbourne’s foodbowl to meet the city’s food needs could fall to around 18% by 2050…

They say other state capitals also have productive foodbowls that contribute to fresh food supplies, but are under similar pressure from population growth and urban expansion.

The instinctive reaction of many will be that preserving local food supply is of paramount importance and shouldn’t be sacrificed to suburban sprawl. While urban development is a “higher and better” use, the argument goes, there are alternatives to sprawl, like stopping fringe expansion and redeveloping established areas at higher densities. There are a number of issues to consider here, including whether policy interventions intended to limit outward expansion work or have undesirable consequences; whether locally grown food is more sustainable than imported food; and whether the impact of urban development on agriculture is a critical issue.

My immediate interest is in the last issue; before we can begin to understand how food security relates to sprawl we need some baseline information about the importance of agriculture in peripheral-urban areas. As with most political discussions, the other side of the argument is often neglected.

Here are some pertinent figures, mostly drawn from an article I wrote in 2010 on this issue, about the impact of urbanisation on farming:

  • The Australian Natural Resources Atlas shows the area of land used for urban development amounts to just 0.5% of the area of land used for agriculture in Australia.
  • An estimate by the Australian Collaborative Land Use Mapping Program puts the ratio of urban land to agricultural land at 2.8%.
  • According to this report, between 1976 and 2009, the area of land in Australia devoted to farming and grazing declined by 33%, while the population grew from 13 million to 22 million. Most of the reclaimed land was shifted into a “conservation and natural environment classification”.
  • At the same time, the productivity of agriculture in Australia has increased markedly – by 2.8% p.a. over the last 20 years, double the rate at which the wider market economy grew.

Looking specifically at Victoria and Melbourne, a detailed study of the value of agriculture production in peri-urban areas by Peter Houston shows that:

  • The area of land used for agriculture in Melbourne’s Green Wedges comprises just 1.7% of all agricultural land in Victoria.
  • Most of the urban expansion of Melbourne isn’t at the expense of prime agricultural land. That’s because most of the land in Melbourne’s vaunted Green Wedges comprises extensive areas of protected natural bushland, particularly in the East, as well as semi-rural uses like hobby, lifestyle and part-time farms. Large areas of the Green Wedges are also devoted to other uses, including airports, sewage works, prisons, sporting facilities, quarries and more.
  • The report of Victoria’s Parliamentary Inquiry into sustainable development of agribusiness in outer suburban Melbourne found the average value of agricultural operations across Melbourne’s Green Wedges is only $3,101/ha p.a., varying from less than $1,000 per ha in the Western and Sunbury wedges to a high of $7,507 in the Yarra wedge.

It’s not a foregone conclusion that a city must have its own dedicated food bowl on its door step. It’s usually less costly – in financial, resource and environmental terms – to bring food to people rather than the other way around (see Is local food more sustainable?).

That’s not to say all peri-urban farming land should be fair game for urban development. As a community I think we put a high value on the scenic quality of bucolic landscapes. Melbourne’s Werribee Irrigation District, for example, is an area I wouldn’t want to see replaced by any form of urban development. I don’t think it’s essential for the city’s food security but it has high landscape value (and uses recycled water from the Western Treatment Plant). Fortunately, it’s protected from urban development.

Food security is an important issue but the impact of sprawl on the ability to feed future populations needs to be understood and kept in perspective..

Decentralisation

Nov 14, 2016

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Regional growth plans envisaged by Plan Melbourne
Regional growth plans envisaged by Plan Melbourne

The Leader of the Opposition in Victoria, Matthew Guy, reckons“only the Libs-Nats have a plan for decentralisation and managing population growth. Labor just cross their fingers.” According to the Herald-Sun, Mr Guy says the projected doubling of Melbourne’s population to circa 8 million by 2050 is unsustainable; he wants much more population growth diverted to regional centres such as the Latrobe Valley, Wangaratta, Bendigo, Bairnsdale and Warrnambool.

