Will E-Gate curb suburban sprawl?

24 hours NY subway animation - set to cello pizzicato (H/T Nick Bastow)

I like the (very) notional plans for redevelopment of the old E-Gate site in west Melbourne to accommodate up to 12,000 residents published in The Age (Thursday, 10 March, 2011).

Putting what might be 6,000–9,000 dwellings on 20 highly accessible hectares on the edge of the CBD makes a lot more sense than the mere 10,000–15,000 mooted for 200 hectares at Fishermans Bend.

But I do take issue with the claim by the Minister for Major Projects, Denis Napthine, that it’s a very significant development for Melbourne “because we want to grow the population without massively contributing to urban sprawl”.

The Age reinforces this take by titling its report “New city-edge suburb part of plan to curb urban sprawl” and goes on to say that it’s the first big part of the Government’s “plan to shift urban growth from Melbourne’s fringes to its heart”.

I’ve always liked the idea of E-Gate being redeveloped but, as I said on February 19 in relation to a similar report on proposals for Fishermans Bend, the significance or otherwise of the project for fringe growth has to be assessed in the context of the total housing task for Melbourne.

In the twelve months ending 30 September 2010, 42,509 dwellings were approved in the metropolitan area, of which around 17,000 were approved in the outer suburban Growth Area municipalities. That’s just for one year. E-Gate’s 6,000 – 9,000 dwellings would be released over a long time frame, probably at least ten years and quite possibly longer (the Government says Fishermans Bend will be developed over 20-30 years). Existing leases on the site run till 2014 so it’s likely the first residents won’t be moving in for a long time yet.

Of course it all helps but the contribution of the three redevelopment sites identified by the Government – E-Gate, Fishermans Bend and Richmond station – to diminishing pressure on the fringe will be modest. They don’t collectively constitute a sprawl-ameliorating strategy. Melbourne still needs a sensible approach to increasing multi-unit housing supply across the rest of the metropolitan area. The “brownfield  strategy” is in danger of becoming “cargo cult urbanism”.

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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 »


Do fringe dwellers want density?

150 m2 house on 294 m2 lot at Craigieburn

The benefits of residential density are more complex than they appear. The attractions of living cheek by jowl in places like Surfers Paradise or the CBD may not apply everywhere, especially on the fringes of our major cities.

Almost everyone knows, it seems, that density has enormous benefits. It is correlated with lower levels of car ownership, fewer kilometres driven and higher public transport use. It lowers infrastructure costs and is also associated with lower consumption of energy and water. According to some, it’s even connected with higher levels of social capital and lower rates of obesity.

However most of the benefits – both private and social – do not derive from density per se but rather from location. Lots of people want to live in high amenity places like the beachfront or in proximity to the jobs, entertainment opportunities and transport infrastructure of somewhere like the city centre. These sorts of places are in short supply so demand can only be met by increasing density.

Higher density necessarily means less land per dwelling but it doesn’t inevitably mean smaller dwellings. However unless you’re filthy rich, one of the compromises you will have to make to capitalise on a sought-after location is a smaller dwelling. The 350 m2 McMansion on the fringe might at best be a 140 m2 three bedroom unit on the top of Doncaster Hill or an 80 m2 two bedroom unit in Docklands.

The point is that many of the social benefits associated with density – like higher public transport use and lower car ownership – are a function of the location, not the dwelling type. In turn, lower energy and water use is not primarily a direct function of density but rather a result of their smaller size.

This might seem self-evident or even a distinction of no more than academic interest. But as I’ve argued before, the failure to fully understand what density is, can lead to bad policy. It is also a particularly pertinent point in the context of advocating higher densities in places like fringe Growth Areas.

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Where are the (infrastructure) white elephants?

With the renewed political focus on regional development, it’s timely to think about white elephants – in this instance specifically about Infrastructure White Elephants.

