By Lukas Nott
The last few years have seen a clear shift by forward-thinking councils from minimum to maximum parking rates, in an effort to encourage travel mode shift away from the car. Just in March this year, Moreland City Council resolved to seek maximum parking rates in major activity centres and reduced rates in neighbourhood centres.
Is it time for a similar paradigm shift in relation to development density in the suburbs?
Every Melbourne metropolitan strategy since Melbourne 2030 has identified substantial urban consolidation as fundamental to accommodating housing growth in an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable way. The latest strategy, Plan Melbourne 2017-2040, seeks “at least 65 per cent of new housing in established urban areas … and no more than 35 per cent in growth areas …”. In other words, it is bipartisan policy to increase density, not only in the Central City and urban renewal areas, but also in the suburbs.
The problem is that our planning controls do not implement this policy. While Plan Melbourne seeks to “Deliver more housing close to jobs and public transport”, ResCode aims “To ensure that the design respects the existing neighbourhood character or contributes to a preferred neighbourhood character”. While State policy seeks to “increase the supply of housing in existing urban areas by facilitating increased housing yield in appropriate locations”, the NRZ provisions aim to “ensure that development respects the identified neighbourhood character”. And, guess what? The preferred neighbourhood character identified by local councils is essentially a continuation of the existing character.
Where density controls are used in established areas, they unfailingly seek to limit, not promote increased density. Only last year, the State opposition proposed bringing back a 2-dwelling density limit in the NRZ if they won government. In our growth areas, on the other hand—precisely where our metropolitan strategy seeks fewer dwellings—PSPs routinely include minimum dwelling densities. No wonder our sprawling metropolis is becoming ever more obese, as new homes are forced to the fringe.
It is time we gathered the courage to actively promote increased density in our suburbs, rather than being apologetic about it.
Increased density fosters more convenient and environmentally-efficient lifestyles by increasing the viability of local shops, services and public transport. More housing within a neighbourhood can ensure sufficient catchment for a local grocery store, doctor or kindergarten.
More local shops and services means people are more likely to walk or cycle. And more people walking equals safer streets and greater social cohesion. Increased density enables people to age in place, remaining part of the community they feel connected to, by providing more diverse housing options.
Finally, of course, increasing housing in established suburbs saves us millions of dollars on new physical and social infrastructure, instead utilising spare capacity in existing infrastructure.
So, if increased density makes our suburbs more liveable, environmentally sustainable, socially cohesive and cost effective, why aren’t we promoting it?
It might be said that developers already seek to push the limits and squeeze as many dwellings on a site as possible. But the primacy given to existing neighbourhood character in our planning system effectively places a cap on density increases, and third party rights incentivise the path of least resistance over the optimisation of density.
So how might minimum density controls work? Perhaps London’s Public Transport Accessibility Levels method, which directs density based on access to public transport, provides a useful guide.
Let’s look at an example. There is a small row of shops next to Patterson Station in Bentleigh. The 400 metre (5-minute walk) catchment around Patterson Station is almost entirely surrounded by NRZ land, where development is expected to respect the existing, predominantly single and double storey character. This is not because of heritage values—there is not a single property affected by the HO within 400 metre of the station. There are currently approximately 380 dwellings within this catchment.
Imagine if the zoning around Patterson Station was reconfigured based on public transport accessibility. Say, MUZ within 200m, and RGZ between 200m and 400m (with GRZ beyond). And suppose those zones incorporated minimum density requirements equating to 125dph within the MUZ, 75dph within the RGZ and 38dph within the GRZ. This would add 1,650 potential additional dwellings within a comfortable walk of Patterson Station.
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Roll this out across all of our suburban stations and activity centres, and we might just achieve our policy aspirations for urban consolidation, and deliver a more liveable, sustainable, inclusive, healthy and equitable city.
Is it time for minimum density controls?
By Mark Sheppard
“Suburb: a place that isn’t city, isn’t country, and isn’t tolerable.” Mignon McLaughlin, The Second Neurotic’s Notebook, 1966
“Have you ever lived in the suburbs? It’s sterile. It’s nothing. It’s wasting your life.”Ed Koch
Love ’em or hate ’em (and strong views are often heard either way), our suburbs are here to stay. They are where most of us live. They are also the source of our greatest urban planning and design challenges, and where the greatest opportunities exist to transform our cities for the better.
