Essay

The tale of two cities

IN JANUARY 2016 in the holiday atmosphere that envelops Melbourne – remember the Australian Open and Australia Day long weekend? – thoughts about the city’s future seem remote and unimportant. After all isn’t Melbourne ‘the world’s most liveable city’? What is there to discuss? Yet the two front-page articles of the Age on 18 January capture the contrasting realities. There is ninety-two-year-old Henry Young ready to take to the grass courts of Shepparton in the national senior’s tennis tournament, alongside a report that Victoria will require two hundred and twenty new schools over the next decade, with none scheduled to open in 2016. It is tempting to simply turn the page, but both reports point to future liveability in a city with a rapidly growing and ageing population.

Schools are one of many future infrastructure needs. The reality is we can no longer keep up with the traditional infrastructure requirements. Rapid population growth and a business-as-usual approach is putting pressure on diminishing resources; this is clear. While the indicators are visible in both the rural and urban settings, it is the urban settings where the overwhelming majority live and where many of the solutions will need to be implemented.

So what does this mean for Melbourne?

It is now commonly accepted that Melbourne’s population will reach close to eight 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 eight 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 thirty-five 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.

You could be forgiven for thinking that this alternative scenario is a rosy dream but the reality is that those cities that set a clear vision and are prepared to get there through the co-ordinated incremental actions over two to three decades have a good chance of pulling off ‘the dream’.


WITNESS MELBOURNE IN the 1980s when, like many first-world cities, it had taken itself to the very edge of anonymity. Poor planning strategies, the pull of suburbia, private interests, the dominance of the motor vehicle and the migration of key central city activities, such as retailing, had resulted in a city close to achieving the ‘doughnut syndrome’ – a city without a strong central core. The community and the politicians of the day recognised the need to change course, to stop the flight to the suburbs and the dominance of the motor car. In essence, to re-create a twenty-four hour mixed use, walkable city that looked and felt like a place that built on its strengths in order to regain the national and international role that it had attained in the late nineteenth century – ‘Marvellous Melbourne’.

How did this come about? While one is tempted to point to to the grande projects such as Federation Square, the Museum of Victoria and the Exhibition Centre, these alone could not account for the dramatic change over the last three decades. The real change has been more subtle and the result of incremental change coming on the back of strategies put in place by state and local governments in the 1980s. 

‘Postcode 3000’ was an action plan by the City of Melbourne to bring residents back to the central city – and its success changed the way Melburnians thought about living in the city. The inner city population jumped as the number of residential units rose from six hundred and fifty in 1985 to more than twenty-two thousand today. These new residents fostered a resurgence of retailing, and were provided with quality public streets and places through a strategy to expand pedestrian areas, open up and invigorate laneways, plant trees and bring sidewalk cafés to the footpaths. Where two sidewalk cafés existed in 1985 there are now more than five hundred. 

Not all the strategies were about the built environment. There was an aggressive events program, investment in arts and culture, and improved community facilities. Melbourne’s reputation as the national sporting capital also helped ensure that any visit became a multifaceted experience. 

Thirty years later, the drab, semi-deserted central city of the 1980s has all but disappeared. Selected for five consecutive years by The Economist as the world’s most liveable city, even Melbourne’s most staunch critics – its own citizens – now recognise the change.

The central city of 2016 is unrecognisable from that of the 1980s. Apart from the new residents, workers and visitors, thousands of trees have been planted, the numbers of bars, cafés and restaurants has exploded, public transport has been upgraded, and bicycles (almost non-existent two decades ago) are now the transport of choice for 14 per cent of the commutes into the city. Daily visits to the centre of the city have doubled since the 1980s to eight hundred thousand people a day. 

Melbourne is back on the world stage as an interesting and vibrant place in which to live and visit. This turnaround, which many thought both impossible and undesirable, is now a much-lauded reality.


SO IF WE can turnaround the centre over thirty years, why not the whole of Melbourne in the next thirty-five? What are the key policy levers we need to put in place? 

The first and most critical 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 thirty years, converted eighty-five 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. 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 forty-one minutes a day walking as part of their trip to work as compared to those driving, who walk for only seven 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 fifty 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 twenty years in central Melbourne where increased densities have occurred, there has been a reduction in the rates charged to property owners from thirteen cents in every hundred dollars of capital improved value down to nearly four 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.


FOLLOWING A POLICY of containment, the next important policy lever should be that all future development occurs on or near existing infrastructure, particularly public-transport infrastructure. The Transforming Australian Cities study carried out by the City of Melbourne and the Victorian government transport department in 2009 indicated that four million new arrivals could be accommodated in buildings of medium density on less than a tenth of the metropolitan area. It proposed that this should occur in existing centres around rail stations and adjacent to road-based public transport or on recycled industrial sites. This approach would add to the efficiency of existing infrastructure while preserving the character and nature of the remaining 90 per cent of the city, including heritage buildings, parks and facilities. 