I’ve noted before that decentralisation is a popular prescription for dealing with the pressures of metropolitan population growth; it’s worth revisiting the points I made then in the light of Mr Guy’s announcement (see Is decentralisation the answer to cities that are “too big”?). The idea of shifting a proportion of growth from the metropolitan area to regional centres is consistent with the current strategic plan for Melbourne, Plan Melbourne, released in 2013 by Mr Guy himself when he was Minister for Planning. Plan Melbourne is upfront about embracing the idea of attracting population growth out of Melbourne to regional cities; it has a chapter titled a State of Cities (see Can the regions save cities from sprawl?).

Decentralisation is one of those enduring aspirations Australian politicians love. It’s an almost magical idea; it promises to relieve the big cities of diseconomies of scale – especially the unpopular pressure to redevelop established suburbs – and simultaneously boost the economic prospects of declining country towns. Moreover, it sounds ‘big picture’ and, best of all, the cost and pain lie beyond the current political cycle.

No wonder politicians love it. But it’s political make-believe; decentralisation has never worked in modern Australia on any sort of scale. Despite the great decentralisation experiment of the Whitlam years, Australians remain wedded to their big cities. Melbourne, for example, gets 88% of Victoria’s population growth.

The centre-piece of the Whitlam decentralisation push, Albury-Wodonga, today has a population of just 90,000; that’s one year’s growth for Melbourne at the moment. The story of Canberra is perhaps even more telling. It’s close to Sydney, has excellent air and road connections, and is the nation’s capital, teeming with influential people. It has the highest human capital of any city in the country and even has two of Australia’s 21 “hippest” suburbs. And yet it’s population is only 400,000. Neither city has “taken off”.

The key problem with decentralisation policy is it’s almost impossible to get employers to relocate from big cities to regional centres. Whitlam had the great advantage of focussing relocation incentives on firms in the manufacturing sector – where firms are relatively agnostic about location – but his efforts had little effect.

It’s much harder now than it was in the 1970s because manufacturing industry is much less important. The growth is in services industries which are generally more sensitive to location; industries like finance and government like city centres. Where regional cities have grown strongly – like Cairns – it’s because they capitalised on underlying demand, not because of some magical policy intervention. Government had a role in facilitating tourism in Cairns – for example by providing an international airport – but it didn’t create the forces that made it a sought-after destination in the 1980s.

What Mr Guy is proposing isn’t decentralisation; it’s regional sprawl. His idea is to send a large part of Melbourne’s population growth to regional dormitory suburbs instead of fringe suburbs. It’s the same idea as Plan Melbourne promotes i.e. substituting regional sprawl for suburban sprawl.

Is regional sprawl a better idea than fringe sprawl? Well, it’s a plausible strategy. London, for example, has around forty ‘overspill’ or satellite towns like Hemel Hempstead and Milton Keynes lying beyond the green belt and housing 4 million residents. They’re closely tied economically to the centre; they’re London’s outer suburbs in the same way as Melton and Sunbury are Melbourne’s fringe suburbs.

Regional sprawl could provide benefits to regional centres:

  • The necessary faster transport connections between regional cities and Melbourne would increase the locational choices of those working in the capital and enhance the access of regional residents to Melbourne’s attractions and specialised services.
  • All those new dormitory residents would create jobs in population-serving industries for regional cities e.g. tradies, fast food workers, teachers. That would help retain young people who currently leave for the big smoke.

On the other hand, regional sprawl could have some disadvantages compared to fringe sprawl:

  • It would require seriously expensive trunk transport infrastructure to get workers from their regional town to their jobs and other services (like the airport) in Melbourne.
  • There’s no infrastructure saving. Limited existing “spare capacity” in services in regional cities would soon be used up. The loss of economies of scale in the supply of services like health, education, water supply and sewage treatment, might increase costs.
  • The pressure to increase residential densities and reduce car use would be lower in small cities compared to Melbourne’s fringe because accessibility is greater.
  • Many long distance non-work trips to Melbourne and a significant proportion of commutes (not all regional commuters would work in the city centre) would inevitably end up being made by car because it provides greater flexibility at the destination.
  • The environmental impact could be worse, given much of the land around Melbourne’s north and west – where most future suburban growth is expected – is already degraded.
  • Melbourne businesses located outside the city centre might not get the same benefits from a larger labour market than they would if population growth took place on the suburban fringe.

