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   [#]