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Monday Melbourne: CXV, March 2006
Russell Degnan

It is always odd, how sometimes clouds produce amazing colours, and sometimes -- like now -- the dullest greys. This from my window, November 2005

Melbourne 27th March, 2006 19:35:54   [#] [1 comment] 

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

Book Club 25th March, 2006 18:58:31   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CXIV, March 2006
Russell Degnan

St. Mary Star of the Sea. North Melbourne Taken March 2006

Melbourne 20th March, 2006 23:30:18   [#] [0 comments] 

Heritage protection for our Planning legislation
Russell Degnan

The February edition of Planning News [1] was interesting because it included not one but two underwhelming articles on the Productivity Commission report on Heritage places. While both Marcus Spiller and Chris Gallagher were quick to point out that the report recommended that private properties not be put on the market without the owner's consent, neither bothered to explain why, even, in Gallagher's case, going so far as to distort the key findings in a way that ignores the most important one.

For what it is worth, that was as follows:

"Prescriptive regulation can lead to ineffective, inefficient and inequitable outcomes, particularly for less significant (marginal) places. Typically, the regulations restrict development and use, which can inappropriately and unnecessarily erode property rights and values. There is little, or no:

- restraint on the tendency to list all properties identified with heritage values, irrespective of degree of significance; and

consideration of the added conservation costs (of operation, maintenance and use restrictions)."

This is subtantially broader than merely saying that "statutory listing of individual places can create unfair burdens on owners". It points to fundamental flaws in the current process listing of properties that seriously question whether heritage is providing a net community benefit.

The rest of her article is no better, from somehow claiming that the PC view:

"Heritage controls are seen, on the other hand, as restrictions which have an impact on a property's potential uses and capital value, generating community-wide benefits at the expense of the owner"

is different to the Heritage Council view that:

"Heritage controls are part and parcel of the evolution of planning controls aimed at delivering community benefits and are now broadly accepted component of the operation of the property market in Victoria"

The only difference being a shocking acceptance of the status quo without reference to its flaws and side-effects.

What is far more relevant, is that unless we hold some expectation that the heritage rules will change in the future, heritage listing is theoretically forever. The fact that only 5% of owners complain about being listed is irrelevant over the long-term. Owners will generally be in favour of listing because they (like their neighbours) support the current streetscape staying the same. However, future residents and developers (which are really potential residents), will not necessarily hold the same view, be it two, forty, or four-hundred years hence. The fact that the current community supports strong heritage controls, or that most current owners don't request funding support, is equally irrelevant. At some point, the cost of heritage protection will fall on someone, in ownership of an under-developed property, and with very little scope for improvements (even moderate ones) that have been the norm in every city in the world until very, very recently.[2]


Marcus Spiller takes a different tack, equally conservative, but in a way that aims to protect planners from having to consider releasing the reins of power. He argues that Australia has no fundamental development rights, but rather, they are "granted by the community". While this is right in a strict legal sense, it is also a furphy. If Victoria truly had no "rights" then the system would be entirely in the domain of political fiat and public protest. The existence of planning schemes, decision guidelines and VCAT are proof that regardless of the planners belief in their own godliness they are subject to legal restrictions, and development rights exist, if not in fact, at least as a reasonable expectation.

What the PC is saying is quite clear. The absence of proper development rights is raising the costs of development through inefficient bureaucratic planning legislation, and ill-defined community consultation processes. That this applies to areas of planning other than heritage is a given, but it is worth starting somewhere. Heritage, being related to matters of aestheticism and the preferences of neighbouring properties for historic styles, is one of the most arbitrary aspects of the planning scheme, and by corollary, one of the most in need of reform.


Which is not to say I agree with the productivity commission completely, but it is worth making these points:
1) Heritage imposes a cost on property owners for the benefit of surrounding residents and the broader community. There are dozens of potential ways to defray those costs using market mechanisms, some of which do involve negotiation with the owner. A further exploration of that can wait till another day.
2) Contrary to what the lunatic fringe of various heritage groups might think, the broader community doesn't want toy-town suburbs of old heritage housing, so much as an improvement in the built form. It is easy to forget that in the 19th century a lot of poor buildings were built because they no longer exist. As I have argued elsewhere, the best type of heritage is not strict listing, but a net-improvement requirement in historic and architectural quality. This would be very subjective, but is certainly no more subjective than current heritage provisions.


[1] Not online of course, who'd join the PIA if it was?
[2] A note too, on the call for "Commonwealth funding of large scale heritage precincts". No kidding, this is a disgrace. Shutting the gates on their own neighbourhood to development (thereby raising housing costs) is one thing, but to actually ask the rest of the country to pay for it...

Planning 17th March, 2006 23:06:09   [#] [2 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CXIII, March 2006
Russell Degnan

The West Gate Bridge from the Yarra. Taken November 2005

Melbourne 13th March, 2006 23:04:50   [#] [0 comments] 

Pithy Comments on Public Transport
Russell Degnan

Free Public Transport is ridiculously unjust, favouring existing infrastructure at the expense of old, and inner-city residents (funnily enough, also rich Age readers) at the expense of outer-suburban and country people. No doubt the same supporters will also look down on them for driving everywhere and not being "sustainable". It also overlooks the fact that significant numbers of p/t services are already congested.

Discrimination against outer suburbs depends on how you define an outer suburb. I find it hard to believe only $86m was spent in outer suburbs on public transport. According to the budget papers and Track Record, while useless for a decent analysis of cross-subsidies in p/t shows that trams (the quintessential inner-suburban transport mode), are being subsidised $136m to move 146m passengers, while buses get $308m to carry 94.8m passengers. The inner suburbs might be decently subsidised but at least it isn't wasted.

Fare evasion is a touchy issue. People want evaders hung, drawn and quartered (the government commissions surveys with this specific question), but hate the way transport inspectors operate (they'd like them hung drawn and quartered with more respect). As I've said before, collecting money for a service should be the responsibility of the service provider. Fines are not an appropriate way to collect money from people, and it should be up to the operators (or the out-sourced ticketing providers) to find the most cost-effective way to charge people.

Cycling might finally gain some currency in the endless debate over funding for roads against public transport. Given some 300,000 people live within 5km of the CBD and another 650,000 within 10km, walking and cycling should be the commuting option of first resort for a lot more than the current 2-5%. But it won't happen if it continues to be viewed as a third-choice option behind other, more visible, and more demanding, road users.

Developing around, on and over railways, roads, and car-parks is a great idea, if it is cost-effective. Melbourne is nowhere near as dense as Hong Kong or London, so it is not short of land. The sort of developments Greg Hunt talks about could happen, but don't hold your breath. You'd need to start taxing under-developed land before existing owners could see any benefit in doing developments of questionable worth. And that's before they hit the planning system and irate Hollywood actors.

Planning 12th March, 2006 17:08:48   [#] [9 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CXII, March 2006
Russell Degnan

Flinder Street silhouettes all the way to Docklands. Taken February 2006

Melbourne 6th March, 2006 16:56:58   [#] [0 comments] 


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