Decreasing Density is Still Dangerous

For more information about the author, see here.
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Those against housing development ignore one critical point. People like to breed and therefore our population grows. Unless they can find a way of slowing population, we must plan for a growing city, as that is what will happen. Failure to plan leads to congestion and pollution.

An edited version of the following article appeared in The Age, Thursday 14 June 2012, here.

I have also spoken on this issue here and here.

Decreasing density is Still Dangerous.

For over two years I led Committee for Melbourne. During that time the Committee pushed had to improve dialogue and community discussion on density and urban planning. Given that the greater Melbourne area density dropped from 20.3 people per hectare in 1960, to near 13 by 1999, the Committee spoke strongly against the decreasing density of Melbourne.

Decreasing density is dangerous as it makes infrastructure like roads, public transport, gutters, power lines and all sorts of services much more expensive per person per kilometre. What is more, outer urban spread not only eats up valuable farm land, outer urban spread increases inner urban congestion. It does so as the outer suburbs are poorly served by public transport, forcing more people into cars that converge in the inner urban suburbs.

Decreasing density was seen by the Committee as one of Melbourne’s greatest threats, and now we see the urban growth boundary extended again, decreasing our density again.

During my time at Committee for Melbourne, some accused the Committee, and me as CEO, as simply being the mouthpiece of developers. Now that I am free from the Committee what are my views now?

Over the last few months I have spent significant time in two vastly different cities that take a differing approach to density and public transport: London and Salt Lake City.

London is a low rise city. It has an urban density over three times that of Melbourne, but without sky-scrapers. It does so by having consistent four story (or there abouts) development across the entire city. Those who object to the ‘Manhattanisation’ of the CBD and Docklands, may like the concept.

The fairly consistent level of higher density across the city is one of the reasons that public transport is less of an impact on the public purse and, at least within the M25, provides much better access to most of the city than automobiles.

On the downside, thin roads and four story heights along most streets restrict the amount of light that gets to the ground, adding to a ‘compressed feel’ in many parts of the city. I don’t like the consistent feel of ‘compression’, although that is a subjective opinion. There are pros and cons to the ‘London option’ of medium to density everywhere.

Salt Lake City in Utah has a population of around 900,000 and an average density almost equal to Melbourne’s, but very little public transport. With much higher automobile usage, little public transport and a particular weather related inversion affect in winter, Salt Lake City suffers from days of poor air quality. Public transport provision may help clean the air, but the retro-fitting of public transport into low density areas though is extremely expensive.

With low density, cycling is less of an option with a need to cover greater distances. With poor public transport provision, at least in comparison to London and Melbourne, the residents of Salt Lake City have little choice but to use cars. As fuel prices become more expensive there will be community impacts as well as the environmental impacts of so many cars.

So what lessons can we take for Melbourne?

Firstly, quality of life is improved with good public transport provision. Secondly, retrofitting public transport into low density cities is extremely expensive. It is far better to build public transport as one builds a city. Even in London the outer urban areas are less well served by public transport and retrofitting is tough. Thirdly, while there can be too much density like Mumbai, there can also be too little density as in our very own outer suburbs.

So why is Melbourne allowing the government to extend the urban growth boundary rather than looking for better urban density designs? Is it because we fear the voices of the anti-development set? And if we do opt to extend the city, why are we doing so without provision of decent public transport – particularly rail based light rail, trains and trams – to these new areas?

In effect Melbourne is becoming a city of numerous types. Outer urban Melbourne is becoming like Slat Lake – ultra low densities and poor public transport provision. The cost of this is not felt just by those living on the urban fringe. Food prices for all may go up as market gardens get gobble up. Air quality – as more car journeys take place in the outer urban areas – impact on everybody.  Inner urban congestion increases if more people live in the outer urban areas without public transport options.

So should we go the London option – 4-5 stories everywhere?

In my subjective opinion – and it is subjective – is that variety is better. Areas of high density in areas like the CBD, Docklands and Fisherman’s Bend makes sense and provide high density options for people who prefer that option. As do areas of higher density around activity centres.

Four story medium density design around public transport nodes also make sense, and provide options for people who prefer to live in that type of housing.  Likewise having suburban streets with lower density makes sense to give people those living options – provided that public transport and service provision is available. Transport and services are available in established suburbs, we must demand provision in outer suburbs too. We must be prepared to pay for the provision as well.

The one thing we should not do, is extend the urban boundary which may give a perception of doing ‘something’, but without thinking of the proper balance for the city, the proper provision of public transport and services and without realising that the danger in doing so impacts on all residents of Melbourne.

Rather than taking the hard solution to consult with the community and determine where out density mixes are going, we are again simply extending our boundary and again falling into the trap of decreasing density. Strangely enough, when freed up from the Committee for Melbourne, and being free to express my own view, I find myself saying the same thing –  decreasing density is dangerous.

For more information about the author, see here.
To email Andrew, click here.
To see Andrew’s speaking videos on these topics, click here

Your view is welcome. Please comment here.

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