Are we squandering infill housing opportunities?

Eight unit Infill project, Alphington

I’ve argued before (here, here and here) that new housing supply within Melbourne’s established suburbs is excessively dependent on small-scale infill housing projects. In the expansive middle ring suburbs, around half of all housing projects provide only one or two additional dwellings, with the great majority providing only one.

It’s therefore important to look at other options, but given it’s carrying most of the burden, it’s also worth asking if infill is being managed as efficiently as it could be.

The exhibit above shows a newly completed infill development at 2-4 Old Heidelberg Rd in suburban Alphington (here are some interior pictures). It provides eight dwellings on an 825 sq m site that originally would’ve been intended to accommodate a single detached house like its neighbour.

That’s a big up-lift in density – if most infill projects yielded this many new dwellings we wouldn’t have a supply problem. But the great bulk are simple dual occupancy developments. This raises the important issue of whether we’re maximising the value we’re getting from the limited supply of precious infill sites.

If projects that could yield four, six or eight new units are only providing one, then that could represent a very high opportunity cost. Given that activity centres in the middle ring suburbs are mostly failing to deliver much new housing, what we ideally want to see is each lot delivering to its full potential – yielding the maximum number of new dwellings that, having regard to its particular circumstances, it reasonably could.

There are of course many “objective” reasons why not all projects can yield as many dwellings as 2-4 Old Heidelberg Rd. Some redevelopment sites are small or inconveniently shaped. Some may have infrastructure inadequacies or access might be hard.

There are also a range of legitimate planning constraints like heritage, over-looking and solar access that might limit the number of units that can be built on a given lot. And the nature of the market in a particular area could mean the highest return comes from building fewer dwellings rather than maximising the total number.

But there are reasons to suspect that “objective” factors do not always, or even usually, explain why a lot isn’t developed to its potential. Consider these two contiguous lots in Elphin St Ivanhoe – although they’re the same size and have a common context, one has six dwellings and the other has two.

The most commonly cited explanation for these sorts of anomalies is the “dead hand” of the planning system. Additional cost and risk is imposed on projects by self-interested opposition from existing residents. Councils often lack the resources and skills to deal with the complexity of sophisticated opposition and, not surprisingly, often take a position more sympathetic to their constituents than to the developer.

There’s a range of measures that have been suggested to tilt the balance more toward redevelopment. These include abolition of third party appeals (the issue got a run in The Age recently), code-based approval systems, more resources for councils, better forward planning, and so on. I endorse this position but there’s no doubt it’s very hard politically, both for councils and the state government.

I think there’s another approach that’s worth thinking about, particularly for the middle ring suburbs. We know infill developers tend to be small and it could be that many simply lack the knowledge, skills, access to finance and appetite for risk to enable them to undertake larger projects. They might not have the wherewithal to push for larger projects in the face of vigorous opposition from neighbours and limited support from timid councils.

Perhaps the project class with the greatest potential for “under-utilisation” is dual occupancy. Landowners carve off a bit of land and sell it, usually for the construction of one additional dwelling. That way they get to stay in their old house and transform some excess land into cash without taking much risk.

That’s a net addition to supply so it’s positive. While in many cases the value of the existing dwelling will preclude more intense development, dual occupancy is a lost opportunity if the entire site could’ve been successfully redeveloped for four, six or eight dwellings. Read the rest of this entry »


What’s happening with suburban jobs in Melbourne?

Density of employment in Melbourne, 2006, in one km wide circular bands by distance from CBD (jobs/km2)

The first exhibit shows the popular view of the geography of urban employment in Australia’s largest cities. It is commonly assumed the great bulk of jobs – and certainly virtually all “good” jobs – is located in the CBD.

This is an understandable view given the first exhibit shows the spatial distribution of employment density in Melbourne in 2006. It indicates the density of jobs in the Central Business District (CBD) – the first one km radius ring around the town hall – is an order of magnitude higher than anywhere else in the metropolitan area. It closely aligns with the cluster of high rise office buildings that define the CBD in the popular imagination.

