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Comment: Plan Melbourne must enshrine steps to purge our insidious car culture

We are nearing the first anniversary of the Andrews Government, they certainly have hit the ground running and set a lot of inter-related policy areas in a different direction. It is just a pity that the public debate around planning has boiled down to high-rise or skyscraper canyons versus monotonous "European" style development sham.

The two sides of that debate are analogous to the typical trench warfare of "left" versus "right" politics. It does not matter how loony or tory the left or right are, whoever gains the middle ground will win at the end of the day.

It is all a bit quaint and passé, really. And glosses over our real problem: our insidious car culture.

The first two explanations for insidious on state it is "intended to entrap or beguile; [to be] stealthily treacherous or deceitful". However it is the third meaning "operating or proceeding in an inconspicuous or seemingly harmless way but actually with grave effect" which describes our car society ever so succinctly.

Nightingale: when car culture stifles innovation

On October 14, an order at VCAT was made to set aside the City of Moreland's granting of a permit for the Nightingale development (6 Florence Street, Brunswick). Among the many paragraphs in the senior member's explanation of the order (and I encourage everyone to read them), the section which stuck out the most came under the heading "The convenience of private car ownership".

Paragraphs 112 through 118 make for particularly sobering reading, as the senior VCAT member used private car ownership as a convenience as part of his justification.

The private car is a very convenient transport mode in certain circumstances, but it is highly specific to where you live and where you need to travel. Brunswick is a vastly different beast to a middle-ring suburb like Glen Waverley or outer growth suburb like Tarneit.

Some suburbs are highly dependent on provisions for car parking as other transport and societal infrastructure is slow to catch up to the pace of development on the fringes (or simply non-existent). However, this should not be used as a justification for curtailing development innovation and entrepreneurialism in the way that it has impacted in Nightingale's case.

Buyers in the 20 unit Nightingale development will have signed on the dotted line knowing full well their purchase is not going to include a car park, and the location of the development in the Anstey precinct with all the services and public transport services at its doorstep would have also been monumental in attracting them.

The group of architects who are the proponents of this planning application are turning the early stages of the standard development model on its head: a waiting list is devised and then each is surveyed through one-on-one meetings and online questionnaires. This is not marketing trickery, it is a different way of doing business.

After one-on-one meetings with the design architects where potential buyers are taken through the architectural drawings, the potential buyer elects to be added to a ballot. The ballot is drawn and only then are buyers invited to sign up for an apartment.

This is what development innovation is: buyers are taken through a process so they are fully aware of what they are signing on for, effectively vetted to see if their values fit the development's goals. Sources have told Urban Melbourne that the 20 buyers who did sign up are a diverse bunch: singles, couples, downsizing retirees, young families with pets, generation Y, generation X; most of whom work in socially and environmentally enlightened professions.

They are classic early adopters and by looking at Urban Melbourne's analytics numbers, there are many more out there.

Consider this: since we published the Nightingale listing in our project database in October 2014 (through standard editorial process), this page has become the 30th most viewed on the site, with 3,934 unique views.

When filtering out non-project pages: only the super-tall Australia 108 (4,097), the skyscrapers Empire Melbourne (4,619) and EQ Tower (4,311), Whitehorse Towers in Box Hill (4,552), Capitol Grand in South Yarra (5,682) and the lower/mid-rise projects of Smith & Co in Collingwood (4,674) and Ikebana in West Melbourne (4,040) have had more views in the same timeframe.

Plan Melbourne should encourage development innovation, not hinder it

To quote Brent Toderian, former chief planner of Vancouver (bold, my emphasis), "We've understood in Vancouver for years that mobility flows from smart land use choices. The best transportation plan is a great land-use plan. That means mixing uses, in compact and complete communities, with strong, consistent urban design."

The recently re-booted Plan Melbourne under the "A more connected Melbourne" section has seen an update of the major transport projects the current Government is pursuing. Likewise it has two options for discussion relating to involvement with Infrastructure Victoria and including the Principal public transport network in the entire Plan Melbourne 2016 document.

If Plan Melbourne is to focus Melbourne's future development in a more node-like fashion spread throughout the entire metropolitan area then we need - scratch that, require - Infrastructure Victoria to advise Government on how to reduce car dependency and increase all other sustainable and public forms of transport in these areas.

Pardon a pun however if our insidious car culture can be so brutally used as a road block for new development in inner-urban areas, where buyers are more than willing to join a new community of car-free dwellings, then what hope is there in areas where car dependency is greater? "Balanced" transport investment will do nothing but maintain the status quo, it is time to enact slow progressive change right throughout the metropolitan area.

Transport should not be another bolt-on chapter in a document. It should be present throughout and Plan Melbourne must focus on reducing car dependency and creating a new transport culture throughout Melbourne, so we never again find ourselves in the situation where car culture is a significant barrier to development innovation.

