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 »
The exhibit above purports to show that the cost of infrastructure associated with building a new dwelling within 10 km of the CBD of a city like Melbourne is, on average, $50,503. In contrast, it costs $136,401 to provide infrastructure for an outer suburban dwelling i.e. located more than 40 km from the CBD. That’s a huge difference: $85,538 per dwelling.
The figures come from a 2007 report, Assessing the costs of alternative development paths in Australian cities, written by three Curtin University academics, Roman Trubka, Peter Newman and Darren Bilsborough. I’ve mentioned this report before, but that was primarily in the context of The Age and some public sector agencies tending to conflate economic costs with infrastructure outlays (they’re not the same!).
The figures above however are solely infrastructure outlays (not economic costs). Judging by the extent to which Trubka et al’s report is cited by government agencies, there appears to be strong demand for this type of information. It seems, however, that these are the only numbers on this topic around. That’s unfortunate because they have some very serious shortcomings as an indicator of the relative cost of providing infrastructure in inner and outer locations.
The key deficiencies are they’re old; they don’t relate to Melbourne; and they’re not transparent. Trubka et al sourced them from a 2001 report, Future Perth, prepared by the WA Planning Commission to assess infrastructure costs in Perth. Future Perth didn’t calculate its estimates from first principles but rather surveyed 22 earlier studies, some dating from as far back as 1972 and some relating to costs in the USA and Canada.
Future Perth is a working paper and hasn’t been published – hence the rigour of its methodology and those of the 22 studies it drew from hasn’t been tested. Unfortunately, Trubka et al provide scant explanation of their infrastructure estimates, relying instead on a reference to Future Perth.
I can’t say for sure the Trubka et al estimates are wrong, but I can say they’re unlikely to be right. I can also say they’re far too flaky to be relied upon to guide significant policy or investment decisions here in Melbourne. There’s clearly a demand for this sort of information so it would be sensible for the State Government to undertake its own rigorous and up-to-date assessment of the costs of metropolitan infrastructure provision.
Although not as decisive as the shortcomings discussed above, I also have some issues with how Trubka et al have set up their cost comparison. Actually, because the report doesn’t elaborate much on the various infrastructure items, I’ll treat these as questions, or areas that need clarification. Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
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 »
We’re familiar enough with the idea of the ‘centre of gravity’ of population in Melbourne. But where is the centre of gravity of employment?
Is it the city centre? No, for one thing the CBD’s only got around 15% of all metropolitan jobs. For another, the combination of Melbourne’s distinctly lop-sided growth south of the Yarra and the fact that 72% of jobs are more than 5 km from the CBD, suggests it’s going to be somewhere south east of the CBD.
So I’ve calculated the location of the centre of gravity (more correctly, the ‘centre of mass’) of jobs from Census data. The accompanying chart shows how that location changed over the period from 1981 to 2006.
The centre of gravity is calculated by dividing Melbourne up into 1,000 traffic zones and weighting the coordinates of the centroid of each zone by the number of jobs it holds. If you imagine a relief model of employment in Melbourne, the centre of gravity is where you’d rest the model on a needle so that it balancess perfectly.
In 1981, the centre of mass of employment was 5.9 km east south east of the CBD, on Kooyong Rd, just north of Toorak Rd. By 2006 it was 7.9 km from the CBD, close to the corner of Malvern and Tooronga Rds.
This movement reflected the much stronger growth in jobs in the suburbs over this period compared to the CBD and inner city. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
For some people, the inner city means the area where cafe society thrives – probably a 10 km circle around the CBD in cities like Sydney and Melbourne. Or it might mean the extent of medium density historic terrace housing.
Some Brisbanites think of the inner city as the large area covered by the Brisbane City Council (1,367 km2) while some Melburnians think of it as the area serviced by tram lines.
Planners have addressed this problem by adopting simple measures. For example, in Melbourne the inner city is customarily defined as the area covered by the central municipalities of Melbourne, Yarra and Port Phillip (77 km2). Sometimes the Prahran portion (SLA) of the City of Stonnington is also included.
