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The massive new Toolern development planned for outer suburban Melbourne brings some of the key contemporary issues in planning into sharp focus. Toolern is a mixed housing and industry development planned for the eastern edge of the Melton township. According to the Precinct Structure Plan, when fully developed it is expected to cover 24 square kilometres, house an estimated 55,000 residents and host businesses that provide 28,000 jobs.
By any reckoning this is an enormous project. The Precinct Structure Plan covers an area around a fifth larger than the inner city municipality of Yarra. It is equivalent in area to a 2.8-kilometre radius circle. If the centre were Melbourne Town Hall, it would extend to Richmond Station in the east, Alexandra Parade in the north, Bolte Bridge in the west and Albert Park in the south.
Melton township was designated a satellite city in the seventies when decentralisation was seen as a desirable and feasible way of dealing with population growth. Combined with the existing 40,000 population of the township, the project will produce a stand-alone city of over 100,000 people, bigger than the current population of either Ballarat or Bendigo. In fact it will be as big as Albury-Wodonga, the great growth centre dream of the 1970s.
A number of key strategic questions spring to mind in looking at the project:
- Why are developments on this scale still being planned on the urban fringe rather than within established suburbs?
- Why has the remote Melton township – a satellite city – been preferred over a location on the edge of the existing built-up area?
- How will the project contribute to sustainability objectives?
It’s not really surprising that a development of this scale is envisaged on Melbourne’s fringe. While the Victorian Government’s latest strategic planning update, ‘Melbourne @ 5 Million’, envisages a majority of dwelling commencements will be within established suburbs, it anticipates 47 percent will still take place in growth areas.
The fringe offers space at an affordable price – house and land packages in these districts sell on average at a 30 percent discount to the metropolitan median house price. Melton Shire is a key location for lower priced housing, but there is also considerable demand from second and subsequent home buyers who want to maximise space per dollar.
The challenge of increasing the supply of multi-unit housing in established suburbs is so fraught politically that demand for house and land packages on the fringe is going to exist for some time yet. Given that reality, the task becomes how to provide housing in the growth areas that best delivers on environmental, economic and social objectives.
Toolern looks promising. The Precinct Structure Plan espouses the rhetoric expected of any new development in 2010, fringe or otherwise – walkability, permeability, transit-oriented development, employment self-containment, water sensitive urban design, accessible and vibrant mixed-use activity centres and greater housing choice, diversity and affordability. And so on.
Yet there is a fundamental problem that starts way upstream of the Structure Plan and hence is not a ‘fault’ of the Plan itself. It is this: the decision to place such a large development in a satellite city, rather than graft it on to the edge of the continuous built-up area will increase the level of car travel. The eastern edge of Melton township is already separated from Caroline Springs, the outermost western edge of ‘mainland’ Melbourne, by nine kilometres of green belt (or ‘green wedge’, as it is known locally).
That extra distance is a key reason why residents of Melton township travel considerably further than residents in other growth areas. According to the Structure Plan, 80 percent of the workforce travel beyond the township to get to work. Figures aren’t available just for the township, but the median journey-to-work distance of workers living in the shire (basically Melton township plus Caroline Springs) is 33 kilometres – considerably longer than the 20 kilometres combined median for other growth area municipalities.
The stereotype of commuters taking long train trips to the CBD doesn’t hold in the case of Melton (or any of the growth areas for that matter), because less than 17 percent of the shire’s workforce actually works in the centre of Melbourne. The great majority works at dispersed locations in the suburbs where even high quality public transport systems will struggle to compete against the speed and convenience of the car.
It could be misleading to put too much weight on the journey to work, as it only makes up around a fifth of all trips. Yet the same pattern holds when all travel is considered. The median cumulative daily travel by residents of the shire is 42 kilometres, considerably longer than the 26 kilometres combined median for other growth area municipalities. Almost all of this travel is by car – only four percent of all motorised trips by Melton residents are taken by public transport.
The Structure Plan endeavours to address this problem by contending that Toolern’s predicted population of 55,000 will be supported by 28,000 on-site jobs. There is little of substance in the Plan, however, to suggest that delivering this level of employment is plausible. Consider, for example, that there are currently 80,000 people living in Melton Shire, but it only has around 12,000 jobs, of which 40 percent are in any event filled by workers who live outside the shire.
Nor do the population-to-employment ratios of adjacent suburbs lend weight to the Structure Plan’s ambition. Two nearby older areas, Keilor and Sunshine, are both considerably closer to the city centre than Melton Shire, but neither have ratios that come within cooee of what the Structure Plan anticipates – Keilor has a population of 87,000 and 20,000 jobs, while Sunshine has 81,000 people and 28,000 jobs. The idea that jobs will simply materialise if land is rezoned and infrastructure provided is a fantasy. It is a common shortcoming of this sort of document, but it needs to be recognised that it is more spin than science. Getting jobs into Toolern, or any other growth area, will largely depend on factors that lie well beyond the influence of a Structure Plan.