Yet, as illustrated by the quotes above, they have a vexed identity in popular culture and planning theory. Tarred as boring, ugly and unsustainable, suburbia is regularly cast in an unfavourable light.
Most urban commentators agree that the only sensible way to accommodate growth in our capital cities is by increasing density in the infrastructure-rich (but low-density) middle-ring suburbs. Research shows that development on the edge of Melbourne is creating a city of ‘haves and have-nots’, as the gap in income growth between the inner and middle suburbs and the fast-growing fringe widens. Rather than spreading outwards, “Australian cities must shift towards high amenity, medium density, multi-polar metropolitan living supported by great public transport”, according to urbanist Professor Greg Clark. In Breaking Point, former VPA CEO Peter Seamer asserts that we are on a path of increasing dysfunction and inequality that can only be addressed by ‘localising’ jobs and lifestyles in the suburbs.
Instead, however, we find ourselves pushing inner urban densities to breaking point and rezoning land on the distant fringe for 12 new suburbs, remote from public transport and where community infrastructure often lags far behind new housing. All while most of our well-serviced suburbs remain a protected species zoned for low-density housing, favouring the haves (existing suburban homeowners), rather than the have-nots (those struggling to make ends meet).
Plan Melbourne, at least, directs 70% of Melbourne’s growth to established urban areas, in an attempt to limit urban sprawl. However, while we devote close attention to how our urban renewal and urban growth areas should be planned and designed, we give disproportionately little attention to how our established suburbs—the vast majority of Melbourne by area, population or jobs—should evolve. City shapers’ attention is drawn to sexy urban renewal and urban growth areas, while the suburbs languish in the too-hard basket.
Perhaps this is simply because it is hard. Greenfield and brownfield planning can be guided by widely-accepted theory and planning practice. Suburban change is much more constrained by existing conditions—highlighted by our obsession with neighbourhood character.
Or maybe it is because most Melburnians have an emotional investment in the suburbs. We can plan urban renewal and urban growth areas with an objective sense of idealism. But when it comes to the suburbs, our sound planning principles are clouded by fear that change will disrupt the lifestyle we have chosen.
Or is it simply that the suburbs are where the majority of voters live? At the policy level, planning is a political act. Irrespective of planning doctrine, our planning policies are driven more by a perception of ‘what the people want’ than good sense (as recently illustrated by NSW Labor’s announcement that they will scrap Sydney’s Medium Density Housing Code if elected in March). The suburbs have become a battleground between planning idealism, the property market and local politics.
Whatever the reason, it is beyond time that we removed the ‘cone of silence’ and had an objective discussion about what form our suburbs should take. As noted by Ross Elliot, “Cities policy needs to be redefined to include suburbs if it is to evolve and provide a more mature and equitable city-wide solution to enhancing people’s qualities of life.”
This article is the first in a new series that seeks to redress this imbalance in our planning focus, by exploring the challenges and opportunities of suburban evolution. Future editions will investigate such topics as the merits of the polycentric form that our metropolitan strategies have sought since the early 2000s, whether we should decentralise jobs, what kind of transport system we need, where affordable housing can most easily be delivered, whether we need minimum densities, how we can foster independent and inclusive third places, and much more.
The aim of these articles is to promote debate. So please reply with comments!
This article was first published in Planning News, April 2019.
 https://www.theage.com.au/politics/victoria/haves-and-have-nots-income-gap-widens-between-outer-and-inner-melbourne-20181026-p50c91.html and City Limits: Why Australia’s cities are broken and how we can fix them, Jane-Frances Kelly and Paul Donegan
We are delighted to announce the appointment of Graeme Parton as Non-Executive Chair of our board of directors. This recognises the growth and evolution of the business, bringing a need for independent and experienced leadership to help chart its future.
Graeme is a highly experienced property and development adviser, and non-executive director. He is currently a director of Aequitas Advisory and Development Victoria, a committee member of the Property Council of Australia, and chair of RMIT University’s School of Property, Construction and Project Management Advisory Board. His interests also extend to the arts and charity through his roles as a member of the Australian Ballet Redevelopment Committee, council member of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, and director of the charitable foundation St John’s Foundation Limited.
