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The Age published another instalment in its series on Melbourne and immigration-fuelled population growth on Sunday, this time focused on suburban sprawl. Like the earlier article I discussed on Monday, this one is authored by Royce Millar and Ben Schneiders.

The writers compile a list of the familiar problems of sprawl: it sterilises agricultural land, devastates bushland, imposes long travel times on residents, has poor public transport, and requires high levels of car ownership. They miss the one about suburban anomie, but introduce one about losing the bucolic charm of country hamlets bulldozed by sprawl.

There are more than a few arguable claims in the article that should be challenged because they seriously bias understanding of the issues. For example:

  • The emotive reference to “ghettos” in the heading is in poor taste, extreme, and wrong. A ghetto is a part of a city in which members of a minority group live, typically due to social, legal, or economic discrimination. Perhaps the subeditor meant to imply a slum, but that’s little better. The key characteristics of slums are insecure tenure, overcrowding, and decrepit housing. There are pockets across all of Melbourne that resemble this definition to a degree (even in the inner city!) but the vast majority of residents in the outer suburbs have secure tenure, plenty of space and relatively new homes.
  • The claim that “Melbourne already stretches 150 kilometres from Bunyip in the far south-east to Wallan in the north” is grossly misleading. Melbourne is like a starfish — there’s a central body with fingers of development along rail lines, separated by the city’s vaunted “green wedges”. The central, continuously built-up area is more like a circle of roughly 35 km radius; still big, but nothing like the claimed number. Anyway, Google Earth says it’s 101 km from Bunyip to Wallan, not 150 km.
  • The claim that the Urban Growth Boundary legislated via Melbourne 2030 was supposed to completely stop fringe growth is wrong. Melbourne 2030 envisaged about 30% of new dwellings would be in Growth Areas; the Melbourne @ 5 million update and subsequently Plan Melbourne increased that to around 50%. In any event, it was always intended the Boundary would be adjusted outwards when politicians thought it necessary. It’s now entirely symbolic.

Here are some broader issues I think should be considered when wrestling with the complex issue of outer suburban growth in Melbourne:

Fringe growth can’t be wished away

Governments who’ve tried have been conspicuously unsuccessful. All cities throughout history grew at the urban fringe (the only time they stop is when they come up against an insurmountable physical barrier, e.g. the ocean). Australians think of European cities as the old central cores, but they all expand at the periphery too. London doesn’t stop at the greenbelt; there’s another 4 million living in “overspill” towns beyond it.

Life in the outer suburbs isn’t the ‘sprawling dystopia’ the article claims

They might not appeal to Crikey readers or planners and they’re not perfect, but they appeal to a lot of other people. For the same money as a more central location, they offer more land and a larger dwelling, in most cases a detached house. It costs much less to build a house on a new estate than it does on an infill site. The decision is easier for many people because jobs and services are decentralised (half of all jobs in Melbourne are more than 13 km from the CBD). Many outer suburban workers are employed in the outer- or middle-ring suburbs, e.g. tradies, counter-hoppers.

Directing new residential growth from the metropolitan periphery to regional centres as proposed by Plan Melbourne isn’t a ‘solution’ to ‘sprawl’

It’s shifting it from one place to another that’s further away. Satellite suburbs like Sunbury and Melton aren’t “non-sprawl” just because they’re separated from the main built-up area by 9 km of undeveloped land.

Outer-suburban living requires compromises compared to living closer to the centre, but the downsides are routinely exaggerated

New developments are much better than those in the past in terms of density, mix, and timing of services. The threat to agricultural land and bushland is minor, commute times on average are much the same as those for residents of the middle and inner ring, and rates of car ownership aren’t much higher than in middle suburbs (91% of dwellings in Melton have at least one car, compared to 90% in Heidelberg). The proportion of dwellings with two or more cars is higher, but not by that much, 57% v 50%.

The key challenge in the fringe suburbs is to provide good transport links to the older parts of the city

Especially to the places where most outer suburbanites work, i.e. in the suburbs. Jobs are more centralised than population in all cities in the world; so are major services. The expanding fringe is relatively new so it necessarily has fewer jobs and services than older areas, especially in the early years. The gap starts to diminish over time (the middle-ring suburbs were the fringe 50 years ago) but that’s a slow process.

***

I’m not trying to be Pollyanna here; there are big challenges associated with fringe growth. That’s to be expected given outer growth areas accommodate around half of the annual increase in dwellings in the metropolitan area. Of course there are other issues that must be considered too, most of them familiar; these are some of the ones I think tend to be overlooked or underestimated.

*This article was originally published at Crikey blog The Urbanist

Peter Fray

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