Is a bigger Melbourne a better Melbourne?

The CEO of the Committee for Melbourne, Andrew Mcleod, advanced an interesting argument about the importance of growth when launching the Committee’s new report, Melbourne Beyond 5 Million, earlier this month.

He contended that Melbourne can get better as it gets bigger. His main argument is that Melbourne in 2010, with 4 million people, is double the size it was in 1960 and is, he says, unambiguously more liveable.

Big city - East Village, Manhattan

So is bigger better? I don’t think I have a definitive answer and I’m not even sure there is one, but I think it’s useful in light of the high population growth projected for Melbourne to canvass some of the issues.

The fear many people have is that a bigger Melbourne will mean housing is less affordable and roads and public transport more congested. Some people also think it would be less safe, less equal and have a much larger per capita ecological footprint.

But there are advantages in getting bigger. Larger cities are usually denser and have a lower ecological footprint than smaller cities. There is also an extensive literature showing that the productivity of cities increases with population.

There are different opinions on the underlying reasons but many observers, like Harvard’s Professor Edward Glaeser, think that big cities enable people to connect and learn from one another. They tend to be more diverse and offer greater specialisation in work, consumption, socialising and ideas.

There are more than thirty cities in the OECD countries alone that have a larger population than Melbourne. They must be doing something right if people want to live in them. For all the complaints made about Los Angeles, many more people seem to want to live there than in Melbourne. Many talented Australians aspire to move to LA to work in specialised industries like entertainment, higher education and technology.

Size involves some compromises. Higher densities are inevitable – Los Angeles, for example, is the densest city in the USA. Places like New York get by with smaller housing and with greater use of shared rather than private facilities and services e.g. parks and public transport (although the rich still use private cars and taxis). Density usually means more noise, more congestion and heavy reliance on technological and engineering solutions e.g. massive water supply and sewerage infrastructure. But as most Australians who’ve spent time in big cities like Manhattan will tell you, the trade off is greater diversity, more options and sheer buzz.

While there are risks, Melbourne starts with some important advantages in dealing with growth.

It already has a basically sound public transport system which Los Angeles does not (although LA is now investing heavily in transit). It is already denser than all but a handful of US cities and has scope for economical outward expansion in the west and north. Fortunately we don’t have the same tolerance for leap-frogged, large lot ex-urban developments that many US cities (including New York) display – new fringe developments in Melbourne are now generally subject to a minimum average density of 15 dwellings per hectare.

I also think our political culture is ultimately receptive to the need for “sensible” changes like road pricing, tax imposts on big cars, increased investment on public transport and a reasonable balance between higher density redevelopment in established suburbs and fringe expansion. Some of the supposedly “impossible” taxation and microeconomic reforms that have been put in place since the time of the Hawke Government suggest we have cause to be optimistic about what we can achieve.

Since most of the projected growth is likely to come from migration, I think Australia’s multicultural history indicates we are more likely to make a success of growth than stuff it up.

My point is that bigger cities have advantages as well as potential disadvantages, but most of the latter can be dealt with via sensible infrastructure investment and policies. The biggest threat would probably be bad management rather than growth per se. Nevertheless, not everyone would be a winner even if it were done right (some people hate Manhattan) but most probably would be.

Andrew McLeod’s contention that Melbourne in 2010 is unambiguously better than Melbourne in the 1960s is an interesting question that I’ll report back on – it might throw further light on whether or not “growth is good”.

6 Comments on “Is a bigger Melbourne a better Melbourne?”

  1. Good analysis and I hope others join the discussion.


  2. Alan, will also be interested in your supplementary report as there are so many fundamental issues raised within even this relatively short piece on whether bigger is better.

    One of the most important of these being what criteria are being applied, do they make sense, and are they appropriate, let alone significant (in terms of livability) … particularly in the context of the day to day lives and personal perspectives of a host of differently ‘placed’ residents within the same city?

    The management and policy/planning will undoubtedly matter one way or the other, but also their ultimate manner of implementation (if any). Key questions with implementation seem to be – to what extent and standard, including standard of oversight and follow through, with what extent of community satisfaction?

