Is Melbourne pushing the boundary (too far)?

Melbourne in 1988 - a part of the 2010 image, showing the effects of the drought, is visible on the RHS

Geosciences Australia has released a new series of satellite images comparing the extent of development in Melbourne in 1988 with 2010. Click on the image above to go to Geosciences Australia’s web site where you can do a “swipe” comparison of the two images i.e. move the cursor across the image to progressively reveal the second image underneath.

According to a report in The Age, the images show a “massive” increase in urban sprawl, with Melbourne’s urban footprint surging to the north, west and south-east. Melbourne has “marched into surrounding rural landscapes” and its “unofficial boundary is now more than 150 km east to west”.

Melbourne has certainly expanded at the fringe over the last 22 years, there’s no doubt about that. However I’ve argued before that both the extent of sprawl and its downsides are routinely exaggerated, so I want to have a closer look at these images and at The Age’s interpretation.

One thing that struck me straight up is that any comparison of the two satellite images can be misleading unless the viewer appreciates Melbourne was still suffering the effects of a long drought in 2010 (compare the size of the dams in each year). So areas that appear to have gone from green to brown between 1988 and 2010 might reflect lack of rain, rather than an increase in development.

In fact 1988 was an unusual year. There was a La Nina event in 1988-89 – the first since 1973-76 – and hence there were wetter than normal conditions. Have a look at this older CSIRO comparison of satellite images of Melbourne in 1972 and 1988, and note the CSIRO cautions that 1972 was much drier than 1988.

It should also be borne in mind that 22 years is a reasonably long period in urban development terms. We shouldn’t be surprised to see substantial change when a metropolitan area is growing. Have a look at these images to see how spectacularly some other growing cities have changed in the course of 20 years.

The level of growth also needs to be considered. Melbourne’s population grew from circa 3.1 million to around 4 million between 1988 and 2010. That’s an increase of about 30%, which is considerably more than the apparent increase in the size of the urbanised area. That’s to be expected, as a large proportion of population growth – currently approaching half – is accommodated within the existing urban fabric via redevelopment.

And then there’s The Age’s claim that Melbourne’s urban footprint spreads “more than 150 km east to west”. It doesn’t. Using GIS, I measure at most 75 km from the western edge of Wyndham to Lilydale in the east and 85 km to Pakenham in the south-east. If I measure instead from Melton (putting aside that it’s separated by 9 km of green wedge from the continuously urbanised area), I still get less than 80 km to Lilydale and less than 100 km to Pakenham. Some might think that’s still too big, but it’s a lot less than 150 km plus. Read the rest of this entry »

Where does Melbourne end (and sprawl begin)?

Drive out towards Warburton and it seems easy to see where Melbourne ends and rural life begins. One minute you’re driving through houses, shops and businesses, when all of a sudden you’ve arrived in country. Except you’re actually still in Melbourne because the official boundary of the metropolitan area lies on the other (eastern) side of Warburton!

People seem to like a hard edge – a clear and unambiguous boundary – between city and country. But it only works if the non-developed land is “pure” bush or bucolic farming land, without service stations, hobby farms or other urban detritus. Head out of Melbourne in most other directions and development – almost all of it tacky and ugly – tracks you like a mangy dog.

The continuous built-up area of Melbourne (the pink bit in the middle of the map) occupies less than 2,000 km2. This is much less than is commonly assumed by the media and is just a little more than a quarter of the area covered by the official or administrative boundary, which is 7,672 km2. There are a number of “islands” of development within the boundary (also shown in pink), like the townships of Melton and Sunbury, that are officially part of the metropolitan area but separated from “mainland Melbourne” by green wedges. It makes sense to count a place like Melton township as part of Melbourne because 65% of workers living there travel across 9 km of green wedge to work in mainland Melbourne.

These islands make discussions about sprawl particularly fraught. Is it just the central core of continuous urbanised development that sprawls or should all the islands within the boundary also be included? If they are, then that not only includes towns such as Melton, Sunbury and Pakenham, but also towns like Warburton, Healesville and Gembrook that appear to the first-time visitor to be country towns. And given that island townships like Garfield and Bunyip in the outer south-east corridor are officially part of Melbourne, it’s reasonable to wonder why towns that lie just outside the boundary, like Drouin and Warragul, aren’t also seen as part of Melbourne’s sprawl.