In my work on Melbourne I define the inner city as the area (79 km2) within a 5 km radius of the City Hall . This approximates closely to the three inner municipalities, but I use it because it’s consistent with what’s done elsewhere. US researchers typically use a 3 mile radius to define the inner city – an area approximating the size of the central Counties of the larger metros.
There are a number of problems with this sort of ‘administrative’ approach. A key one is that there is no underlying rationale for where the boundary is drawn – why not 2 km or 10 km? Another is that it doesn’t really connect with people because it has no obvious reference like, say, the tram network. Read the rest of this entry »
Australian suburbs are commonly thought of as low density, single-use dormitories offering residents spacious lots, detached houses, quiet streets and a good measure of “leafy” amenity. Since it is assumed residents commute to the city centre, the suburbs are unsullied by the noise and grind of daily commerce.
It’s also commonly implied that the suburbs are homogeneous, alienating and unauthentic. As Graeme Davison says, suburbanites have variously been accused of conformity, philistinism, apathy and wowserism.
But it seems this stereotype is outdated. Housing densities are rising in the suburbs, whether through large developments like this 13 storey, 520 unit development on a redundant government site at Coburg in Melbourne (10 km from the CBD), or via numerous dual occupancy and small-scale infill town house developments in middle ring suburbs and the older parts of outer suburbs. Read the rest of this entry »
There was more evidence in The Sunday Age on the weekend that the spare infrastructure capacity that is widely presumed to be available in the inner city and inner suburbs has in all likelihood already been consumed.
What is unfortunate about this stubborn idea is that there are already sufficient good reasons for increasing housing density in established suburbs without having to resort to unsubstantiated and outdated beliefs.
New research by Professor Kevin O’Conner, Melbourne University, shows that the number of additional students who will be seeking enrolment by 2016 in the inner city and inner suburbs is equivalent to fourteen new schools.
However existing schools are generally at capacity. The principal of Port Melbourne primary is reported as saying “schools in this area don’t have the capacity to cope with more students….looking at my projected enrolments and those of neighbouring schools, and from what I hear about the plans for extra multistorey developments in Southbank and Docklands, we will be full soon”.
He could’ve mentioned that virtually every school within at least 10 km of the CBD already has one or more so-called temporary class rooms including, now, the two story portable, and some are using public parks for play and sport.
Unfortunately there is no credible contemporary analysis of infrastructure capacity and costs in different parts of Melbourne. As I’ve argued before (here and here), there is unlikely to be significant spare infrastructure capacity in the inner established areas. There are a number of reasons for this proposition: Read the rest of this entry »
Suburban sprawl is often linked with rising obesity – for example, see this submission to last year’s Urban Growth Boundary Review from Kelvin Thompson, Labor Member for the Federal seat of Wills, or this article in the Sydney Morning Herald.
The customary argument is that because the incidence of obesity is lower in the inner city where densities are higher, it follows that low density outer suburban development is the cause, or at least a very significant contributor, to obesity.
At first glance this seems to make some sense. For example, only 1.1% of workers in Melbourne’s outer suburbs walk to work, compared to 12.9% in the inner city.
But for all its faults, is it reasonable to put the blame for obesity on sprawl? No, it isn’t reasonable. We would we better off focusing our energies on the real issues associated with sprawl rather than being distracted by sideshows.
The key reason is that what goes in our mouths is more important than how much we exercise. You have to walk the dog for an hour and a half, or cycle for an hour, to burn off the calories in just one Big Mac.
The inner city has a lower incidence of obesity primarily because the residents eat better. And they don’t eat better because of higher density but because they have higher incomes than residents of the outer suburbs and, importantly, higher levels of education. They are more likely to know about the importance of good eating and they are more likely to be able to afford to eat better food. They also have smaller households on average so it’s easier to cook healthy food at home rather than go out for fast food. Read the rest of this entry »
More than half of all trips to work by residents of the inner city are made by walking, cycling or public transport. In fact three quarters as many residents walk and cycle as use public transport for their commute.
Why? Is it because of the higher density of the inner city?
The view that density predicts more sustainable transport use is a common one. While it has some role, it is not the key force at play here. In fact there’s evidence that the population density of some parts of the inner city is not that much higher than that of the suburbs – this is because the average size of households in the inner city is relatively small compared to suburban locations.
