Drawing the line around our city

Melbourne’s urban development is all wrong.FOR more than 10 years – December 1999 to February 2012 – I led the Committee for Melbourne. Decreasing density was seen by the committee as one of Melbourne’s greatest threats. Now we see the urban growth boundary extended again.
Nanjing Night Net

Over the past few months I have spent significant time in two cities that take a very different approach to density and public transport: London and Salt Lake City.

London is a low-rise city. It has an urban density more than three times that of Melbourne, but without skyscrapers. It does so by having consistent four-storey (or thereabouts) development across the entire city.

Those who object to the ”Manhattanisation” of our CBD and Docklands, may like this concept.

The fairly consistent density across the city is one of the reasons that public transport has less impact on the public purse. On the downside, thin roads and four-storey heights along most streets restrict the amount of light that gets to the ground, adding to a compressed feel in many parts of the city.

I don’t like the feel of compression, but there are pros and cons to the London option of medium to high density everywhere.

Salt Lake City in Utah has a population of around 900,000 and an average density almost equal to Melbourne’s, but very little public transport.

With much higher vehicle usage, and a particular weather-related inversion effect in winter, the city suffers from days of poor air quality. Public transport provision may help clear the air, but the retrofitting of public transport into low density areas is extremely expensive.

So the residents of Salt Lake City have little choice but to use cars. As fuel prices become more expensive there will be an adverse impact on the community and the environment.

What lessons then can we learn for Melbourne? Firstly, quality of life is improved with good public transport. Secondly, retrofitting public transport into low density cities is extremely expensive. Far better to build public transport as one builds a city. Thirdly, while there can be too much density – as in Mumbai – there can also be too little density as in our outer suburbs.

Why is Melbourne allowing the government to extend the urban growth boundary rather than looking for better urban density designs? Is it because we fear the voices of the anti-development set? And if we do opt to extend the city, why are we doing so without provision of decent public transport – particularly light rail, trains and trams – to these new areas?

In effect, Melbourne is becoming like Salt Lake City – with ultra low densities and poor public transport. The cost of this is not felt just by those living on the urban fringe. Food prices for all may go up as market gardens get gobbled up. Poorer air quality – as more car journeys take place in the outer urban areas – impacts everybody and inner urban congestion increases.

So should we go for the London option – four to five storeys everywhere?

In my opinion, variety is better. Areas of high density in places such as the CBD, Docklands and Fishermans Bend make sense and provide high density options for people who prefer it.

Four-storey medium density design around public transport nodes also makes sense. Likewise, having suburban streets with lower density makes sense to give people different living options – provided that public transport and service provision are as readily available as they are in established suburbs. We must demand and be prepared to pay for these provisions in outer suburbs too.

What we should not do is extend the urban boundary. It may give a perception of doing something, but without thinking about public transport and services and what such lack of foresight may bring, it impacts on all residents of Melbourne.

Rather than taking the hard solution to consult with the community and determine where our density mixes are going, we are again simply extending our boundary and again falling into the trap of decreasing density – and that is dangerous.

Andrew MacLeod is the former CEO of the Committee for Melbourne.

Comment at The National Times.

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