Melbourne 2030 - Planning Rhetoric versus Urban Reality
Russell Degnan

Ch. 2 - Concentrating Melbourne - The Activity Centre Strategy

See also: Ch. 1

The activity centres are supposedly the keystone for Melbourne 2030. They are the method through which the urban form will be constrained, and simultaneously the most controversial element. Unfortunately it is not always clear what the authors' are trying to argue. They alternate between criticising the identification of centres, the underlying philosophy, the implementation, the ability of the activity centres to provide what they say they will, and the market demand for higher density living. Though they are quite critical of the centres it is never quite clear whether the authors believe they will fail because of politics, demographics, or lack of will; nor why, having stated their opposition to higher density living in the suburbs at length, they conclude that "few will deny a multi-centred approach is needed to manage the growth and change of Melbourne".

Each of the critiques above is developed at various points through the chapter. Some are stronger than others, so I will deal with each in turn.

Centre identification and implementation

I put these together because they are essentially the same thing even if they occur at chronologically opposite ends of the process. The authors make three arguments regarding activity centres, none of which are an argument against the centres, but are important problems still to be addressed in the implementation process. Firstly, they criticise the number of centres, claiming that there are too many to attract significant investment, and to make a difference to the urban form. Secondly, they note that neighbourhood centres have been poorly as to their role. Thirdly the authors correctly claim that the activity centres are poorly defined as to what area they cover, and in the case of neighbourhood centres where they actually are.

The first claim seems to imply that the activity centres will be something they are not intended to be (mini-CBDs) when planners are actually trying to achieve a much less ambitious goal: shifting development closer to public transport. But what the activity centre strategy actually is trying to achieve has never been made clear, as also indicated by the second point.

The third point is very important. The implementation of Melbourne 2030 has been sloppy and poorly designed. Council were supposed to do structure plans but little resources were made available, and the precise definition remains poor. The far simpler method would have been an activity centre overlay (or rather, three). Councils could apply it as they saw fit. As it is the statutory scheme and the strategic document continue to talk across each other.


The authors very succinctly summarised the two interesting aspects of the activity centre policy as regards to housing. Firstly, that there is an enormous fudge occurring in the proposed housing distributions, because they are almost exactly the same as what a past trends would indicate (ie. not planning, projecting). Secondly, that "the difference with the past is that much of the development is expected to be located in activity centres, rather than as ad hoc infill".

They then make two arguments against it, one sloppy, one ridiculous. The first makes a prediction of the required housing densities within activity centres if these housing targets are to be met. Then claims (incorrectly) that they will be "high-rise" densities. Their most shocking number, for the smallest area (100 hectares or 1.0 with 50% of the projected housing devoted to it and 50% of the land taken by other uses gives densities of 109 and 123 units per hectare for Doncaster and Glen Waverley. Is that high-rise? Because roads are included we are talking about the nett (not gross) residential densities. 100 units on a hectare gives a lot size of 100 sq.m. Not high rise, but terrace housing. It will only become higher if the existing housing stock is not being redeveloped, and even then, it will never, and should never be "high-rise"

The second argument then makes the claim that apartment living (and higher densities) will not be economically viable in the suburbs. Yet, isn't that what the trends mentioned already indicate? And aren't these developments of higher densities the very reason groups like Save Our Suburbs came about? High rise is probably unlikely in the suburbs, but medium density is already occurring, and will continue to occur. The only question is whether it can be directed into activity centres.

Jobs and transport

Whoever wrote this section should redo it. It makes logical leaps that would do superman proud. Put simply, they split job types into 4 categories, higher and lower order activity centre jobs, dispersed population related and technical clusters. The claim is two-fold, that the latter two categories are unsuitable for activity centres, and that because the higher order jobs are located in the CAD that the activity centres are chasing a small 19% of mostly retail. This is just ridiculous. Firstly, activity centres should be capable as acting like the central area. The problem is that most jobs chase other jobs, particularly higher order ones; the purpose of the centres policy is to get a critical mass of jobs in the area. Secondly, the figures don't add up. Half of all higher order jobs are already outside of the CBD, so there is at least an additional 11% of all jobs that could locate near the CBD in the same municipality. Thirdly, because of the number of activity centres, population dispersed jobs could easily be put near them, particularly as the authors included "cultural and recreational services", "health and community services" and "personal and other services". If these suburban jobs aren't in activity centres already there is no reason why many shouldn't be. The only requirement for a business is that they be accessible to their customers. The very fact that "edge-cities" exist should be a reasonable indication that shifting jobs is possible, given the proper incentives.