    As just one example here, if landscapes and landscaping are vital contributors to livability perceptions and standards, just consider the extent to which the seemingly vital landscaping in concept drawings submitted for new development approval seems so often to never match up with the ultimate ‘approved’ reality!

    Melbourne may well be a better place now because, with the exception of the wholesale destruction of its remarkable Victoria era precincts and ‘Paris End’, it seems to be capable of adding to and further enhancing a lot of the very good work that has gone before.

    However I am not so sure of how well the getting bigger and better arguments concerning Melbourne would also match Sydney’s experience (particularly for those NOT resident in the very wealthy enclaves surrounding that city’s CBD, harbour, beaches, and bays).

    Certainly a lot of Glaeser’s seemingly accurate observations might still hold true for both cities, but Sydney seems to sadly confirm your own thoughts on the bad consequences of a long term ‘lack of’ infrastructure investment (not just ‘sensible’ infrastructure), as well as fundamentally poor political management, planning and lack of integration.

    The risk with exploring this ‘bigger can be better equation’ within the key framework of livability outcomes is that only the more predictable and ‘standard’ criteria will be examined.

    Livability involves so many additional social, aesthetic, ethical, political and other considerations, including that elusive notion of the what creates a great ‘sense of place’. And so many of these factors are also by nature quite complex and subjective, which is probably why they are more frequently avoided by politicians and planners alike!

    Just as much can be learnt (within the boundaries of the same city such as LA or wider NY) from the often intertwined and self perpetuating ‘life impacts’ of residency in its starkly more ‘unlivable’ (but equally high density) neighborhoods, as from its ‘glamour’ neighborhoods – like Venice or just about any part of Manhattan.

    Visitors usually get to see … and choose to see … the better places. The disadvantages of life in such cities are usually starkly found elsewhere in the grapevined ‘areas to avoid’ zones. The wealthier zones normally wield the greatest political power too, which of course flows through into planning process like a river to the sea.

    As Bob Pool of the Los Angeles Times once said “it’s not surprising that (LA) residents take their neighborhood names so seriously. Those designations are part tradition and history — but also part economic and political.”

    Finally, when exploring ‘Is bigger better’, there is the issue of needing to consider diverging cultural examples of large city development and liveability outcomes. Will any lessons from LA or NY make sense in the context of the hyper growth of a polluted Beijing or a highly dynamic and culturally buzzing Mumbai?

    Why do certain relatively poor but nonetheless dense SE Asian cities – on the surface at least – exhibit so much buzz and yes ‘livability’ … even when they have lacked ‘infrastructure investment’ and co-ordinated management?

    Could something as basic as different cultural & personal perspectives and values play a much larger role than expected in explaining the livability consequences of growth and bigness??

    As Andrew suggests, this is a great area for discussion.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Your point about whether or not solutions hatched for LA or NY will work in Mumbai strikes a chord with me. Many years ago when I was an architecture undergrad, I was very interested in the issue of squatter settlements in third world countries.

      The dominant view at the time was to provide proper housing because the residents were living with uncertain tenure in unsanitary conditions and makeshift housing. That’s what would be demanded in a first world country.

      However the appropriate solution, as we self-styled progressives saw it at the time, was simply to provide some basic infrastructure like communal water stands and basic waste disposal and drainage. With limited funds, many many more squatter villages could be made healthy than provided with “proper” housing.

      Looking back, it was the right approach. As you suggest, the 1st world solutions were not optimal for the special circumstances of cities like Port Moresby.

  3. […] Bigger cities offer greater diversity, specialisation and access to key services. We can get these benefits without most of the problems if we make the right decisions – like investing in key infrastructure, imposing a price on externalities and allowing key markets to operate relatively freely. […]

  4. […] previously discussed the argument advanced by the CEO of the Committee for Melbourne, Andrew Mcleod, that Melbourne can get better as […]

  5. […] No, Sydney and our other cities are not “bursting at the seams”, as I’ve argued before (here, here and here). But, nor is it accurate to characterise the ageing donut suburbs as “empty”. The […]

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