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May 2019

Is it time for minimum density controls?

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?

Reimagining the suburbs

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[1]. 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[2]. 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[3]. 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.”[4]

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.

[1] and City Limits: Why Australia’s cities are broken and how we can fix them, Jane-Frances Kelly and Paul Donegan




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