Should Councils sell suburban parks to developers?

5 Ulmara Place Keilor Downs - Brimbank Council proposes to sell this park for housing

The Age reported on 28 July that Brimbank City Council is proposing to sell 14 parks in the municipality to developers. It followed up next day with an editorial, No walk in the park for Brimbank, lambasting the planned sale.

Selling parks?! I’d never heard of this proposal before, but I was aghast. I was amazed that any Council would sell off parkland, especially in the west, which we know from Melbourne 2030 is under-provided with regional parks relative to other parts of Melbourne. It didn’t surprise me to see that Brimbank is run by a Government-appointed administrator who presumably would be more inclined to put counting beans ahead of counting heads.

These must be significant parks, I figured, if The Age had written an editorial so quickly on the subject and published it alongside such weighty matters as its opinion on the carbon tax. I therefore read The Age’s editorial with great interest so I could see the issues laid out objectively and analysed dispassionately. I wanted to know which parks they were and what they’re like. I wanted to know what on earth Council could be thinking.

I have to say I was greatly disappointed. The editorial doesn’t make much effort to explain both sides of the story or lay out the ‘facts’. It notes Council says it will spend the proceeds to buy or improve more appropriate open spaces, yet it condemns Council’s position outright as selling “to developers in an apparent revenue raising exercise”. It’s made up largely of homilies like “public space belongs to the community”, “good quality public spaces are essential to build civic life and neighbourhood resilience”, “parks are part of the social glue of any suburb”, and so on.

The editorial even brings the spirit of Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of Manhattan’s Central Park, to Keilor Downs. Olmstead, it argues, was “part of a movement in the 19th century that argued for parks and public recreation spaces as a means of overcoming isolation and suspicion”. Danish architect Jan Gehl’s claim that “as societies become more privatised with private homes, cars, computers and offices, the public component of our lives is disappearing” is also cited in support of the case.

This combination of blatant one-sidedness and over-reaching hyperbole put me on my guard. Of course it’s true parks are generally a good thing. And of course residents will generally be passionately opposed to losing something they’ve already got. But disposing of open space isn’t necessarily and automatically a bad thing – it depends on the circumstances.

I can think of a number of situations where selling parkland for an alternative use might be a reasonable course of action. For example, if it’s inaccessible, too small or in areas which are relatively well-endowed and the proceeds will be spent in parts of a municipality that are deficient in open space. It could be there’s too little space of one kind (e.g. active) and plenty of another (e.g. passive) – in that situation some careful balancing by a proactive municipality faced with a budget constraint could make sense.

Or it might be that the open space isn’t used, is unattractive, is used as a dump or is inordinately expensive to maintain or develop to an appropriate standard. The area of private yards and the amenity of street space available to residents would also be a relevant consideration.

If the alternative use for such land is housing (which is the same as selling it to “developers” for “revenue”!), then it’s possible it could provide an improvement in social welfare for the city as a whole. Indeed, it’s even possible more residents would be better off if the proceeds of the sale were reinvested in some valuable community service entirely unrelated to parkland. Perhaps the capital tied up in some open space would give a better social return if it were reinvested, say, in better child minding facilities or youth services.

Here’s Council’s version of why it wants to sell the land. It actually has a $38 million Creating Better Parks Policy and Plan, it says, which aims to provide residents with access to a range of high quality open space within 500 metres of any residence. The properties in dispute (there’re evidently seven parcels, not 14 – that appears to be the number of titles) were assessed as surplus for a number of reasons, including “the proximity of better open space areas, poor access for the community and poor location”.

The Local Government Act requires Council to advertise the proposed sales and receive and hear submissions from the public. Council says “any proceeds from the sale will be directed toward the purchase of more appropriate open space locations or the funding of improvements for community open space, including a range of neighbourhood and suburban parks”.

These are the seven properties. It’s fair to say they are mostly relatively small parcels of variable quality. These appear to be neighbourhood parks, not regional or district parks. You might care to copy and paste each one into Google Maps and have a look via Street View:

8 Vasa Place, Keilor Lodge
66 – 70 Nordic Avenue, Keilor Lodge
5 Ulmara Place, Keilor Downs
2 Zagreb Court, Keilor Park
5 McCoubrie Avenue, West Sunshine
8 Cohuna Court, Taylors Lakes
Rear of 21-29 Trickey Ave, Sydenham

I don’t want to be drawn into making a definitive call on the rights and wrongs of such a localised issue. There’s bound to be case-by-case information, like the impact on walking routes, that requires local knowledge. Maybe the Council could’ve managed the process better, I don’t know.

The main point I want to make is that it doesn’t necessarily follow that selling something as sacred as open space makes all residents in a municipality worse off. It’s necessary to look at the existing provision of open space, the quality of what’s proposed for sale, the nature of the alternative use, and the way the proceeds will be used. It’s necessary to look at whose currently winning and losing and who will benefit, or lose, from the change.

I also want to say that whatever happens to these parks, the “social glue” isn’t going to be changed much, no matter what hyperbole The Age resorts to – this is suburban Keilor Downs, it’s not Manhattan or even Carlton. I’m also puzzled by the tone and pitch of The Age’s editorial, which seems out of scale with what’s at stake in this case – if I weren’t the charitable person I am, I might wonder if someone at Fairfax has a personal connection with someone living in the municipality.


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13 Comments on “Should Councils sell suburban parks to developers?”

