Why ‘spare infrastructure capacity’ is exaggerated

Are claims of spare infrastructure capacity in the inner suburbs real?

The Age reports that there were almost 30,000 more people living in Coburg and Pascoe Vale in 1976 than there are now (The Outer Limits). The paper quotes the former Mayor of the City of Moreland, who says that increasing the population density in many areas “is simply returning suburbs to previous population levels”.

The editorialist in The Age of 20 March stated that “some ‘traditional’ inner Melbourne suburbs – such as Coburg, Pascoe Vale and Fitzroy – have fewer residents than they did 50 years ago. Current ‘in-fill’ housing is thus regrowth” (emphasis added).

The idea of course is that there is spare capacity in infrastructure and amenities that can accommodate ‘restoration’ of the historic population level. This would be a good thing because any underutilisation of infrastructure is economically wasteful. It might also minimise further ‘sprawl’ at the urban fringe.

Many observers accept that the liklihood of significant spare infrastructure capacity remaining in the inner city (i.e. within 5 km of the CBD) is not great. But in this case the former Mayor is talking about inner suburban areas. Pascoe Vale is about 10 km from Melbourne Town Hall and Coburg about 8 km.

But are the inner suburbs an alternative to sprawl? Is it as simple as the Mayor suggests? No, of course not, it never is.

For one thing, the experience in the City of Moreland, which includes Pascoe Vale and Coburg, does not extrapolate to other parts of Melbourne. Of the 31 Local Government Authorities that comprise metropolitan Melbourne, only the City of Moreland and the contiguous City of Darebin experienced notable population losses between 1976 and 2006.  Moreland lost 14,585 people and Darebin lost 17,137 (presumably the former Mayor was referring to both LGAs in arriving at his figure of 30,000)*.

Given that Melbourne is projected to grow from almost four million to seven million between now and circa 2049, the possibility of ‘restoring’ 30,000 residents to Pascoe Vale and Coburg seems a fairly modest contribution in terms of the big picture. If the maximum redevelopment potential of all established suburbs were determined by this ‘regrowth’ metric, then virtually all future growth would have to be on the fringe.

The historic decline in population in Pascoe Vale and Coburg was largely due to the average size of households getting smaller. At the macro level this was because of broader social factors like declining fertility and a higher divorce rate. At the micro level, the baby boomers who grew up in Pascoe Vale and Coburg had mostly left home by 2006. The same dwellings that existed in 1976 now have fewer occupants. But the 30,000 ‘lost’ souls can’t be put ‘back’ into existing homes. Rather, new dwellings will need to be constructed for all of them, at least 12,000.

The impact of all this new construction on existing residents will be more vivid in terms of changed streetscape and traditional planning issues like over-looking and over-shadowing, than is suggested by the apparently innocuous explanation that population is simply being ‘restored’ to its historic level.

Smaller average household size due to a higher proportion of one and two person households also means 30,000 settlers today will make a bigger draw on infrastructure and have a larger ecological footprint than 30,000 residents in the 1970s. This is because of loss of scale economies. One person occupying a dwelling doesn’t consume just a quarter of the resources used by a dwelling with four people – he or she is more likely to use a third or more. A television, for example, uses the same power irrespective of how many people are watching it.

Exacerbating all of this is the fact that average households of today have a much higher standard of living than their counterparts of the seventies. For example, modern households own more cars and a panoply of energy-guzzling devices that were rarely seen in 1976, including split system air conditioners, 900 mm wide ovens, 42” flat panel TVs, multiple computers, spas and a variety of electrically powered kitchen, bathroom and workshop gadgets. In fact whatever spare infrastructure capacity was released in the 1970s and 80s may very well have been appropriated already by existing residents.

And to make matters worse, it is highly likely that the 30,000 will largely be comprised of more affluent households who tend to consume more resources than other groups. Coburg and Pascoe Vale, which housed working class families in the seventies, are already being sought out by high income professionals who value their accessibility to the CBD and to the inner city lifestyle. Consider this: even though they nominally live in smaller dwellings, households in the affluent inner city have the highest per capita consumption of electricity and water of any households in the entire metropolitan area, according to the Australian Conservation Foundation. They also have the largest ecological footprint.

Thus the idea that Moreland and Coburg can accommodate 30,000 additional people in multi unit housing without significant investment in infrastructure, simply because historically they lost a similar number, is simplistic. The local planning issues this level of growth raises and the impact on existing residents is on a larger scale than the former Mayor’s comments suggest. It is also much more complex and politically fraught.

In my view, the inner suburbs can and must play an important part in accommodating Melbourne’s growth. Indeed, I think they should accommodate more people than the 1976 level. While reference to historical population levels might be a soothing way of putting it for politicians, there is a danger it might become the politically acceptable limit.

Increased housing choice and affordability is sufficient justification for public policy to be directed at raising densities in the inner suburbs. However it seems doubtful that higher densities will offer any significant advantage in terms of better utilisation of infrastructure.

* In fact the combined totals of all LGAs that lost population over the period (counted at the SLA level) was just 54,247.

5 Comments on “Why ‘spare infrastructure capacity’ is exaggerated”

  1. […] I argued previously in Why ‘spare infrastructure capacity’ is exaggerated, it is a mistake to think that there is necessarily spare capacity just because an area […]

  2. […] of infrastructure capacity and costs in different parts of Melbourne. As I’ve argued before (here and here), there is unlikely to be significant spare infrastructure capacity in the inner […]

  3. […] whatever spare capacity existed in the inner city and inner suburbs has already been used up e.g. here, here, […]

  4. […] “spare” infrastructure capacity in the inner suburbs is also doubtful, as I’ve said before (here, here and […]

  5. […] though they live in smaller dwellings, inner city residents have a higher ecological footprint (see here and […]

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