This story from a 2003 issue of The Age shows how closely linked many country towns located outside the boundary are to Melbourne:

Census 2001 figures cited by a Monash University Centre for Population and Urban Research report for the Southern Catchments Forum show that, remarkably, more than half of the working residents of the Macedon Ranges area are employed in Melbourne. Similarly, about 40 per cent of the working residents of the Moorabool region (which includes Bacchus Marsh) and the Melbourne side of the Greater Geelong area commute to Melbourne for work. It’s clear, the report says, that these areas are “largely dormitory towns servicing the metropolis. Read the rest of this entry »

Are apartments the answer to ‘McMansions’?

Annual per capita greenhouse gas emissions for the alternative housing scenarios

Demonising sprawl seems to be the mission of many planners, academics and journalists, but oftentimes zealotry leads to mistakes, as with this claim that infrastructure costs on the fringe are double those in established suburbs. I’m reminded again how easy it is to get the wrong end of the stick on this issue by a study released last week by the Architecture Faculty at Melbourne University.

The University’s media release tells us the study found “houses on Melbourne’s suburban fringe are responsible for drastically higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions compared to higher density housing or apartments in the inner city”. The Age ran with the media release, reporting that bigger dwellings and more car-based travel are the key reasons fringe houses consume more energy and emit more greenhouse gas than apartments.

I can’t refer you to a full copy of the study because the University didn’t make it available to the media or the public. That didn’t seem to worry The Age, but I think it’s an extraordinary decision – does the University exist to issue media releases or to undertake serious research? I contacted one of the authors who told me the study is a journal article and he couldn’t give it to me for copyright reasons. He gave me this link to the abstract. I’ve read the full article but if you don’t have on-line access you’ll have to spring for €35 if you want to read it.

A key part of the study is a comparison of the (embodied, operating and transport) energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions of households in three building types – a 100 m2 two bedroom high-rise apartment in Docklands 2 km from the city centre; a 64 m2 two bedroom suburban apartment 4 km from the centre in Windsor; and a 238 m2 detached house in an outer suburban greenfield development 37 km from the centre (the latter is shown in the accompanying chart in two versions – a 2008 five star and a “future” seven star energy rated version).

I don’t know what the point of this sort of comparison is. Putting transport aside (you’ll see why later), there’s little policy value in comparing a $1 million plus Docklands apartment with a $500,000 plus suburban apartment in Windsor, much less comparing both with a $350,000 house and land package on the urban fringe (and I’d say Windsor is inner city!). Nor does a seven square two bedroom apartment seem like a practical substitute for the sort of household that buys a 26 square four bedroom house.

A better approach would’ve been to compare the greenfield house against a townhouse of similar value located in the established suburbs, say 20 km or more from the centre (or perhaps against a greenfield townhouse set within a walkable neighbourhood). Alternatively, the authors could have followed the ACF’s lead and compared the resource use of all suburban residents with those of inner city residents – but the catch here is the ACF found that, even though on average they live in smaller dwellings, inner city residents have a higher ecological footprint (see here and here)!

The study should be on firmer ground when it compares transport energy and emissions across the three locations, but it isn’t. The trouble is the study gets it completely wrong on this key variable and, frankly, the travel findings just don’t stand up. There are two key weaknesses. Read the rest of this entry »

Why is road pricing a good idea?

What Americans mean by a 'McMansion'. Click for slideshow.

I’m not aware of anyone who disagrees seriously with the contention that car travel is underpriced. The consequence of this inefficiency is we drive more than we otherwise would and more than is socially optimal.

The idea of road pricing is that drivers should pay the real costs they impose on others through traffic congestion, pollution, noise and carbon emissions.

There’s also another force at play here which exacerbates the problem of excessive driving. There are some costs that drivers actually do pay – standing costs like depreciation, insurance and registration – that are “disconnected” from the perceived cost of travel.

A person deciding whether or not to drive somewhere will tend to take account of the cost of their time plus petrol, but they usually don’t perceive the standing costs. This under-estimation promotes more driving.

There have been various experiments with road pricing, such as the well known Singapore and London central city cordons (giving rise to amusing interpretations such as this one by Boris Johnson). However this is a technologically outdated approach – transponders and/or GIS technology mean it is now feasible to charge motorists in relation both to distance and traffic conditions i.e by location and time.

