Transforming Melbourne: Are Tall Buildings the Best Solution for a Growing City?

melbourne birds eye

Melbourne’s population growth shows no sign of slowing. Recent Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures estimate the city could become home to almost 8 million people by 2053. Plan Melbourne, the metropolitan planning strategy, recognises the need for urban areas to accommodate significant new housing.

The benefits of compact and higher density housing are well documented. Absorbing growth in dense forms can help reduce the need to travel by car, supports viable public transport and promotes healthier transport options such as walking and cycling.

Plan Melbourne recognises that Melbourne needs denser urban areas. Key directions of the strategy focus substantial housing opportunity and change around the central city, activity centres and other urban renewal precincts. At the same time a 2-storey height control will protect almost two-thirds of Melbourne’s existing low-rise residential suburbs from infill development.

The directions of Plan Melbourne are predicated on an approach that seeks to maximise the housing potential of sites in well serviced locations. Maximising potential is about delivering housing at all costs. We have a housing crisis to solve therefore our planning system must build more housing.

The need to concentrate housing density in a few defined places creates pressure to make the most of every available site that is close to a tram stop or shops. Little consideration is given to how the capacity of existing physical and social infrastructure is able to cope.

Forrest Hill in South Yarra is held as a bastion of urban renewal. The former low-rise industrial precinct has changed dramatically over the last decade and is now home to more than 3,000 people in 30 high-rise towers. Population is expected to peak at 7,000 once all the construction is completed.

However, whilst impressive rates of development have occurred urban renewal is more than just sheer volume of units. The rate of new housing has outpaced infrastructure improvements. The local authority, City of Stonnington, continues to lobby for major upgrades to the South Yarra train station. The narrow footpaths and tight roads are struggling to cope with the increasing activity.

south yarra station

South Yarra train station

It is essential to make the most of development opportunities. However, it is also important to consider other factors in order to optimise housing potential. A subtle but important shift in how we understand and determine opportunities for higher density housing is important.

Optimising potential is at the forefront of a new approach to housing in the latest version of the London Plan. Optimising, rather than maximising housing potential looks beyond the characteristics of individual sites and gives increased weight to how buildings sit in the local context, housing quality including type and tenure, and public transport accessibility. Central to this approach is debunking the myth that higher buildings are the only way to achieve increases in housing density.

A mid-rise urban form can deliver significant housing densities. Transforming Australian Cities (2010), a study jointly commissioned by the Victorian Department of Transport and the City of Melbourne, illustrated how the creation of four to eight storey public transport corridors could transform Melbourne. It also showed how high density does not simply translate to high-rise:

Cities such as Barcelona with 200 persons per hectare, and more recently Malmo Bo01 in Sweden, are examples worth reflecting on……The development’s density of 120 persons per hectare equates to about eight times the typical Australian urban density….. As with Barcelona, this low rise high density dispels the myth that high density requires high rise.

The existing iteration of Plan Melbourne fails to define higher-density housing. The lack of definition means the conversations around building height and density have become increasingly entangled. Our development industry continues to peddle an over-simplified assumption that the higher the building the higher the density.

melbourne cbd

Of course, tall buildings (generally above 12 storeys) have their place – particularly in the central city. But, for the vast majority of Melbourne’s centres a moderate built form would be suitable. The appropriateness of a building comes down to a limited number of perceived measurable impacts such as overshadowing at the Solstice or the impact of levels in views from the public realm.

The Plan Melbourne refresh presents an opportunity to change emphasis away from maximising to optimising housing potential and shifting the conversation away from building height and back to creating great places. The revised strategy can deliver the appropriate tools needed to assist local authorities in their quest to build great places:

  • A vision for our activity centres and urban renewal precincts – a mid-rise form is emerging in our activity centres and urban renewal precincts through local level structure plans. However, this has been achieved in the adversarial approach that epitomises the Melbourne planning system. Developers, local authorities and the community at loggerheads with one another where nobody seems satisfied. A clearly articulated vision that commits to a mid-rise form of buildings between four and twelve storeys high will assist local authorities in planning their centres. It could also go some way to appeasing community angst over the looming presence of tall buildings.
  • Density guidelines– A more useful tool to plan for future growth than building height. Density guidelines help measure the quantitative impacts of development helping authorities estimate future population and likely infrastructure demand. They can also assist developers in providing greater certainty on development potential with any potential increases attributed to improvements to public realm or infrastructure capacity.
  • A revised Mixed Use Zone – Increasing density around activity nodes and transport hubs is only half the job. Planning our neighbourhoods is about creating mixed-uses and active places. It is more than just about delivering housing. However, residential is an as-of-right use within the current zone meaning the zone generally fails to meet its purpose. Buildings that are labelled ‘mixed use’ generally contain little or no commercial floor-space other than a small cafe on the ground floor.

A solution to the housing crisis must look beyond just housing numbers and focus on the creation of great places. The success of the compact city theory encouraged by Plan Melbourne is premised on delivering neighbourhoods where people want to live. That can only be done if local authorities are armed with the best tools available.

Max Walton is an Urban Planner and Designer based in Melbourne. 


Images via Eddy MIifort, Wagon16 and Jorge Lascar.

This post is available in: French