Hyperconnected regional settlements could take pressure off Melbourne and Sydney

UPDATED: The decentralisation versus centralisation argument for urban development has gone on a long time, with political support in Australia swinging back and forth like a pendulum. This week, fresh calls emerged for a decentralisation policy in Victoria that might see small sustainable settlements hyperconnected through fast rail. Could the timing be right for such an idea?

Pressure is building for consensus on decentralising our major cities and the fast rail that will make this possible, according to co-author of a new report aimed at sparking conversation on the issue in Victoria.

The report from RMIT, University of Melbourne and Monash was commissioned by independent think tank Balance Victoria. The aim of the Balance Victoria project is to collate ideas and discussion about decentralisation policy in Victoria. The project is supported by RMIT University and sponsored by Jay Grant and his wealth management firm Newhaven Group, which provided seed funding to Consolidated Land and Rail Australia (CLARA) before exiting in 2016.

According to report co-author RMIT deputy pro vice-chancellor, research and innovation, Professor Ralph Horne, the report is designed to reframe the discussion around decentralisation, and work out why it’s not happening in Australia.

Despite its historical barriers, Horne suspects the case for regional development is getting stronger as Sydney and Melbourne suffer from “broken models of urban development”.

These cities are growing at a rapid rate and show no sign of slowing. The current model of low density residential becomes inefficient at a certain point as people get stuck in lengthy daily commutes in and out of the city. 

Higher density apartment living is one solution, but Horne says every configuration has its limits.

“Not everyone should adapt to apartment living and nor should they.”

Another problem is housing affordability, with many millennials locked out of the home ownership market. 

According to Horne, pressure is building for a new way of planning urban development.

One model is well-connected satellite cities that allow people to jump on a train for 15 minutes to get to work rather than sit in traffic for an hour.

These towns would ideally hit the density sweet spot for optimal liveability. Not as dense as high rise living, but intensive enough that most streets have active street fronts.

At a manageable size, Horne says it’s easier for these settlements to have a self-sufficient water supplies, and generate all their own renewable energy (or even more). They can be purposefully designed so that they are walkable, and the streets aren’t given over to private cars. 

Critically, these settlements would be hyperconnected into Melbourne and Sydney. 

“In my mind I’m thinking of the networks of towns and cities you see in Europe, with populations of 100,000 or 200,000 that are thriving and hyperconnected into major cities.”

The thorny issue of high-speed rail

It’s notable that Australia is the only continent that doesn’t have high speed rail and is not investing in it.  

High-speed rail is one way to take pressure off congested urban centres, provided there are liveable sustainable settlements for people to live. 

But it’s hard to make high speed rail stack up financially in Australia. Horne says one problem is that there’s nowhere much in between Sydney or Melbourne for a train line to stop. 

A better way to build the line would be to do it iteratively by extending it to new settlements as they are built, leveraging value capture mechanisms associated with the initial developer contribution to build these cities.  

But will people actually want to go to these places?

Another barrier to new cities is the preconception that new cities lack character. But Horne says new cities are “like planting a forest, it takes time to grow.”

It might come as a surprise, but Canberra is used as an example in the report as a decentralisation success story. 

Selected as Australia’s capital city in 1906 for its location in between Sydney and Melbourne, its success has largely been anchored in its role as the site of federal administration.   

“New cities are often vilified for not being ‘authentic’ enough, dismissed as areas for those who can’t afford the capital cities, or criticised for lacking culture,” he says.

“Canberra now boasts a strong community and culture with state-of-the-art infrastructure.”

Horne says a more decentralised model of urban living will appeal to people who are otherwise stuck in poorly connected suburbia. It is an attractive option to all demographics, including Millennials. Unlike Baby Boomers, they are happier to live closer together as long as that means rich urban services.

“They don’t subscribe to the quarter acre block in the same way the boomers did.”

What about existing regional towns and cities?

Urbis director Nathan Stribley said that it makes sense to try and support the natural growth and character of existing regional locations around Melbourne, such as Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong.

These places already have much of the expensive infrastructure and services in place. In cities such as Geelong there are also emerging employment opportunities, meaning a commute into Melbourne isn’t necessary for all residents. 

Many of these regions are already growing steadily, and tend to service a broader regional community beyond their own immediate catchment.

Stribley says there’s pressure building in our major capital cities, with housing affordability a key concern, but any response should consider how much investment is required to support these locations. 

“How do you plan for them in a long term, economic fashion?”

He says building a new settlement from scratch is an expensive undertaking.

Thinking about decentralisation sensibly

The report looks at the history of decentralisation and regional development policy in Australia, and how it’s swung from one side of politics to the other.

“There is a common presumption that decentralisation in Victoria has failed due to a plethora of policy proposals that have never been followed through, from the Whitlam years to last year’s Victoria Future State discussion paper,” says RMIT’s Professor Ralph Horne.

“But that’s not true – decentralisation has never been given a chance to succeed because it’s always looked at in isolation.”

He says decentralisation needs to be integrated into a wider, long term network of policies on affordable housing, accessible transport, high speed rail, and long-range economic planning to be successful.

“So I think the advantage is thinking about this now and doing it carefully and properly, and not letting it become a private sector led race to the bottom.”

UPDATE: A previous version of this story stated that the Balance Victoria project had ties with CLARA, instead it was Newhaven Group that provided seed funding to CLARA, before exiting in 2016.

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  1. Given the impact that climate change will have on a nation already struggling with highly leached soils, salt, erosion, over allocation of scarce water, and unsuitable agricultural methods that involve massive land clearing the above approach should be dismissed as absurd.