Photo by Pat Whelen

It is no secret among readers and writers of this masthead that our cities have a desperate need for increased density. As many writers in The Fifth Estate have already put it, the challenge is not in gaining expert consensus, but in empowering that consensus to shape reality.

Down here in Melbourne everyone — from Infrastructure Victoria to the Grattan Institute to the state government in its own Plan Melbourne 2050 goals—has articulated the need for Melbourne and other areas of the state to build up instead of out.

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In fact, official calls for densification go all the way back to the Melbourne Metropolitan Planning Scheme 1954. And yet we have not only failed at this, but we have, over the past half-decade, begun to fail harder, delivering successively lower and lower proportions of new dwellings within our existing suburbs.

Graph source: Infrastructure Victoria, Our Home Choices

There are a few reasons for this—key to which is a vicious circle of incentives, including demand subsidies like the First Home Owner Grant, as well as insufficient developer levies on greenfield development, with developers picking up a mere 12 per cent of the total infrastructure costs for new suburbs. Indeed, this leaves the taxpayer subsidising one of the greatest environmental harms, suburban sprawl, to the tune of $50,000 per home.

This is untenable. We cannot permit ourselves to incentivise wholesale environmental destruction, and by extension we cannot continue to see our planning system as a set of bureaucratic processes—instead, we have to see it as an engine with a moral imperative at its core.

Toward a system that says yes to good outcomes

We at YIMBY (Yes in My Back Yard) Melbourne — our organisers and our members — see the planning system’s core as this: a structure for delivering abundant homes where people want to live, and for creating a liveable, affordable, and sustainable city for all.

The best way to do that, as we see it, is to build Melbourne’s missing middle – the call at the core of our newly released report of the same name.

We can no longer have a city that is patches of towers joined by the flat carpet of single detached dwellings: we have to invest, instead, in creating a true urban fabric that empowers Melburnians to inhabit a connected network of walkable, accessible suburbs.

The report makes 13 recommendations to the state government to bring this into effect, ranging from tax and incentive changes to the broad upzoning of land around our city’s train and tram networks for six storeys, with strong incentives for 10 per cent tangible social housing within each build.

The proposed placement of the six-storey, mixed-use missing middle zone, creating an interconnected network of 1922 walkable neighbourhoods around transit. Image:

As the Victorian government seeks to redraw the planning system over the coming year, this redrawing must be done from first principles, incentivising the things we want (density, amenity, sustainability), and disincentivising the things we don’t (sprawl, car-centric planning, low-quality builds).

For the love of the city

Traditional reports, however, do not remake a city alone.

There is a large, disillusioned public out there that is our responsibility to educate on the strong benefits of inner-city density.

For all the sober analyses of Melbourne’s urban form, what’s been missing for decades is a compelling positive vision of what life in a denser Melbourne could be. Without this positive vision, it is too easy for people to see any new development first and foremost as a risk, rather than another brick in a positive, progressive urban fabric.

In the Missing Middle report, we call this sentiment “urban optimism”, underpinned by

believing in the city. [Urban optimism is] about a passion for people, and for the incredible things that happen when they come together. By building Melbourne’s Missing Middle, we can empower more people to live close to each other, to share in the energy of the city, and to live securely in the places they want to live.

Our team put together this proposal out of deep love for this city, and deep love for all the incredible things that happen here every day.

The coalition of YIMBY Melbourne members—well over 100 at the time of writing—want to see a bigger city, a city for everyone, a city of housing abundance. The ideas we put forth in this document are the first step toward making that a reality.

For too long, we have fuelled a planning system that mostly delivers just two things: low-amenity suburban sprawl, and imposing towers. This has seeded distrust. People do not believe in good planning outcomes because they so rarely see them.

But good outcomes are possible. A more sustainable, walkable, and liveable urban fabric is possible. We can create a permissive planning system that embraces mixed-use, liveable developments across our whole city, not just in Fitzroy and her cousins, and we can make this kind of lifestyle abundant and affordable for everyone who wants to live here.