There are also examples of higher density developments where use of public transport is quite low, for example edge cities in the US and suburban New Urbanism developments like Orenco in Portland, Oregon.
So if density isn’t the primary force driving more sustainable transport use in the inner city, what is?
Here are four plausible explanations.
The first is proximity. Inner city residents live cheek by jowl with the largest concentration of jobs in the metropolitan area – the inner city has 28% of all metropolitan Melbourne’s jobs and the CBD, despite its diminutive geographical size, has 14.5%. There is no other location in Melbourne that comes within cooee of the job density of the CBD. Read the rest of this entry »
The Financial Review (paywalled) reported on Saturday that the average house sold within 10 km of the CBD in Melbourne is located on a 511 m2 block, according to data collected by property information provider, RP Data.
Of course there is considerable variation in property types within that average. Houses in the inner city (0-5 km) are predominantly terraces on small lots whereas those in the inner suburbs (5-10 km) are predominantly detached houses on larger lots.
However what is especially interesting about this statistic is how it compares with the outer suburbs. The median size of lots sold in the Growth Areas is currently 513 m2, according to property consultants, Oliver Hume.
In other words, the average lot size is much the same in the two areas.
This is surprising, but a number of caveats are in order. First, some of the properties closer to the CBD would be destined for redevelopment whereas that seems unlikely in the Growth Areas. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
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 »
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.
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 »
There’s a feature in yesterday’s issue of The Age, The Outer Limits (clever title!), which is the first shot in a new series the newspaper is publishing under the banner, Project Melbourne: Towards a Sustainable City, on the challenges facing Melbourne as it hurtles towards a projected population of seven million sometime around 2050.
One of the key themes developed in the article is the need to increase the proportion of new dwellings constructed within the existing urban fabric rather than on the urban fringe. Another key theme is the need to increase housing affordability across all price segments.
I’m a strong supporter of these priorities. We do need to lessen the constraints on new construction in the suburbs but not, as The Age implies, because sprawl is intrinsically bad – it’s deficiencies are greatly exaggerated. Rather, the key reason is to increase affordability.
Most Melburnites want to live within established areas where they’re closer to everything else that’s going on in the city. They can do their grocery shopping and get their hair done anywhere, but living closer in usually means greater proximity to family, work and major sporting, cultural and entertainment facilities.
Contrary to much of the rhetoric on this issue, most households looking to settle in established areas do not have the option of locating in the buzzy inner city. It’s way too expensive. Redevelopment opportunities are constrained by heritage protection, by high property values, by highly organised resident opposition and by small lot sizes that are difficult to assemble into viable redevelopment opportunities. The inner city is also much smaller than most commentators realise – only 8% of Melbourne’s population live within 5 km of the CBD despite the considerable growth experienced in this region over the last 15-20 years. Read the rest of this entry »
I’m unconvinced by the argument that suburban sprawl is obesity’s best friend. I’m equally suspicious that higher density living is justified as a sensible response to obesity, as this story in the Sydney Morning Herald, How City Living Fights the Waistband Sprawl, contends.
It’s not that I doubt there’s a correlation between obesity and distance from the city centre. The SMH story reports University of NSW researchers as finding that “those living in the outer suburbs were 30 to 50 per cent more at risk of being overweight and 40 to 60 per cent less likely to be physically active than their inner-city counterparts”.
Nor do I doubt that the physical environment might have some role. After all, 13% of inner city residents in Melbourne walk to work compared to just 1% in the outer suburbs.
But how much of this difference is due to low density living? Is the relationship causal?
Even at first glance, weight gain seems to me to be much more sensitive to what you eat than what you do (or don’t do). For example, you have to walk the dog for an hour and a half, or cycle for an hour, to burn off the calories in just one Big Mac. Isn’t it likely that all those suburban families eat more fast food than inner city latte sippers?
So differences in diet are probably a much more significant factor explaining obesity than low density living. Read the rest of this entry »
It is amazing how quickly supposed facts become accepted wisdom. A feature article in The Age last week, Fringe Benefits, repeated the highly questionable claim that “for every 1,000 dwellings, the cost for infill development (in existing suburbs) is $309 million and the cost of fringe development is $653 million”. Read the rest of this entry »