Spare infrastructure capacity – is it a tall story?

Here’s more evidence that claims of “spare” infrastructure capacity in inner city and inner suburban areas are a tall story. The Sunday Age reports that Port Melbourne Primary School, Malvern Primary and Middle Park Primary are the first schools to get double storey portable classrooms.

Two storey portables are a natural evolution – practically every State primary school in Melbourne within 10 km of the CBD already has single storey portables. However I’m not concerned with whether portables are better or worse than permanent buildings but rather with what additional classrooms say about spare capacity in schools.

As I argued previously in Why ‘spare infrastructure capacity’ is exaggerated, it is a mistake to think that there is necessarily spare infrastructure capacity just because an area historically had a higher population than it has at present.

Class sizes in an area like Middle Park back in the fifties, sixties and seventies were considerably higher than they are now. It was not uncommon in the sixties for classes to number 50 pupils.

However standards have changed – class sizes are now around twenty five students or less. Hence, the same number of students as a school historically enrolled cannot be accommodated today unless the number of classrooms is increased. The number of teachers and perhaps specialist facilities and services also needs to be increased. Even the on-road area required for drop-off and pick-up has increased dramatically as many fewer kids walk to school now.

There is, in short, no spare capacity in inner city and inner suburban schools and there hasn’t been for a long time.

When you think about it, this applies in other areas too. For example, per capita electricity consumption has risen significantly over the last 30 or so years due to widespread use of domestic air conditioning, computers and so on. This means that many fewer people can be housed in a suburb than historic population levels suggest without infrastructure being upgraded.

And there is another dimension to this issue. Increasing infrastructure capacity in established schools involves more than just providing additional classrooms, expensive as that undoubtedly is. There is another significant cost – whether portable or permanent, these new buildings deny precious space for other activities.

According to The Sunday Age, Albert Park Primary School is squeezed onto a 0.7 hectare site. The school staggers lunchtimes to provide adequate play space for children – the new two storey portables the school is getting will actually liberate some playground space from the single storey classrooms they replace!

St Kilda Park Primary School uses adjacent parkland at lunchtime. My daughter’s primary school walks students a short distance through a residential area to a nearby park for sporting activities.

It’s time that fanciful claims about infrastructure costs being lower in older established areas than on the urban fringe were replaced by dispassionate analysis. As I’ve argued before many of the current claims about supposed spare capacity in established areas are based on a deeply flawed interpretation of other research.

The State planning department needs to undertake a detailed and objective assessment of the relative contemporary infrastructure costs of new development in Melbourne’s established suburbs compared to fringe areas.

10 Comments on “Spare infrastructure capacity – is it a tall story?”

  1. Moss says:

    Great blog Alan.
    Yes, I am perplexed at some of the thinking on differences between infrastructure costs between infill and “fringe” development too. The mainstream media definitely glossed over the important details of the Parsons Brinckerhoff report – for example, inner city development costs for fire, police and gas were rated as 0 for each extra 1000 dwellings. Presumably all of those inner city inhabitants are nice, law abiding citizens who live in cold, fireproof apartments. Oh and their kids are clearly more intelligent as the cost of their inner city education infrastructure is a 10th that of fringe kids!
    Still, their report is a start, and we do need to get a better grasp on the real costs, though it might come down to a more detailed analysis of each development project…

    • Alan Davies says:

      Thanks for the positive words. What disappoints me most is that Government Departments and others who most people would expect to look harder at their assumptions either don’t bother to do the most basic questioning or just accept uncritically whatever fits their pre-existing POV. No doubt we all do it to some extent but still…..

  2. Michael says:

    Another interesting post. I wonder though whether there are advantages in providing infrastructure in more dense areas, an example might be something like a library that serves a larger number of people and therefore has a bigger collection. Of course I have no data or analysis on this.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Interesting question. I don’t know much about libraries so I might be wrong, but I’d expect that a library would serve the same number of people and be much the same size irrespective of whether it’s in the inner city/inner suburbs or on the fringe – the only difference is the fringe library would have a more geographically extensive catchment.

      It’s not really an economies of scale thing but the average trip ought to be more sustainable in the inner city e.g. more walking (that might not hold for inner suburban or middle suburban libraries though). That’s not a saving however that goes to the bottom line (its an “economic” saving) so the inner city library would still incur higher financial costs when it ran out of capacity and had to expand, due to higher land and construction costs in more congested areas.

      • Michael says:

        Good reply. I’m afraid I just have a bias towards higher density suburbs and against sprawl for environmental and cultural reasons – that’s why I come to your blog – so I can have my prejudices challenged.

  3. […] could’ve mentioned that virtually every school within at least 10 km of the CBD already has one or more so-called temporary class rooms including, […]

  4. […] being used to support these sorts of claims. As I pointed out long ago (here, as well as here, here and here) that report’s development cost estimates are based on an earlier unpublished paper […]

  5. […] is not high – increased traffic congestion is a more likely outcome. Spare infrastructure capacity is in many cases almost certainly a myth. In fact it is likely to cost more to provide additional […]

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

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

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