Hauling in the sprawl
The Age, 26 March 2013
Melbourne is frequently cited as the world's most liveable city. Should you live within, say, 20 kilometres of the city's centre, it is not hard to grasp why Victoria's capital wins such an accolade. It is an eclectic metropolis, throbbing with multicultural diversity, with art and sport and music, with parks and architecture and a gastronomic cornucopia. But Melbourne has an insidious problem. Unrelenting, poorly serviced urban sprawl means life in the outer suburbs and on the fringe can be unduly grim. This is not how it was supposed to be or ought to be.
The city has burst what were supposed to be inviolable boundaries by as much as 50 per cent, making many of the joys of the city effectively unattainable for hundreds of thousands of citizens. The distance between the eastern and western boundaries has stretched to as much as 150 kilometres, greater than the journey from the city's centre to the regional city of Bendigo.
Melbourne – as do Sydney and Brisbane, for that matter – risks becoming a woeful tale of two cities or city of two tales; an inner core of opportunity and vibrancy, and a massive outer ring of relative disadvantage and exclusion.
Today's guest in The Zone is leading the efforts to stop Melbourne being dragged way down the liveability ladder.
Professor Roz Hansen, with more than three decades of urban and regional planning experience, is chairwoman of the state government's ministerial advisory committee for the Melbourne Metropolitan Strategy. The committee's work will have a huge influence on the health and wellbeing of countless individuals, families and communities in coming decades.
''People should feel disappointed and forgotten. We have an increasing number of people living on the fringe who have gone there for affordable housing, but in actual fact are suffering from a problem of affordable living.''
It is clear in our interview – the full transcript of which you can read here – urban planning has failed a large chunk of the population. ''Allowing us to grow further and further out, to actually perpetuate the sprawl, is creating an incredibly unaffordable, unsustainable and impractical future.
''We know that growing the boundary further and further out has not solved the affordable housing issue. In actual fact, it is creating a lot of social problems.
''We have got an increase in the number of youth out on the fringe who are not participating in the education system, who are becoming unemployed and becoming disillusioned with their lot. And that has a lot of knock-on effects in terms of social behaviour, domestic violence, youth issues that really are becoming fundamentally problematic.''
The financial struggle for homebuyers on the fringe, coupled with a lack of basic resources, particularly schools and transport, has a brutal effect on young people. Research by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research found that only six in 10 children from ''low socio-economic households'' in Australia finish high school, compared with nine in 10 from more wealthy neighbourhoods.
This is a troubling statistic: education is the best route out of disadvantage. It is, too, the best opportunity to thrive. Poor urban planning is directly linked to disadvantage.
Beyond the affordability and education struggles, many households in the outer notches of the barbecue belt and on the fringe are shackled by a lack of transport, shops, childcare and healthcare.
Hansen's solutions, mooted in a discussion paper called Melbourne, Let's Talk About the Future, include slowing or even halting the geographic growth and ''unlocking'' the capacity of existing suburbs, many rich in transport and other community and commercial facilities, by building more high-density and medium-density housing.
It also envisages taking pressure off Melbourne by promoting population growth in regional cities. Hansen talks of ''linking Melbourne to its regional cities – this concept of a 'state of cities', where Melbourne becomes an integral part of the regional city network that surrounds us, and building stronger linkages and economic and social connections with those regional cities.''
Public submissions in response to the discussion paper can be lodged with Hansen's committee before March 28. The submissions will be considered and a revised strategy released in July or August for public comment. Those responses will be assessed and a final blueprint put to the government towards the end of the year.
Ready access to jobs and education is a primary goal of the strategy; this means adequate public transport. Hansen argues there is insufficient time or money to put in tram lines and train lines, so buses are the solution.
''Buses give you flexibility. Buses allow you to be able to create short shuttle trips and longer destination trips and linking into other public transport nodes. Buses are really important … extremely flexible and adaptable, so adaptable that if you find that your patronage levels are skyrocketing, immediately you can start looking at the rolling stock and get more buses into the system.''
Getting public transport right is probably the most important part of delivering the fairness and opportunity that was always supposed to be part of the urban expansion. Hansen says providing proper public transport will generate a ''great social dividend'', a recalibration of work/life balance, by cutting the amount of time wasted commuting.
An associated notion is what Hansen's group is calling the ''20-Minute City'', in which work, schools, doctors, shops, parks and other amenities are available within a 20-minute walk, bike ride or public transport trip from one's home.
Hansen is enthusiastic about clusters of professions as a means of providing jobs close to where people live. She cites one local government region on the fringe from where as many as 90,000 people commute out of that region via car or crowded trains every day to access their job.
Existing clusters include Monash Clayton, with more than 60,000 jobs. Another, with tens of thousands of academic, medical and research positions is Parkville, with universities, hospitals and bioscience institutions.
The biggest barrier to providing decent facilities for a growing population, let alone those already here, is the cost.
''This is the elephant in the room. At this stage, we do not have the answers. There is a range of funding and financial opportunities out there. We need to look at the whole system of metropolitan improvement or a metropolitan building fund, something that is actually going to be collected amongst all landholders in Melbourne.
''This is not new stuff. We pay a park levy on our rates, which maintains our wonderful network of metropolitan parks that we enjoy and that are the lungs of this city. Why don't we start looking at a levy that is going to be part of the infrastructure building of this great city, and that is including what we call hard infrastructure – the roads, the airports, the ports, the public transport system?''
She believes the funding will ultimately need to include new sources such as a levy, as well as private investment and money from government budgets.
Hansen's passion is the design and function of cities, their look and soul. She is all about community and opportunity, and so low-cost and social housing are also part of the emerging planning strategy.
''We need to get $100,000 off the cost of a three-bedroom dwelling. How are we going to do it? There are a couple of mechanisms here that we're exploring. One of them is actually looking at construction techniques. And increasingly we think that modular housing and prefab housing will play a greater role in the delivery of lower-cost housing and more-affordable housing for people.''
She is studying whether social housing can be provided by making it a condition on being given the green light on some developments.
Hansen is looking to the future, but she believes we ought to re-embrace an idea that helped families manage in the past: ''Back in the '60s, we used to buy a small house and then as the family grew we built the extra room at the back or we went up to the first floor. As our household bank account grew, we grew the house as the family grew. We have forgotten that.''