The following op-ed appears in today's Herald Sun (p.54, 9 November 2018) as 'Urban density is not Melbourne's big bogeyman'


Adolescence can be an awkward and painful time not just for people, but cities, too. Some parts of them grow faster than others, making the urban experience feel lopsided and bittersweet. This is normal. We needn’t panic. But on the road to maturity, it helps to learn from those who have tread a similar path, avoid their missteps and have a commonsense plan for getting bigger and handling all that comes with it.

The Government’s recent announcement of a new framework for Fisherman’s Bend reminds us that politicians have the final say in how Melbourne will look in the future. But politicians of all stripes continue to send us mixed messages about urban development. We often hear how critical it is to keep pace with our growing population but, in the same breath, that increased urban density must be contained.

The parties are quick to portray density as the bogeyman. But poor planning for density is the real danger, and government and regulators have ultimate responsibility for that planning. To help Melbourne get it right, they should take a pragmatic and evidence-based approach including drawing on the experiences of cities that manage density well, such as Barcelona, Vienna and Osaka.

Barcelona is one of the most densely populated cities of the world, and also celebrated as one of the most liveable. The district of Eixample has 36,000 people per square kilometre; Barcelona city has 103 road intersections for every square kilometre. By comparison, the population density of Melbourne City is 19,000 per square kilometre and for Greater Melbourne it drops to 450 people per square kilometre.

Barcelona succeeds because it has excellent infrastructure that supports urban living including high-quality public transport and ample pedestrian access. Pedestrian piazzas and variations in high- and low-rise developments add to its charm. Barcelona’s liveability wasn’t achieved by rejecting density but through a thoughtful approach to urban planning.

Liveability and density aren’t mutually exclusive. Despite concerns about our growth, The Economist named Melbourne the world’s most liveable city for seven continuous years, only dropping to second place in the last survey.  

We tend to toss the issue of density in the ‘too hard’ basket. Government solutions to date make Melbourne’s core unattractive to developers and residents by imposing height restrictions, new taxes and levies and push to decentralise. We’ve slipped into the habit of regarding density as a problem, rather than as a challenge from which we can all benefit if we get it right.

Some local councils have considered introducing congestion levies on construction businesses operating in their area. But it’s a fallacy to believe that construction causes the traffic jams. The real cause of congestion is excessive traffic, a scarcity of planned solutions and planning chaos among councils.

Greater Melbourne has 31 councils and 31 potential ways of doing things. Councils impose levies on builders, who are already responsible for preparing and administering traffic management plans. We risk halting progress if we forget that developers add economic value to the city.

Using regulatory tools to slow the growth is a tactic with potentially serious consequences. The Liberal party’s newly proposed Population Commission could impose planning restrictions on local governments with inadequate infrastructure. The ability for the Commission to provide ‘capacity advice’ to the government could make a virtue of stunting growth. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Decisions about capacity are not about turning a population spigot on and off. The worst outcome would be a stop/start approach to development where government controls population through direct intervention. On the other hand, a commission could play a productive role if it were to aggregate knowledge, assume broad authority for council decisions on population and help design a comprehensive, cohesive density strategy for the future of all of Victoria’s cities.

Our prosperity has led to population growth, expensive housing and increased urban density, which is being offered as evidence of a city in crisis. There’s no doubt we need to manage density well, and that crime, heightened safety concerns, and inadequate public amenities can result if we don’t. But a bigger Melbourne will not result in a city predestined for failure.

It’s the quality of planning that will make the difference.

--Radley de Silva, CEO, Master Builders Victoria