The tale of one city: why Melbourne must draw the line

By Rob Adams

April 26, 2016

9781925240818It is now commonly accepted that Melbourne’s population will reach close to 8 million by 2050 and that by this time it is likely to be Australia’s largest city. What is not clear is the form that Melbourne at 8 million should take and how it will look, function and feel.

Will it still rate among the most liveable cities in the world? Will it have overcome the growing inequity between those living on its fringe and those in the inner suburbs? Will it be healthier, more affordable and more sustainable, and will its infrastructure adequately support the needs of its citizens?

There are, I believe, two very different cities that can develop over the next 35 years. The first is the business-as-usual city, which will see the city boundaries continue to expand with the sprawl of the suburban city. It will be an increasingly costly, congested city divided between a well-serviced core and an under-serviced fringe, unsustainable and unhealthy.

The alternative is a city contained within its current boundaries where the proximity to social and physical infrastructure is incrementally improved, a more walkable mixed-use city, set within a greener well-nourished landscape where obesity is on the decline, affordability improved, and greater social cohesion between the centre and the fringes.

The first and most critical lever is to freeze any further extension of the city’s boundaries — or, even better, as in the case of Vancouver, shrink the existing boundary. This will preserve as much as possible of the existing arable land slated for future development that surrounds the city’s outer suburbs.

Australian cities have always been fuelled by seemingly endless land releases, so the immediate response to any public discussion about urban liveability or housing affordability, as we heard over the summer of 2016, are demands for more land to be released to build new estates on the outskirts of mega-cities.

As with any tipping point there is a critical factor that needs to change. With the Australian capital cities there is strong evidence that further low-density sprawl is not in the best long-term interest.

The reasons for this include the need to stop consuming valuable productive farmland in a world that will, in the future, battle to produce sufficient food to feed its expanding population. Australia has, over the last 30 years, converted 85 million hectares of productive farmland into suburban sprawl. A less obvious but more compelling reason is that this outward expansion of the capital cities comes at an enormous cost to the social, financial and environmental fabric.

The following are some of the emerging realities: according to the Urban Research Program’s VAMPIRE index (that is, the Vulnerability Analysis of Mortgage, Petroleum and Inflation Risks and Expenditure index), conducted by Dr Jago Dodson and Dr Neil Sipe at Griffith University in 2008, all the Australian capital cities, when compared between 2001 and 2006, were showing a greater vulnerability to fluctuations in mortgage costs and petrol prices. An increasing number of those living on the fringe were experiencing difficulty in meeting the costs of their essential needs.

“The environmental performance of these areas is poor given the high level of car usage and the size of the housing stock …”

Having been encouraged to buy house-and-land packages in the expectation of affordability and capital gains on their investment, the reality is that with the lack of public transport and other social services, nearly every activity from work, education, recreation and shopping require at least one car, and for most families, two or more cars. The long commute times reduced the effective productivity of these remote communities. Even the alluring capital gains evaporate; the normal expectations of capital profits from purchasing property significantly decline or even stagnate as you move further from the central city. The environmental performance of these areas is poor given the high level of car usage and the size of the housing stock being built.

Even the assumption that life on a suburban block on the fringe is healthier than living in the city has now been shown to be false. Studies show that those living in these outer areas are more prone to heart disease as a result of less exercise because they walk less. A person using public transport is likely to spend 41 minutes a day walking as part of their trip to work as compared to those driving, who walk for only 7 minutes. This is a contributing factor to the rapid rise in obesity in Australia. The cost of obesity has over the last decade gone from $87 billion per annum to a staggering $130 billion.

It is also not surprising to find that given the above factors there is a greater occurrence of family violence in the fringe areas. Isolation and the frustrations produced by time constraints and financial pressures can combine to produce a toxic social cocktail.

Add to this the costs of infrastructure to meet the needs of an expanding city. These are likely to be $440 billion greater over 50 years than if the city were contained within its current boundaries. The main reason for this is that a more compact city gets greater use out of its existing infrastructure and saves costs. Over the last 20 years in central Melbourne where increased densities have occurred, there has been a reduction in the rates charged to property owners from 13 cents in every $100 of capital improved value down to nearly 4 cents. This same phenomenon would be true of a compacting metropolitan area.

So why, despite the evidence available, do we still persist with our current policy settings? We can only speculate, given the weight of evidence that suggests it is time to change. Is it because our parents did it? Or because we believe it is our cheapest option? Or that it is the Australian way, with endless tracts of land available for development? Maybe there is a lack of vision to question the housing shape of the Australian dream? Maybe there are too many powerful vested interests, not least the revenue made by state governments from subdividing green field sites? Whatever the reasons, it is hard to understand why Australians continue to pursue this failing model while happily adapting to new ideas in many other walks of life.

Containing the size of the capital cities should be an urgent priority. It will not be an easy argument to win, but if the lessons are learnt from the transformation of central Melbourne, it is a crucial one that will pay huge dividends in liveability for decades to come.

*This is an extract from the article “A tale of two cities” in GriffithReview52: Imagining the Future, out now

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