Graeme brings wide experience from his former roles as a director of Charter Keck Cramer, Pinnacle Property Group and Stirling Properties Limited, along with positions on numerous advisory boards and committees including Enterprise Geelong, Sunshine Town Centre Partnership Group, Victorian State of the Environment Urban Planning and Development report, and Postcode 3000.
Responding to his appointment, Graeme said “It’s exciting that the practice is entering its next phase of growth. I look forward with enthusiasm to working closely with the DLA Board to guide this growth and optimise its potential.”
Graeme succeeds Michael McDonald, who stepped down after two years in the post. We extend our deep gratitude to Michael for his wise counsel during a period of transition.
Our Principal Urban Designer, Mark Sheppard, recently took PIA “Doing it Differently” symposium delegates on a walking tour of Victoria Harbour in Melbourne’s Docklands.
This follows the introduction of interim controls in 2015 and 2016, and foreshadows new permanent controls expected to be introduced by mid 2018. The Framework outlines overarching strategies for the whole of Fishermans Bend, but its detailed proposals focus on the four Capital City Zoned precincts (excluding the Employment Precinct north of the West Gate Freeway): Montague, Lorimer, Sandridge and Wirraway.
BADS In Practice:
What do the new Victorian BADS planning controls mean for the design of apartment buildings?
The Victorian Better Apartment Design Standards (BADS) have now been officially introduced to planning schemes. New apartment developments (except those lodged before 13 April 2017) are now required to meet the requirements of the new Clause 58, or new apartment provisions in Clause 55.07 if they are in a residential zone and lower than five storeys. Notably, the Guidelines for Higher Density Residential Development remain in place, although new Apartment Design Guidelines are slated for May.
The new standards are largely focused on establishing minimum standards of internal amenity. But what are their other consequences for the design of apartment buildings? First, let’s look at the things that won’t change much.
DLA Associate Jonathan Halaliku takes a close look at the new Victorian Residential Zones and asks the key question: are the new Vic res zones sufficiently reformed, or should we be further reforming?
Urban design is an integral component of the work we do here at DLA, and it is important to occasionally 'brush up' on the techniques and abilities we employ in urban design - including hand drawing. We were recently lucky enough to be visited by Geoffrey Falk (a renowned local Melbourne-based architect and illustrator whose amazing Melbourne-centric urban sketches have adorned many structure plans, development proposals and visioning materials) who shared his insight on urban sketching and his particular drawing style with the team.
By Julia Moiso, Assistant Planner, David Lock Associates
Changes to NSW planning legislation are being presented by the State Government as a means to increase housing supply in Sydney. The proposed amendments to the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act (EP&A Act) will change the way that development applications are assessed.
David Lock Associates is pleased to announce the promotion of two of our senior staff members to Associate. We would also like to extend a welcome to our most recent employee.
Better Apartment Design Standards Released
The Victorian State Government has recently released its final version of the Better Apartment Design Standards (BADS) following exhibition of a hotly-discussed draft set of guidelines exhibitions. Released on Saturday, the new design standards appear to have responded to significant industry feedback (including submissions from DLA) and will influence new apartment development across Melbourne from March 2017 onwards.
DLA’s Mark Sheppard was recently commended for his recent publication ‘Essentials of Urban Design’.
‘Essentials of Urban Design’ was described as “impressive”, “practical” and “fundamental” by the PIA VIC Awards Panel.
The book, released in October 2015 explores the principles of urban design and enables both planners and the community to engage with its content. It further communicates how a respect and understanding of urban design can benefit planning professionals.
A copy of the commendation can be found here.
Source: SGS Economics and Planning Rental Affordability Index
By Kirsty Smith, Associate, David Lock Associates
This week has seen the release of the national Rental Affordability Index created in Partnership by National Shelter, Community Sector Banking and SGS Economics and Planning. The index confirms that there are more and more people stuck in a cycle of paying ever-increasing rents, with housing costs exceeding 30% of low income households' gross income.
In the wake of Mark Sheppard’s recent post on the impact of the Victorian State Government’s recently released draft ‘Better Apartments’ design guidelines (and his recent successful industry presentation on behalf of VPELA on 7th September 2016, accessible here), DLA has provided a detailed submission to the design guidelines that acknowledges the need for the introduction of appropriate standards whilst recommending a number of amendments from a planning and design perspective.