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.
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.
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).
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.