Where does Melbourne end (and sprawl begin)?

Drive out towards Warburton and it seems easy to see where Melbourne ends and rural life begins. One minute you’re driving through houses, shops and businesses, when all of a sudden you’ve arrived in country. Except you’re actually still in Melbourne because the official boundary of the metropolitan area lies on the other (eastern) side of Warburton!

People seem to like a hard edge – a clear and unambiguous boundary – between city and country. But it only works if the non-developed land is “pure” bush or bucolic farming land, without service stations, hobby farms or other urban detritus. Head out of Melbourne in most other directions and development – almost all of it tacky and ugly – tracks you like a mangy dog.

The continuous built-up area of Melbourne (the pink bit in the middle of the map) occupies less than 2,000 km2. This is much less than is commonly assumed by the media and is just a little more than a quarter of the area covered by the official or administrative boundary, which is 7,672 km2. There are a number of “islands” of development within the boundary (also shown in pink), like the townships of Melton and Sunbury, that are officially part of the metropolitan area but separated from “mainland Melbourne” by green wedges. It makes sense to count a place like Melton township as part of Melbourne because 65% of workers living there travel across 9 km of green wedge to work in mainland Melbourne.

These islands make discussions about sprawl particularly fraught. Is it just the central core of continuous urbanised development that sprawls or should all the islands within the boundary also be included? If they are, then that not only includes towns such as Melton, Sunbury and Pakenham, but also towns like Warburton, Healesville and Gembrook that appear to the first-time visitor to be country towns. And given that island townships like Garfield and Bunyip in the outer south-east corridor are officially part of Melbourne, it’s reasonable to wonder why towns that lie just outside the boundary, like Drouin and Warragul, aren’t also seen as part of Melbourne’s sprawl.

This story from a 2003 issue of The Age shows how closely linked many country towns located outside the boundary are to Melbourne:

Census 2001 figures cited by a Monash University Centre for Population and Urban Research report for the Southern Catchments Forum show that, remarkably, more than half of the working residents of the Macedon Ranges area are employed in Melbourne. Similarly, about 40 per cent of the working residents of the Moorabool region (which includes Bacchus Marsh) and the Melbourne side of the Greater Geelong area commute to Melbourne for work. It’s clear, the report says, that these areas are “largely dormitory towns servicing the metropolis. Read the rest of this entry »

Are apartments the answer to ‘McMansions’?

Annual per capita greenhouse gas emissions for the alternative housing scenarios

Demonising sprawl seems to be the mission of many planners, academics and journalists, but oftentimes zealotry leads to mistakes, as with this claim that infrastructure costs on the fringe are double those in established suburbs. I’m reminded again how easy it is to get the wrong end of the stick on this issue by a study released last week by the Architecture Faculty at Melbourne University.

The University’s media release tells us the study found “houses on Melbourne’s suburban fringe are responsible for drastically higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions compared to higher density housing or apartments in the inner city”. The Age ran with the media release, reporting that bigger dwellings and more car-based travel are the key reasons fringe houses consume more energy and emit more greenhouse gas than apartments.

I can’t refer you to a full copy of the study because the University didn’t make it available to the media or the public. That didn’t seem to worry The Age, but I think it’s an extraordinary decision – does the University exist to issue media releases or to undertake serious research? I contacted one of the authors who told me the study is a journal article and he couldn’t give it to me for copyright reasons. He gave me this link to the abstract. I’ve read the full article but if you don’t have on-line access you’ll have to spring for €35 if you want to read it.

A key part of the study is a comparison of the (embodied, operating and transport) energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions of households in three building types – a 100 m2 two bedroom high-rise apartment in Docklands 2 km from the city centre; a 64 m2 two bedroom suburban apartment 4 km from the centre in Windsor; and a 238 m2 detached house in an outer suburban greenfield development 37 km from the centre (the latter is shown in the accompanying chart in two versions – a 2008 five star and a “future” seven star energy rated version).

I don’t know what the point of this sort of comparison is. Putting transport aside (you’ll see why later), there’s little policy value in comparing a $1 million plus Docklands apartment with a $500,000 plus suburban apartment in Windsor, much less comparing both with a $350,000 house and land package on the urban fringe (and I’d say Windsor is inner city!). Nor does a seven square two bedroom apartment seem like a practical substitute for the sort of household that buys a 26 square four bedroom house.

A better approach would’ve been to compare the greenfield house against a townhouse of similar value located in the established suburbs, say 20 km or more from the centre (or perhaps against a greenfield townhouse set within a walkable neighbourhood). Alternatively, the authors could have followed the ACF’s lead and compared the resource use of all suburban residents with those of inner city residents – but the catch here is the ACF found that, even though on average they live in smaller dwellings, inner city residents have a higher ecological footprint (see here and here)!

