Kate Dundas, James Larmour-Reid and Phoebe Harrison from independent planning consultants, Planisphere sat down in their Fitzroy office to discuss their current projects and the challenges facing Victoria’s planning future.
The Victorian Government planning department has often been at the forefront of urban controversy. Major infrastructure, redevelopment projects and new high rise apartment proposals capture the public interest and inevitably attract a political agenda.
So intimately connected with legislative regulations, town planning rarely enjoys the industry critique enjoyed by the associated disciplines of architecture and construction.
The idea of holistic planning advocated by Planisphere is a refreshingly independent perspective. After all, robust conversation is crucial to avoid a site by site approach, one which is driven by media attention to focus public outcry on a project in isolation of a greater vision. The idea that Victoria needs an ongoing vision, one that should be independent of party politics is raised.
“The planning department changing every time the politician changes is really dangerous, the state can’t have a 10 year vision around anything.” It’s an uncomfortable truth.
Planisphere offered an alternative outlook for Victoria: “Imagine for example having a 100-year vision for Melbourne’s public transport strategy. Each government can fight over which bit needs to be done by who, but you’re working towards a common goal, not throwing the whole thing out every 4-8 years.
For Victoria, investment in public transport is obviously a key issue and we’re lagging behind in that regard. We need to find a way to get jobs out to people who live outside the inner suburbs. We’ve got a sprawling city of 4.5 million people, projected to be 7 million before long. I can’t see everyone coming to the centre to work on a daily basis and I can’t see that working in any other city that is as big as we are.
In addition, we have to preserve our open spaces and linkages so there are areas for social connection throughout greater Melbourne. We do do it pretty well in the inner areas, but in the middle ring we’re built out and the green wedges are under threat, the agricultural viability is gone so we have to find new ways of managing that land.
One of the advantages of Victoria is that it’s a compact state with great infrastructure. There are great linkages to the ring of regional centres within two hours, which are naturally growing, but we can support that more, we should be a little Germany with multiple vibrant cities.
Bendigo is thriving- replicate that in Geelong and Ballarat and Traralgon and we’re going to get a lot more dynamism and hopefully a bit of pressure off Melbourne as well.
We have wonderful regional cities and great infrastructure to them; we shouldn’t be pursing growth for growth’s sake in Melbourne. Chasing Sydney for population is a meaningless objective. We should be enriching our lives with quality jobs in regional cities where people can enjoy a lifestyle and employment and education. Making more of the assets we do have.
In the inner city we must take advantage of infill opportunities around Melbourne. There is 60 hectares of potential development land through Fisherman’s Bend and surrounding areas, we need to make the best of those.
Courtesy of Planisphere
Having said that, we need to avoid circumstances like Docklands where development was entirely driven by the private sector, we have to ensure we have the investment in streetscapes and public spaces to ensure we have less mundane, repetitive areas. It’s a challenge to build the texture we’ve got in places like Fitzroy that we love because it’s grown incrementally over time. However with adequate planning and community engagement it’s completely achievable.
One such way to create that texture is promoting more complexity in housing design and ability for families to stay in the city. Facilities, schools, infrastructure and medical services have to come alongside housing. Families stay and grow and age in place and that organic growth must be supported, rather than merely buying a lot and picking a house out of a catalogue that goes to the edges of your block.
Volume builders building a lot of apartments at once, that’s where you’re getting the uniformity. As a generalisation, inner city developments in areas such as Fitzroy are getting better outcomes because of the site-specific difficulties. The scale is moderated. We’re bemoaning high-rise, but it’s less of an issue in highly textured areas just outside the CBD.
A big challenge to creating a sustainable city is around affordability in the central areas including social and public housing. There is a view that supply will do the job in Victoria but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Small apartments that may be affordable to people that don’t have families and don’t mind living in a relatively small space is an appropriate part of the market. However, we also need to support housing for nurses and teachers and others providing essential services to live close to where they work. This means providing decent housing where you can have kids and go to school and go play in the park over the road. Not just two bedroom flats with one window at the front.
Another great challenge to Melbourne planning is the Australian dependence on driving. Parking rations adds a huge amount of cost to developments. Why would you need parking in Fitzroy? In Europe you would never imagine having a parking space in an inner city apartment. It would not be normal. Apartment prices would come right down without the $40,000+ built in for each underground car space.
Density in Melbourne is banded around quite a lot and it doesn’t have to mean high-rise with an unworkable kitchen and no light in your second bedroom. That’s not what density should mean. In Glasglow you’ve got 4-5 story buildings with massive apartments, and apartment living is completely normal, the choice is available and it’s not the case of compromising your quality of life for living in the city.
Technology is having an effect on this, at Planisphere we use Go Get as our business transport, so our staff don’t need to drive and don’t need parking. The public transport system is more accessible than ever from timetable apps on your phone. Uber is an available alternative to taxis.
But what’s really an issue is everyone working at the same time. When everyone works 9-5 it just overloads public transport. If we shift the working patterns to make it more flexible for people to work it would relieve the pressure of the transport system.
When it comes to the debate on apartment guidelines, it’s hard to argue against the need for them. However, the public debate is centring on the cost of what they may be. We need to be careful about rigidity, if they were to prevent buildings from being refurbished- former factory conversions are great reuse of assets for example- it would be a great disappointment.
Having a minimum apartment size isn’t necessarily that helpful. You might have a really well designed small apartment with great internal amenity that is highly functional while at the same time, have a poorly designed larger apartment. The question is of design, not necessarily size, and how do you measure that?
Amenity must be considered by what is surrounding the building, not just internal amenity. Developers must work with a contextualised open space strategy; social infrastructure needs to work together. Therefore, apartment guidelines cannot work in isolation. You could have a beautiful, well-designed apartment and go outside and there’s no social infrastructure within walking distance.
What’s the real key to a sustainable urban Victoria? Concentrating on local community. The community is still who you live beside, that hasn’t changed. Get to know your neighbours. Get on your bike. Get out of the car.
Courtesy of Planisphere
Planisphere is currently involved in three major landscape assessments in lower Murray encompassing a huge area around Mildura down to Swan Hill, another in Western Victoria from the Western Highway north.
They map landscape character and highlight risks for land use viability, highlighting landscapes that need to be protected and provide recommendations on how change can be facilitated in the planning scheme, in a way that is sensitive to the landscape and local communities.