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City planning suffers growth pains of Australia's population boom

Glen Searle, University of Sydney

Population growth has profound impacts on Australian life, and sorting myths from facts can be difficult. This is the third article in our series, Is Australia Full?, which aims to help inform a wide-ranging and often emotive debate.


Australia has the highest rate of population growth of all the medium and large OECD countries. And more than three-quarters of the growth is in four cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. But urban planning for this growth is often inadequate.

For a start, attempts to reduce infrastructure costs and save agricultural land by imposing urban growth boundaries have foundered.

In Melbourne, the statutory urban growth boundary has repeatedly been pushed outwards. The city is struggling to meet its urban consolidation targets.

In Brisbane, a 2015 University of Queensland study found well-connected individuals own 75% of rezoned greenfield areas but only 12% of comparable land immediately outside the rezoning boundaries. The researchers conclude that rezoning was primarily driven by these landowners’ relationship networks.

In turn, planning is failing to protect high-value environments from urban development. Policies to preserve koala habitat around Brisbane have failed. Land clearing has increased since 2009.

And in Western Australia, under Perth’s draft strategy, 50% of the remaining feeding habitat of the endangered Carnaby’s black cockatoo and 98 square kilometres of banksia woodland will be lost.

Despite their expanding area, Australian cities have less green open space. In attempts to reduce the costs of new infrastructure to meet the needs of increasing populations, average housing block size has been reduced.

New suburbs have virtually no backyards because the planning process has failed to mandate minimum garden areas. The result is urban heat islands that lack greenery and recreation space.

Costly housing of poorer quality

Rising populations require more infrastructure. In Australia, the developer contributions required to fund new local infrastructure are passed on to new home buyers in the form of higher house prices, reducing affordability.

Alternative methods could eliminate up-front hits on new home owners. An example is benefit assessment districts, where infrastructure is funded by bonds and repaid by the beneficiaries over decades. But state governments are resistant to this because new public loans are seen as a threat to state credit ratings.

Governments are also reluctant to use value capture, which involves applying a levy on increased property values arising from greenfield or brownfield rezoning. The levy proceeds pay for infrastructure or affordable housing.

Governments have seen such a levy as increasing developer costs and thus decreasing affordability. However, if value capture is signalled in advance, developers will reduce the price they pay for new sites to take account of the levy. In high-cost London, affordable housing targets of 35% have been applied to developers, compared to the 5% proposed for Sydney.

Furthermore, poor planning for high-density developments in Melbourne has allowed developers to meet increased population demand by constructing “vertical slums” of micro-apartments of under 50 square metres with windowless bedrooms.

Such developments are illegal in comparable world cities. A recent report found that weak planning controls have allowed Melbourne’s high-rise apartments to be built at four times the densities allowed in Hong Kong, New York and Tokyo.

Due to the supposed effects on affordability and saleability, developers are not being required to provide new open space for higher-density urban populations. In some cases, these services aren’t being funded because governments set caps on developer contributions to local infrastructure to reduce dwelling costs.

According to the Local Government NSW association, necessary state government infrastructure for higher population densities is often lacking too.

Politics of traffic

Urban population growth forecasts are driving estimates of huge increases in traffic congestion costs. However, electoral politics are also overriding pro-public transport strategies such as metro rail.

Three major motorway projects initiated during the Abbott era in Sydney, Melbourne and Fremantle cut through left-leaning inner-city electorates, while appealing to outer-suburban swing voters.

Inner-city motorway developments are still proceeding. WestConnex (Sydney), Western Distributor (Melbourne) and Legacy Way (Brisbane) are driving investments in private profit-making transport infrastructure. Comparable cities overseas, such as San Francisco, Toronto, Vancouver and Los Angeles, stopped building inner-city motorways years ago.

The business cases for new motorways also omit significant community costs. In the case of WestConnex, these include:

  • the costs of the extra sprawl induced by longer but quicker commuting trips;

  • the time and revenue costs of capturing tens of thousands of daily public transport trips; and

  • loss in value of properties near to interchanges.

Deficient business cases caused four inner-city motorways – Cross City Tunnel, Lane Cove Tunnel, Clem 7 Tunnel and Airport Link – to go into receivership in the last few years, as the demand was never there.

Hostage to the Growth Machine

Part of the problem is Australia’s acute vertical fiscal imbalance.

For instance, 80% of Sydney’s taxes go to the Commonwealth, not the state government. This means the federal government reaps the income gains from bigger city populations, while the states lack the resources to provide adequate urban infrastructure and services for these growing populations.

Perhaps the shortcomings of planning resulting from the need to accommodate fast-growing populations could be mended with reduced growth.

The ConversationBut Australian cities show all the symptoms of Moloch’s notion of a Growth Machine: a large cast of actors – the development industry, property owners and many more – have a vested interest in continued rapid population growth, and lobby to keep that growth going.