Share of metropolitan employment in Melbourne in one km wide circular bands by distance from CBD, 2006 (%)

But is this is an adequate representation of the geography of employment in Australia’s second largest city? The second exhibit highlights that density is not the same as the number of jobs. It shows how employment is really distributed within Melbourne – the CBD is easily the largest single concentration of employment, but it nevertheless has only 15% of all metropolitan jobs. In fact only 28% of metropolitan jobs are located in the inner city – i.e. lie within a 5 km radius of the town hall – and 50% are located within 13 km radius.

This dispersed pattern is not recent. Melbourne was compact and dense up until the end of the nineteenth century when the appearance of mechanised transport – primarily trams and trains – enabled middle class residents to escape the crowding and congestion of the centre for the space and amenity of the suburbs. This trend was boosted dramatically after WW2 when increasingly widespread car ownership democratised access to affordable land on the urban fringe.

Firms followed a similar pattern. Initially, manufacturing and distribution firms moved to the outer suburbs so they could escape congestion in the inner city, exploit new space-intensive horizontal production methods, and be closer to the suburbanising workforce. The suburban population generated increasing numbers of jobs to service its consumption needs, amplified by the increasing level of outsourcing from the home. More recently, some higher order activities have moved from the CBD to near-CBD and inner city locations and some back office functions have moved to the suburbs.

By 1981, only 35% of Melbourne’s jobs were located within 5 km of the centre. The “average job” was 12.4 km from the centre and the “centre of mass” of employment was 5.9 km away. The trend to the suburbs was very strong over the succeeding 25 years. By 2006 just 28% of jobs were within 5 km radius and the ‘average job’ was now 15.6 km from the centre. The centre of mass had moved 2 km further outwards to the vicinity of Tooronga, 7.9 km from the CBD. Read the rest of this entry »


Is Melbourne pushing the boundary (too far)?

Melbourne in 1988 - a part of the 2010 image, showing the effects of the drought, is visible on the RHS

Geosciences Australia has released a new series of satellite images comparing the extent of development in Melbourne in 1988 with 2010. Click on the image above to go to Geosciences Australia’s web site where you can do a “swipe” comparison of the two images i.e. move the cursor across the image to progressively reveal the second image underneath.

According to a report in The Age, the images show a “massive” increase in urban sprawl, with Melbourne’s urban footprint surging to the north, west and south-east. Melbourne has “marched into surrounding rural landscapes” and its “unofficial boundary is now more than 150 km east to west”.

Melbourne has certainly expanded at the fringe over the last 22 years, there’s no doubt about that. However I’ve argued before that both the extent of sprawl and its downsides are routinely exaggerated, so I want to have a closer look at these images and at The Age’s interpretation.

One thing that struck me straight up is that any comparison of the two satellite images can be misleading unless the viewer appreciates Melbourne was still suffering the effects of a long drought in 2010 (compare the size of the dams in each year). So areas that appear to have gone from green to brown between 1988 and 2010 might reflect lack of rain, rather than an increase in development.

In fact 1988 was an unusual year. There was a La Nina event in 1988-89 – the first since 1973-76 – and hence there were wetter than normal conditions. Have a look at this older CSIRO comparison of satellite images of Melbourne in 1972 and 1988, and note the CSIRO cautions that 1972 was much drier than 1988.

It should also be borne in mind that 22 years is a reasonably long period in urban development terms. We shouldn’t be surprised to see substantial change when a metropolitan area is growing. Have a look at these images to see how spectacularly some other growing cities have changed in the course of 20 years.

The level of growth also needs to be considered. Melbourne’s population grew from circa 3.1 million to around 4 million between 1988 and 2010. That’s an increase of about 30%, which is considerably more than the apparent increase in the size of the urbanised area. That’s to be expected, as a large proportion of population growth – currently approaching half – is accommodated within the existing urban fabric via redevelopment.

And then there’s The Age’s claim that Melbourne’s urban footprint spreads “more than 150 km east to west”. It doesn’t. Using GIS, I measure at most 75 km from the western edge of Wyndham to Lilydale in the east and 85 km to Pakenham in the south-east. If I measure instead from Melton (putting aside that it’s separated by 9 km of green wedge from the continuously urbanised area), I still get less than 80 km to Lilydale and less than 100 km to Pakenham. Some might think that’s still too big, but it’s a lot less than 150 km plus. Read the rest of this entry »


Why is housing in European rural villages so dense?

Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, near Lucca, Italy

I can’t let the Tour de France go by without finding some way to reference this great spectacle and Cadel Evan’s singular achievement.

Something I noticed watching the Tour is how traditional French country villages have relatively high density housing compared to Australian country towns. I’ve seen the same pattern in the Italian countryside – villages of three storey (or more) apartments set within productive agricultural land.

Yet in contrast, Australian country towns are predominantly detached houses on large lots. Only the odd commercial building – like pubs – is two storeys. Why didn’t town dwellers in Australia choose to live in multi-storey buildings like Europeans?

I don’t know the answer but it’s worth thinking about and so I’m hoping someone does. There’s a host of potential explanations. It might be the car, yet parts of Australian country towns that pre-date motorisation are lower density than their European equivalents. It might have something to do with differences in the value of agriculture, yet there are some Australian towns where agriculture must’ve been of comparable or higher value than many areas of Europe e.g. wine growing regions.

Perhaps building materials were generally harder to get than in Australia – i.e. more expensive –and this encouraged smaller dwellings. Maybe the more extreme climate had an influence too, giving residents an incentive to cluster buildings for better insulation. I also wonder if there was a different tradition of village housing in England compared to the rest of Europe that was followed by early settlers in Australia.

Perhaps it was driven as much by politics as by anything else. I recently read Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America, which is loosely based on the book, Democracy in America, which French aristocrat Alexis DeTocqville wrote after touring the young democracy in the early 1830s. I was struck by the enormous gulf in the world views of the aristocracy and the common people in France at this time. So perhaps it was in the interest of the local aristocrat in country areas to maximise the amount of land in agricultural use and minimise the quantity of land and resources devoted to housing the peasants. However once the “common man” settled in the New World he could make his own choice about how much space to devote to housing and how much to agriculture.

As I say, I don’t know but I’d be interested to hear other’s views.


Is inner city living the solution to obesity?

How much exercise is needed to burn off food?

It’s often pointed out that residents of the inner city, on average, are less obese than residents of the outer suburbs. Since the inner city is denser, more walkable and has much better public transport access than any other part of the metropolitan area, the conclusion seems obvious to many – a key strategy to address obesity should be to encourage higher dwelling densities and better public transport in the suburbs, especially the newer, fringe areas.

The flaw in this thinking is it fails to observe that the inner city – defined roughly as the area within 5 km of the CBD – is a different world. Relative to the suburbs, the inner city has an emphatic over-representation of younger, well educated and affluent residents with fewer dependents. The proportion of the population made up of young singles is three times that of the metropolitan area as a whole and there are twice as many young couples without children.

These are the sorts of people who on average are slimmer because they’re younger, who are of an age where appearance is enormously important, and who are well educated enough to know about nutrition and eschew fast food. They can afford to buy high quality fruit and vegetables and pay for gym memberships. Because they’re more affluent, they have fewer children on average and hence less need for a car.

They live in smaller dwellings so they can be near the CBD and take advantage of its enormous and unparalleled concentration of high-paying professional jobs, its matchless endowment of cultural attractions and its huge and diverse range of social and entertainment opportunities. There’s no other concentration of activity within the metropolitan area that comes even close to the richness of what the inner city offers.

Because they live at higher density, driving is too hard for many trips – roads are congested and parking costs range from expensive to impossible. So residents often walk or use public transport instead. That’s O.K., because they happen to live in that transit-rich, small and unique geographical area where every train line and tram line in the entire metropolitan area – the result of 130 years of construction and at least one spectacular land boom – converges.

So population density and access to public transport are not the underlying forces driving this group’s superior average BMI. Rather, it’s a combination of the small but highly specialised group who can afford to live there, on the one hand, and the special characteristics of the area, particularly the presence of the CBD, on the other.

It’s pie in the sky to imagine the sheer scale and complexity of the highly specialised attributes offered by the inner city could be replicated in the suburbs – much less the outer suburbs – within the foreseeable future. The inner city is focussed on the CBD and in almost every city in the world, the number of jobs in the city centre is an order of magnitude larger than any suburban centre (Atlanta is possibly the sole exception). In Australia, the centre offers the cream of corporate jobs.

