Melbourne’s density debate reveals conflicting attitudes towards an appropriate location for increased housing provision, particularly when that debate concerns development of multi-level residential buildings. This seems to have captivated our attention again with a recent report by City of Melbourne Planner and Churchill Fellowship recipient, Leanne Hodyl. The report examines the challenge faced by Melbourne’s planning regulations to achieve delivery of a model of high-rise residential apartments in the inner city that provide satisfactory internal and external amenity goals when compared with policies employed by other “hyper-dense” metropolises (2015). The investigative report was vocally criticised by the media in early February and has no doubt occupied a fair amount of air time in many of our offices in the last few weeks. However, in the context of housing provision for a growing city there are more meaningful planning conversations that can come out of this report, particularly when it comes to the distribution and availability of residential space among a population. Rather than us focussing on the actuality of whether or not Leanne Hodyl’s hypothetical South Bank city block will occur as a result of market forces and developer will (i.e. a ‘because it’s possible it will occur’ sort of determinism), we should be moving towards a conversation about how we perceive an appropriate distribution of space, services and territory in the context of the city, its inner and outer suburbs.
Hodyl’s report, ‘an investigation into planning policies that deliver positive social outcomes in hyper-dense, high-rise residential environments’, found that Melbourne’s planning controls that are concerned with design and development of skyscrapers in the central city are significantly more flexible than other cities such as New York, Hong Kong and Tokyo. This flexibility is presented as policy weakness, where the perceived lack of complex regulations that address building density controls, building density bonuses, transfer of development rights, tower height tower form, site coverage, apartment size and access to light and air (including minimum open space) have the potential to permit poorly formed, poorly serviced and poorly connected residential developments. The conclusions of the report are not unfamiliar to Melburnians. In December last year The Age published an article that examined the ‘construction boom’ in Melbourne’s inner city (Lucas & Butt, 2014). While many quoted in the article were positive about the trend in terms of construction job creation, greater housing provision and a move towards inner city housing affordability, another side of the debate was presented as follows:
The apartment boom has also sparked concerns among planners and architects about the small size of many of the apartments being sold, the quality of their design, and the lack of homes being built for families who might consider living in the CBD.
High-rise development is mediatised in a way that makes us believe this model is only able to service a narrow market, with small apartments and not much scope for the array of population you may expect from a well-populated area. A simple Google search for topics of density and residential development in central Melbourne will yield similar results (and some with a ‘higher density is good for sustainability’ concession tacked on the end). What is concerning about this urban/suburban space paradigm as it plays out in public debate is that we begin to recognise a sense of disbelief or mistrust in the use of high-rise (or even just higher-rise) as a flexible model able to cater for a variety of end users and a sympathetic solution that can respond to the existing density of its surrounding area. This is essentially what Hodyl seemed to be arguing for—policy recognition for high-rise that enables a meaningful conversation (yet still flexible) surrounding the placement, appropriateness and ability for large buildings to assimilate with their surroundings while delivering good internal amenity for residents—a conversation she asserts, planning decision-makers are unable to have through the current policy. As planners we should be exposing the potential for a diverse and well designed strategic approach to high-rise so that we can reclaim the public debate in a more meaningful, engaging and less ‘finger-pointy’ way.
n the context of this ongoing conversation about Melbourne’s high-rise and high-density future and its ‘world’s most liveable city’ status media perceptions of density and the appropriateness of high density residential development in Melbourne reinforce a concept that high density is a discussion for the city; while suburbs have a greater claim to space, openness and self-determination (in the sense that suburbs have a right to reject high density while the inner city does not). In the 1930s, Louis Wirth wrote ‘Urbanism as a Way of Life’ (1938). Although somewhat notorious, there are useful sentiments to be found in the article that still resonate; the way we portray and discuss life in the city, particularly in a socio-spatial sense. Residential development in the city could be evaluated and better understood without a value judgement being cast on the urban or the non-urban in particular. That urban and non-urban ‘ways of life’ are actually interdependent entities and inextricably linked by technology is another useful concept to be borrowed from Wirth (1938: 5). Even in the non- or less-urban environment the presence of the city is felt; and visa-versa. Yet, our understanding of high-rise residential development as it plays out in public conversation appears to be that space can only be traded for amenity. Hodyl’s report could have sparked our curiosity for a different conversation about urban, semi-urban and suburban models of residential development in Melbourne as a means to bridge the amenity gaps and provide greater diversity in housing stock. The ongoing mantra that ‘city towers are the slums of the future’ (Davies, 2014 and 2015) and that high(er) density belongs in the city only serves to alienate the suburban from the city in a territorial sense. Let’s use the knowledge and well-meaning investigations so often hidden in our institutions to address public misconceptions about residential development rather than rejecting out of hand what could lead to a better and more diverse housing solution.