The second part then claims that activity centres don't reduce car traffic. In this they are partly right. The structure of transport options and the time it takes to use them will be what determines car use. But the measure they used -- car ownership -- has nothing to do with it. Car ownership is a reality for almost everyone, because almost everyone has places they can't go without a car. But that doesn't mean they will use it. Congestion, another problem, is related to the concentration of traffic. It will increase if no alternatives are proposed and planners continue to believe that everyone has the right to drive to the doorstop of their destination. As usual, the devil is in the details. Done properly and activity centres could attract serious (European) levels of walking and cycling. Yet this was not even mentioned -- but then, Melbourne 2030 largely ignores it as well.

Political issues

Finally, we come to political issues. Which is the real problem with Melbourne 2030, across the board. The authors are quite correct, as others such as Brian McLoughlin have been before them, that the government is lacking the will power to actually implement the policy. But it is important to realise that this means a continuance of ad hoc placement of medium-density housing and businesses. It is not an argument against activity centres per se.

This equally applies to problems with resident groups. The housing issue won't go away. It has to go somewhere. Pressure not to build to higher densities in Melbourne -- either in or out of activity centres -- may increase, and the government may (and probably will) fold. It is worth noting that developers are trying to build to higher densities. If planners are encouraging higher densities unreasonably as the authors claim then the planning system is actually working against that aim.

Ultimately, activity centres now, as in times past, will depend on the support given them by the State Government. That support has always been minimal, and is liable to waver at the first sign of protest. Residents are not stupid; they put enormous effort into 'protecting' their neighbourhoods and the planning system is an effective vehicle for channeling that effort. In the absence of planning controls to either over-ride or work with those people the policy is probably doomed to an anonymous end. But that doesn't make it a bad policy, nor does it imply that it will 'necessarily fail'. This is politics trumping market forces, not the other way around.

Next: The Urban Growth Boundary

Finer Things 30th August, 2005 00:38:16   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: LXXXVI, August 2005
Russell Degnan

Sometimes Melbourne can look positively Victorian. Taken August 2005

Melbourne Town 29th August, 2005 19:53:24   [#] [1 comment] 

A short lesson
Russell Degnan

The second complaint I have is the way it interfaces with the surrounds. It is a long, mostly dull walk up Flinders St. to the atrium. There are just a few shadowed entrances to ACMI, and a largely dull, monotonous, grey hammering at you with no relief from the elements, or the traffic. Nor is there any greenery.

That is what I said about Federation Square a year and a half ago, and very little has changed. Only now however, is it becoming apparent that it is a problem. Businesses on the Flinders St. side are failing, and comments like this are indicative of people with no idea.

"I never saw that side of Federation Square as a problem . . . I thought of it as almost the hidden gem of Federation Square,"

The image above shows the most grievous problem. The atrium should be acting as an entrance, but faces, what? Perhaps Hosier Lane, but you need to cross Flinders Street to get to it. Perhaps it faces nothing, as is the way of modern pieces of architectural genius. The bottom picture is of the intersection at Russell Street. Here, in a piece of mind-blowing stupidity there is only one pedestrian crossing across to Russell Street. On the far side away from Federation Square! Is anyone in their right mind going to cross three streets to get across from the Forum to Fed Square.

There is a tendency to assume that developers and businesses have no interest in the urban form, and need to be coerced into doing something about it. Well, this area, which is in every way anti-pedestrian is a good example of whay that is wrong. And if these new businesses want to succeed they would do well to consider the streetscape instead of how good it is being in a "landmark building".

Passing Fancy 28th August, 2005 11:49:56   [#] [0 comments] 

The Gastronomic Pub Crawl of North Melbourne:
The Leveson Hotel
Russell Degnan

46 Leveson St. North Melbourne
(Leveson Street, south of Queensberry Street)

I've never been quite sure what to make of the Leveson and I still aren't. Formerly the El Dorado, it has some enormous spaces. Room for 350 people upstairs, a huge backroom and restaurant area, and an odd front bar with not quite comfortable seats, and open fire and vast open spaces. This means it lacks the intimacy of a pub, and it has far more light than a pub emphasising the upper-class restaurant nature of their weekly business. At the same time though, I have never seen it packed, and rarely jumping, so the open space seems empty and a little soulless.

The welcome was very friendly though, if garrulous, and we were shortly convinced to try the parmas on the barman's recommendation. I can say, that despite the prices being a bit above most other pubs, that the recommendation was quite correct. This was an outstanding parma: nice salad, great chips, and a solid chunk of good chicken. Service was quick, and even a little fussy, which is a good indication that this isn't a bad place for a real meal. Interesting place.

