Has spare infrastructure capacity in the inner city disappeared?

Guess what this architectural gem in Stockholm is? Click to find out.

The received wisdom is it costs much less to provide infrastructure for an inner suburban dwelling than for one in the outer suburbs. However, as I noted last time, we don’t know how big the difference is or even, for that matter, if it’s positive or negative – we simply lack reliable evidence.

There are reasons, however, to suspect the savings in infrastructure outlays associated with urban consolidation might be much less than is widely thought. It’s plausible that the popular claim of an $85,000 per dwelling saving could be well off the mark (note I’m only talking in this post about the capital cost of infrastructure, not the economic costs and benefits of a fringe vs central location).

From the time urban consolidation was first seriously put on the table in Australia as a policy option, a key premise was the availability of ‘spare’ infrastructure capacity in the inner city. This part of the city had previously supported larger working class and migrant populations, so there was ‘free’ infrastructure to be had in support of a restoration of earlier population levels.

There’s not much sense in assuming any capacity is free (it all has to be paid for) but looking from the perspective of 2011, there are reasons to question if there actually is any spare physical capacity left, at least in relation to some types of infrastructure.

A key reason is a lot of whatever spare infrastructure capacity existed has already been used up by gentrification. At the 2006 Census, there were 36,488 more residents in the inner city of Melbourne than there were in 1976 (and 76,422 more than when the inner city was at its lowest ebb in 1991). In fact of the 31 municipalities in metropolitan Melbourne, only the City of Moreland and the adjacent City of Darebin had significantly fewer residents in 2006 than in 1976 – Moreland had 14,585 fewer and Darebin 17,137 fewer. That is not a lot in the context of projections Melbourne will grow from a current population of four million to seven million by circa 2049.

Even where there are fewer residents today than in the past, they might still have a much larger “infrastructure footprint” than their predecessors. Modern households have many more resource-intensive devices like flat panel TVs, air conditioners, heaters, computers, spas, and so on, than their predecessors. They have more cars than former residents, so there’s less room for parking. They also have higher standards – the primary school that used to accommodate 300 kids in six or seven classrooms now has to build twelve to handle the same enrolment.

Moreover, households today are smaller on average, so they have fewer ‘economies of scale’ in resource consumption than earlier generations. Two households of three persons each use more gas for heating than they would if the same six residents shared a single dwelling. Gentrifying households are also wealthier on average than the sorts of households who used to live in the inner city and inner suburbs 30 to 40 years ago. On a per capita basis, wealthier households consume more of just about everything worth having. Again, that will require more infrastructure capacity.

Thus it’s possible infrastructure in some locations could be at or above capacity even with a much lower population than those places housed in the 1970s. Read the rest of this entry »

Local vs central delivery – what’s the difference?

One of the ever-present tensions in planning is the desire for accessibility on the one hand and the advantages of economies of scale on the other. This is an age-old debate about localised delivery versus centralised delivery.

Here’s an example from everyday life. For years, I took my son on Saturday mornings to play basketball in the “local” comp – local in this case meaning the North East sector of Melbourne. Every second Saturday he played a home game about 3 km away. On alternate Saturdays we travelled to away games, from Collingwood out to relatively “remote” places like Park Orchards, Templestowe and Eltham.

When my daughter started playing netball last year I encountered a very different model. There’s a single netball centre in Macleod with multiple indoor and outdoor courts serving the region. All games in her age competition are played at the centre each Saturday at the same time.

There are real advantages in the Macleod approach compared with the decentralised model that my son experienced. He sometimes had to play in sub standard venues and on more than one occasion there was no volunteer there to open up the court. Just navigating to some of the more far-flung venues seemed like a substantial achievement! Read the rest of this entry »

A new high school for Coburg – what are the lessons?

Coburg's "Black Hole" - no high school for year 7 students (existing high schools in red - grey schools don't offer full service)

There’s a fascinating struggle going on between the Education Department and residents of Coburg about the need for a new junior high school in the area (see here and here).

The map shows what residents call the “black hole” and this story in The Age gives the history of high school closures in the area:

“The troubled Moreland City College closed in 2004. Coburg High School shut its doors in 1993 and is now the site for a planned 510 apartments. Newlands High School, now part of the Pentridge Prison development, folded in 1993. Moreland High School taught its final class in 1991 and is now Kangan Batman TAFE”.

The Education Department says there isn’t sufficient demand to meet the minimum size requirements for a junior high school and that there are others nearby with adequate capacity to take Coburg children from year seven. The residents argue that these schools are either too far away or unsuitable.

There are two existing high schools within the circle, shown in grey on the map, but they are not full-service schools. One is Coburg Senior High (co-ed, year 10 upwards) and the other is Preston Girls College (girls 7-12 only). The obvious “new junior school” solution is to expand Coburg Senior High.

I’m not concerned with the reasonableness of either side’s case, but I am interested in the issue of how far teenagers should reasonably be expected to travel to school. I also think there’s some insight to be had here into the issue of whether or not there is spare infrastructure capacity in inner suburbs. 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 »