As Melbourne Expands, Where Will All the People Go?

Melbourne is currently a city of 4 million people. By 2050, that number is projected to grow to 7 million. This means our population will nearly double over the next 40 years.

But where will they live?

It used to be the cliché that Sydney was obsessed with real estate. But these days in Melbourne, if you strike up a conversation with a stranger, eavesdrop at your local cafe, or leaf through a newspaper, the topic is bound to come up in some form. House prices, the next ‘secret’ affordable suburb, baby boomers with multiple investment properties and younger generations with none … the list goes on.

In the 90s, sea-changers moved to coastal towns for the lifestyle. The tree-changers of the 21st century might rave about the organic coffee in Woodend or the arts scene in Castlemaine, but scratch the surface even a little and the fact they couldn’t afford houses in the Melbourne suburbs will come up.

Sophie Gaballa, age 30, bought in Woodend in 2008. She was attracted to the nearby bushland and the ‘active community’, but price was definitely a factor. ‘I thought about being right in the city and having the benefits of the city lifestyle, or being completely out of the metro area and have the benefits of a rural town, rather than on the urban fringe. The rural town option was a clear winner, particularly with the more affordable prices.’ She points out that just four years after her decision, those prices are no longer so affordable.

In 2010, the top ten areas for home sales were all on the city’s fringe, with Berwick, in the city’s south-east, at number one. Other top ten suburbs were Pakenham, Frankston, Point Cook, Werribee, Hoppers Crossing, Craigieburn, Reservoir, St Albans and Narre Warren South.

Cheap houses, pricey milk

Rob Adams, director of design at the City of Melbourne, says we should be concerned at the cost of locating more and more people on city fringes. ‘The last thing we need to do is to keep spreading cities outwards, where building new homes requires new and very costly infrastructure’. He says it is ‘not credible’ for us double our current infrastructure – which we’ve built up over the past 175 years – within the next 40.

He cites Griffith University research that has found fringe-dwellers suffer real financial difficulties. ‘It’s fine for a house and land package to cost only $230,000 but does the customer realise they will spend 25% of their income getting to and from work and getting the milk? People don’t think of this.’

In his report Transforming Australian Cities, Adams looks at the hurdles facing a city already bursting at the seams, as it prepares to double its population. The study suggests ‘it will be possible to accommodate an additional 2.4 million people on a mere 6% of potential redevelopment sites dotted along the city’s bus and tram routes’. The developments proposed are medium density, between 4–8 storeys.

‘We need to break the myth that higher densities mean high rise development,’ says Adams.

The study also identifies the potential for a further 1.4 million people to be accommodated within existing activity centres and known redevelopment sites. These interventions would require only 7.5% of the land within the Melbourne metropolitan area to be transformed, potentially leaving the remaining 92.5% in its current form.

‘There is a clear case not to further extend the growth boundaries,’ the study concludes.

Planning the good life

Jane-Frances Kelly, Cities Program Director of the Grattan Institute, is similarly dubious about solving our housing problems by extending the city fringe. She cites the lack of public transport and reliance on cars in outer-urban areas as a problem for social reasons, as well as the more obvious environmental ones. And it’s not just about commuting to work.

‘We all know that relationships with others are crucially important in our lives, but we’re not used to thinking about the role that our cities play in this. For example, the way the city is structured, and how good its transport system is, makes a big difference to whether we can easily get around to see people.’

Leslie Edwards, who moved from Frankston to Kensington in 2000, confirms the importance of proximity to others, citing it as a major advantage of her move from Melbourne’s fringe. ‘I have lots of friends nearby, whereas I spent six years in Frankston and could not tell you who lived next door,’ she told the Age.

The Grattan Institute’s The Cities We Need report argues that a city’s most important characteristic is whether it meets all residents’ needs – including the need for social interaction, which she says are rarely considered in conversations about the future of Australian cities.

The ‘good life’, it says, is determined by not just basic needs like ‘clean air, food, water and shelter’, but psychological needs like ‘people’s autonomy and a sense of competence’.

Clearly, there are huge challenges ahead – and important conversations to be had about how best to face them. Those conversations are not just about where we live, but how we live.

At the Wheeler Centre next Wednesday, we’ll be talking Melbourne planning with Rob Adams, Jane-Frances Kelly, Trevor Dance and Jill Garner, as part of our free events series, Ideas for Melbourne. Bookings recommended.

City and Urban Planning (6.15pm-7.15pm, Wednesday 15 February) is the third in the series, which will be running all through next week, each weekday evening.

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