The short: Neither pub, nor bar, nor restaurant, but with elements of each.

Next week: The Three Crowns Hotel (Corner of Victoria and Errol Streets).

Melbourne Town 28th August, 2005 11:49:40   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: LXXXV, August 2005
Russell Degnan

The GPO. A new shopping area, in an old building. Taken July 2005

Melbourne Town 22nd August, 2005 19:47:59   [#] [3 comments] 

Useless statistical indicator alert
Russell Degnan

"The problem with employment statistics is that they encourage us to regard people as potatoes"
- Carlo M. Cipolla, Before the Industrial Revolution

Cipolla was referring to development in the above quote, but it applies equally to almost all statistics in some way or another. It applies doubly to The Age's decidedly questionable liveability indicators.

I have three general issues with this survey.

Firstly, the problem correctly identified in the article that housing preferences vary markedly between people, and therefore, the weight given to different aspects of liveability is only meaningful for the person doing it. A table that allows someone to say "South Yarra is Melbourne's most liveable suburb" is bullshit, much like Melbourne's "liveable city" tag.

Secondly, in addition to the few individual issues to be discussed directly, there is a whole category that seems to have been lost. Nowhere is private land mentioned, in housing size, and lot size, and all those things that really don't change very much, and certainly no more than aspects like tree-cover, culture or crime. It is a huge reason for people choosing not only the outer suburbs but regional and semi-rural areas to live in. Enough to bring the entire survey into question.

Thirdly, the numbers are... interesting.

Take travel, encapsulated in four figures: CBD proximity, train, tram and bus availability. Quality is important here, North Melbourne gets a low bus score but has one of the few buses that actually runs semi-frequently. Similarly, it gets a high station score but has the least accessible train station of any suburb. But moreover, what matters is not whether there is transport but where (and how quickly) it can take you. Why, for instance, doesn't proximity to a freeway count - do the surveyors think people don't value that? And surely the fact that South Yarra station (4) goes many many places is worth more qualitatively than Oak Park (5) that goes barely anywhere? Not to mention walking, cycling...

Geographic values -- coastal proximity, topographical interest and tree cover -- are equally bizarre. I don't know how they calculated topographical data but it looks a bit random -- take the values in the rolling hills of the city and compare them to flat Carlton or Collingwood. Coastal proximity is important, but what about rivers, and creeks? Tree cover is important, but naive if it doesn't distinguish between private backyards and public tree-lined streets. The urban environment seems to have got no status at all, and yet, if one examines the pictures of Melbourne's change -- hopelessly CBD centric as it is -- it can be neatly summarised as: trees, cafes and an active street front.

Why measure shopping (giving the Carrum Downs safeway a 5) and not shopping quality that would highly favour places near to the major centres? Same with schools. And the same with open space, where sports and recreation activities and the quality of the space -- which is much higher in inner and middle suburbs despite being relatively smaller -- should count for far more.

And traffic congestion. Always a nice measure to make people in the outer suburbs think they've got the good life. But congested traffic affects outside residents much more, because they have to push through it. People who live in the inner suburbs, who can walk most places and have often blocked off their residential streets making them quite quiet, have far fewer congestion issues than the statistics might imply.

Using funky GIS data to generate a ranking is cute, but it is like owning a mountain of gold on Mars. You sound rich, you look rich, but you can't do diddly-squat with it.

Sterner Matters 20th August, 2005 13:47:32   [#] [1 comment] 

What is an efficient land use
Russell Degnan

Critics of suburban sprawl often claim that the land being encroached upon would have been more valuable as prime agricultural land. It is a interesting point, the amount of good agricultural land we have is limited, as is the amount of land available around cities. By a twist of fate, land good for agriculture -- flat, near a constant water supply -- is often also good for cities -- accessible and near a constant water supply. I'd argue therefore, that your attitude to sprawl across agricultural land depends in part on what model you view the building of houses: as production, or as consumption.

A model as production views a house as a producer of shelter for its inhabitants. One where the good produced is consumed entirely by its workers, who often own the means of production as well. Compared to an agricultural use, shelter is far and away superior in economic terms. Rent on a half dozen properties on an acre of land will earn a dozen times that of any farm produce: given the choice, farmers have chosen to subdivide every time.