The importance of proximity to the CBD in explaining the special character of the inner city is demonstrated by the fact walking’s share of work trips plummets from 13% in the inner city to just 2% immediately one locates in the adjacent inner suburbs. This share is only marginally better than the outer suburbs.

Will building at higher densities and providing better public transport in the outer suburbs significantly lower the incidence of obesity? Not likely. Even if all outer suburban dwellings were townhouses, the incentive to walk is much lower if there’s no CBD, cultural precinct, river, beach, historic buildings, hundreds of cafes, and hundreds of thousands of jobs to walk to. Perhaps most importantly, the outer suburbs don’t have the constraints on driving and parking that often make walking or public transport a superior alternative in the inner city. Read the rest of this entry »


Will redevelopment of Fishermans Bend really be ‘revolutionary’?

The Age breathlessly headlines the Government’s proposals for the redevelopment of Fishermans Bend as Premier Ted Baillieu’s “inner city housing revolution”. Planning Minister Matthew Guy says the area will evolve as ”Australia’s first inner-city growth corridor”.

Whoa there! I think it might be time for a relaxing cup of tea and a lie down. Let’s put these claims in perspective.

According to Mr Guy, the area under consideration is 200 Ha. That’s quite a bit smaller than the 41,000 Ha expansion of the Urban Growth Boundary approved last year.

Mr Guy also says the area is going to be developed over a 20-30 year time frame. If its total capacity is the 10,000 to 15,000 dwellings estimated by the Chief Executive of the Property Council, Jennifer Cunich, that’s at most 750 additional dwellings per year on average, and as few as 333 per year.

Just to put that in context, 42,509 dwellings were approved in the metropolitan area in the 12 months ending on 30 September 2010. Ms Cunich is quoted as saying even that’s less than we need – she says there’s a shortfall of 6,000 homes per year across the State.

While the redevelopment of Fishermans Bend is important, the claim that it’s a ‘revolution’ is hyperbole.

Likewise, the Minister’s claim that Fishermans Bend will be a ‘growth area’ – a term usually used to refer to massive outer suburban release areas – is more than a trifle exaggerated. Consider that 17,000 new dwellings were approved in Melbourne’s (outer) Growth Area municipalities in the year ending September Qtr 2010.

The Minister’s claim that the project will focus on “more affordable” housing also seems ambitious. Read the rest of this entry »


Will networking make public transport the mode of choice?

What's the biggest danger?

According to a report in The Age last month, new research published in the latest issue of Australian Planner shows that higher suburban densities are not a precondition for vastly better public transport. Reporter Andrew West says:

City dwellers have been presented with a false choice – live in apartments and enjoy good public transport or retain the house and land and rely on cars

The research by Dr John Stone and Dr Paul Mees contends that it is not necessary to intensify land-use across the whole city before significant improvement in both patronage and economic efficiency of public transport becomes possible.

They say the contribution made by urban consolidation “to recent public transport patronage growth is modest and makes little impact on the density of the whole urban region”. Most residents of Australian cities will continue to live in houses and suburban subdivisions that are already built so “alternatives to the car will need to be effective at existing urban residential densities”.

They argue instead for a ‘networked’ model of public transport. Improving the way existing public transport resources are managed – especially by providing higher frequencies and improving coordination between services and between modes – will yield significantly higher transit patronage in the suburbs without the need for broadbrush increases in density.

I’ve argued before that increasing residential density, by itself, will not necessarily increase public transport patronage significantly, much less shift travellers out of their cars in large numbers.

I’ve also argued that there are generally better gains to be had from using existing resources more efficiently rather than relying on strategies based around huge new infrastructure investments or massive land use changes.

And I think the idea of networking public transport is absolutely critical. By embracing transfers, networking provides faster travel paths to all parts of the metropolitan area than is possible by radial routing.

However it’s not obvious to me that ‘networked’ public transport, by itself, would have the sort of major impact on mode share in the suburbs implied by The Age’s report. I can see that it would make public transport much better for existing users and I’ve no doubt it would increase patronage, but I’m not persuaded that it would be enough to address the ‘false choice’ that The Age says Melburnites have been presented with. Read the rest of this entry »