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A challenge to planning in Melbourne

By Max Walton

So for the second year running Melbourne has taken the title as the world's most liveable city. The Economist Intelligence Unit, which measures cities against a number of criteria including healthcare, education, infrastructure, culture and crime, places Melbourne ahead of cities such as Vienna, Vancouver and Sydney. However, staying at the top of the 'liveability' tree will require a shift in the state of mind of planners and designers alike. It will need a more creative approach to development from all sectors of the industry.

Concentrating development around centres and public transport nodes is a sound basis for strategic planning in Melbourne. The tough question is how this can be done while keeping the valued character and amenity that has made Melbourne such a desirable place to live. Housing people within the existing urban fabric and dealing with ever-changing pressures in population, the environment and infrastructure will require a certain degree of 'creative pragmatism' - simultaneously thinking inside and outside the box.

The concept of creative thinking is not a new one. The writings of Charles Landry illustrate the need to embed a ’culture of creativity’ in the way organisations, planners and designers operate.

In its Cultural Place-Making Strategy, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, London is seeking to place culture and creativity at the heart of its planning projects. Beyond embracing culture as an important element of place-making, the Council is hopeful that its Strategy will put creative thinking at the forefront of its planning and development.

Kensington and Chelsea are doing more than just building cheap studio space for artists and graphic designers. Intrinsic within the document is the desire to engrain a new creative direction within their planning processes. Their intention is not to prescribe overly detailed guidelines and rules; instead, they are looking to facilitate developers, architects, designers and artists to think imaginatively about development. They are seeking to 'broker' relationships between the development and creative industries and the local community. Council’s intention is to encourage a more collaborative approach to master plans and development proposals.

Such a stance raises questions around current planning practices in Victoria. Do planners have to be more pragmatic about development? Do we have the necessary skills to negotiate desired outcomes? Is there a need for a paradigm mindset shift away from ‘development control’ to ‘development facilitation’?

After all, a city is an evolving organism, and development and growth is somewhat inevitable. As planners, we need to be at the forefront of change proactively affecting it and negotiating outcomes that are desirable for communities as well as the development industry.

Current planning practices in Melbourne are widening the gap between the public and private sectors. The system has become worryingly adversarial. The number of VCAT hearings in relation to planning and the environment rose 13% between 2009-10 and 2010-11. Of the total number of applications 28% of them appealed a refusal. VCAT has become a second home to many of our pre-eminent planners, designers and lawyers. The ability to think creatively, within the realms of financial pragmatism and imperatives, can help us move away from this adversarial approach to planning.

The City of New York is another example of where a progressive planning department is actively facilitating change. Over the past ten years the Department of City Planning has shown what can be achieved by thinking creatively, pragmatically and positively.

The Department has not only thought about reshaping its urban spaces. It has also turned to new ways in which to work with their planning framework. They have actively re-zoned areas in all five boroughs, tweaked permitted building heights and offered incentives to developers in exchange for new parks. Importantly, the Department is working with communities to identify where there is opportunity for growth.

Source: Kwong Yee Cheng High Line Linear Park, built on a derelict rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan's West Side, has received worldwide acclaim. The Department’s role in facilitating this project expertly nurtured a community inspired idea. New planning tools including re-zoning and design controls sought to reinforce the existing built fabric and ensured the park benefits from access to sunlight and air. A new transfer mechanism enabled ‘lost’ property rights to be sold to other parts of the City, ensuring developer industry support.

The development industry in Melbourne also has a significant role to play. It is important for developers and their consultants to think more creatively and to gain a deeper understanding of the places where they wish to build. This requires an investment of time and commitment from developers, planners and designers. It also means being prepared to undertake meaningful engagement with the right members of the local community.

Recent research from Oliver Hume has highlighted an increase in the number of units being sold off-the-plan (Apartments – The Metropolitan Melbourne Apartment market June Quarter 2012). Whilst the intensity of development is not necessarily a bad thing it is interesting to note that only one in five new multi-unit developments have community facilities or amenities. The predominance of one and two bed properties aimed primarily at an investor market does little to create a mixed or balanced society.

The challenge being laid down by Kensington and Chelsea, to think more imaginatively about our developments is inspiring. And it is a challenge that both the public and private sectors in Melbourne should consider. The project examples in New York are proof that metropolitan planning departments, communities and the development industry can work together to achieve better outcomes for our city. They prove that it is not naïve to think that working together can unlock development potential and create quality places. It will take some courage and for some, it will need a change in their state of mind and approach. For others it won’t require too much change from their current practices. Likewise, some members of the development industry will need to acknowledge they have more of a duty to deliver quality products. Otherwise, Melbourne’s reign at the top of the liveability tree will be short lived.

Image Source: (New York Highline) Kwong Yee Cheng,

planning, healthy cities, visioning

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