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Melbourne 2030: Planning Rhetoric Versus Urban Reality



Bob Birrell, Kevin O’Connor, Virginia Rapson and Ernest Healy

This chapter examines the history of city planning in Melbourne. It shows that the ‘compact city’ ideas which shape Melbourne 2030 derive from earlier judgements on the part of successive Labor and Liberal governments that Melbourne’s low density housing pattern must be curtailed. The influence of ‘new urbanist’ philosophies, particularly their support for medium to high density ‘village’ style housing, is examined. However, the deregulation of housing under the Kennett Government generated a strong resident backlash led by the Save Our Suburbs movement. When the Bracks Government came to power in 1999, it promised to protect established suburbia by the means of new planning regulations and by concentrating new dwellings in activity centres. This was the political foundation for the Melbourne 2030 plan.



The Melbourne 2030 planning template was released as a statement of government policy in late 2002. It prescribes a preferred pathway for the accommodation of an additional one million residents in Melbourne between 2000 and 2030. The addition of these residents, along with projected changes in household formation within the existing population in 2000, is expected to add more than 600,000 households to the city by 2030. Melbourne 2030 seeks to chart a fundamentally new direction in Melbourne’s urban development by determining the location of the dwellings needed to accommodate these additional households.

In the past, Melbourne has grown by extension of the suburban frontier, rather than by the intensification of housing within established urban areas. The result is that by 2001, notwithstanding an increase in the construction of semi-detached dwellings during the 1990s, 73 per cent of Melbourne’s households still lived in detached houses. By contrast, in Sydney, by 2001, 62 per cent of private occupied dwellings were in the form of detached houses.1 For many Melbourne residents, this low-density, low-rise suburban style represents the essence of the city and its famous ‘liveability’. The prevailing streetscape with the predominance of low slung bungalows, dense tree and shrub canopy and resultant green ambience, along with local open space for recreation, gives the city its sense of place and identity.

Fifty years ago, Melbourne’s metropolitan planners accepted that this was the way the residents liked it and that it was futile to try to change things:

It is obvious... that with 90 per cent of families now living in single family dwellings, and with 50 per cent of these dwellings owned by the occupants, the general pattern of housing in Melbourne has been set for many years. With this trend already so established in Melbourne, it must be accepted that this is the general desire here. Any attempt to impose some other form of living upon the people, however good the intentions and however sound the reasons, will certainly meet with failure (Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works 1954 p. 34, cited in Lewis 1999 p. 55).

Not any more. The Melbourne 2030 template is just the most recent incarnation of a radical shift in metropolitan planning since the 1980s. This shift seeks to reshape the city, away from its low density heritage towards a more ‘compact’ or consolidated urban form.


When the Cain Labor Government came to power in 1982, it brought new thinking to metropolitan planning. As with previous Victorian governments, it was confronted with the task of paying for the infrastructure associated with the extension of the suburban frontier. These costs tended to grow with the spread of the frontier, as the provision of arterial roads and highways, sewerage treatment and disposal, water supply and drainage extended in an ever widening circle. One possibility for paying these costs, then as now, was to impose developer levies which covered the real costs of these facilities. This is the way it has been done in Sydney. But this was not the preferred solution in Victoria regardless of the colour of the government in power. To this day, there is no up-front charge required from developers for sewerage or water headworks (for example, the major trunk pipelines servicing the local network which developers install in their subdivisions) or for arterial roads, and there are only minimal charges for social infrastructure (such as community centres).

On top of these concerns, the Labor Government began to piggy-back a conservation perspective which argued that the further spread of suburbia was not ‘sustainable’ because of its alleged over-consumption of energy, land and other resources. During the 1980s, government concern about the excessive energy consumption associated with low-density suburban development was more concerned with the spectre of fuel scarcity than with environmental conservation per se. By the 1990s, however, concerns about energy consumption had become strongly environmentally focused, under the catch-all rubric of urban ‘sustainability’. The Kirner Labor Government, describing ‘the future we don’t want’, warned of the environmental consequences if the continued outward expansion of Melbourne were allowed to continue:

Native forest, plant and animal species and habitats and productive agricultural land would be lost or degraded by urban encroachment. Air and water pollution would increase while the demand for energy, water and other resources would continue to escalate (Department of Planning and Housing 1992 p. 16).

These themes continued under the Kennett Government (1992–1999). As the Minister for Planning in the Kennett Government, Robert Maclellan, put it in 1993:

Our cities need to be more environmentally efficient and less car-dependent. More use must be made of existing services, as funds are no longer freely available for infrastructure development on the fringe of our major cities. Melbourne needs to be more compact, offering a greater range of housing choices with enhanced amenity, safety and lifestyle (Quoted in Huxley 2002 p. 8).