  1. RED says:

    There’s something being left out here. If all of the parks listed are the same type of blasted heath as the one pictured, why? No one would be talking about selling them off if they had been landscaped, had playgrounds, were actively used and so on. So the question again is, why hasn’t this investment been made in these spaces?

    It looks to me like a developer has been required to make a public open space contribution so they have left a few blocks vacant in their subdivisions. They have grassed them over but then neither they nor Council have made any effort to actually turn the open space into active and attractive parks. A few years down the track Council then turns around and says, well, the space isn’t being used, so let’s sell it off.

    This is the direct result of poor planning and under-investment at the sub-division stage. If this space is surplus to requirements now, it was probably surplus to requirements then – it’s not that long ago that these areas were developed. The open space and recreation planning should have been done at the sub-division stage, and the developers should have been required to fund landscaping and park furniture to turn the open space into civic spaces that people actually want to be in and share with other people.

    Classic fail.

    • Julian says:

      This seems like a fair analysis. The above photo isn’t a park, it’s a vacant block.

      To make it easier for anyone wanting to look at the parks:

      8 Vasa Place, Keilor Lodge. Another block!
      66 – 70 Nordic Avenue, Keilor Lodge. Marginally better, mainly through the fact it looks like a few trees survived.
      5 Ulmara Place, Keilor Downs (see above!)
      2 Zagreb Court, Keilor Park. Another vacant block.
      5 McCoubrie Avenue, West Sunshine. Another vacant block. This one probably should be landscaped though, its well located to link some of the nearby courts by foot or bike.
      8 Cohuna Court, Taylors Lakes from above because street view is hard with this one. Looks difficult to provide road access to without disrupting the nearby residents quite a bit.
      Rear of 21-29 Trickey Ave, Sydenham. Looks like the front section has already been developed!

      • Alan Davies says:

        How’d you do that? I tried to do it but the URL remained the same ( each time I pasted in a different address i.e. I got a different map each time but the URL was the same for each.

        • Marcus W says:

          In the top right of Google Maps there is a chain icon – click on it, and in the new window you will get the exact URL of the current map you are looking at. The icon is less obvious after Google’s last redesign.

      • Michael says:

        What an ugly barren wasteland. What a pathetic waste of land these vacant treeless blocks are. They are worse than useless in their current state and I would wager that they are unused except perhaps to dump rubbish in. Children can’t play in them, they provide no habitat in for birds. All these blocks do is create distance between facilities in this car centered estate.

        • Russ says:

          Funny, I opened 8 Vasa, and the first thing I noticed was a rolled cricket pitch in the centre. Clearly the neighbourhood kids are using it (a lot, it takes hours to maintain a decent pitch), even if it is sub-optimal for their needs. That’s not to say it ought to be kept, but parks serve a lot of different needs, and large-ish parks for sport or letting dogs run can be quite rare. Several others show signs of “goat tracks”, which ought to be preserved if they are sold off, preferably in a way that doesn’t make the path a poorly lit garbage dump between a bunch of back fences.

          That said, I tend to think open space requirements for new sub-divisions result in too much poorly kept mid-sized landscaped open space, and too little small well-kept landscaped space and properly maintained sports fields. Brimbank’s are the worst in Melbourne in the latter respect, but that may just be a reflection of socio-economic conditions.

    • Michael says:

      I should also add that if this wasn’t a deliberate plan to create a land bank thinly disguised as a “park” with the intention of being sold off later for development then the planners and council responsible seem to be irremediably incompetent – par for the course in Melbourne.

  2. These barely look like parks, more likely land banks re-named. Many councils play this land banking game over a multi-decade strategy. Selling at the top of the cycle and buying back at the low.

    Unfortunately, with the downturn of the land market, Brimbank’s administrator has timed it too late.

    Complicating the motivations behind this is the knowledge that parks do add significantly to local land values.

    The undermining of the local council rating system is why they are even forced to consider such an untimely sale.

  3. Oz says:

    Thought provoking. Presumably the seven allotments proposed for sale are currently zoned as non-residential and therefore rezoning is required b4 any sale process is commenced.

    How many square meters in total are to be sold?

    One conclusion drawn from looking at the maps is that there are many sites designated as “green” nearby. The nearby green sites can be seen by activating Google Earth>Layers>More>Parks/Recreation Areas>Parks.
    Rationalization of public “green” space should always be on the table for review. However one would hope that an equivalent area of new “green” space is created that will better serve the needs and aspirations of the local community.

  4. simonfred says:

    Never a good idea, case in point monfort park, sold to a ‘community centre’ that a local Councillor was/is a member of. No public good appears to have come from this transaction at all.

    park has progressed a little further now, grass is gone and replaced with cement, 3 metre perimeter fence still screams go away.

  5. kymbos says:

    It could look great on paper. The problem is that people have every right to doubt council’s ability to properly manage what happens after they flog off assets. Especially Brimbank, which has a shocking track record. Properly managing the reinvestment of funds takes competency that rate payers have every right to doubt.

    As with every asset sale, the sale is the easy part.

  6. Steven says:

    Brimbank council saga continues. The scumbags in the council are still there. I think they ought to fire everyone in the brimbank council and all the contractors should be replaced. I don’t care about trying to work out who is to blame or who is good or bad. It just needs to be resolved quickly. They did a poor job so long I do not want any of them scumbags around. Just list the names of the people and contractors and developers who worked with the council in the last 30 years. Ban them. Ban there children too. That corruption will end then finally. That simple.

  7. Alan Davies says:

    Brimbank Council backs down on (most of the) plans to sell open space.

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