What role for high-rise towers in Melbourne?

Do high-rise towers have a role in Melbourne’s future? Peter Newman thinks they do!

This report by VECCI, Up or out? dealing with Melbourne’s population boom, nicely summarises two alternative approaches set out in The Age for planning Melbourne’s future growth.

99 Spring St - 20 storey residential building

One approach, Look to the Skies, relies on dense, high-rise residential buildings; the other, Head for the Hills, envisages accommodating growth at the fringe in detached houses. These are of course extreme types and The Age doubtless presented the options in this stark way to dramatise the choices.

Almost all debate on this topic has actually been about the share of growth that will be accommodated in medium density housing on the one hand and the share that will be housed in detached dwellings, mostly on the urban fringe, on the other. In this debate medium density housing is largely seen as town houses with small gardens or apartments of around four storeys.

High-rise was opposed by virtually all public observers quoted in The Age, bar a few developers. For example, Rob Adams, Director of Design and Culture at Melbourne City Council, is quoted as saying that high-rise developments often had more to do with profitability and image than ”sensible” town planning.

”Really what it is about is buying the land as cheaply as you can and then maximising the development on it. That’s all about dollars. It’s got nothing to do with good design or sustainability, it’s all about economics,” he said.

According to The Age, he went on to say that high-rise buildings tended to be less environmentally efficient than low-rises and greater housing density could be achieved without the need for more towers.

It is true that high-rise residential buildings have high operational and embodied energy costs relative to lower density options – see this paper by Glazebrook, Rickwood and Searle. Towers are also often unattractive to certain groups. For example, it can be difficult for families and grandparents to supervise young children outside an apartment. Nor do they usually suit people with interests that require a garden, shed or storage.

However most of Melbourne’s projected population growth will be in households of one and two persons without dependents. High-rise can provide the means for relatively large numbers of people to enjoy a highly desirable location like Docklands or the CBD. It makes sense to think of city centre residential high-rise as the analogue of high-rise office buildings – they’re both about agglomeration economies in people and ideas, the former in consumption and the latter in production.

As high-rise buildings are customarily constructed in clusters, the high level of density offers the potential for walking and public transport to substitute for some trips that might otherwise be made by car and thereby possibly offset the high energy consumption within the building.

But perhaps the most interesting take on high-rise comes from Peter Newman of Curtin University, author of Sustainability and Cities: Overcoming Automobile Dependence. He has emerged, according to The Age (Places we want to love), as an advocate of high-rise up to 20 storeys. Speaking about the East Perth project, The Age quotes Newman as saying “they are medium densities – three or four storeys – and they are going up to five or six storeys now. But they are not tower blocks and my sense is we are going to have to do tower blocks”.

Newman’s argument seems to come down to this: there are so few viable redevelopment sites that we can’t afford not to maximise the number of people we accommodate on them. He says existing residents can be won over if local social infrastructure such as schools, community centres and bikeways is improved through a levy on developers.

While I have difficulty envisaging a scenario where high-rise is the ‘main game’, my instinctive reaction is that Newman is on to something really important here. Significantly higher densities will provide a greater incentive for landowners to sell and accordingly make it easier for developers to assemble lots into useable redevelopment sites. I expect they would increase opposition from existing residents, but not by as much as the increase in density if they’re approved.

At present Melbourne lacks any sizeable, dense mixed use suburban centres like Chatswood and Parramatta in Sydney, much less anything that even remotely approaches ‘edge cities’ in the US. The opportunity to construct a mix of high-rise office and residential towers could provide the spark to generate real growth in nascent suburban centres like Box Hill, Heidelberg and Clayton.

The other opportunity is in the redevelopment of large sites formerly used for industrial or public sector purposes. The scale of these sites means that a high-rise component can often be incorporated in a way that is less threatening to nearby residents.


One Comment on “What role for high-rise towers in Melbourne?”

  1. […] The importance of high rise isn’t in its contribution to housing supply. Rather, it brings a number of key issues associated with density into sharper focus, particularly visual prominence, potential for overshadowing, concentrated demand on infrastructure and environmental performance (there can also be social issues but fortunately no one is proposing to place families involuntarily in high rise). I’ve previously dealt with some of these issues here. […]


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