Rob McGauran speaks about our changing city and the important role the community can play in helping shape Future Melbourne 2026.

As foreseen in Future Melbourne 2008, inner Melbourne is developing as a compact, densely populated place to live, work and learn. This trend looks set to continue as new inner urban renewal areas are planned and developed.

This extract from the 2014 Churchill Fellow report explores how planning policies can help improve social outcomes for those living in Melbourne's high-rise apartments.

To investigate planning policies that deliver positive social outcomes in hyper-dense, high-rise residential environments

Extract from Report by Leanne Hodyl – 2014 Churchill Fellow

High-rise apartment towers are being built in central Melbourne at four times the maximum densities allowed in Hong Kong, New York and Tokyo – some of the highest density cities in the world. This is possible because the policies used to regulate decision-making for high-rise developments in central Melbourne are weak, ineffective or non-existent. This enables the approval of tower developments that are very tall and that squeeze out the space between buildings, with little regard on the effect on the residents within, the impact on the streets below or on the value of neighbouring properties.

Increasing the supply of housing in the central city close to jobs and transport brings numerous benefits to the city and should be supported. The high-rise apartment tower plays an important role in delivering this supply. There is legitimate concern, however, that developing at these extreme densities will have negative, long-term impacts for Melbourne, eroding away Melbourne’s celebrated liveability. It will create a legacy of apartments that are of poor quality – homes that lack access to light, air and an outlook - and diminish the quality of the streets and parks below by blocking sunlight, increasing wind drafts and obstructing sky views. The quality of these public spaces is critical – even more so as these city residents retreat from their compact apartments to use the city’s streets and parks as their ‘living room’.

At the same time, the density of these developments is resulting in a rapid and unpredictable increase in the population living in the central city. These residents need adequate open space and community services to ensure that they can enjoy a good quality of life. There are currently no policies in place that link the density of developments to the provision of this essential infrastructure, resulting in a significant funding opportunity being missed. Incentivising developers to deliver public benefit through density bonuses is common practice in many cities and has effectively delivered parks, plazas, community facilities like childcare and cultural facilities such as cinemas or performing arts spaces. It also enables the delivery of affordable housing to ensure low-income earners are supported and have good access to their central-city jobs. This is good planning. Instead, Melbourne’s planning controls offer ‘cheap density’ to developers as they are able to build unlimited density with limited need for a community contribution. Not one of the five cities that I studied – New York, Vancouver, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Seoul - is choosing to develop in this way. There was general consensus from the planning and design experts that I interviewed who manage and study these established, globally successful cities that the densities being delivered in central Melbourne are too high and many questioned whether they could deliver long-term liveable outcomes.

We have highly competent developers and design and planning professionals in Melbourne. It is the lack of effective policies that is letting Melbourne down. The evidence from these cities is clear. Melbourne would benefit from the introduction of policies that:

  • Establish appropriate density controls in central Melbourne.
  • Establish density bonuses to link development to public benefit and incentivise the delivery of new open spaces, affordable housing and other community facilities.
  • Establish an enforcable tower separation rule.
  • Establish apartment standards.

This report also recommends investigating the introduction of two planning streams for large-scale development approvals that developers can choose between – an ‘as-of-right’ approval for meeting these controls (that can provide certainty to developers and the community) or a negotiated outcome (with community review) if the controls are exceeded.

Too much attention is given to the height of these towers. What is far more important in delivering good outcomes for residents and the broader city are the overall numbers of people living in a development, whether the apartments enable a good quality of life or not, whether residents have access to the open space and community services that they need and the cumulative impact of these developments on the quality of the public realm below. It is difficult to retrofit or demolish high-rise apartment towers once the apartments are sold. Any negative impacts will therefore be long-lasting and the opportunity to capture a public benefit will be gone. As the proportion of Australians living in high-rise communities in our central cities increases, it is imperative to act now.

How do you see Melbourne addressing growth and density into the future? What are the opportunities and priorities?