Let’s talk about density

Alastair Taylor

On Monday, February 9 the commercial broadcast media was all fired up with sensationalist headlines and shallow reporting on the release of a report which sought to “investigate planning policies that deliver positive social outcomes in hyper-dense, high-rise residential environments”.

The report’s author, 2014 Churchill fellow Leanne Hodyl, is an urban designer at the City of Melbourne and the report itself stands as an excellent case study for comparison of planning policies around the world which focus on density (and density bonuses) rather than on height.

Some of the broadcast media took it upon themselves to focus on an angle which did little justice to the crux of the report and instead they grasped the opportunity to add a good old dose of parochialism with subsequent lashings of shock and awe.

As I wrote in last month’s column, changes are afoot with regards to Capital City Zone planning and the release of Hodyl’s report is timely and will almost certainly play a part in any discussions between Spring St, the State Government architect and the City of Melbourne.

I was present at a forum organised by the Inner Melbourne Planning Alliance (IMPA) last year where Hodyl spoke both passionately and authoritatively much along the same lines as her report does. And I view the release of this report as important for the simple reason that we are getting an increasingly clear City of Melbourne planning narrative which is both good for residents and industry.

The council has been at the forefront of the return of people to urban living en masse, so it has seen and is still seeing what rapid change can do to local services when development moves into overdrive as it has for over a decade now.  We’d be fools to ignore the municipality’s experience and we’d likewise be foolish to not have its counsel play a major role in a much larger debate about density.

One of the key themes of the report and its advocacy for shifting the planning paradigm in central Melbourne to more density-focused policies (without the threat of State Government or VCAT intervention one assumes) is to stop the hyper-dense clusters that currently can be built.  We need to look at this in an overall context however.

The City of Melbourne has approximately one quarter of all multi-story residential development projects in the entire metro area according to our data on the Urban Melbourne Project Database.  Yet these 150 projects yield approximately 40,000 units whereas in the rest of the metropolitan area there are around 400 projects with 20,000 units in them.

Development in the City of Melbourne is very much playing a part in boosting Victoria’s economy and, if we dramatically reduce the scale of development in central Melbourne and don’t attempt to make other areas of metropolitan Melbourne more amenable to development, we’re likely to see a reduction in jobs and economic activity (not to mention a drop in urban housing stock).

It’s my view that, if the City of Melbourne gets its way and obtains more control over development within its jurisdiction, then it really ought to be part of a greater inner-middle Melbourne density planning debate.

The neighbouring councils in the middle-ring areas like Maribyrnong, Moonee Valley, Moreland, Darebin, Boroondara, Stonnington, Glen Eira and Bayside should also implement the same density control and bonus regime so as growth pressure can be taken off the City of Melbourne and the aforementioned middle-ring areas obtain a greater diversity of housing stock.

Alastair Taylor Is a director of Urban Melbourne - www.urbanmelbourne.info

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