Who lives in the city centre?

Key demographics, 2006 Census, Melbourne's Core and Inner City

There’s so much misinformation being put about lately regarding apartments and city centre living that I thought it would be timely to put some basic facts on the table. Fortuitously, I recently came across a paper by two academics from the School of Geography and Environmental Science at Monash University, Maryann Wullf and Michele Lobo, published in the journal Urban Policy and Research in 2009. It’s gated, but the tables I’ve assembled summarise most of the salient findings.

The authors examine the demographic profile of residents of Melbourne’s Core and Inner City in 2001 and 2006 and compare it against Melbourne as a whole i.e. the Melbourne Statistical Division (MSD). They characterise the Core as “new build” (60.6% of dwellings are apartments three storeys or higher) and the Inner City as “revitalised”.

The Core is defined as the CBD, Southbank, Docklands and the western portion of Port Phillip municipality i.e. Port Melbourne, South Melbourne and Middle Park. They define the Inner City as the rest of Port Phillip and Melbourne municipalities, plus Yarra and the Prahran part of Stonnington municipality. So what did they find? (but let me say from the outset that the implications and emphasis in what follows is my interpretation of the data, rather then necessarily theirs).

A key statistic is that the share of Melbourne’s total population who live in the Core is extremely small – just 1.7%. So however interesting the demography of the Core might be, it represents just a fraction of the bigger picture and accordingly we need to be very careful, I think, about assuming what goes on there reflects what the other 98.3% of Melburnians think, want or are doing. And the same goes for the Inner City, which has just 5.9% of the MSD population.

When the authors looked at the age profile of the Core they found it is astonishingly young. The proportion comprised of Young Singles and Young Childless Couples is an extraordinary 44.0%. The corresponding figure for Melbourne as a whole (i.e. the MSD) is 15.1%, or about a third the size. And just to emphasise the point of the previous para, note the Core has 26,486 persons in these two categories, whereas the MSD has 542,481.

Households in the Core also tend to be small with only 21.6% having children. In comparison, the MSD might as well be another country – the corresponding figure is 53.3%. Unfortunately the researchers don’t break down the large Young Singles group by household size, but given the predominance of apartments in the Core, it’s a fair bet they tend to live in one and two person households.

I expect it will surprise many to see that Mid-life Empty Nesters make up much the same proportion of the population in the Core (and Inner City) as they do in the MSD. They’re also a small group – they account for just 8.3% of the population of the Core and hence their impact on the demography of the city centre is really quite modest. 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 »


Can inner city apartments save us from sprawl?

Here’s compelling evidence that inner city apartments are not substitutes for fringe development despite oft-repeated claims to the contrary.

The Age reported yesterday that the average size of new two-bedroom apartments under construction in Melbourne is just 73 m2, while the average size of one-bedroom apartments is 51 m2 and studio apartments 34 m2.

SEE apartments, Claremont St, South Yarra

More than three quarters of the 5,600 units currently being built are located in central areas, mostly in the Melbourne, Stonnington and Yarra municipalities. A spokesperson from property group Oliver Hulme says that the median size of apartments in the inner municipalities is no smaller than those in outer suburbs.

I must say I’m staggered by how little space you get for your money. According to the report, the entry-level median price for newly built two-bedroom apartments is around $530,000. Corresponding prices for one-bedroom and studio apartments are $379,000 and $302,500 respectively. It seems inner city buyers subscribe strongly to the “location, location, location” maxim.

In contrast, the median house and land package in Melbourne’s outer suburban growth areas costs around $383,500 and the median dwelling size is 219 m2. It’s even cheaper in Cardinia in Melbourne’s outer South East, where the median dwelling is 186 m2 and together with land costs $334,500 on average.

Clearly the inner city and the outer suburban growth areas are entirely different markets! The average size of apartments is probably reduced by the current high rate of social housing construction but I doubt that’s significant enough to explain the enormous difference between the two markets. Read the rest of this entry »


Is medium density housing on tram routes sustainable?

I like Melbourne City Council’s proposal for higher dwelling densities along tram lines but I think the claim that it would increase sustainability is exaggerated. There’s a whole ‘second half’ missing from this proposal.

The idea, which seems to be largely the brainchild of Council’s Rob Adams, is essentially that multi unit developments of up to 8 storeys should be encouraged along tram routes, leaving the suburban “hinterland” undeveloped (Rob refers to it as a new green wedge). This would reduce the need for fringe development and increase the mode share of public transport.

Nicholson Street - before

The major opportunities appear to be on tram routes in the inner suburbs, around 5-10 km from the CBD. While I think the assertion that 4-8 storey buildings can substitute for fringe development is fanciful and is based on a misinterpretation of other research, I accept that the proposal has the potential to increase the supply of dwellings of the type that are sought after by smaller households, especially those without dependents.

The key problem however is that nothing has been proposed to deal with car use by households occupying these new apartments. Without that, it won’t deliver. It just assumes that if households live cheek by jowl with good public transport they will necessarily use it. Read the rest of this entry »