The case hasn’t been made that Melbourne is or will be “too big”. There are plenty of successful cities in the world that are much bigger than Melbourne is forecast to be by the middle of the century (see also Will Sydney and Melbourne implode as they get bigger and bigger?).

Melbourne needs what all growth requires; better management of existing assets and better infrastructure (and let’s not forget long-term population forecasts have a poor record for accuracy). Although it’s already a core component of Plan Melbourne, the regional sprawl scenario is barely understood in terms of its benefits and costs compared to fringe sprawl. A lot more hard-nosed analysis is required.

Decentralisation

May 9, 2016

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Decentralisation
Are Australia’s cities getting “too big”? And if so, is decentralisation the answer? (image source: TechCentral)

Sunday Age columnist Farrah Tomazin reckons Melbourne is at risk of choking on its own growth and won’t be able to sustain a doubling of population by the 2050s “without a coherent plan to decentralise more of that growth into regional or rural areas”. She says population growth is Victoria’s biggest political issue:

It’s the underlying factor when it comes to transport, with a recent infrastructure study finding that as a nation we’re spending an average of 85 minutes a day stuck in traffic, at a congestion cost of almost $16 billion.

It’s the underlying factor when it comes to education and health, with figures showing some people are still waiting years to see a specialist doctor in a public hospital, or that Victoria will need 220 new schools in the next decade to meet enrolment forecasts.

The answer, she says, is to use “levers such as new employment opportunities, tax incentives or housing policies” to decentralise population growth:

Why not relocate more government departments and agencies to regional towns, following in the footsteps of the WorkCover head-office shifting to Geelong?

Why not aggressively market certain areas as employment hubs for specific industries: the south-west coast, for instance, could become the new home of renewable energy jobs, or Bendigo could be branded as regional Victoria’s chief financial district.

There’s more than a measure of hypebole in this argument. Melburnians travel on average for 66 minutes per day in total and only a small proportion of that could be described as “stuck in traffic”. The demand for public hospital places and for new schools is largely independent of whether population growth is concentrated in Melbourne or the regions.

But Ms Tomazin’s view on what needs to be done to manage growth is a popular prescription. It’s consistent with the current strategic plan for Melbourne released in 2013, Plan Melbourne. It’s upfront about embracing the idea of attracting population growth out of Melbourne to regional cities; it has a chapter titled a State of Cities (see Can the regions save cities from sprawl?).

Decentralisation is one of those enduring aspirations Australian politicians love. It’s almost magical; it promises to relieve the big cities of diseconomies of scale and simultaneously boost the economic prospects of declining country towns. Moreover, it sounds ‘big picture’ and, best of all, the cost and pain lie beyond the current political cycle.

The problem though is active decentralisation policy has never worked in Australia. Despite the great decentralisation experiment of the Whitlam years, Australians remain wedded to their big cities. Melbourne, for example, gets 88% of Victoria’s population growth.

The key problem is it’s almost impossible to get employers to relocate from big cities to regional centres. Whitlam had the great advantage of focussing relocation incentives on firms in the manufacturing sector – where firms are relatively agnostic about location – but his efforts had little effect.

It’s much harder now than it was in the 1970s because manufacturing industry is much less important. The growth is in services industries which are generally more sensitive to location; the industries nominated by Ms Tomazin as candidates for decentralisation – finance and government – value agglomeration extremely highly.

Bendigo has the headquarters of Bendigo Bank, but there’s no prospect of it becoming “Victoria’s financial district” as Ms Tomazin imagines. The financial services industry likes city centres more than any other sector, especially Sydney’s CBD and, to a lesser extent, Melbourne’s.

