Planning for Melbourne’s Future (60 Years On)

Magnus

The consultation period for the review of the Melbourne metropolitan strategy has just finished. I didn’t make a submission and haven’t really had much to say on the topic. This is despite my usual boundless enthusiasm for getting wound up by planning reform measures, and the fact that this seems to be the biggest thing on the planning agenda: certainly it seems to be the last well-resourced thing left happening at the increasingly besieged DPCD.

It’s hard to get too excited by the discussion paper, Melbourne, Let’s Talk About the Future, simply because it’s so high level and hard to argue with. There are a few strange details, some of which have been pointed out by Alan Davies over at The Urbanist (for example here and here): in particular, the “20 Minute City” idea seems both oddly placed as a top-level principle and weirdly un-nuanced as a foundation goal for transport planning. For example, because it doesn’t make any distinction between travel modes, it doesn’t really push for any notable level of localised service provision – a twenty minute drive to the shops is not accessible in any meaningful way. It also doesn’t recognise that travel budgets may vary a lot for different types of trips and mode choice. Many in Melbourne would happily live with a forty minute daily commute if it was on a well-serviced train, for example. The real liveability benefits might be gained from improving the quality of commutes to employment, but facilitating walkable access to local services, rather than accepting a twenty minute benchmark regardless of travel mode or the purpose of the journey.

The real worry I have about metropolitan strategy, though, is that it ends up not mattering because it is both too non-committal and pre-empted. For all the fuss that was made about Melbourne 2030 as a political target, it never said anything that was that dramatic: there are a few broad ideas that have recurred through metropolitan strategy over the years (well outlined in Lester Townsend’s very readable Managing Melbourne report), and it seems likely that the final version of this paper, too, will essentially re-state most of those. Certainly the discussion paper is generally high-level and uncontentious: perhaps that’s in its nature, but if bolder calls do get made in the draft scheduled for release mid year, there will be limited opportunity for the public to react to them. For the moment, though, the positions put are hard to argue with. The scourge of Victorian planning at all levels has been a widespread tendency (built into the very structural fabric of the VPPs) to simply list competing issues without working out how to resolve them in policy or spatial terms; the high-level nature of metropolitan strategy means it is a particularly susceptible to this problem.

Activity centres are a good example. Given the Minister’s apparent antipathy to traditional activity centre policy, I was interested in how the paper would deal with this. And it doesn’t, really: the “Polycentric City” idea seems to be an affirmation of activity centre policy, but there’s little in the way of detail. It doesn’t drill down, for example, to how different levels of activity centre might be nested, what the land supply for different uses in identified centres is, or talk about how much out-of-centre development should be tolerated. This means it doesn’t really help further the debates aired during the zone review process about whether liberalisation of industrial zones is required.

This leads to my second concern about the strategy: that it will be pre-empted. It is unfolding against a background of various other debates and reviews that are at least potentially profoundly city-shaping and which will beat it to the punch. On the infrastructure front, the government maintains its mystifying insistence on moving forward with the East-West freeway link, while Public Transport Victoria have released an ambitious and far-reaching network development plan. The zones review, as I have said, will fundamentally shape the way activity centres develop (or, perhaps, fail to develop). And the government has pushed forward with plans for a new metropolitan planning authority, effectively prejudging some important questions about implementation. Against this background, the metropolitan strategy simply doesn’t feel like the most important front in the planning policy debate.

All that is by way of prelude to what I actually wanted to post about, which is the film¬†Planning for Melbourne’s Future, which is now on YouTube and had previously been squirreled away on DPCD’s webpage. It was released ahead of the Melbourne Metropolitan Planning Scheme Report of 1954 (which is itself on DPCD’s webpage here, albeit chopped into dozens of smaller files; it can be downloaded complete from my planning history database). The video and audio quality are both a bit ropey, but they get the job done.

I love this because it says so much about what has and hasn’t changed in Melbourne over the last sixty years. We’re still messing around with some of the same issues talked about in the film: sprawling outer suburbs due to “haphazard growth” (an issue just kicking off in earnest in 1954); lack of infrastructure and services; traffic congestion; and long commutes. (And those who think Melbourne’s footy obsession is a creation of modern media should note its prominence in the film.)

Yet many of the other issues have changed. They were fretting about industry in the centre of the city (“sixty percent of factory jobs are located within three miles of the GPO”), where that has now moved to outer areas and thus exacerbated the city’s sprawl. The inner suburbs were at the time considered slums – no doubt correctly – but now that housing has been gentrified and we look to denser models such as those Victorian terraces as examples of denser building form that could help avoid the problems of sprawl. Nobody would be quite so overt with their proud display of road interhcnages (though, again, the East-West freeway link shows the simple appeal of grand road infrastructure projects has not abated). And, of course, we have hopefully moved a long way from the sexism of bemoaning that “housewives” are unable to get to the shops, and declarations that “every citizen should concern himself” with planning.

The other change I notice is the way that the strategy was undertaken and sold. The film is much more blunt about acknowledging problems than modern marketing material would be; these days planners are generally much more diplomatic about the way they describe their mistakes strategic challenges. It’s also notable for its emphasis upon serious and detailed empirical study presented in a transparent manner. The 1954 report included a separate 254 page volume of “Surveys and Analysis” (which might these days be released as a discussion paper) and its a document of impressive scope and detail. Today DPCD’s ability to undertake such detailed work is being constantly undermined, through a combination of resourcing cuts, shonky politically driven policy (such as the zones review), and projects being rushed.

Of course, the 1954 approach was very technocratic, with the “wise plan” handed down from on high by a bunch of men in suits. Crucially, the “Surveys and Analysis” plan wasn’t released as a discussion paper: as far as I can tell, it was released alongside the finished strategy as a background report. Planners at least make more of a gesture towards consultation these days (how genuine that consultation is varies from project to project). The difficulty is, because we so seldom go to the public with such rigorous work behind us, the feedback we get may not be as informed or targeted, and it is hard to explain to the public why we favour particular planning solutions.

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