Is this bad? Or rather, would this land have been better used as agriculture and another, less fertile piece of land, used as housing? A parallel can be seen here with the concept of trade. Here, our good land, P, is superior in two respects to another piece of land, Q. P is better than Q as a piece of farmland and also better than Q as housing -- you can assume, because it was subdivided first, that it is closer, reducing travel expenditure and infrastructure requirements. Suppose the economic returns were as follows:

P-h = 100, P-f = 10, Q-h = 80, Q-f = 2

You can see that even though P might be five times more productive as farmland, and only marginally better as housing, the total economic return is greater with P as housing, and Q as farmland. Using this model, conversion of agricultural land to houses makes sense. Assuming people have taken into account all the costs and benefits 1, housing on prime agricultural land is a better use of the land than the same houses on poorer land.

However, a model of consumption takes a different view. It views housing as the consumption of a product, consuming resources and generating waste. In this model, housing is an essential resource, not a generator of an economic good. Hence, land should be consumed at the most economic rate, leaving other land uses to generate the economic profits. In this model Q is a better place for housing than P, because it consumes farmland of little economic value. Better still, the houses built should be at higher densities to reduce the consumption requirements.

It is the model of consumption that most planners follow, leading to policies for growth boundaries, higher densities and public transport over automobiles. But it is also the model of the average suburban resident, who see higher densities as infringing on their right to consume the available land with large houses and spacious backyards.

This attitude has led to two rather strange complaints. Planners rail against suburban sprawl on economics grounds when the economics are still very much in sprawl's favour 2. Meanwhile, residents in the suburbs complain about higher densities being imposed by planners when planners do no such thing, and in fact, are merely facilitators for developers trying to increase the economic returns on that land.3 Both groups should probably reassess their position.

[1] They haven't. It doesn't make it wrong however, just not as good as it might seem today.
[2] And it will continue until it isn't. Planners would do better to consider the implicit subsidies they provide sprawl and consider how to manage it from that viewpoint.
[3] There are arguments against higher desnsities and proper planning of what these densities would be. But these reasons are generally secondary to rampant NIMBYism that has the indirect effect of raising house prices across the board (ie. turning their house into a protected industry).

Sterner Matters 19th August, 2005 21:52:20   [#] [0 comments] 

The Gastronomic Pub Crawl of North Melbourne:
The Keeper`s Arms
Russell Degnan

351 Queensberry St. North Melbourne
(corner of Peel and Queensberry Streets)

At the end of Courtney Street next to a backpackers lies the Keepers Arms. A pub famous for two things: for showing Premier League and rugby union games that have been known to draw in large crowds of enthusiastic punters (including myself); and for having the best chicken parma in Victoria. Needless to say that kind of rap needs to be ascertained for oneself, so this venue on our little jaunt was keenly anticipated.

But first, the surrounds. The Keeper's runs closer to your classic pub than the venues we'd been to before. It is a place happier with Carlton on tap instead of Tetley's or Heineken. Of simply laid out slighty wonky wooden tables and a dominating central bar that somehow always seems a more appropriate place to sit. Of a pool table out back and music the bartender happens to like. A local pub in other words, but one that occasionally sees a couple of hundred English yobs yelling at the tele.

The parma though, was disappointing. The chips were sensational, the cheese and ham likewise, and the size was right, but the sauce seemed to have too much starch, making the chicken dry. It was still good, but I've had better. Perhaps I expected too much. Still a pub I visit often.

The short: A local for drinking and sport

Next week: The Leveson Hotel (Leveson Street, south of Queensberry Street).

Melbourne Town 17th August, 2005 20:03:07   [#] [3 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: LXXXIV, August 2005
Russell Degnan

An older shopping arcade: The Block. Taken May 2005

Melbourne Town 15th August, 2005 23:40:01   [#] [1 comment] 

Never Better - Lazy Susan
Russell Degnan

How to describe Lazy Susan without being unintentionally harsh? Saccharine pub band comes to mind, as does typically Australian indy band, mired in the late 90's. I haven't actually got their first album, but I had heard enough mentions of them to have high hopes for this one. The sound is a bit reminiscent of New Zealand band, Zed, or Brisbane band, Rhubarb; listenable, but lacking something.

The album has only two paces. Each pace consistent across the songs: slow like on Holding On, or the title track Never Better, and a steady medium on almost everything else. Unfortunately such monotonous rythym blends into itself after a while, much as I see this album blending into the rest of my collection. Having said that, there aren't any bad songs on the album either, so it is worth a listen.

Track Highlights
Sometimes - The upbeat opening track, danceable but suffering from a misplaced brass section and guitar solo.
Never Better - The most interesting song. Certainly the one with the most going on.
I Will - A nicely structured song, starts slow, builds up to a falseto.
Why Don't We Just Call It a Night - The last and probably best song on the album.

Finer Things 15th August, 2005 18:19:16   [#] [0 comments] 

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