Glen Searle, Honorary Associate Professor in Planning, University of Queensland and, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Lead image credit: flickr

10 comments

George D's picture

On the one hand this author decries urban sprawl and congestion, and on the other he lambasts smaller block sizes and affordable inner-city living (medium-sized apartments become "slums") and the people who make this happen (the "industry").

A grab-bag of confused arguments.

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Bilby's picture

The only reference to "slums" here, George relates to high-rise "micro apartments under 50m2 with windowless bedrooms" - not "medium sized apartments" as you suggest.

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Damian's picture

How is it possible that Australia is "full" when the OECD states Australia has the worlds third lowest population density in the world - 1 person per 3 square kilometres. That's on par with Greenland. Even taking into account our "desert" environment (didn't stop the Arab countries to habit deserts BTW) we'd easily still have 2 million square kilometres of habitable land along our eastern and southern states - that's more than France, UK, Germany, Italy and Spain combined. Australia could easily accommodate 80 million people in 2017 without being overcrowded. It's time we shifted away from our love of cities and built infrastructure to enable our regional cities to be linked to our major cities, and spread our population across our country instead of all being like a moth attracted to a light and gravitating to only 5 major cities.

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George D's picture

50m2 is a very reasonably sized apartment for a single person. About one quarter of the population (24%) are single person households.

Forcing those people into houses which are too big for them - as you and the author would do - takes away their money and their choices, and where affordable single-person housing does not exist, forces them to live with strangers in shared accommodation.

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Aussie Steve's picture

Damian is right, we need to start plowing our energy into building up our numerous regional cities, especially those along the east coast: Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Shepparton, Albury/Woodonga, Canberra, Woollongong, Newcastle, Toowoomba, Sunshine Coast, Rockhampton, Townsvile, Mackay, Cairns etc... and start putting up solid fences around Melbourne, Sydney and to some extent, Brisbane too.

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Bilby's picture

George, the author said "under 50m2" not "50m2". The kinds of apartments being referred to as future "slums" are, for example, like this one for sale right now: http://www.realestate.com.au/property-apartment-vic-melbourne-125846862

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George D's picture

Bilby, for a start, the decor in that apartment is appalling.

What ruins that apartment isn't its size. I lived in an apartment smaller than that one before I moved to Melbourne and had a fantastic life. It's ruined by the lack of natural light in living spaces and poor configuration.

Floorplate and BADS rules will prevent things like this from happening again, and those silly investors who purchased them will find themselves with stock that nobody wants to pay very much for. People who need cheap accommodation will make use of them for the next few decades.

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Bilby's picture

I pretty much agree with everything there, George.

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theboynoodle's picture

we need to start plowing our energy into building up our numerous regional cities, especially those along the east coast: Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Shepparton, Albury/Woodonga, Canberra, Woollongong, Newcastle, Toowoomba, Sunshine Coast, Rockhampton, Townsvile, Mackay, Cairns etc... and start putting up solid fences around Melbourne, Sydney and to some extent, Brisbane too.

Hmm.. so the people already in the primary cities get to stay (or sell up to whoever is rich enough to buy in) but everyone else has to live somewhere else.. with less opportunity?

The UK has a much more dispersed population than Australia.. with a lot of regional towns and cities.. but that doesn't stop everyone gravitating towards London and the South East. Big cities simply offer more to more people.

So who is the 'we' in your comment? Because I'd love to see people and opportunities spread out a bit more, but I'm not going to do my bit and move to Bendigo. If you mean the political powers then, I'm afraid, you vastly overestimate what they can do. Of course functions of the state can be moved out into the regions.. but that won't turn these places into magnets for the types of people who currently choose Melbourne and Sydney. If it did, then Canberra would not be on your list of cities you think need to be built up.

They've been trying to boost the regions in the UK for decades by strategically placing government functions. It's absolutely the right thing to do. But it has not, in any way, been an antidote to the lure of London. Indeed, there are simply UK cities where 60-80% of people work for the government.

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pdoff's picture

All you need to do is look at the math to see that the regional cities aren't a realistic option to absorb a meaningful level of this growth. Melbourne is growing by one Bendigo sized city every year. Ballarat is roughly the same size and Geelong roughly twice the size. Shepparton is next after this group with a little more than half Bendigo's population. ABS shows the four of them growing at around 9,000 per year combined which is roughly 2% growth. So they're already growing at almost the rate of Melbourne's metropolitan area in % terms.

Given that, how many of the 1 million extra residents of Melbourne over the next 10 years can these cities realistically absorb? Even if they double their growth rates it would only divert 90,000 from that 1 million.

There's a few news websites around making this point but I wish more of the mainstream media, let alone the politicians, would be more upfront about it instead of letting expectations build about it as a realistic solution.

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