The study should be on firmer ground when it compares transport energy and emissions across the three locations, but it isn’t. The trouble is the study gets it completely wrong on this key variable and, frankly, the travel findings just don’t stand up. There are two key weaknesses. Read the rest of this entry »

Is living at density the same everywhere?

A reader, Ian Woodcock, took me to task yesterday about my post on whether outer suburban families would willingly choose densities of 25-30 dwellings/Ha so they could walk to local shops and services.

In particular, Ian reckons I invoked a straw man when I argued that “it can’t be assumed that merely increasing outer suburban housing density will create an environment with the ‘buzz’ and ambience of a St Kilda or Fitzroy”. He says the relevant comparison:

is not with inner-suburbs like St. Kilda that have the highest density in Australia (!), but with the streetcar (tram) suburbs of the inner-middle ring, like Kew, Camberwell, Malvern, Armadale, etc. where densities are higher than the outer suburbs in many places, public transport is good, there is housing diversity and access to a wide range of shops and services, and moreover, social capital is high.

Ian’s broadened the discussion beyond walkability to the merits of density more generally. I’m not sure there are substantial parts of suburbs like Camberwell with average densities as high as 25-30 dwellings/Ha, but nevertheless I’m happy to make the comparison with them. I’ve set out my argument about the attractiveness of higher densities to Growth Area residents below:

My contention is that living in a townhouse or apartment in the inner or middle suburbs – whether it be St Kilda, Kew, Fitzroy or Camberwell – delivers an entirely different set of benefits than it would in the outer suburbs. In essence, it’s worth choosing to live in a town house in the former but not at present in the latter.

Camberwell residents who can afford it generally choose to live in bigger dwellings, usually a detached house with a yard. The rest live in smaller dwellings like newish apartments and townhouses because that’s the only way they can afford to live there. They want to live in Camberwell for all the usual reasons – it’s close to the city centre, close to large centres like Glenferrie Rd and close to private schools. They also like it for the status it confers and because it’s ‘people like us’ i.e. wealthy or aspiring to be wealthy.  As Ian says, it also has good public transport and a wide range of services. But most of those who live in apartments and town houses do so because they have to – it’s primarily about location, not dwelling type.

Some will argue there are people who could easily afford a big dwelling but actively prefer a small one. Undoubtedly there are some, but there aren’t many and they’re not usually families (who’re the main household type in the Growth Areas). The fact that empty nesters tend to hang on to their large houses signals that, if they can afford it, people put a high value on space. People who can afford it don’t buy studios or one bedroom apartments in Docklands or Southbank – they buy three bedroom units and penthouses. All those renovated and extended terraces and houses in the inner city don’t say “small is better”. Location and dwelling size are what economists call superior goods. As incomes rise, consumers tend to buy more of them – they might move to a better suburb or a bigger dwelling (although only the very rich can usually do both).

Now compare Camberwell to the Growth Areas. In the latter a detached house with a garden costs much the same as a townhouse. Households don’t need to forego space in order to live there, so why would they choose to buy a townhouse? Read the rest of this entry »

– Are outer suburbs dense enough to walk?

Google's new Driverless Car Technology massively increases intersection capacity

This story in The Age says average dwelling densities in the fringe Growth Areas need to double to make walking to local shops and services viable.

It’s based on a report, Shall We Dense? (geddit?), which says the current minimum average density of 15 dwellings/Ha in the Growth Areas only yields about 510 dwellings within walking distance of local shops and services. Density needs to increase to 25-30 dwellings/Ha to provide enough residents – about 3,000 – to make local shops within walking distance viable.

I’ve said before that the downsides of sprawl are exaggerated, however if new residents of outer suburbs freely choose to live at higher densities and thereby consume less space, that’s got to be a positive step. The problem, as I touched on here, is finding the magic factor that might induce such a shift in preferences.

I don’t think that factor is being able to walk to shops. I can’t see that home buyers in the Growth Areas would actually choose to forego a big detached house and garden in order to buy, for much the same price, a considerably smaller townhouse or apartment so they could be within walking distance of a local shop or two.

I guess that really depends on what the local shops offer. But this is the outer suburbs – it isn’t Tales of the City or The Secret Life of Us. It can’t be assumed that merely increasing outer suburban housing density will create an environment with the ‘buzz’ and ambience of a St Kilda or Fitzroy. The relatively high density of activities in the inner city is sustained to a considerable degree by young, high income professionals without dependents who support all those restaurants, galleries, coffee bars and specialty services. They aren’t there by accident either – they live there because it’s close to the CBD and all those high-flying jobs and cultural, leisure and entertainment attractions. They’re prepared to downsize to get it.

