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What should we do about Melbourne?

By Alan Davies - posted Tuesday, 26 October 2010

I've been thinking for some time that I should set down what I see as the key high-level actions that need to be taken to ensure Melbourne can remain liveable well into the future. Given that the State election is about six weeks away, this seems like a good time.

I'm only going to look at the supply side. I'll leave the topic of demand for another day. For the moment, I'll assume that Melbourne really will grow to 7 million around 2050.

The actions I propose are not confined to the predominantly physical measures we're used to seeing in traditional strategic plans like Melbourne 2030 and Melbourne @ 5 Million. Cities can't be managed effectively without taking a holistic view  - that's because many of the apparent "planning" problems have deeper causes.


I start with the same overall goals as plans like Melbourne 2030 espouse - greater environment sustainability, equity and economic efficiency - but the route I propose for getting there is very different and, I think, much more likely to work.

I'm more concerned here with getting the policy right than I am with short-term political feasibility, so I don't expect either side is going to pick up these ideas and run with them in the election. That'll take time.

So, the key high-level actions I propose are:

  • First, the top priority is to convert power generation to low carbon sources. Electricity emits more than four times as much carbon as the passenger transport sector. Doing this opens up the possibility of sustainable forms of mobility like electric cars. It increases the political feasibility of addressing climate change by giving people greater scope to maintain their standard of living
  • Second, the speed of change toward more fuel and emissions efficient cars and trucks needs to be accelerated. The international auto industry is betting on electric cars and hybrids, but there are other options like compressed gas and more efficient petrol and diesel cars. It seems unlikely that a carbon price will be high enough by itself to effect change on a sufficient scale
  • Third, travel needs to be priced so that cars pay their full social costs, particularly at peak times when lower value trips crowd out higher value travel. Some trips will be eliminated entirely by pricing - we should not be shy about accepting this
  • Fourth, cars and trucks need to go slower and be quieter. Streets need to be attractive to pedestrians, cyclists and scooters. Non-local traffic should be confined to the principal road network. It's possible we might need to build some new roads to get traffic out of areas with high human activity levels
  • Fifth, the public transport system needs to be improved. The focus should not be on competition with the car but rather on serving the natural markets of public transport i.e. those without a car and travel to high density locations like activity centres.
  • Sixth, the key priority in public transport should be on enhancing connectivity and frequency. Some new rail lines with system wide benefits like the Melbourne Metro are necessary, but the main focus should be on more rolling stock and more buses. It is likely that buses will play a much larger role in Melbourne's future
  • Seventh, there needs to be a shift from subsidising transit trips to subsidising people. All pricing should be on the basis of full cost recovery, otherwise public transport is likely to remain chronically underfunded. Subsidised fares should be provided to those that need them (via concession fares), rather than to all users as happens at present.
  • Eighth, the supply of housing within established areas should be increased by expanding the range of locations where modest densities (e.g. two storey townhouses) are permissible as-of-right. The current emphasis on "strategic locations" restricts supply and doesn't directly provide an alternative for fringe settlers
  • Ninth, some households will continue to seek fringe locations. While I think the disadvantages of fringe living are exaggerated, densities in new developments need to increase. There also needs to be better urban design incorporating new urbanism principles. Traditional town planning concerns, like avoiding leapfrog development, need to be enforced.
  • Tenth, the appropriateness of activity centres policy, particularly the six designated Central Activities Districts, needs to be subject to thorough reassessment. A logical and defensible set of centres that are attractive to business needs to be developed. Some centres like Clayton and Kew should be CADs - and retrofitted with supporting infrastructure where necessary - and some like Broadmeadows are questionable
  • Eleventh, a Liveable Suburbs policy that addresses issues like noise and traffic at the street and neighbourhood level through better regulation and enforcement needs to be developed and implemented. It  will support higher density suburban living

I haven't addressed every issue here - some I've not looked at include water supply and sewage recycling, freight, governance and public participation - and nor have I gone into much detail. That's because I've largely stuck with actions that I've previously discussed. I'll expand my list and flesh it out over time, perhaps as the election campaign proceeds.

But what I think it all really points to is the need for a new and very different strategic plan for Melbourne - one that conceives of Melbourne as an interconnected social, economic and physical system.

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This article was first published on Melbourne Urbanist on October 20, 2010.

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About the Author

Dr Alan Davies is a principal of Melbourne-based economic and planning consultancy, Pollard Davies Pty Ltd ( and is the editor of the The Urbanist blog.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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