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Is 'the suburbs' a useful idea anymore?

By Alan Davies - posted Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The Age reported yesterday that the Victorian Government plans to build high-rise towers over some of the suburban stations being redeveloped as nearby level crossings are removed (see High-rises plans for suburban stations to help fund level crossing removals). The paper reports the immediate plan is to build a residential tower up to 13 storeys above the Frankston railway line.

The apartment building with street-level retail would be built on North Road above Ormond station, and in a first for Melbourne’s mostly low-rise suburbs, will be built directly over the railway tracks. It would be significantly taller than other buildings in Ormond.

The Public Transport Users Association asked on Twitter if perhaps this is too much:


Development above railway stations is a great idea, but is 13 storeys (proposed at Ormond) too much in the suburbs?

Given the politics of redevelopment – and the preoccupation of Melburnians with building height – this seems a pertinent question. Even in the CBD, the height of proposed buildings is a perennial point of contention (although at much greater heights than 13 storeys).

The question suggests to me, though, that the idea of “the suburbs” needs to be re-evaluated. The suburbs once implied a sweeping vista of detached houses on large lots unblemished by multi-unit housing, non-residential uses, or people who were different.

But that hasn’t been the case for ages. We now know the suburbs – which for convenience I’ll define the conventional way as more than 5 km from the CBD – are more diverse socially and demographically than the inner city on most measures.

The detached house stereotype hasn’t been true for a long while either. At the 2011 Census, only 48.8% of occupied dwellings in the suburb of Ormond were separate houses, down from 50.5% in 2001. Flats, units or apartments made up 35.8% of the housing stock and townhouses made up 14%.

Ormond is in suburbia but it’s only 11 kilometres from Flinders St Station; it’s within the ring of suburbs defined by VISTA as Inner Melbourne (see map of rings here). In a city of 4.5 million – and projected to grow to 8 million in around 35 years – it’s now highly valued for the accessibility it offers to the rest of the metropolitan area, especially by rail. A lot of people want to capitalise on that accessibility and – as the Census numbers show – are prepared to trade-off “place for space”.


The key change though is the geography of jobs. Contrary to popular belief, the jobs aren’t all in the CBD and serviced by dormitory suburbs; the great majority are now in the suburbs. The “centre of gravity” of jobs is around 8 km south east of the CBD, in the vicinity of Tooronga station, East Malvern; it was 6 km 1981 (see Are the suburbs dormitories?).

The “average” job is around 16 km from the CBD, up from 12 km in 1981. Nearly a quarter of all jobs are more than 22 km from the CBD; half are more than 13 km away; and 72% are more than 5 km from Melbourne Town Hall. In fact the CBD, including recent extensions like Docklands and Southbank, only has circa 15% of all metropolitan area jobs.

And suburban jobs aren’t all low-skill or in declining sectors. Half of all the jobs in Melbourne occupied by graduates are more than 5 kilometres from the CBD; think of all those suburban hospitals, universities and office parks.

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This article was first published on Crikey.

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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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