New developments across Melbourne are slowly showing people that this is possible, and as the Better Apartment Design Standards and National Construction Code come into effect, we will see more and more examples of the great planning outcomes greatly needed to future-proof our city. The reform of our planning system must codify these kinds of sustainable, medium-dense outcomes as the primary result that we as a city will nurture for decades to come.

Melbourne is a truly wonderful city, and it’s precisely because the YIMBY Melbourne team loves this city so much that we want to share it with as many people as possible.  Creating a positive vision of density, embracing the recommendations of our report, and building Melbourne’s Missing Middle are the best pathways to get there.

Jonathan O’Brien, YIMBY Melbourne

Jonathan O’Brien is the lead organiser of YIMBY Melbourne, a grassroots organisation advocating for more homes where people want to live. He is also the spokesperson for the Abundant Housing Network Australia, and is an award-winning writer and software developer.
More by Jonathan O’Brien, YIMBY Melbourne

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  1. The “missing middle” ….

    This “viewpoint” is not unique!

    Western Australia – Perth and the “Urban area” is a classic case of the shortcomings and failings of Regional Planning and Local Government inadequacy. Both have failed their in their stewardship of housing requirements for our Century 21 needs!

    The “why and how” is deeply rooted in “factional politics” over the past 25 to 30 years.

    I consider that the the three tiers of “governance within Australia has much to answer for! “ All have pandered to the “NIMBY ism” phenomena at the expense of astute “town and social planning”.

    Don‘t get me going on commentary!! … of the integration of “town planning and climate change” – there in is another failure! … of major significance and influence!


  2. Building Melbourne’s Missing Middle, especially along its tram and main bus routes as well as around its railway stations and selected activity centres, is a fundamental ingredient of Plan Melbourne. What is needed to accompany the necessary planning provisions for medium rise mixed use and apartment style developments in designated locations within the middle suburbs is a narrative as to the benefits of putting the urban in the suburban where we all benefit from living in diverse, sustainable, well serviced and attractive neighbourhoods. Providing greater choice in the types of dwellings within your local area enables you to downsize or upsize as your housing needs and lifestyles change rather than having to relocate because there is little choice where you live today. Let’s frame the narrative so that we can all appreciate the benefits of building our marvellous city’s middle suburbs.

  3. All this assumes that we want more people or we need more people or we think it inevitable that there will be more people, with which we populate all these new homes. 99% of this discussion is about supply! Why aren’t we looking at the demand side? Chicken or egg???

    1. We are a wealthy privileged country – not sure we can shut the gates as global boiling takes hold and climate impacts grow on global on food supply, biodiversity and sea levels. This is a global problem, we need global solutions. Which means we need to make sure ANYTHING new that’s built is sustainable and resilient. But even more urgently we need to retrofit our existing buildings – commercial and residential – as these are our most important lines of defence.
      Imagine if all buildings were Passive House standard. We would immediately slash the amount of energy we need – including for renewables, which is getting harder to bring on line.

      1. No issues there Tina, but … Passive houses are very expensive and almost impossible to retrofit. Ok if you’re rich. Planning laws combined with too many people in rich countries are to blame. A key issue is over-consumption. All “wealthy privileged” countries like ours are guilty. We have the largest (and arguably the worst designed) houses in the world, with an average of about 2.5 persons per home. A hundred years ago that average was about 4.5 in much smaller houses. As a child in the 1960s the 8 people in our family lived in a 3 bedroom house, equivalent to 1 room per person. Now there are 2 or 3 rooms per person in huge houses. Less of a problem with flats of course but they bring other issues: too many ghetto like blocks that are thrown up (many with defects – “Top Place” in Sydney) without ready access to green space.

        People in rich countries need to settle for less.

        We can start by significantly increasing aid to neighbouring countries NOW instead of committing $10b per year for the next 40 years on submarines that won’t be in service for at least 15 years.

        The world needs fewer people.

        Sample Sources:,disorders%20during%20adolescence%20and%20adulthood. (unintended pregnancies)