The tendency to broaden the rationale for urban consolidation was given added impetus by Federal intervention in urban policy in the early 1990s. The Federal Labor Government of the time, under the influence of Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe, added a further layer of argument for metropolitan consolidation with the view that inadequately controlled suburban expansion in fringe areas was linked to poor servicing and locational disadvantage. This argument was in turn incorporated into Labor Government urban policy in Victoria. The centrepiece of Federal Labor’s interest in urban policy was The Better Cities Program. Begun in 1991, its first phase was completed in 1997.2 Howe linked these social justice issues to criticism about the environmental consequences of low density development and to fears that unmet infrastructure demand in fringe areas would be accompanied by a decline of population and infrastructure underutilisation in inner and middle suburban areas.3

A key theme of the program was that compact cities would not only be more economically ‘efficient’, but more ‘just’. This idea persisted in urban consolidation rhetoric and is influential in Melbourne 2030. Reflecting upon the Better Cities Program in 2001, Howe expressed this idea in the following terms:

Some critics of the program saw it as being fundamentally about urban consolidation. I saw it as being much more about demonstrating the value of effective planning in the achievement of objectives to do with both economic efficiency and also superior social and environmental outcomes (Howe 2001).

The compact city movement gained additional impetus from new international perspectives on urban planning which are highly critical of the cultural and economic limitations of conventional low density suburbia.

These ‘new-urban’ and ‘smart-growth’ approaches had become especially popular amongst urban professionals in the United States and the United Kingdom, particularly after the establishment of the Congress for the New Urbanism by a number of influential architects in 1993 and their drafting of the Charter for the New Urbanism in 1996. From this time, new urbanism and smart growth became something of a crusade among urban professionals in Australia and overseas (Rees 2003). For many of its proponents, it is a crusade that incorporates into its urban planning objectives a social reform agenda which shows little respect for conventional suburban communities.

The groundwork for this thinking in Melbourne had been laid by the inner urban activists of the late 1960s and 1970s. As explored in Davison’s recent study, their experience of defending inner city communities against urban renewal schemes and against freeway construction led to an embrace of the idea that dense and diverse inner city settlements could provide the foundation for strong communities (Davison 2004 pp. 194–195).

An example of this thinking in Victoria is the Summary Report of the Urban Villages Project published in 1996. The authors envisaged a large number of mixed-use neighbourhood locations, with a diverse range of high density housing forms, as the ‘preferred form of development for the future’. They imagined an urban future based on ‘... a reconfiguration of cities into networks of mixed-use urban villages’. Whereas the ‘conventional’ low density urban form had led to ‘[e]nvironmental pollution and urban congestion, combined with low levels of social amenity resulting from perceived or real threats of increasing risk to personal or physical security, ... stress... and social isolation’, urban villages would provide ‘... a rich variety of cultural and recreational activities’ (Energy Victoria et al. 1996 p. 19).

It is interesting to note that some of the new urban ideas were anticipated by Soviet planners in the 1960s who regarded high-rise apartments as the solution to their society’s accommodation needs. Gutnov et al. (1968) observed:

The mass construction of individual houses...results in a chaotic and depressing agglomeration of dwellings covering enormous stretches of land. This is obvious, for example, in the case of some new American cities and suburbs... [G]iven the conditions of social equality and the increasing growth of demand for housing... the search for a future kind of residential building leads logically to high rise structures (p. 69).

They were conscious that this approach had some problems and somewhat ominously note:

The loss of immediate contact with the outdoors at ground level and the need for daily use of an elevator are compensated... by views and, above all, weekend visits to temporary hotel type residences where relationships with nature are restored (p. 73).

Like the Soviet planners, new urban advocates take inspiration from what they claim to have been the more pedestrian and communitarian mode of development of an earlier period. The social unit at the centre of their perspective is the neighbourhood, which they believe provides the basis for the social and economic well being of its residents. It is a ‘traditionalist’ outlook, aimed at a ‘restoration’ of community and a ‘revitalisation’ of public life. New urbanists argue that a revitalisation of community would be achieved through the creation of pedestrian, small-scale communities, with an emphasis on shared public space, an integration of public and private space, frequent face-to-face encounters, and a high level of local economic self-reliance. Such communities would be socially diverse, catering for a range of housing needs according to differences of income, age, and family type. A further expectation is that communities of this kind would be enduring (Myers et al. 1999; Talen 1999).