The story of Canberra is telling. It’s close to Sydney, has excellent air and road connections, and is the nation’s capital, teeming with influential people. It has the highest human capital of any city in the country. And yet it’s population is only 400,000. Albury-Wodonga was nominated as the key growth centre of the Whitlam years but today has a population of around 90,000. Neither city has “taken off”.

Where regional cities have grown strongly – like Cairns – it’s because there’s demand, not because of some policy intervention to make it grow (although government has a role in facilitating – or stopping – underlying demand).

So what’s going on here? The nub of the issue is this debate isn’t about regional development; rather, it’s about the idea of sending Melbourne’s population growth to regional dormitory suburbs instead of fringe suburbs. It’s the same idea as Plan Melbourne promotes i.e. substituting regional sprawl for suburban sprawl.

Is regional sprawl a better idea than fringe sprawl? It’s a plausible strategy. London, for example, has around forty ‘overspill’ or satellite towns like Hemel Hempstead and Milton Keynes lying beyond the green belt and housing 4 million residents. They’re closely tied economically to the centre; they’re London’s outer suburbs in the same way as Melton and Sunbury are Melbourne’s fringe suburbs.

Regional sprawl could provide benefits to regional centres:

  • Faster transport connections between regional cities and Melbourne would increase the locational choices of those working in the capital and enhance the access of regional residents to Melbourne’s attractions and specialised services.
  • All those new dormitory residents would create jobs in population-serving industries for regional cities e.g. tradies, fast food workers, teachers. That would help retain young people who currently leave for the big smoke.

On the other hand, regional sprawl could have some disadvantages compared to fringe sprawl:

  • It would require seriously expensive trunk transport infrastructure to get workers from their regional town to their jobs and other services (like the airport) in Melbourne.
  • There’s no infrastructure saving. Limited existing “spare capacity” in services in regional cities would soon be used up. The loss of economies of scale in the supply of services like health, education, water supply and sewage treatment, might increase costs.
  • The pressure to increase residential densities and reduce car use would be lower in small cities compared to Melbourne’s fringe because accessibility is greater.
  • Many long distance non-work trips to Melbourne and a significant proportion of commutes (not all regional commuters would work in the city centre) would inevitably end up being made by car because it provides flexibility at the destination.
  • The environmental impact could be worse, given much of the land around Melbourne’s north and west – where most future suburban growth is expected – is already degraded.
  • Melbourne businesses located outside the city centre might not get the same benefits from a larger labour market than they would if population growth took place on the suburban fringe.

The case hasn’t been made that Melbourne is or will be “too big”. There are plenty of successful cities in the world that are much bigger than Melbourne is forecast to be by the middle of the century (see also Will Sydney and Melbourne implode as they get bigger and bigger?).

Melbourne needs what all growth requires; better infrastructure and better management (and let’s not forget long-term population forecasts have a poor record for accuracy).

Although it’s already a core component of Plan Melbourne, the regional sprawl scenario is barely understood in terms of its benefits and costs compared to fringe sprawl. A lot more hard-nosed analysis is required.

Housing

Nov 26, 2013

5 comments

How the planners see historical and forecast metropolitan dwelling supply, Melbourne (%). Source: data from Plan Melbourne, p54

State Governments are struggling with how to accommodate urban population growth and rising demand for more accessible locations. One of their big challenges is how to deal with residents of existing suburbs who don’t want multi-unit developments in their street or in their local shopping centre.

For example, according to the draft metropolitan strategy, Plan Melbourne, the Victorian Government has to manage projected growth of 2.5 million people and one million dwellings in Melbourne by 2050.

Over the last eight years, 46% of new housing was constructed within established suburbs (see exhibit). However current residents are unhappy about this. There’s a lot of them and they’re voters, so a key objective of Plan Melbourne is to “protect” established residential areas from new multi-unit developments.

