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Heritage areas are in Neighbourhood Residential Zones where major change is discouraged_ Photograph Jenny Humberstone

New Residential Zones – Opportunity lost or found?

WORDS BY Lisa Riddle

The introduction of the new residential zones has been haphazard and unbalanced, but there are positives to be found. The planning and architecture professions can work more closely to ensure the potential positives are realised. It might even provide the opportunity to redress the significant under-representation of architects involved in residential development design, which at present is less than 10% of developments nationally, and in some Victorian municipalities only 1-2%.

The premise of the new zones is to remove the ‘flat earth’ approach in residential areas of the previous control regime and to enable differing approaches to residential areas dependent primarily upon locational and special attributes. Areas with good access and services are intended to be within the Residential Growth Zone where higher buildings and densities are actively encouraged. Residential areas with no outstanding attributes (e.g. without historic, landscape or character significance) are intended to be located in the General Residential Zone in which the controls are much the same as in the previous Residential 1 Zone. Areas with special characteristics are intended to be within the Neighbourhood Residential Zone where options for development are limited.  The positive in this approach is that higher density development should therefore be directed to the most accessible, least car-reliant areas of our city. All this is logical and reflects a sound city planning approach with the statutory grunt – and certainty – provided.

As with many such initiatives however, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’. Whether the right amount of land has been allocated to the right zones is questionable, and some might see the opportunity to properly promote locations for higher density development to have been lost, or at least severely underplayed. The implementation of these new zones has been criticised in particular for being overzealous in applying the Neighbourhood Residential zone to vast tracts of residential land throughout the metropolis. Many municipalities greatly exceed the prescribed strategy of the state government’s Plan Melbourne to apply the Neighbourhood Residential zone to at least 50% of residential areas. Therefore, a new residential development more than two dwellings per lot or over 8m in height is effectively restricted to the other two zones, which significantly often make up less than half of a municipality’s residential land. Areas designated for higher density and change are typically a tiny percentage of a municipality, in some cases less than 1% of residential land.

The complexity of the new zones cannot be ignored; navigating the planning system is now more complicated for the average developer or designer. There are now three zones where, generally, there was one zone to most residential areas, and each of the three new zones can have schedules attached that contain a number of variations to the standard ResCode requirements. Each Council can therefore have numerous different special provisions for different areas which designate heights, setbacks, minimum lot sizes, site coverage and even front fence heights. This will no doubt necessitate an understanding of the planning schemes, attention to detail and more conversations with planners and Council officers. The government believes the certainty provided by the controls will be welcomed.

The fundamental issues of achieving good design, desired planning outcomes and enough affordable housing for our rapidly growing population are those that planners and architects should perhaps be focusing. It is frequently the non-architect designed developments that cause the greatest concern to planners and the community, even when complying with the letter of the law, and so we have a common interest in ensuring that the broad policy of encouraging effective development in the right areas is achieved. We have a responsibility to ensure that new development is well designed for occupants, developers and the broader community, whether it is located within an established area or new zone. Finally, we all benefit from encouraging the use of architects more frequently for residential development.

The new zones introduce a new level of complexity to planning schemes.

Good design can challenge expectations. Conversely, design that results in community disapproval of new development is not ‘good’ in the overall sense, and unfortunately this type of poor albeit compliant design dominates much of suburban residential development. Striking that balance between innovation and the conservative values of some in the community is a constant theme in architecture.  Promotion of the benefits of new development and design, as suggested by the Editorial, is therefore an issue both the planning and architecture professions need to address. How can good design be better promoted to the general community?

The usual method of publicising awards, by the Australian Institute of Architects or Councils themselves goes some way to promoting the state of the art in the profession, but does not necessarily engage the general public. Maybe ‘open house’ events showcasing new medium density housing prior to occupation, or forums demonstrating the economic benefits of using architects could assist? It is a topic that could be added to the agendas of the Australian Institute of Architects and Planning Institute of Australia to establish joint initiatives.

Planners are ready to assist in understanding the new zones and plethora of controls, creating parameters for achieving great design outcomes, and finding ways to ensure that new residential development is welcomed by the community. Ultimately this process may result in more areas becoming designated for growth and transformation, which will benefit all sectors of the development, resident and design communities.