Can activity centres supply enough housing?

Average annual growth in population of centres (%) - data from BITRE

Melbourne 2030 envisaged growth of high density housing and office employment within established suburbs would be located in activity centres, especially those with a rail station. In fact it specified that 41% of all dwellings should be constructed in activity centres over the period 2001-30 (with 31% in Growth Areas and the rest dispersed in small projects throughout established suburbs – at present though, about half of all new dwellings are constructed on the fringe).

Locating more intensive development within strategically important activity centres makes a lot of sense. In particular, it means a larger number of people will be within walking distance of frequent public transport, giving them an alternative to driving. Bigger activity centres should be more sustainable and might even cost the public sector less in infrastructure outlays and operating costs.

Yet it doesn’t seem to be happening – outside of the city centre, only a small number of activity centres are experiencing significant growth in multi-unit housing. Moreover, according to research by BITRE, Melbourne’s six Central Activities Areas (CAAs) and 25 Principal Activity Centres (PAC) only accounted for 3.6% of all population growth in the metropolitan area between 2001 and 2006. The number of people living in CAAs fell (by -0.3% p.a.) over the period and the number in PACs grew by just 0.8% p.a. – much lower than the growth rate for the metro area and the CBD (see exhibit).

Nor are activity centres generally successful in attracting employment – BITRE found jobs growth was actually negative in the CAAs, falling by 0.5% p.a. between 2001 and 2006. Jobs grew by 1.25% p.a. in dispersed areas outside of centres over the same period, but by only 0.5% p.a. in PACs.

There are reasons why it’s hard to attract developers to larger centres. Assembling land is difficult – existing holdings are in diverse ownership, values are often high and lots may be small. Moreover, Planning restrictions mean suitable sites are in short supply or have constrained redevelopment potential. But perhaps the key issue is opposition to development from existing residents.

As the strong reaction to Banyule Council’s proposed structure plan for Ivanhoe shopping centre shows, many residents don’t like the idea of redevelopment at up to 4-8 storeys in their local centre. They fear higher housing and employment densities will increase traffic congestion and noise and they expect the character and familiarity of their local centre will change for the worse. They see few, if any, upsides for them personally from a higher density centre.

It seems putting most higher density redevelopment eggs in the activity centres basket isn’t paying off. The politics of dealing with existing residents is simply too hard for all levels of government, whatever their colour. That’s not surprising given residents generally feel redevelopment makes them worse off and the planning system emphasises the interests of local residents.

Economists like Edward Glaeser and Ryan Avent have proposed ways that in theory might give existing residents an incentive to be more accepting of redevelopment, e.g. residents could buy the right to remain living at low density. These are novel and interesting ideas but at the present time they’re simply not going to fly politically.

Any redevelopment within established suburbs is going to be difficult. However the level of opposition can be reduced, although by no means avoided, where more intensive development is proposed for disused industrial areas. Even so, “brownfield” sites come with their own set of issues, like potential contamination and possible alternative uses.

Further, there don’t actually appear to be many brownfield sites. The authors of Challenge Melbourne – the discussion paper prepared in 2001 as part of the Melbourne 2030 process – estimated suitable brownfield sites within established suburbs have a total potential yield of 65,000 dwellings. That’s impressive, but even if all of that estimate could be realised, it’s not a big enough contribution, given the number of households in Melbourne is now projected to grow by 825,000 between 2006 and 2036. Read the rest of this entry »


Are these planners planning ahead?

Ivanhoe Activity Centre Framework Plan (proposed maximum building heights added by Save Ivanhoe RAG)

The familiar story of residents pushing back against higher density development hit the press again this week, this time in Ivanhoe, where Banyule Council is seeking feedback on its draft Structure Plan for the Ivanhoe Activity Centre. Council is proposing that some areas be zoned to permit development – largely residential – up to five and six storeys in height and, in two locations, up to eight storeys.

I have a personal interest in this issue because Ivanhoe is my nearest strip shopping centre. Unlike the members of the new Save Ivanhoe resident action group, I’m not personally concerned about potential impacts like loss of views, noise and traffic. I live far enough away from the proposed development areas that I don’t expect to be directly (adversely) affected.

In fact if done right, I see further development of the centre as a way of making me and my family much better off. Increased development has the potential to provide a wider and more diverse range of shops and services and make Ivanhoe a vibrant and exciting place to spend time in. The existing strip has its virtues, but at present it’s a bit dull and lacking in personality – it doesn’t give you enough reasons to stay local rather than drive somewhere more distant.

Higher housing density wouldn’t just benefit me personally, it would also increase the supply of dwellings in a highly accessible area and hence help moderate housing prices. If supported by improvements in supporting infrastructure, Ivanhoe is an obvious location for higher density housing – there are, for example, two closely spaced rail stations within the study area’s boundary and a large base of existing shops, restaurants and community facilities.

Having said that, I sympathise with residents concerned about issues like noise from apartments. It underlines the importance of giving attention to non-physical ways of managing the inevitable conflicts inherent in higher densities. As I’ve discussed before, the law around issues like noise simply hasn’t kept up with the shift to new housing forms.

Council has done itself no favours in the way it’s put together the draft Structure Plan. It’s poorly edited, outdated in places, and inconsistent (as Save Ivanhoe point out). It gives equal weight to the minor and the significant, it mixes physical strategies with process strategies, and it’s weak on the big picture. Unforgivably, consultation with residents has been patchy at best – while it’s hard to credit, it’s almost as if no one anticipated the reaction of residents.

A key failing in my view is that it does not explain and justify the very proposals, like building heights, that worry some residents. Why, for example, does medium density development extend west in that ‘finger’ along Livingstone Street (or perhaps it’s the barrel of a pistol!), rather than expanding on a broader front closer to the existing commercial area? Why is the maximum building height in the southern ‘finger’ around Darebin station six storeys rather than, say, two storeys (or, as I would prefer, eight or more)? And why are residential buildings in this finger required to have a zero setback along both sides of Heidelberg Rd?

I can make a guess at the logic Council is using, but a consultation document needs to be framed with its target audience in mind. It’s not enough to have a few high-level paras at the start of the document about sustainability and Melbourne 2030. Residents need to understand on their own terms why the proposals are a good idea. They need to understand what Council’s purpose and logic is otherwise there’s little chance they’ll be convinced the plan is in their interest.

This highlights another failing of the plan – it doesn’t paint an adequate picture of the benefits of growth and development. There’s no excitement, no tantalising suggestion of what a stimulating, even exhilarating, place the centre could be with more people, more shops, more mixing of land uses, and more density.

While I’m personally broadly happy with what’s proposed, I think the plan has some other deficiencies that, without getting too far into Ivanhoe-specific issues, have implications for activity centre structure planning in general.

One is it doesn’t seriously engage with how the centre is envisaged to function in the future as a retail, services and business node. There’s nothing on the emerging challenges to retailing or what sort of centre it will be. Will it be more of the same, will it have a specific character (e.g. restaurant strip), will it specialise?  What sort of retail formats does Council see within the centre? What are developers’ requirements – if they favour some sort of mall, would there be a place for it? Are the areas set aside for retail suitable? Are they enough? Nor is there anything on how many, or what sort, of new businesses and jobs the centre might hope to host (although we’re told specialist medical will be restricted to Heidelberg).

In short, there’s not a lot of vision in this plan about the very essence of what an activity centre is. There’s plenty of ‘by the book’ stuff on physical planning and design (sometimes in ludicrous detail) but not much on the fundamentals. Read the rest of this entry »