The fact is the vast majority of Toolern’s residents will almost certainly want to drive to work because they will overwhelmingly work in the suburbs (and even more will want to make non-work trips by car). It is sobering to note that only 14.5 percent of Melbourne’s jobs are now located in the CBD and over 50 percent are more than 13 kilometres from the centre. A robust plan for dealing with the impact of peak oil and climate change on Toolern will primarily involve improving the fuel and emissions efficiency of Melbourne’s car fleet and implementing some form of road pricing. It will also involve improving public transport, ensuring especially that there is a high level of connectivity across the public transport system, so that the greater part of the metropolitan area can be accessed readily from Toolern.
Yet, when it focuses on its sphere of influence, the Structure Plan makes a good fist of providing residents with the option of using more sustainable modes, especially for local trips, and of making not owning a second car more feasible than it ever was in the fringe developments of past decades.
It does this in a number of ways. It co-locates a major activity centre with a planned new rail station (although the rail line won’t be electrified until sometime after 2016). There is an approximate 1.6-kilometre grid of relatively straight main roads to support efficient operation of feeder bus services, with bicycles in dedicated lanes on the major arterials. And the principal activity centre is complemented by three neighbourhood convenience centres.
The density envisaged for Toolern is consistent with the 15 dwellings minimum (per net developable hectare) target set out in ‘Melbourne @ 5 Million’ and its predecessor, ‘Melbourne 2030’. This is a substantial improvement on the historical pattern and in fact is much the same as old, inner suburban municipalities like Darebin, Moreland and Moonee Valley. For example, the gross density of Toolern is expected to be 2300 persons per square kilometre, similar to Moonee Valley’s current 2400 persons per square kilometre.
The diversity of housing proposed in the Structure Plan is encouraging. Dwelling types will include multi-storey apartments, terrace housing, apartments and studios above garages, semidetached housing, detached housing and mixed-use buildings (shop-top apartment and live/work units).
A maximum 54 percent of dwellings are to be conventional housing with 36 percent medium density (25 dwellings per hectare) and 11 percent high density (35 dwellings per hectare). The conventional subdivisions are likely to be a far cry from the quarter-acre block stereotype – a leading property company reports that the median lot size in Melbourne’s growth areas fell eight percent over the last year and is now 513 square metres (parts of inner city Yarra, such as Alphington, have an average lot size in excess of 600 square metres).
It is especially encouraging that the increase in density on the fringe isn’t solely planning determined, but is driven organically by the market. Consumers are responding to rising prices by downsizing.
Of course, whether or not residents take up the option of more sustainable behaviours, such as driving less, is a moot point and highlights the limitations of physical plans. For example, provision can be made for bus-friendly streets, but key issues like frequency, hours of operation and connectedness with the rest of the bus network are operational matters. These should ideally be tied down in contracts at the start of the development process, but even then are subject to the vagaries of the future.
Although it is mostly rhetorical, the Plan is occasionally very explicit. For example, it states that use of cul-de-sacs should be avoided except in areas where natural or physical constraints require them. I think that is too prescriptive – while they have often been used excessively (including in Melton), cul-de-sacs that are both relatively short and permeable to pedestrians are effective in making roads safer and quieter for residents without increasing travel distances or public transport costs.
Having forcefully dismissed cul-de-sacs, the Plan could give stronger direction in some other areas. There is a potential opportunity with Toolern to return schools to the levels of walking and cycling that prevailed two or three decades ago. The Plan should insist on a combination of segregated paths and physical treatments that significantly slow speeds on all roads, so as to give parents confidence that their children are safe from cars and trucks while traveling to school. This alone would not necessarily ‘make it happen’, but it would remove a major obstacle. I would also like to have seen the Plan provide incentives for implementing some of the standard new urbanism solutions, such as housing that addresses pedestrian-only streets.
Nevertheless, apart from the unfortunate decision to continue with the 1970s satellite city model, Toolern looks like a fair compromise between the realities of the market and the ambitions of strategic planning. Perhaps the most important message is that many of the really big issues, particularly in transport and employment, are not fundamentally addressed by mainstream land use planning. It is accordingly vital that planners and designers interested in better social, economic and environmental outcomes take a wider perspective on the causes of, and solutions to, urban and regional issues.
Dr Alan Davies is a principal of Melbourne-based economic and planning consultancy, Pollard Davies Pty Ltd (firstname.lastname@example.org) and is the editor of the Melbourne Urbanist blog.