Anytime politicians are excited by regional development, herds of white elephants can’t be far away. I touched on this important matter in a previous post on “visionary” projects, but now I’m interested to know which projects, if any, qualify as Infrastructure White Elephants.

To begin with I’ll use a simple definition – according to Wiki, a white elephant is a valuable possession whose level of use is low relative to its cost to build and maintain.

On that definition I’d be tempted to include Sydney’s Cross City tunnel and Brisbane’s Clem 7 under-river tunnel on my list of provisional white elephants, as initial traffic levels were much lower than forecast. Then going back a bit, other potential candidates might include the Ord River Scheme and more recently the Alice Springs to Darwin rail line. Read the rest of this entry »


Can the NBN ‘save’ our cities?

In yesterday’s post I asked if our largest capitals could grow bigger and remain liveable. Today I’m looking at the flipside – whether or not the National Broadband Network (NBN) will give regional centres the wherewithal to draw population growth away from Sydney and Melbourne.

This question is prompted by avuncular New England Independent, Tony Windsor, who argued on Q&A this week that the National Broadband Network could be a key driver of decentralisation:

“If there’s been a piece of infrastructure (if it’s done correctly) that negates distance as being a disadvantage of living in country Australia, this is it…..

“We’re going through a population debate at the moment. The election was about the people of western Sydney and western Melbourne and Dick Smith and others talking about how we’ve got to constrain the population of this nation. Nothing about regional Australia in that context. Nothing about the infrastructure out there. If we get the broadband system right it could revolutionise country living and solve some of the city-based problems”.

I’ve previously concluded (here, here, here and here) that the prospects for diverting growth from our cities to regional centres on a significant scale do not appear promising (other than if nearby regional centres become satellites i.e. de facto outer suburbs). However could the NBN, as Mr Windsor suggests, be the magic bullet? Read the rest of this entry »


Is Docklands a dog?

Picture by Ozsoapbox

I like dogs so I’d say Docklands is more like a mangy, flea-bitten hyena. It’s ugly, it’s shrill and it’s very ill-mannered.

As a friend and I cycled down Latrobe Street and over the railway bridge a few Sundays ago, I thought for a moment I was entering one of those anonymous, soulless suburban business parks that abound in the US.

I’ve written recently on how successful Docklands is as a business park so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to see so much banal architecture in one place – not every building, but there’re far too few that aren’t tinted glass boxes.

The residential areas exude the very worst of the Gold Coast, even down to the vulgar attempts to “stand out” from the crowd. They’re as flash as a hyena with a gold tooth. If there’s such a thing as a “Melbourne architectural style” that draws on subtlety, wit, intellect, culture and life in a cold climate, then it’s turned its nose up at Docklands.

This was my first daytime leisure visit to Docklands in a while and it shocked me. I seriously don’t know how I ever imagined that one of Melbourne’s competitive advantages is its high standard of architecture. How could Melbourne produce this generic tripe? Read the rest of this entry »


Is Docklands sinking Melbourne @ 5 Million?

Docklands has been roundly and rightly criticised for its appalling urban design but it has nevertheless been spectacularly successful in attracting business to locate by the water.

In fact it has been so successful that I wonder what the implications are for office space markets in the rest of Melbourne, not just in the CBD and near-CBD markets, but in particular in the six major suburban activity centres envisaged in Melbourne @ 5 Million i.e. Footscray, Broadmeadows, Box Hill, Ringwood, Dandenong and Frankston.

The recent announcement that the headquarters of the National Broadband Network Company would be located in Docklands merely continues the momentum already established in the area in and around the old docks. Current tenants of this end of town include the National Australia Bank, ANZ, Myer, National Foods, CSC, Fairfax Media, Customs, Channel 7, AFL and the Australian Tax Office.

Other organisations planning to move to the area include Melbourne Water, BP, Channel Nine and Chartis Australia. Even the Demons have been mooted as prospective tenants of a new training park (or stadium) proposed for the precinct. Read the rest of this entry »