It would also take the pressure off existing suburban areas allowing them to become the new green lungs of the future city, with increased planting creating an urban forest, fed by water reused through making the city a catchment, rather than a drainage basin. Add to this the growing trend to energy self-sufficiency, and suburbia, far from being threatened, could be improved and secured as a more viable solution into the future.

The third policy setting is one where all levels of government agree to first investigate the possibilities of achieving more with our existing infrastructure before committing to the traditional solutions. Schools are a good example. There are countries where schools are ‘hot-seated’, running two class sessions every day. The capital savings are obvious, but think about the increased flexibility this may give families. Another recent example of this approach was when the Victorian state government, faced with increasing demand for train capacity, introduced free travel before 7 am. As a result of this lateral thinking, 2,500 commuters opted to travel in a low-peak period and the state avoided purchasing the equivalent of five new trains, with a net saving of $85 million over ten years. The City of Melbourne has, as another example, over the last thirty years incrementally removed eighty-five hectares of asphalt and converted it to parks, as well as widening footpaths, thus saving hundreds of millions of dollars that would otherwise have been spent on land acquisition. In the process it made people, not cars, the priority. All of these solutions use traditional and established infrastructure to get more out of less. 

There are many examples of how this lateral approach can assist in better meeting the needs of the next four million people who are expected to come to Melbourne. If, however, we believe that we need to replicate the same quantum of existing infrastructure in the next thirty-five years, failure is inevitable. There is neither the time nor money to build the capacity for a city of eight million when it has taken nearly two centuries to build the current city. 

The fourth policy lever that is needed if state and local governments are to work together to equip Melbourne for a doubling of its population, is to set agreed targets. Incremental action is only ever effective if the targets are clear and they are adhered to over the long-term, not set by short-term political time frames. Governments often shy away from targets for fear that they will not be met. However, if the targets are long-term – as was the case with the fifteen-year target for the accommodation of eight thousand residents in central Melbourne – there is enough time to achieve outcomes by incremental action with low political risk. 

Realistic targets are not hard to establish. Transforming Australian Cities established residential targets for every local government area in Melbourne to accommodate an additional four million people by 2050 without compromising heritage or the suburbs, while also containing growth within existing boundaries. Without targets there will always be less commitment to achieving change and we will continue to be open to a more laissez-faire approach to planning our future.


THESE FOUR POLICY levers form the essential basis for a more compact and sustainable future; they also ensure that all arms of government work together. Land use planning needs to be integrated with transport and infrastructure rather than the current tendency for various departments to attempt to solve their own individual problems in isolation. This co-operative approach will hopefully be advanced by the recent appointment of a federal minister for cities to more actively co-ordinate all aspects of city life and development – a far remove from the traditionally siloed structure of government departments.

So how optimistic can we be that Melbourne will use the need to accommodate an extra four million people as an opportunity to ensure it continues to be ranked as one of the world’s most liveable cities? 

On the basis of recent evidence, I believe there is a very good chance that we will make a success of this transformation. There is an increasing realisation that outer urban living is not all it is made out to be. As in the 1990s when we pursued the dream of turning the central city into a residential domain, more people are looking at other lifestyle options, including medium-density developments in the inner and outer suburbs close to existing public transport infrastructure. Local retailers in places like Bridge Road, Richmond, have succeeded in convincing the council to approve six hundred and twenty apartments in multi-storey developments along the strip, where nearly a fifth of all shops are currently empty. The retailers know they will benefit from the new emerging local apartment community. There is also increasing evidence with the cancellation of the East West Link that governments are focusing more on public transport and less on twentieth century road solutions. The emergence in the City of Melbourne of strategies such as urban forestation, turning the city into a catchment area, and the increase in renewable energy are now getting traction elsewhere. To my mind, having seen the process that transformed central Melbourne into the dynamic hub it is today, these are all important indicators that the turnaround has begun. 

If we can do this then we will avoid current trends, so graphically shown by the VAMPIRE study, that indicate a gradual divide in our capital cities between those in the inner city with good access to all they need, and those on the fringe who are increasingly deprived, causing economic hardship, poor health and a breakdown in social cohesion. 

If this is not reason enough, then maybe the thought of saving $440 billion in infrastructure costs over the next fifty years in Melbourne may focus political attention. One thing is sure: if we think we can solve our current pressures of rapid growth and climate change through a business-as-usual approach we are doomed to failure.


Listen to Rob Adams discuss the future of Australian cities with John Stanley and Tom Switzer on ABC RN's Saturday Extra.

 

Griffith Review