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Feature article

Making Melbourne fit for purpose

WORDS BY Robert Nelson

So deeply have the new planning zones of Melbourne penetrated my unconscious that the Planning Minister himself, Matthew Guy, appeared to me in a dream.


For years,   I’ve mentally wrestled with the way that our urban planning has committed us to high energy consumption, thanks to its sprawling inefficient housing and dependence on cars. For months I’ve tried to imagine a reason for the new zones which isn’t just political pragmatism. By now the arguments are even rehearsing themselves in my sleep.

Commencing in inner areas like Yarra and spreading throughout the leafy suburbs, denser development in the main domestic zone will be banned. Individual councils were instructed to translate their existing zones into three new categories: the Neighbourhood Residential Zone (NRZ), which is low rise, low density, a General Residential Zone (GRZ) which allows for three storeys or four storeys on main roads; and the Residential Growth Zone (RGZ) which provides for higher density.

Seeking to reassure anxious land owners, local councils have used the opportunity to classify as much as possible in the lowest density, NRZ. In this panoramic haven of conservation, buildings are limited to a height of eight metres, a restriction imposed in addition to any other local rules, such as minimum setbacks and heritage overlays. Effectively, these provisions prevent most of Melbourne from increasing in density, which is already extremely low by world standards. Within an eight metre high envelope, it is prohibitive to create three-storey profiles, resulting in most of Melbourne remaining single storey with one of the lowest plot ratios of any city with a comparable population.

Given that the population is set to grow, the lockdown of the suburbs is bad news for more than architects. Low density means scarce housing supply throughout the most practical areas. Unless the other two zones expand, the quarantining of the inner suburbs means unaffordable housing in all but the alienated outer areas which have poor public services and a strong reliance on cars. The sparsely arranged dormitories of the outer suburbs also mean a city largely without urbanism where the streets are deserted, perpetuating the reliance on personal automotive transport. From a social and environmental point of view, the new zones entrench a retrograde wastefulness of resources.

In applying the new ultra conservative zone (NRZ) to most of its land, Melbourne decisively says no to the template of the world’s most beautiful and urbane cities, like Barcelona or Paris or Vienna. The template that it preserves is the one that it has inherited from the time of cheap petrol and few concerns for ecological protection and community development. With an expanding population, the suburban template of Melbourne is not fit for purpose.

Admittedly, some growth is contemplated with the introduction of the other two zones; but they represent a marginal proportion of Melbourne’s land. An expansion in population, which seems inevitable, will put pressure on developers to create more sprawl, continuing the pattern of the last 100 years over which an increase in plot ratios failed to occur.

Could there be a reason — I mused in my half-sleep — beyond a shameless pitch to the electorate? Little rationale has been proposed but terms like protection and heritage stand out, which are also values invoked by groups like Save Our Suburbs. This telling vocabulary always presupposes that new architecture of a denser complexion is inappropriate and a threat against which we need to protect ourselves.

The idea that new architecture might improve the city — especially in promoting accessibility of services, affordability and sociability, to say nothing of aesthetics — seems beyond political realities. It’s as if the contribution of new architecture to the existing urban fabric is a fantasy somewhere between the naïve and the evil. The new zones reassure the suburban community that new building projects will not be allowed to wreck the expansiveness that Australians have been brought up to cherish.

Perhaps because no compelling arguments in favour of the draconian NRZ have been published, my unconscious began to generate them on behalf of the Minister for Planning. Appearing in my dream, Matthew Guy produced all the reasons that I haven’t found while I’ve been awake.

Robert, you are right about sprawl, right about density, right about affordability and even ecology. So I more or less agree with your contention that Melbourne is not fit for the purpose. You also have a point about architecture and aesthetics, given that a lot of old protected properties are hardly architectural masterpieces and new architecture unquestionably contributes to our creative identity. We should celebrate new architecture and make opportunities for more of it.

The reason for the eight metre height limit in most of suburban Melbourne is to concentrate development on an urbanistic footprint rather than on a template which is inherently spread out or, as you would say, automotive.

If we allow nine metres in the NRZ, sure, it would allow for a third storey. But that won’t yield growth in accommodation to justify the outlays. All that it will do is make home renovations more luxurious and result in another room in the roof, yielding a yet higher thermal expense for prosperous owner-occupiers. The suburbs already have numerous setback provisions that prevent urbanistic land use. You can’t build up to the edge of the block, as you could in Paris or our own CBD.

Robert, you yourself have written about this problem and describe two archetypes of building. One you call alpha-architecture, where the edifice sits in the middle of the allotment, surrounded by open space, however marginal. The other you call E-type or engaged architecture, which occupies the entire block, maybe with a courtyard in the middle for light and air. E-type or engaged architecture yields much more accommodation and is also preferable for street life and pedestrian culture. Unfortunately, the suburbs are all built on an alpha footprint.

So if we allow nine metres or more in the NRZ, we’re effectively throwing good money after bad, consolidating a wrong decision in the past where we opted for alpha-architecture of the weakest kind. Even blocks of flats in the suburbs could have many times the accommodation if they were based on an E-type or engaged template. There’s no point encouraging development on the wrong footprint. It’s better to prevent it, because whatever grows on the current footprint will be sub-optimal and quite possibly doomed and condemned within 50 years.

Leave the suburbs more or less as they are: that’s our philosophy, which we’re now chasing with policy. If we encourage small incremental development on the existing footprint, the capital that the whole community needs for strategic development will all get soaked up on minor gains, where greater density is more achievable and more sustainable elsewhere. As you’ve argued, Robert, all Australian cities suffer from a low capital-to-land ratio, where capital is fragmented across small households who will never be capable of building more than an extension or a unit in the backyard. Usually, as you’ve pointed out, these improvements add negligible value to the existing sub-optimal stock, and only make an eventual demolition more tragic. It’s imperative that we aggregate our capital in building projects that can be sustained on a more optimal footprint.

