It is time to accelerate change in housing density mix

The State Government’s plan for Melbourne has many Victorians now asking about the future size, shape and liveability of Melbourne. This is not a new debate.

In 2010, when I was CEO of the Committee for Melbourne, together with The Age, we launched Melbourne Beyond 5 Million, raising issues of the look and feel of Melbourne.

In the report ‘eight million’ by 2060 was proposed. The Committee was roundly criticised as ‘pro-growth business interests’ promoting ‘out of control’ growth for growth’s sake. This criticism ignored one crucial fact: Eight million by 2060 did not represent an increase in Melbourne’s growth rate, rather it was proposing a slowing growth rate when compared to the previous 50 years.

Now we find that the projections of an eight million population for Melbourne will come before 2060. The need to build infrastructure and housing choices is more urgent than even the Committee warned four years ago.  But are we, as some argue, heading for over-population and are we building the right or wrong new housing?

Australia remains one of the least densely populated countries on earth. Only Namibia and Mongolia have lower population densities. If we consider Australia’s arable land only, Australia still ranks eight lowest in density. By no international measure is Australia ‘full’ close to full or even resembling mildly heavily populated.

Our low density is why major issues such as the NBN, Fast Rail and others remain either very or prohibitively expensive to build.

Australia is also not dry as we think either. While Australia ranks 131 out of 169 in wettest countries in total, it ranks as one of the wettest countries per head of population in the world behind only Russia and Japan – although the huge geography makes harvesting that water a challenge.

Melbourne is also incredibly low density. It is less than 2/3 the density of London, less than 1/3 that of New York, and far lower in density than either Barcelona or Vienna – both smaller population cities than Melbourne.

Surprisingly Melbourne has been decreasing density for half a century. Some would look at places like Docklands and say ‘but Melbourne is already increasing its density’. This is not true. Even with Docklands, the huge spread in the outer urban area means Melbourne has seen a huge drop in its density from 20.3 people per hectare in 1960 to around 16.2 people per hectare today.

Why? The fastest growing demographic now is the single person household – ie single young and single elderly. Young people are not getting married as early, are having less children and older people are living longer. More people are living alone or in smaller family units. Our housing hasn’t changed to meet this demand of less people per house.

Our suburbs are great places to live. But do we really want to restrict people in our leafy suburbs to only those who live in family homes even if there are only one or two residents in those homes? Why can’t singles or empty nesters have housing choices to live in their suburbs? As young move out or old downsize, why do they have to keep a massive house to stay in their suburb?

I am a single man with no children. I have no intention of having children. But if I want to live in the suburb I grew up in, I have to buy a family size home. There are so few medium or high-density choices. As my parents age, they will have to either keep a family sized home or leave the suburb too. Few downsized options exist for them and almost no aged care options.

Ironically those, including my parents, who objected to a mix of medium and higher density options in our suburbs, are robbing from their grand-children enough choice to stay in the suburb as they leave home, and robbing from themselves a choice to age in place.

Even if our population did not growthis change in demographics would stretch Melbourne’s urban growth boundary further because we do not offer enough density mix in our suburbs to meet out changing society need.

Given the high cost of building public transport in low-density areas this city has not built enough for outer urban residents. The result: outer urban people have to drive and that clogs up inner urban roads. This massive decrease in density is what is driving massive increase in road congestion in inner urban areas – not population.

But lets say we accept the argument some put that Australia is ‘full’. Lets just play the game and say we will limit population. How?

Population growth comes from three places, interstate migration, international migration and natural increase. Australia’s constitution guarantees freedom of movement between the states. Hence interstate migration can not be restricted.

Natural population growth (births minus deaths) is also hard to control. We work hard at improving health and therefore stretching life expectancy and lowering our death rates. This has a population impact.

In other words the only significant way we can impact on population growth is through net international migration – a Federal and not State issue.

There is no likelihood of radical policies that will lower Australia’s population growth rate from the 50 year historical trend. Given this, shouldn’t we be planning a city based on likely population size and population mix?




One Reply to “It is time to accelerate change in housing density mix”

    We are thus confronted with a strange phenomenon: while economic aid and development plans meet with the obstacle of insuperable ideological barriers, and with tariff and trade barriers, arms of whatever origin circulate with almost total freedom all over the world And as the recent document of the Pontifical Commission Iustitia et Pax on the international debt points out,42 everyone knows that in certain cases the capital lent by the developed world has been used in the underdeveloped world to buy weapons.

    If to all this we add the tremendous and universally acknowledged danger represented by atomic weapons stockpiled on an incredible scale, the logical conclusion seems to be this: in today’s world, including the world of economics, the prevailing picture is one destined to lead us more quickly towards death rather than one of concern for true development which would lead all towards a “more human” life, as envisaged by the Encyclical Populorum Progressio….


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