Lead image credit: Wikipedia

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Discussion (11 comments)

Bilby's picture

Alistair, what do you mean by, "...monotonous "European" style development sham". Why do 6-8 story developments have to be "monotonous"? With that logic, it seems that much of the future city must be monotonous, since it is unlikely that the tower form will dominate our infill typology anywhere in Melbourne other than the CBD and inner-city over the next 50 years at least. Ultimately, this has to be the form that much of Melbourne's development future will take - it is vastly more energy efficient than high-rise, for one thing. It is also more cost-effective as a way of tackling housing and liveable neighbourhoods for a large city. For the foreseeable futrue, high rise towers are always going to account for a small percentage of our housing choices in Australia - so it is time that the "debate" turned to improving design standards for smaller buildings - including the eradication of the car from most of the new inner-city developments.

Nicholas Harrison's picture

Low rise development is not intrinsically more energy efficient than high rise development. There is evidence that well designed low rise development is more energy efficient than poorly designed high rise development.

Currently there are higher standards for low rise development so many recently constructed towers are not as efficient as they should be. If higher Higher standards were introduced for high rise development including whole of building energy consumption rather than just the individual apartments then the efficiency of high rise building can match or better that of low rise development.

Dwellings in buildings that are four storeys or higher now make up a third of new dwelling commencements in Melbourne and a large majority of those are over 6 levels. This is hardly a small percentage and this figure is rising fast.

Bilby's picture

Building commencements don't necessarily reflect housing trends over the longer term, though. To what extent have those figures been influenced by the (fast diminishing) availability of CBD tower sites? Unless more land is rezoned for high rise, it seems unlikely that even these numbers can be sustained into the longer term compared with buildings 6-8 storeys and under.

Nicholas Harrison's picture

If you have a look through the database on this site you will see there are are dozens of apartment tower developments outside the CBD in places like Glen Waverly Footscray, Sunshine, Box Hill, Doncaster, Ringwood, Frankston, Dandenong, Maribyrnong, Coburg, Moonee Ponds...

The only thing that will stop this trend is the imposition of planning controls, not lack of demand.

Alastair Taylor's picture

To what extent have those figures been influenced by the (fast diminishing) availability of CBD tower sites?

The City of Melbourne + Port Phillip part of Fishermans Bend has about 25% of all projects and 40-45% of all units on the database.

The middle-ring which buffers City of Melbourne from the outer growth LGAs - Hobsons Bay, Maribyrnong, Moonee Valley, Moreland, Darebin, Banyule, Yarra, Boroondara, Manningham, Whitehorse, Stonnington, Monash, Port Phillip (excluding Fish Bend), Glen Eira, Bayside, Kingston - have 65% of all projects and 50% of all units in the dev pipeline.

Alistair, what do you mean by, "...monotonous "European" style development sham".

The sham is the public debate, you're either pro skyscrapers or pro "European" development, no middle ground (i.e mixture like every fly-through video or built-form plan - for Fishermans Bend in particular - has depicted).

Monotony in the two forms that some people wish to pursue in this the sham debate:

E-VIL skyscraper monotony to frighten the bejeezus out of people!

Europe is low-rise and cool, therefore we should have it

I just think it's silly to dig in on either side - a mix of both is smack bang on the middle ground.

The MPA's own fly-through (from July 2014) shows variety and diversity in built form - not a single monotonous low or high rise form.

The Fishermans Bend update - hopefully - will reflect this original built-form vision: a diversity of built form, but the most important additions to the plan will be on how affordable and social housing will/can be included and most importantly how people are going to access the precinct.

Adam Ford's picture

One thing the data is VERY clear on.

Living in the top levels of a supertall apartment is a completely unsustainable building mode. It's outrageously energy inefficient.

The idea that sixty storey towers are more energy efficient than medium density IS COMPLETELY WRONG. And you don't need to be a genius to work it out. Because the environment at the top of your tower is windswept and freezing cold even when it's forty degrees at ground level.

Nicholas Harrison's picture

What data, where?

Bilby's picture

This, for a start, but also, here's am important question: how many 6 star apartment towers are there in Melbourne right now?

Nicholas Harrison's picture

Granted, old apartment buildings in Sydney can use 30% more energy that detached dwellings. That data does not indicate that low rise development is intrinsically more energy efficient that high rise development.

New houses in Melbourne must meet a six star energy standard. There are no mandatory requirements for apartment buildings which is a gap that should have been addressed 10 years ago.

Bilby's picture

Actually, "intrinsically" is the right word - high rises are inefficient in large part because of their services (e.g. lifts) see links above ^

Adam Ford's picture

Hi, sorry. I've posted links to this research elsewhere here before. I'll find them again this afternoon.

But it ain't rocket science. The environmental factors 300 meters in the air are significantly different to at ground level, and that's why it's ALWAYS inefficient to be doing anything living, offies, whatever in that environment relative to other modes. The idea that it could in any way be possible that my apartment 300 meters in the air is going to be more environmentally efficient than the one built in a significantly milder environment is just completely crazy unless you build the high rise of balsa wood and the medium density from thermowool.

And of course if anyone's interested in how transportation could be revisioned to better enable distributed CADs, here's the motherlode...

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