A driver who paid a price for a litre of petrol that included both external and standing costs would have a strong incentive to drive less. A gauge on the dash showing the total cost ticking over with every kilometre would provide an even more powerful nudge to think long and hard about the wisdom of driving.

Road pricing can be thought of in simple terms as a two-part per kilometre tariff that recovers both external costs and those standing costs that can be disaggregated. One part is a charge reflecting the general cost of using the roads. The other is a variable price reflecting specific costs like congestion in peak periods.

There are potentially some important benefits for the wider community from road pricing: Read the rest of this entry »

Is local food more sustainable?

One argument against suburban sprawl is that it sterilises agricultural land. A particular variation on this contention is that land should be preserved for agriculture so that carbon emissions in transporting food from farm gate to plate – “food kilometres” – can be minimised.

A frequently cited estimate is that food in the US travels on average 2,400 km from where it is produced to where it sold to consumers. We should therefore seek to grow as wide a range of food as possible as close to Melbourne as possible.

From Weber and Mathews, Food Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the US

All things being equal that makes sense. But of course it’s never that simple. Here are some pertinent issues to consider.

First, transport is not a major component of the total carbon emissions from agriculture. These researchers estimate that on-farm production accounts for 83% of the average US household’s carbon emissions from food whereas delivery from producer to retail outlets accounts for just 4%.

Second, most food can’t be grown locally without resorting to potentially environmentally damaging practices like excessive application of fertiliser, irrigation or artificial heating of greenhouses. This article cites a British study which found that because British tomatoes are grown in heated greenhouses, they emit 2.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide per ton grown whereas Spanish tomatoes emit 0.6 tons. Further:

Another study found that cold storage of British apples produced more carbon dioxide than shipping New Zealand apples by sea to London. In addition, U.K. dairy farmers use twice as much energy to produce a metric ton of milk solids than do New Zealand farmers. Read the rest of this entry »

Are new outer suburban homes getting smaller?

There was a flurry of almost salacious excitement in the media at the end of last year when an ABS study found that Australians have the largest homes in the world. Worse, it found Victorians have the biggest homes in the country.

The Age reported that houses and apartments in Australia are bigger than those in the United States, which has traditionally had the most spacious homes:

“While Australian home sizes have risen 10 per cent over the past decade, research shows sizes of new American homes have fallen from a peak of 212 square metres to 201.5 square metres”.

Now property group Oliver Hume has thrown some new light on home sizes in Melbourne. They say that excluding Melbourne’s west, the median size of homes in the other five growth areas actually fell slightly over the last three years.

The largest absolute fall was in Cardinia, where the median home size fell from 267 sq m to 209 sq m, or by 57 sq m. Home sizes also fell in Casey, Hume and Whittlesea but increased in Wyndham and Melton. This does not, however, indicate an across-the-board change in preferences toward smaller houses.

According to Oliver Hume’s research manager, Mr Andrew Perkins, much of the drop in house size can be attributed to the increase in the number of first home buyers in the 2007-2008 period, when they accounted for an unprecedented 70% of all sales across the growth areas. Read the rest of this entry »

Will Brumby’s new decentralisation initiative work?

The Ready for Tomorrow initiative announced by the Premier earlier this week is being sold as a way to relieve growth pressure on Melbourne.

Just why people would move to regional centres on a scale sufficient to ease the demands on Melbourne significantly is not clear, as there’s little in the announcement to suggest the Government has suddenly discovered the secret to growing jobs in the regions.

The track record of policy-driven migration in Australia is poor. The decentralisation schemes of the seventies, based on growing regional centres like Albury-Wodonga and Bathurst-Orange, were conspicuously unsuccessful in lowering growth in the major capital cities.

Decentralisation was supposed to be driven by manufacturing, which at that time was on the march out of the inner city. However rather than moving to regional centres, manufacturing largely moved to the suburbs and offshore. It now offers even less potential for underpinning decentralisation that it did 30 or 40 years ago.

I think the practical impact of Ready for Tomorrow is more likely to lie in enhancing the liveability of the regions than in giving respite to Melbourne. It is really a regional development program. As The Age’s editorial writer points out, even if the annual growth rates of the eight largest regional cities were to double, it would only relieve Melbourne of seven weeks growth.