Plan Melbourne anticipates at least half of all residential-zoned land in the metropolitan area will be subject to the new and highly restrictive Neighbourhood Residential Zone recently introduced by Planning Minister, Matthew Guy. It permits no more than two dwellings on a lot.

Councils will have the option of applying the more permissive Residential Growth Zone in locations deemed more suitable for development. However as the example of Boroondara shows, many Councils in established suburbs will apply the ‘no-growth’ Zone to the great bulk of their municipality.

Development will instead be directed to activity centres and urban renewal sites like disused factories. Yet even here Councils will be encouraged to limit the scope for change by introducing mandatory building height and local character controls in Neighbourhood Centres.

More of the supply of viable multi-unit development will have to come from a limited number of key activity centres and urban renewal sites.

The Government recognises these constraints will reduce the supply of new dwellings in established suburbs. As the exhibit shows, Plan Melbourne forecasts they will accommodate 38% of the expected growth in dwellings to 2050. That’s a very large reduction on their current share of 46% (1).

The city centre and the fringe Growth Areas are consequently expected to take a much bigger share of forecast growth than they do at present.

The proportion of all new dwellings accommodated in the city centre will increase substantially – from the current level of 15% to 20%. The great majority of these dwellings will be in high-rise towers in areas like the CBD, Southbank and Fishermans Bend.

What hasn’t attracted much attention though is the large contribution expected from the Growth Areas at the edge of the urbanised area. Their share of new construction is forecast to increase markedly – from the current level of 39% to 43%.

That sounds at odds with the promise in Plan Melbourne to lockdown the Urban Growth Boundary, but it’s easily explained. In part it’s because the average density in Growth Areas is expected to increase over the period from around 15 dwellings per Ha at present to an average of 18 dwellings per Ha.

The main reason though is former Planning Minister Justin Madden extended the Boundary in 2010 in order to bring an extra 430 sq km into the Growth Areas. There’s now more than enough land to cater for growth out to 2050 without having to extend the Boundary again. It’s an empty promise.

Some observers will be very concerned about more high-rise towers in the city centre and inner city. I expect they’ll also be concerned about increased sprawl. I’m more worried about the diminished opportunity for people to find affordable housing in the established suburbs.

Suburban activity centres outside of the inner city have generally made a disappointing contribution to dwelling supply over the last 10 years. That’s been due to a number of factors including high land values, difficulties in assembling land into usable parcels, and opposition to high density from residents/councils.

While some argue only a very small percent  of the city’s established suburbs need to be redeveloped at higher densities to meet forecast growth (e.g. along transport corridors), this hasn’t worked in the real world. For a given supply target, it seems there needs to be a substantially larger pool of land that is capable of being redeveloped.

The Government says it will increase supply by introducing a new multi-unit development code planning assessment tool to facilitate development but it’s hard to see how that will be enough.

Urban renewal on disused industrial and institutional sites sounds easier, but last time I looked at this aspect there didn’t seem to be many identified opportunities. Plan Melbourne doesn’t give much guidance on the number and location of these sites either (2). There’s plenty of industrial land on the map, but that doesn’t mean it’s ready, or viable, for redevelopment.

Inadequate supply in the established suburbs already has a big negative impact on affordability. But it could also affect the mix of dwelling types across the metropolitan area.

Plan Melbourne forecasts detached houses will comprise a minority (43%) of the new dwellings added across the metropolitan area between now and 2050; town houses will comprise 34%; and apartments 23%. However given the restrictive policy settings for established suburbs envisaged in the Strategy, apartments might be the most cost-effective option for developers.

The Government needs to demonstrate how Plan Melbourne will deliver the forecast number and mix of dwellings in the established suburbs. It also needs to show that the reduced share of dwellings anticipated in the established suburbs will not have a deleterious effect on housing affordability and choice.

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  1. When I say the “current” level, I’m referring to the shares over the period 2004-12, as per exhibit.
  2. There are some potential opportunities for renewal (e.g. see Should suburban universities be redeveloped?) but the strategy doesn’t recognise them.