What a future Melbourne could look like if growth was concentrated in the inner city without middle suburban infill. Image: Monash Architecture Studio, MADA

Melbourne's Growing Pains and the Middle Suburbs

Top image: What a future Melbourne could look like if growth was concentrated in the inner city without middle suburban infill. (Monash Architecture Studio, MADA) – view larger version (opens in new window)

Melbourne, currently a city of 4.2 million people, is projected to grow to a population between 7.6 and 9.8 million by 2061. There is almost no aspect of the city and its functioning that will not be greatly affected by this change; transport, the environment, the economy and agriculture and all areas that will be impacted, likely in challenging ways. The most basic question, however, that is posed by this massive change ahead of us is where we will house this increase in population.

Plan Melbourne, the state government’s metropolitan planning strategy estimates that, of the million or so new dwellings that will need to be constructed between now and 2050, 20% will be in the central city and surrounds (defined as the municipalities of Melbourne, Port Phillip, Yarra, Stonnington and Maribyrnong), 38% in other established suburbs and 42% in greenfield growth area. This is a change from the distribution envisaged by the strategy’s predecessor, Melbourne 2030, which allocated only 31% of growth in outer growth areas, with a larger proportion of growth to be accommodated in compact “activity centres” across the metropolis.

Unfettered fringe development is highly problematic. For starters, the cost of providing infrastructure to greenfield sites is $300 million higher per 1000 dwellings than the cost of upgrading infrastructure for the same number of dwellings in existing urban areas. There is also the issue of arable land being used instead for residential uses, increased car dependency and so forth.

So what is the alternative? One is massively building up our CBD and inner city areas, which are close to transport, jobs and services, and where brownfield redevelopment can yield inner-city high-density neighbourhoods. The Victorian Government is enthusiastic about this possibility, envisioning an “expanded central city” including future redevelopment precincts such as Fishermans Bend and E-Gate, as well as urban renewal in Footscray and North Melbourne.

The expanded Central City. Image: Plan Melbourne

When this concept was announced in 2012, Planning Minister Matthew Guy said: “Many people are concerned about high rise towers dominating quiet suburban streets, so we need to ask if high rise should be primarily concentrated in the inner city to take growth pressure off Melbourne's existing suburbs, while also capitalising on existing infrastructure.”

This sounds reasonable enough. But are these inner growth areas enough to accommodate our population growth and take pressure off infrastructure-poor growth areas?

At Future Melbourne Network’s seminar last month on jobs and housing challenges facing Melbourne in the future, Professor Shane Murray, Dean of the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture at Monash University, presented a provocative image (top) of what a future Melbourne could look like if growth was directed only to the inner and fringe areas, without infill and densification in the city’s middle suburbs. This was part of a broader speculation into the possibilities and implications of different urban renewal approaches. He also showed how this might lead to increased low-density fringe development and the expansion of our city’s footprint beyond even the latest extension of its growth boundary (below).

How a future Melbourne might sprawl beyond its current growth areas without middle suburban infill. Image: Monash Architecture Studio, MADA

Is this the city we want? I would argue not. Such an expanded-CBD-on-steroids would accommodate a huge number of jobs and residents, but would be a cavern of endless super-tall skyscrapers, windy and sunless. It would also fail to deliver housing choice for those who would prefer not to live in tiny high-rise apartments. While many, especially on this website and related forums (myself included), would relish a taller, more dense Melbourne, I believe fewer would take the extreme possibility depicted above as desirable. Also undesirable would be the continuing sprawl the edges, for reasons discussed above.

Densification and smart accommodation of population growth can be achieved in ways other than this vision of Manhattan or Hong Kong transplanted onto our city. Indeed, greater density would bring benefits such as a smaller environmental footprints and the greater potential for service-rich, walkable areas to live in. At last month’s Future Melbourne Network seminar, Professor Murray argued that Melbourne’s middle suburbia had potential to accommodate a large amount of population growth, in the form of low- to mid-rise infill development. This would occur more efficiently - and therefore be more affordable - he said, if it could be organised at a precinct scale, rather than piecemeal as individual landowners decide to redevelop.

An indication of middle suburban infill at a precinct, rather than piecemeal, scale. Image: Monash Architecture Studio, MADA

One potential barrier to this is the new residential zones that are being implemented, especially in the high proportion of land that councils are choosing to zone as “Neighbourhood Residential Zone”, limiting both building height and dwellings per lot. This issue has previously been discussed on this website by Ratio Consultants’ Colleen Peterson.

Opinions are divergent on this topic. Some believe that the higher density possible in non-residential areas such as shopping strips (typically zoned Business - soon to be Commercial) and in Activity Centres mean that the restrictions of the new residential zones won’t preclude accommodation of growth through densification in the existing urban area of the city. However, as Professor Murray states, the middle suburbs have a lot of potential to take on growth without losing their character and amenity. To achieve this - to avoid an even more sprawling city with a super-dense core - will take not only negotiating new zones and residents’ concerns about density but new and innovative ways of approaching infill development to achieve positive outcomes for new and existing residents, suburbs and communities.

Alexander Sheko is a foundation member of the Future Melbourne Network and a student at the University of Melbourne.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the Future Melbourne Network or any other organisation.

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