Why do outer suburban streets look so bland?

Manna Gum Drive, Ventnor, Phillip Island

Critics are gunning for Victoria’s Planning Minister, Matthew Guy, following his decision to rezone 5.7 Ha of farmland at Ventnor, Phillip Island, for residential use despite the opposition of Bass Coast Shire Council. The rights and wrongs of the Minister’s decision is no doubt a fascinating topic, however my present interest is in the way this land is likely to be developed.

I got to thinking about that after reading a letter in the paper on Saturday from the owner of a beach house at Ventnor, expressing the “hope that this natural wonderland does not become transformed into a home of little courts, high fences, and narrow streets filled with the McMansions of suburbia”.

I wouldn’t be holding my breath if I were him – there’s got to be a much better than even chance that any new residential development will end up looking more like nearby Manna Gum Drive (see exhibit) than the more traditional ‘beach houses’ of Ventnor. In fact even that seems optimistic – given the enormous decline in average lot sizes in recent years, a more probable scenario could be this development in Melton.

He can probably rest easy about his fear of McMansions though. Two storey behemoths are likely to be too expensive for most Ventnor newcomers – it’ll probably be single storey brick veneers with low tile roofs and two car garages.

Being near the beach doesn’t faze the standard suburban form – it’s ubiquitous. Drive 100 metres back from the beach in large parts of the sub-tropical Sunshine Coast or Gold Coast, close your eyes, and you could as easily be in the bland streets of Melton or Campbelltown. You’ll even have the same experience in tropical Cairns.

I expect they all look much the same because the economics of land development and cottage building produces the same solution everywhere. Affordable lots are 500–700 sq metres with high fences for privacy. The houses look more or less the same because the home building industry is pretty efficient at churning out economically priced detached houses in low-maintenance brick veneer.

As with most mass produced items built to a price, the scope for differentiation isn’t high, often just a tweak of the front facade. Buyers can have something markedly different if they want – they might, for example, commission an architect – but they’ll have to pay a lot more for the advantages of a bespoke design. But that’s just not an option for the vast bulk of buyers in areas like Melton and, I daresay, Ventnor.

A key reason streets in fringe suburbs look so boring and nondescript to sophisticated eyes is their relative youth – trees planted in the nature strip haven’t had time to take off and residents haven’t yet established front gardens. Many streets in established suburbs were bland once too. The streets of Eaglemont and Ivanhoe doubtless looked pretty insipid at first with their small brick and tile houses, but generations of zealous gardeners cultivating their front yards and nature strips have created, in effect, a completely new streetscape.

Yet there are many streets in established suburbs like this one in Keysborough which are still pretty uninspiring despite the advantages of maturity. This relatively young street in Melton looks like it’s lost some street trees already and parts of the nature strip have become a parking lot. Here’s another newish one in Melton where the front yards don’t even pretend to be gardens – they’re all driveway and low maintenance ground cover. And most of the houses on this street on the Sunshine Coast were built at least 30 years ago (in fact some have been redeveloped) yet apart from a few desultory palms, trees with scale aren’t very common. Read the rest of this entry »


– Metro Strategy: (2) what are the challenges?

US petrol prices relative to the world

Yesterday I talked about what I thought the new Metropolitan Strategy for Melbourne should be. That was mostly ‘mothers milk’, so now I want to say something about the substance of the strategy – what it should do. I have (mostly) refrained from proposing specific policies or solutions, preferring instead to point out the key policy challenges or directions.

Among other things (this is not exhaustive) the new Metropolitan Strategy should:

Recognise that 90% of motorised travel in Melbourne is made by car and that there are myriad ways drivers and manufacturers are adapting to higher fuel prices. The great majority of travellers prefer to drive if they can despite the expense – they’re not going to give up driving for public transport unless they’re made to.

There are three key challenges in relation to cars. First, provide incentives to increase  the speed of the transition to more fuel and emissions efficient vehicles. Second, make cars more civilised – make them slower and quieter and remove their priority over other carriageway users. Three, manage congestion so that gridlock is avoided and high value trips are given priority.

Recognise that public transport is only a substitute for cars in a limited number of situations. It has two key but growing roles. One is to transport large numbers of people to and from places with high trip densities, like the CBD, where the car is simply incapable of carrying so many people. The other is to provide mobility for those without access to a car.

The focus of public transport policy should be on these two roles. They mean a different approach to public transport from that implied by the popular idea that public transport must always be provided at a level which provides a “viable alternative” to car travel. Read the rest of this entry »


– Metro Strategy: (1) what should it be?

Flashmob with a difference

The Minister for Planning, Matthew Guy, has apparently told The Age that preparation of the Government’s promised metropolitan strategy has started and will be completed within two years.

I’ve previously pointed out some of the areas where I think Melbourne 2030 was found wanting, so I’ll offer some thoughts on what the new strategy should be and do, starting today with what it should be.

First, it should be a strategy for managing the growth of Melbourne. It can’t just be a land use plan, limited to the Planning Minister’s domain. It has to take a multi-portfolio view because planning is only one force shaping the way Melbourne will develop over the next 20, 30 or 40 years. In particular, it must recognise the intimate long-term, two-way relationship between land use and transport, both public and private.

Second, it should positively embrace so-called ‘soft’ policies like regulation, taxation and marketing. It must not limit its perspective solely to ‘hard’ initiatives like capital works and zoning regimes. These are important because they’re long term decisions, but how Melbourne develops in the future will be shaped as much by how behaviour is managed as by what projects are constructed. There are, for example, a host of regulatory and taxation policies – e.g. road pricing – that can potentially have a profound impact on shaping the way the city develops (and not all of them are as politically fraught as road pricing). Some can obviate the need for capital works.

Third, it should focus single-mindedly on what can be done most efficiently and effectively through a growth management strategy. It should resist the temptation to ‘solve’ every economic, social and environmental issue confronting Melbourne. Sometimes what are seen as urban issues are more the symptom of other processes rather than the underlying cause – I’ve previously suggested that diversity is one such issue. It’s important that the strategy understands how it impacts on, or even exacerbates, variables like diversity, but close attention should be given to whether or not it is the appropriate vehicle to achieve change. 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 »


What’s the angle with Fishermans Bend?

LA Live entertainment complex

The Minister for Planning, Matthew Guy, is reported as saying that rather than “sprinkle high density housing across Melbourne”, the new Government will give priority to strategic developments on specific sites close to the CBD.

Mr Guy has already moved to water down the former government’s planning laws encouraging higher density residential developments (i.e. over three storeys) along public transport corridors.

He says the focus of urban renewal in future will be on locations like Fishermans Bend, the 20 hectare E-Gate site just off Footscray Road, and the area around Richmond station.

This is surprisingly reminiscent of Kenneth Davidson’s prescription for Melbourne. However unlike the Minister, who is moving to increase land supply in the Growth Areas as well, Mr Davidson sees major urban renewal projects as providing enough land to obviate the need for further fringe development.

Facilitating urban renewal in areas close to the city centre is a good thing. But it’s a big call to put all your higher density eggs in one basket when Melbourne’s population is projected to grow by 1.8 million between 2006 and 2036. According to The Age, Mr Guy doesn’t want higher density development in that part of the city that lies beyond the city centre i.e. virtually all of Melbourne*.

I’m not sure the potential of the brownfields basket is as great as Messrs Guy and Davidson imagine. Here are some constraints that individually might be a mere difficulty but collectively amount to a major impediment. Read the rest of this entry »