Transforming Melbourne: Are Tall Buildings the Best Solution for a Growing City?

Max Walton
This Big City, via Sustainable Cities Collective
June 15, 2015

melbourne cbd

Image by Jorge Lascar

Melbourne’s population growth shows no sign of slowing. Recent Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures estimate the city could become home to almost 8 million people by 2053. Plan Melbourne, the metropolitan planning strategy, recognises the need for urban areas to accommodate significant new housing.

The benefits of compact and higher density housing are well documented. Absorbing growth in dense forms can help reduce the need to travel by car, supports viable public transport and promotes healthier transport options such as walking and cycling.

Plan Melbourne recognises that Melbourne needs denser urban areas. Key directions of the strategy focus substantial housing opportunity and change around the central city, activity centres and other urban renewal precincts. At the same time a 2-storey height control will protect almost two-thirds of Melbourne’s existing low-rise residential suburbs from infill development.

The directions of Plan Melbourne are predicated on an approach that seeks to maximise the housing potential of sites in well serviced locations. Maximising potential is about delivering housing at all costs. We have a housing crisis to solve therefore our planning system must build more housing.

The need to concentrate housing density in a few defined places creates pressure to make the most of every available site that is close to a tram stop or shops. Little consideration is given to how the capacity of existing physical and social infrastructure is able to cope.

Forrest Hill in South Yarra is held as a bastion of urban renewal. The former low-rise industrial precinct has changed dramatically over the last decade and is now home to more than 3,000 people in 30 high-rise towers. Population is expected to peak at 7,000 once all the construction is completed.

However, whilst impressive rates of development have occurred urban renewal is more than just sheer volume of units. The rate of new housing has outpaced infrastructure improvements. The local authority, City of Stonnington, continues to lobby for major upgrades to the South Yarra train station. The narrow footpaths and tight roads are struggling to cope with the increasing activity.

It is essential to make the most of development opportunities. However, it is also important to consider other factors in order to optimise housing potential. A subtle but important shift in how we understand and determine opportunities for higher density housing is important.

Optimising potential is at the forefront of a new approach to housing in the latest version of the London Plan. Optimising, rather than maximising housing potential looks beyond the characteristics of individual sites and gives increased weight to how buildings sit in the local context, housing quality including type and tenure, and public transport accessibility. Central to this approach is debunking the myth that higher buildings are the only way to achieve increases in housing density.

mid-rise urban form can deliver significant housing densities. Transforming Australian Cities (2010), a study jointly commissioned by the Victorian Department of Transport and the City of Melbourne, illustrated how the creation of four to eight storey public transport corridors could transform Melbourne. It also showed how high density does not simply translate to high-rise:

Cities such as Barcelona with 200 persons per hectare, and more recently Malmo Bo01 in Sweden, are examples worth reflecting on……The development’s density of 120 persons per hectare equates to about eight times the typical Australian urban density….. As with Barcelona, this low rise high density dispels the myth that high density requires high rise.

The existing iteration of Plan Melbourne fails to define higher-density housing. The lack of definition means the conversations around building height and density have become increasingly entangled. Our development industry continues to peddle an over-simplified assumption that the higher the building the higher the density.

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