What we’re doing is effectively putting a lid on suburbia, wherever development is likely to be naïve. Instead, we’re saying: build medium and high density in designated parts, which are likely to be on an E-type footprint and also close to services. It makes little sense to build a tower in the suburbs if it’s far from a train for city commuters. Otherwise, the tower will only serve automotive residents and will architecturally have to be conceived as half carpark, which defeats the purpose. Out there among the bungalows, it won’t have much urbanism about it either.

The new zones are about concentrating development where it’s sustainable, not where it’s capricious. I know that many think that we should increase density throughout the middle suburbs. In time, that too will happen. But what we don’t want is a piecemeal incremental development paradigm, where you put another dwelling on the block and only increase accommodation times two. We need a paradigm shift, so that we can increase accommodation times ten.

The truth is that throughout most of Melbourne, we aren’t yet up to a paradigm shift. To allow developers in Kew or Hawthorn to ignore all the setbacks and build as if it were Bologna wouldn’t take a new plan; it would take a revolution. We live in a democracy and no government can be totally out of step with the feeling of the people, who at this stage share a deep and undivided faith in setbacks and spatial separation from neighbours. We can be a little bit ahead of the people — and that’s what we call leadership — but if we’re at loggerheads with the will of the people, we won’t be in any position to provide leadership on anything. The public (our client, if you like) will sack us. So even if I agree with you that large parts of Yarra or Malvern should be demolished, that project has to wait till the people accept the idea that minimum setbacks are wrongheaded and trust that new architecture can build something better, like a contemporary version of Paris.

The only way E-type architecture can begin in Kew or Canterbury — aside from the use of commercially zoned property — is by acquiring the whole street block, not single allotments. If there are neighbours with alpha housing, there will be intractable resentment at the border with any development. So long as we’re on alpha allotments, there will be no scope for E-type growth, because it’s only human nature to resist having a huge wall against your property if you have an outlook onto it. To build your vision of E-type architecture in the suburbs, you’ll need a quantum leap, not a frivolous accretion of lumps and bumps that test the setback by degrees. You first have to eliminate the alpha motif of backyard jealousy by buying all the land within four streets and starting again with engaged architecture. Development has to occur with bulk real estate, which we will initiate in the future as ‘blockbundle’.  That’s why we’re directing Melbourne not to sink all our private money into the titbits.

So there’s your challenge, Robert. You and your architectural friends are the aesthetic experts: you have to get out there and convince people that a change is advantageous and necessary. I suggest that the best way to achieve your aesthetic plebiscite is to concentrate on the other new zones (GRZ and RGZ) and come up with quality architecture that inspires confidence among all the people who currently hate anything taller than eight metres and anything that comes near a fence. With the GRZ and RGZ we’re opening up the opportunity for you.  Now it’s your turn to win hearts and make the vision a reality.

Enough delirium in the dark! We thought it was time for Architect Victoria to examine critically the new zones in broad daylight. The contributors to this volume have the practice and experience to penetrate all the secrets and obscurities of our current situation, and do so with honesty that is long overdue. I’ve shared my dream with them but I haven’t asked them to be Melbourne’s oneiromancers. Their stories belong to them and to our city.

We begin with the facts. Colleen Petersen explains exactly what the new zones mean, pointing out that they support a trend at variance with research on public demand for medium density accommodation, to say nothing of affordability. Lisa Riddle further drills into the provisions of the new zoning and, while seeking a positive angle on the reforms, entertains similar fears. For her too, there is no assurance that the status quo will change, where ‘poor but compliant design dominates much of suburban residential development’.

Alison Cleary and Simon Wollan reveal how misguided the new zoning is by drawing attention to two beautiful and successful recent architectural projects that would not have been possible under the new system. This tragic situation is brought home to us through the tangible examples that we now know and love.

Melbourne now appears as the set for a saga of lost opportunity. With unusual poignancy, Ivan Rijavec narrates the big picture of urban development in its intransigent NIMBYism. Using the example of a project in Fitzroy, the NKYA Building, he takes us through the ordeal of the approval process, the compromises and damage caused by objectors, whose political clout stifles the creative growth of the suburb, along with its positive externalities, namely greater foot-friendliness, ecological benefits and affordability.

Sadly, the same NIMBYism that has sealed the suburban lockdown also cynically allows ratepayers gleefully to ignore the problem of affordability. Land-owners are delighted with rising prices. These are the shameless privileges of self-interest over community that underlie much of Melbourne’s old zoning, which survive unchallenged in the new.

Against the ubiquitous structure of self-interest that governs our city, the team at Breathe Architecture takes on the very basis of relations between architecture and society. Can we re-form on an ethical footing rather than remain enslaved by an economic mechanism that is good for industry but not necessarily good for community?

Finally, our edition comes with an eloquent message from the Victorian AIA president Peter Malatt, which is a stirring call to action. Peter describes ‘the inner ring of high amenity suburbs fossilised by restrictive planning heights’ but also questions various patterns of development that have tragically proceeded without the input of architects.

All in all, architects have their battles ahead, but at least with these contributions, we’ve done some thinking and we’re more than ever galvanised for collective action. Enjoy our Winter edition!

The dichotomy of alpha and E-type architecture that the dream Minister refers to is explained in Robert’s book The space wasters: the architecture of Australian misanthropy, PIA 2011.