The average outer suburban resident, in contrast, is likely to be married, have children, a big mortgage and limited disposable income. It’s another thing entirely for a family in the outer suburbs to downsize in order to live within walking distance of a small and expensive grocery store, perhaps with the choice of a coffee shop or a restaurant. Something this local is simply not going to have anything like the sheer number and diversity of people and outlets seen in inner city locations.  Read the rest of this entry »

Who’s buying homes on the fringe?

Importance of proximity to......(%)

If you think that home buyers in the fringe Growth Area LGAs are predominantly young renters buying their first McMansion, then think again.

A survey released today by property consultants Oliver Hulme profiles home buyers in the Growth Areas LGAs i.e. Wyndham, Melton, Hume, Whittlesea, Casey and Cardinia.

Given the brouhaha in The Age today over foreign investment on the fringe, the media might give attention to the finding that 23% of purchasers in these areas are investors. However it is not possible to deduce from the report how many of them live overseas.

But there are plenty of other interesting nuggets of information.

Rather than moving out of rental accommodation and into their first home, most fringe purchasers already own a house. Only 36% are first home buyers. Of the 64% who are ‘upgrading’ from an existing owner-occupied dwelling, a third are buying their third or fourth home.

It is therefore no surprise that the average buyer is not ‘starting out’ on the great suburban journey. Nearly half (48%) of adult buyers are aged 35 years or more. In fact 14% are aged 50 or more.

And while some bought large houses, almost three quarters (74%) purchased a single level dwelling. Moreover, 70% of homes are less than 30 squares and 47% are less than 26 squares. That suggests the great bulk of dwellings are roomy but they’re hardly McMansions. However, small dwellings don’t cut it – even though 12% of buyers are single, only 1% of dwellings are smaller than 15 squares.

Read the rest of this entry »

Is Melbourne 2030 achieving its objectives on housing?

Percentage of new dwelling construction within 1km of a principal or major activity centre

A new research paper suggests that many of Melbourne 2030’s key ambitions in relation to housing have come to nought.

The paper, Planning and the characteristics of housing supply in Melbourne, was written by Dr Robin Goodman and a team of fellow academics from the RMIT Research Centre and published by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI).

The first part of the project analysed a number of data bases on land transactions over the period from 1990 to 2007.

Contrary to the aspiration of Melbourne 2030, the researchers found that the proportion of new housing located within one kilometre of an activity centre did not increase following the promulgation of the Strategy.

In fact activity centres are not generally a favoured location for new housing. Of the 115 studied, just four account for almost a third of all housing built within one kilometre. Those four are all very close to the city centre – South Melbourne, Melbourne (CBD), Port Melbourne (Bay St) and Carlton (Lygon St). The ten with the highest proportion of new housing were either close to the CBD or in new parts of Growth Areas where developable land was still available close to activity centres.

When the radius is extended to two kilometres, the researchers found that the proportion of new housing actually declined since Melbourne 2030 was released.

They found a similar pattern with rail stations – the proportion of dwellings built within a one kilometre radius of a train station declined after Melbourne 2030 came into effect.

In addition, the delay between acquisition of property by a developer and completion of construction is more protracted on parcels that are closer to activity centres. Read the rest of this entry »

What’s good about the Coalition’s planning policy?

What Americans think 'family' means

I think some aspects of the Victorian Opposition’s clumsily titled Plan for Planning are doubtful, especially their proposal for ensuring 25 years land supply within Growth Areas and their intention of levying the Growth Areas Infrastructure Charge at the time of development.

But there are also some good ideas that I want to discuss, notably the proposal for a new strategic plan for Melbourne and another for an audit of the infrastructure capacity of the entire metropolitan area.

A new plan for Melbourne would be timely because Melbourne 2030 is misguided, old and tired. It’s been more than ten years since the process of preparing the metropolitan strategy began and eight years since it was published.

A key problem with Melbourne 2030 is that it was misconceived from the get-go. It never worked properly and simply hasn’t delivered on its lofty ambitions.

Its relevance took a serious hit when the projections of future population growth that underpinned its policies were revised upwards. Further, one of its main directions – the primacy of the CBD – was weakened in 2008 when the Government decided to establish six new CBD-type Central Activities Districts in the suburbs.

The objective of locating nearly 70% of all dwelling commencements out to 2030 within the existing suburbs – rising to almost 80% by 2030 – was also abandoned in 2008 and replaced with the much less challenging target of just 53%.

And of course the much vaunted Urban Growth Boundary lasted only a few years before it was breached. The supply of well-located affordable housing that the plan was intended to foster dried up and neither jobs nor housing gravitated to suburban centres on anything like the scale originally envisaged.

The problem with Melbourne 2030 is that it was driven from the outset by ideological posturing rather than logic. Too many of its key directions weren’t supported by data or analysis and the consultation process was largely a sham. Read the rest of this entry »