Melbourne 2030 - Planning Rhetoric versus Urban Reality
Russell Degnan

Ch. 5 - Residential Infill and its Threat to Melbourne's Liveability

See also: Ch. 1, Ch. 2, Ch. 3, Ch. 4

In many ways, of all of them, this chapter is the most coherent but least cogent. It makes two assertions, the first, based on the reasoning of previous chapters, that current legislation, the housing market and community preferences, all point towards more 'infill' housing -- medium density housing built on single dwelling blocks. And secondly, that this type of housing is antithetical to Melbourne's liveability and garden suburb nature with many canopy trees.

The first argument is broadly correct. As the authors argue, infill has several advantages. Firstly, cost. Semi-detached medium density houses sell for almost the same price as an old house in the middle and inner suburbs, allowing developers to buy and redevelop many existing properties. Secondly, demand. There are many more people who would like to live in the inner and middle suburbs than can currently, so while they would undoubtedly prefer a large landlot, a terrace house is an acceptable alternative. Thirdly, availability. There are a lot of large lots dotted through these suburbs and with the exception of heritage properties there is nothing in the regulatory environment to stop this.

As I've argued elsewhere high density living is neither necessary nor preferable except perhaps in the CBD and immediate surrounds. The demand for infill that has occured over the past decade and a bit would seem to indicate that people are willing to live in medium density housing when that choice is offered to them. Most importantly though, infill would appear to be a solution to the expected increase in population and household numbers in Melbourne, and the need for more housing that is within reasonable distance of the CBD.

The authors disagree with it as a solution however, and in their second argument we finally dig to the bottom of their real complaint with Melbourne 2030. Apparently, infill housing causes two problems: congestion and a loss of suburban character.

The section on congestion is so short as to be unworthy of mention. It amounts, essentially, to a complaint about the number of cars on the street. To which I can only say: who cares? Seriously. This is a non-issue, especially when it is put against the costs of an ever-expanding suburbia.

The suburban character complaint is more serious, but deeply deceptive. The authors show through a series of photos, urban infill without canopy trees, and older suburban streets with so many trees you can't see the houses. The argument being that infill leaves no room for trees, and the tree canopy suburbs allow. This is complete bullshit.

The pictures they show are real, but I could easily find pictures of suburbs denuded of trees, particularly new suburbs which is essentially what the authors are depicting when they show new infill. And I can also find pictures of medium density streets with extensive tree canopies: Canning Street in Carlton comes to mind, as does Harris Street, North Melbourne, or Harrison Street, Mitcham, and dozens of others. All have extensive flats or terrace houses, all have large trees covering the footpath and roads. To suggest that canopies don't exist in small backyards is to ignore some any number of beer gardens in inner suburbia: The Standard in Fitzroy, or the Town Hall in North Melbourne being but two.

When there is the best part of 30m of public space in front of properties in the form of a public road, the idea that front gardens are essential for tree canopies is ludicrous. Good streetscapes are important, and developers should pay attention to them, but they are not dependent on extensive setbacks, any more than the precious neighbourhood character of Boorondara is dependent on its large number of hedges and six foot fences along the footpath.

The authors argument is deceptive and wrong, associating a particular housing form with a streetscape that can be achieved with the smallest amount of imagination within Melbourne's sufficiently wide thoroughfares. Councils should look to the maintenance of trees on streets better than they do, particularly when infill is occuring. But that is hardly an imposition, and certainly not a reason to dismiss infill as a solution to housing constraints.

Next: Melbourne 2030: The Need for a Fundamental Review

Finer Things 25th March, 2006 18:58:31   [#]