Nevertheless, I suppose the prospect of cheaper housing and lower congestion in reasonable proximity to Melbourne may be sufficient to attract some new settlers to regional centres, especially if it is hyped as the sensible thing to do by the Government and regional councils. Read the rest of this entry »

Is unused infrastructure capacity in the inner suburbs all used up?

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.

Proposed 520 unit development, Coburg. How much 'spare' infrastructure capacity will it use?

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 »

Can inner city apartments save us from sprawl?

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.

SEE apartments, Claremont St, South Yarra

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 »

Energy efficiency in transport – some surprises!

The latest edition of the Transportation Energy Data Book: Edition 28 was released last year by the US Department of Energy (Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy).

I’ve derived the accompanying graph from Chapter 2 of the report. There are a couple of points of interest here.

In particular, the data shows that load factors are very important. Although public transport is more energy efficient than cars when it is fully loaded, it has to operate at off-peak times and on secondary routes, when patronage is low. Read the rest of this entry »

What role for high-rise towers in Melbourne?

Do high-rise towers have a role in Melbourne’s future? Peter Newman thinks they do!

This report by VECCI, Up or out? dealing with Melbourne’s population boom, nicely summarises two alternative approaches set out in The Age for planning Melbourne’s future growth. Read the rest of this entry »

Why ‘spare infrastructure capacity’ is exaggerated

Are claims of spare infrastructure capacity in the inner suburbs real?

The Age reports that there were almost 30,000 more people living in Coburg and Pascoe Vale in 1976 than there are now (The Outer Limits). The paper quotes the former Mayor of the City of Moreland, who says that increasing the population density in many areas “is simply returning suburbs to previous population levels”.

The editorialist in The Age of 20 March stated that “some ‘traditional’ inner Melbourne suburbs – such as Coburg, Pascoe Vale and Fitzroy – have fewer residents than they did 50 years ago. Current ‘in-fill’ housing is thus regrowth” (emphasis added).

The idea of course is that there is spare capacity in infrastructure and amenities that can accommodate ‘restoration’ of the historic population level. This would be a good thing because any underutilisation of infrastructure is economically wasteful. It might also minimise further ‘sprawl’ at the urban fringe. Read the rest of this entry »

Transport disadvantage in the suburbs

One of the perennial concerns about suburban sprawl is transport disadvantage. But just how significant is the problem? Most importantly, is it a problem that can only be tackled effectively by ‘abolishing’ fringe growth and replacing it with multi unit housing within established suburbs?

Research done by Currie and Sensbergs and Currie and Delbosc on outer suburban Melbourne gives a sense of the dimensions of this issue. The data shows that 94% of outer suburban households have at least one car and 61% have at least two.

Compared to the 1970s, much of the transport disadvantage associated with outer suburban living has been mitigated by higher car ownership and to some extent by social infrastructure levies on developers.

However disadvantage is usually associated with low incomes. Currie and Sensberg found that 18% of lower income households living in the outer suburbs don’t have a car. They make up around 8% of all outer suburban households or about 1.5% of all  households in Melbourne. They are typically older, retired pensioners living alone and unemployed single mothers in rented accommodation. Read the rest of this entry »

Problems with fringe-dwelling are peripheral (OpEd in The Age)

I have an OpEd in The Age this morning which the editor has titled Problems with fringe-dwelling are peripheral. That’s quite clever! My OpEd seeks to cut through the hyperbole and examine the issue of sprawl dispassionately and logically. Unfortunately this time The Age doesn’t appear to have made provision for people to make comments – that’s usually a lot of fun. (EDIT 1: I see that The Age has now activated the comments section but its after midday so I suspect the horse has bolted. Edit 2: see further post on sources here)

The jobs are already in the suburbs

There was another good story published in The Age yesterday as part of the continuing series, Project Melbourne: Towards a Sustainable City. Titled The Great Divide, it compares living in a CBD apartment with outer suburban living.

However there is a point where the writer, Julie Szego, goes too far. She contends that outer suburban living “depends on jobs becoming a reality. If jobs don’t come to the suburbs, roads will remain choked and families time-poor”.

The idea that there are few jobs in the suburbs is a common misconception with important policy implications.

The reality is that around 72% of all jobs in Melbourne are located at a distance greater than 5 km from the CBD. Half of all jobs are more than 13 km from the CBD.

