Are the suburbs dormitories?

"Centre of gravity" of jobs, 1981 and 2006

There are many misconceptions about the suburbs. A common one is that they are dormitories for workers who commute to the CBD. Another is that jobs in the suburbs are mostly low skill and low pay.

The reality is most economic activity in our capital cities takes place in the suburbs. In Melbourne, for example, 72% of jobs are more than 5 km from the CBD, 50% are more than 13 km away and 25% more than 22 km away.

Jobs have been moving away from the centre for a long time. The “centre of gravity” of jobs in Melbourne is now 7.9 km south east of the CBD, in the vicinity of Tooronga station, East Malvern. That’s up from 5.9 km in 1981. The “average”  job is 15.6 km from the CBD (12.4 km in 1981).

This decentralised pattern holds for most industry sectors. More than 70% of jobs in the Community sector and more than 80% of jobs in the Retail, Wholesale and Manufacturing sectors are in the suburbs (defined as more than 5km from the CBD). Even in the Commercial Services sector, which is the inner city’s great strength, 49% of metropolitan jobs are in the suburbs.

Over 90% of Melburnites live in the suburbs and the great bulk work there too. Less than 10% of workers who live in outer suburbs like Casey, Cardinia, Dandenong, Knox, Maroondah, Mornington work in the centre (City of Melbourne). Even in older suburbs like Hobsons Bay, Brimbank, Maribyrnong and Moonee Valley, less than 25% of the workforce works in the centre. Read the rest of this entry »


Is 13 storeys right for Coburg?

Whether you like the look of this building or not, I think the Panel has done a good job in recommending the rezoning and permit pretty much as proposed by the proponent. This is the kind of development Melbourne needs in order to increase densities in established areas (click image below; and here’s another one).

The proposal is for a mixed use development on the old Coburg High School site in Bell St near the intersection with Sydney Rd. It’s a large landmark site of around 1.2 hectares, fronting Bell St in the north, Bridges Reserve in the west and established housing on the other frontages.

It is within the Coburg Principal Activity Centre and will provide 520 residential units spread over 8-13 storeys along the non-residential frontages, stepping down to three storeys where it faces existing housing. It also includes some commercial uses on the Bell St frontage.

The units are very small and therefore relatively affordable (although that’s not the same as value for money!). Around three quarters are proposed to be studios and one bedroom apartments, with a minimum internal floor area of 40 sq m and 44 sq m respectively. The remainder are two bedroom units (minimum 65 sq m). These tiny sizes are around the average for inner suburban apartments – see here.

The project must provide at least 20% of the units for social housing under the planning scheme. However the proponent proposes around half of the units will be allocated to a recognised social housing provider under the National Rental Affordability Scheme.

The Panel’s reasons for supporting the project can be read here. While I endorse their overall direction, I have misgivings about some of their conclusions. Read the rest of this entry »


Do firms want to be in suburban centres?

We know that most jobs in Melbourne are now in the suburbs. There’s also an increasing understanding that large metropolitan areas are now generally polycentric rather than monocentric in form i.e. there are significant activity centres outside the CBD with large numbers of jobs. The strategic planning update to Melbourne 2030, Melbourne @ 5 Million, released in October 2008, explicitly acknowledged this reality.

It is clear that firms can increasingly obtain the benefits of density, such as face-to-face contact, in both inner city and suburban centres where they don’t have to carry the extra costs in rent and congestion imposed by the very high density of the CBD. The CBD’s share of metropolitan jobs has consequently fallen significantly over the last 30-40 years (it has staged a small revival since 1996, showing significant jobs growth in absolute terms, but its share of metropolitan jobs has not increased).

Tysons Corner - the archetypal edge city

Yet many studies in many countries have found that while the number of suburban and inner city activity centres is increasing, the proportion of jobs located within them is falling. In fact, around a half to two thirds of employment in US cities is scattered across the metropolitan area at relatively low densities. Inter-city and cross-country comparisons are difficult, but the evidence suggests that suburban jobs are even more scattered in Melbourne.

It seems that firms can increasingly achieve the benefits of agglomeration at a larger geographical scale than that of the CBD or suburban activity centres. The advantages of physical proximity have apparently declined to such an extent that the costs of aggregation now exceed the benefits at ever lower levels of density.

But why are firms increasingly spurning density? Read the rest of this entry »


Fake shopfronts

At last somebody’s found a way to revitalise ailing strip shopping centres – fake shops! My local high street is all restaurants, boutiques and real estate agents – this could be a way to bring back the hardware store we lost ten years ago. Read the rest of this entry »