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 »

Will cars destroy Preston Market?

The biggest threat to Preston Market is cars.

I got thinking about this after I had lunch there last Friday. As always, I was taken in by the mad rush and vitality of the place and the sense that much of it is still essentially the same as it was when it started. I was surprised to learn that it’s a relatively young institution, having only been established in 1970 (although Preston proper is considerably older – it was connected to Flinders Street by rail in the 1920s and experienced a major population boom in the 1950s).

Initially, I was wondering if the Market is vulnerable to the increasing gentrification in the area, but then I realised Victoria Market has withstood demographic changes in the inner city reasonably well. Sure, it’s pretty middle class now but the deli and meat sections at Vic Market are unsurpassed in Melbourne. So while gentrification of Preston Market will undoubtedly diminish its authenticity – and that is the vital ingredient for some customers – it will not necessarily undermine its viability.

Which brings me to the threat to the Market posed by cars – not too many cars, but too few!

I saw a flyer issued by the Market parking manager to stall holders advising of a new parking scheme. I don’t know when it commences, but rather than fine parkers who stay beyond the initial free two hour period (one hour near Aldi), the new arrangement will charge them $1 for each additional hour. How that will work financially for the parking operator is a puzzle (how will they administer it cost-effectively?), but it’s their money. Read the rest of this entry »

What caused inner city gentrification?

Paul Krugman once said that while we can make a reasonable fist of unpicking how a city developed historically, it is virtually impossible to predict where it might go in the future.

Could anyone in the 1950s or 1960s have confidently predicted the extent of gentrification of Melbourne’s inner city? Looking back we can attempt to identify some of the key forces that produced the inner city revival and see just how difficult it would have been to predict.

Photo by ExTester

The starting point was the departure of manufacturing for the suburbs which began in earnest in the 1950s.  This exodus was driven by a number of factors, including new ‘horizontal production’ methods, reductions in the cost of truck transport, increasing traffic congestion in the inner city and the suburbanisation of much of the blue collar workforce.

What it did was crucial – it made the inner city a much more pleasant place to live in.

The rapid expansion in higher education in the 60s and 70s introduced many staff and students to the lifestyle possibilities of the inner city. House prices were competitive with the fringe suburbs, at least in the early decades of gentrification, in part because many of the (former) migrant families who occupied inner city housing aspired to live in the suburbs.

Later, declining household size – itself the product of upstream changes in factors such as fertility – meant inner city dwellings provided more space per person, especially for the expanding cohort of professionals who worked in the CBD. They married later, had fewer children and hence required less space (although terraces could easily be renovated and extended). Read the rest of this entry »