Growth, infrastructure and town planning: Cementing a sustainable future

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City of Melbourne (Image via @Teknorat / Flickr)

Amidst pressing concerns for housing affordability, population growth and social inequality, Michael Bayliss reveals how good (or bad) town planning underpins it all.

MELBOURNE AND SYDNEY could be heading for between eight and ten million people each by 2050.

We are failing to manage this growth by not building sustainable, resilient communities. Indeed, we are at the point where we risk leaving a disastrous legacy for future generations.

Good town planning is often not perceived as a high priority social justice issue in wider society. This may be because issues such as homelessness, income inequality and carbon emissions are considered more immediate, pressing issues. However, good town planning underpins so many of these environmental and social justice issues that ignoring it would be a major setback for creating long-term sustainable, low-carbon communities.

Professor Peter Newman at Curtin University has described our outer suburbs as the “slums of the future” due to their car dependency and vulnerability to oil shocks. Many Australian outer suburbs are also vulnerable as they often rely on the inner-city for employment opportunities and essential services. His solution is to build upwards, not outwards, by means of urban consolidation.

However, this fix has shown to be problematic. Professor Bill Randolph of the City Futures Research Centre at University of New South Wales has described most of the new higher-density developments in inner-city areas as "vertical slums” due to the very poor quality in which many are built, especially as they are aimed at investors and short-term renters rather than providing quality long-term homes.

The truth is that we are building both new outer suburban and high-rise slums in our capital cities at unprecedented rates and the scale is staggering. Melbourne alone will need two million extra residences by 2050. Due to this ongoing urban sprawl, the city’s food bowl could decline from 41 per cent of its current self-sufficiency to 18 per cent by 2050.

There have been so many skyscraper approvals in Melbourne’s CBD in recent years that the density in Melbourne’s centre is higher than the legal limits in Hong Kong or New York — and many town planners predict it will continue to grow. The building standards in Victoria are low by world standards, and many apartments are fitted with potential safety issues such as flammable cladding, imported asbestos and other cost-saving materials.

It costs a lot to house a city that is growing on average by almost 100,000 people per year. It has been estimated that – if national growth predictions are correct – infrastructure costs may amount to at least half a trillion dollars of the Federal budget over the next 40 years. Australia is currently five years behind in the infrastructure required by its current population and needs, which includes schools, hospitals, TAFEs, neighbourhood houses and so on. It is predicted that the Victorian State Government will invest so much in road infrastructure over the next 20 years that there will be precious little for much else — certainly not public transport, which is currently at peak capacity. Most other states are experiencing similar crises with their infrastructure budgets.

It should not be a surprise that big business mostly will not foot the infrastructure bill. Long gone are the days when property developers were required to input infrastructure costs when designing new suburbs. In the United States, for example, prior to WWII, it was a requirement for property developers to build new tram lines whenever they built new suburbs. These days, the public funds new infrastructure projects either through toll roads, rising utility bills or by rising house prices exponentially.

Otherwise, infrastructure costs are paid by our taxes at the expense of other services, such as schooling, health and social services. Of course, property developers and big businesses reap the rewards through ever-rising house prices, propped up by tax incentives such as negative gearing. Given that an entire generation of young people is being priced out of the housing market, current town planning practices are further cementing a future of inequality between haves and have-nots.

There is an environmental cost too. It takes a lot of resources and mining to pour concrete over our food bowls and the impact to local animal and wildlife has been devastating — and will continue to be so.

Good, sustainable town planning results in communities that are permeable and walkable, with easy access to services, jobs, public transport and natural green spaces. These communities offer a variety of housing options, such as medium density townhouses or larger family dwellings to cater for the fact that people have different housing needs and that individuals' needs change over the course of their lives. Good designs do not create a dichotomy of high-rise vs sprawl, nor do they rapidly demolish existing housing stock, as this creates displacement within communities.

Ideally, new buildings would be designed for high-energy efficiency, be built from sustainable materials, have affordable access to solar panels and rainwater tanks and include co-housing options. There are occasional examples of these initiatives already in our capital cities: Melbourne has The Commons in Brunswick (an eco-friendly high-rise in the inner city) and Murundaka (suburban co-housing). While it’s great they exist, the tragedy is that they are the exception and not the norm and when they do exist, they are often appropriated by developers as an excuse to raise prices and make these places exclusive.

The reality is that unsustainable town planning processes will continue as long as the main drive behind their construction is profit. Why bother putting effort into your investment property when you know it will double in value anyway? Both negative gearing and population stressors on housing supply will make this possible.

What are the answers? Town planning is a very complex issue and there are as many ideas to solve our issues as there are town planners. These include tiny houses, co-housing communities, permaculture villages — the list goes on. I believe change is not possible without the following:

  1. Significant changes to the following policies: political donations, negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions. This would mitigate the lobbying power interest groups have toward government policies on town planning. This includes property developers, the banking sector and individuals of high-existing wealth and capital in the property market.
  2. Increase the power of local government so that communities are empowered to influence town planning decisions within their own jurisdictions.
  3. Town planning policies in which minimum standard practice includes sustainable housing design, co-housing options, as well as access to public transport nodes, natural green spaces, and community services and gardens.
  4. A society that is less focused on “jobs and growth”, and more focused on creating resilient communities that are self-sufficient and contribute, rather than complicate, a path towards a low carbon future. To do so, we will need to have some tough conversations, including a discussion on population policy. It is very difficult to build indefinitely for a country that could be heading towards 42 million people by 2050 and 70 million by 2100, with no endpoint on the horizon. At the very least, population policy should not be influenced by the lobbying influence of big businesses.

Town planning design plays a significant role in the way we live and how we interact with our community and environment. Therefore, good (or bad) town planning decisions have an ongoing effect on many other social justice issues.

You can follow Michael Bayliss on Twitter @Miketbay83 and Sustainable Population Australia here.

Michael is conducting a workshop on 'Town Planning Responses to Climate Change' as part of the Sustainable Living Festival in Victoria, throughout February. To find out more, visit the Sustainable Living Festival website here.

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