Destinations of Casey commuters

And these aren’t all low-skill, low-pay jobs either. The majority of jobs in Melbourne occupied by graduates are located more than 5 km from the CBD.

This misunderstanding of the geography of employment is also displayed in the first feature written for The Age’s current Project Melbourne series. That article, titled The Outer Limits, made the claim that “of those jobs that are available (in fringe suburbs), a higher percentage are blue-collar”.

The idea that suburban jobs are mostly in low skill occupations seems to be another popular misconception.

In fact, only 9% of jobs located more than 40 km from the CBD are in the Manufacturing sector, compared to 14% for all of Melbourne. If the definition of blue collar is extended to include jobs in the Wholesale, Transport and Construction sectors, the respective figures for the fringe and metropolitan area are 26% and 31%. What the fringe areas actually do have is a higher proportion of jobs than the metropolitan average in the high-skill education and health sectors.

It is not in any event clear why having more ‘blue collar’ jobs would be a disadvantage compared, say, to having an over-representation of retailing jobs. Many jobs in the modern Manufacturing and Construction industries are highly skilled and involve interacting with complex technologies and systems.

The main issues associated with employment in Melbourne can be explored in this presentation I gave last year at a cultural industries seminar at Qld University of Technology, Jobs in the Suburbs.

The contention in Julie Szego’s article that outer suburban roads are “choked” probably depends on one’s definition of what constitutes congestion. Most outer suburban residents travel locally – for example, 70% of trips by residents of the City of Casey are to destinations located in either Casey itself or the adjacent City of Cardinia (the corresponding figure for Cardinia is 83%). Read the rest of this entry »

Increasing multi unit housing supply

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 »

How to increase commuting by bicycle

I argued yesterday there might be potential to shift a small but important proportion of workers who live and work in the suburbs out of their cars and on to bicycles. This is a somewhat novel view as most of the attention given to commuting by bicycle has focussed on how to increase work trips to the CBD.

The suburbs are an important potential ‘market’ because, unlike commuting to the city centre, the great bulk of suburban bicycle trips to work would be in lieu of the car, not public transport.

I also indicated yesterday that I would look further at possible concrete actions that could be taken to advance greater suburban bicycle commuting. Here are my early thoughts.

The key deterrents to cycling concern safety, compulsory helmets, security and personal hygiene. A possible way of addressing these obstacles could go something like this. Read the rest of this entry »

What role for commuting by bicycle in Melbourne?

In response to my post last Tuesday, Melbourne will be a car city for a long time yet, a reader asked for my views on the role of cycling in Melbourne.

I have a particular interest in cycling, not least because I’m a keen recreational cyclist and commuted religiously by bike for a number of years. I think cycling has a small but significant role to play in meeting Melbourne’s transport needs but my ideas are a little different to the conventional view.

Despite record sales over the last ten years, bicycles account for just 0.9% of all weekday kilometres travelled in Melbourne, so their present contribution to saving fuel and reducing carbon emissions isn’t large. That figure includes recreational cycling too, so we don’t know how many of these kilometres actually replaced car travel.

Bicycles are more competitive for commuting, where they are used for 2.9% of work trips. The journey to work, however, only accounts for around one fifth of all trips in Melbourne, so again we’re not talking big numbers. Read the rest of this entry »

We need to be more strategic about how we tackle greenhouse gases

Do we need to tackle climate change and peak oil on all fronts or would it be more strategic to focus on priority areas?

This question is prompted by reading Victoria’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions, 1990-2005, prepared for the 2008 Victorian Climate Change Summit by George Wickenfield & Assocs. This report calculates that 64.4% of all carbon emissions in Victoria are generated by the residential, commercial and manufacturing sectors. Almost all of these emissions are in the form of electricity generated by brown coal.

In contrast, all passenger transport in Victoria – by both car and public transport – generates only 13.9% of the State’s total carbon emissions. That’s less than a quarter of what the electricity sector generates. Read the rest of this entry »

Melbourne will be a car city for a long time yet

It seems likely that many more Melbourne travellers will drive cars in the foreseeable future than take public transport.

This is not necessarily the disaster that it might at first appear – improvements to the environmental and fuel efficiency of cars will make them much more environmentally friendly and offer a fair trade-off for their many advantages. Read the rest of this entry »