Smart growth advocates are less utopian. Their basic premise is that environmental sustainability is compatible with continued economic growth through efficient urban form. They advocate mixed land uses, enforced urban growth boundaries, more intensive use of existing infrastructure and land resources, an improved job-housing balance within localities, compact commercial districts, denser suburban subdivisions, infill housing, more efficient mass transit, and neighbourhoods with well-defined centres and edges (Danielson et al. 1999).

This kind of planning rhetoric has flourished at the same time as evidence has been accumulating that Australian suburbanites quite like their surroundings and do not appear to feel any need for the ‘restoration’ of community. As McDonald et al. (1995 p. 16) noted in summarising their interviews with householders across inner and outer suburbia in the early 1990s:

In contrast to the anti-suburban view that the community has been destroyed by suburban life, residents of outer areas were much more likely to refer to the friendliness of their community as an advantage than were residents of inner areas.


An early innovation introduced under the Cain Labor Government was dual occupancy. From the mid-1980s, property owners were given ‘as of right’ authority to construct a second dwelling on established conventional suburban blocks (Mitchell 1999). Initially, this innovation did not imply a major threat to the existing urban form because it related mainly to small units or ‘granny flat’ dwellings. Two decades later, this was no longer the case because of the tendency for two new large houses to be built to replace a modest original dwelling.

By the early 1990s, the Kirner Labor Government had begun to explore additional consolidation measures. The 1990 discussion paper, Urban Development Options for Victoria, illustrates this process. It considered four main development alternatives for Melbourne and its surrounding regions.

Foremost was a ‘compact city’ option which broadly prefigured the Melbourne 2030 policy. This option would focus Melbourne’s growth in established suburban areas, particularly in a number of ‘priority growth areas’. While curtailing development on the suburban fringe, higher residential densities in established areas would facilitate a greater diversity of housing type and lot sizes. This option would also involve greater concentration of employment in locations near to population and transport corridors (Department of Planning and Urban Growth 1990 pp. 30–32). Nevertheless, the planning officials responsible for implementing this policy under Labor were aware that community opposition was a serious barrier to be overcome if the strategy was to be implemented.

It is fair to say that urban consolidation policies in Victoria have had very limited success and that much stronger and more focussed policy initiatives are needed to promote both the supply of and demand for higher density development...There are... indications that industry and community attitudes are beginning to change although this will be a long-term process (Department of Planning and Housing 1992 p. 2).

Other alternatives considered by the Kirner Government were the creation of a new major city to Melbourne south-east (Dandenong), the creation of ‘new towns’ on the suburban frontier and the promotion of regional centres. These latter ideas were largely ignored once the Kennett Government came to power. Likewise the Bracks Government has in effect given up on the decentralisation alternative, though it is still anxious to cultivate its rural constituency by the promotion of its fast train and other regional economic initiatives.

When the Kennett Government came to power in 1992, it took an aggressive stance on promoting more consolidated development. This stance included setting population growth targets for municipalities in established suburban areas. The Government introduced a permissive medium-density residential policy (VicCode2 subsequently replaced by The Good Design Guide after 1995) which applied to the development of two or more dwellings on a site or a single dwelling on a site less than 300 square metres. The policy was also intended to achieve greater consistency in the application of medium density regulations than had existed before (Department of Infrastructure 1997 p. 1).

As a result, the policy reduced municipal influence over site planning requirements (Lewis, 1999 p. xx). Each local government was required to develop a Municipal Strategic Statement for the development of their municipality in accordance with VicCode guidelines. If municipalities wanted variations to the application of the code, they had to show why a special treatment was warranted (Lewis 1999 p. xx).

The new policy meant that ‘... Multi-unit dwellings could be larger, higher and closer to property boundaries...’ (Lewis 1999 p. 186). Although neighbourhood character, overshadowing, density, energy efficiency, open space, visual privacy and parking were amongst the criteria for consideration in the design multi-dwelling development, in practice the new code made it easier to build such dwellings in existing residential areas than was previously the case (p. 186).

More restrictive density benchmarks were included in 1994 in an attempt to moderate excesses in medium density development which were giving rise to negative community reaction (Department of Infrastructure 2000 p. 139). This change, however, led to a different set of problems. Although a density benchmark limited the number of dwellings on sites, a common response of developers was to build fewer, but larger dwellings – often two storeys. This meant that there was often no overall reduction in site coverage (p. 139).

At the same time, the State Government revised the system of land-use zones that were to be applied in municipal strategic statements. A Residential 2 Zone was introduced, the principal purpose of which was to encourage medium and higher density residential development in areas where greater use of existing infrastructure and services was considered appropriate. This zone was exempt from the range of appeal and decision requirements that otherwise applied under the Planning and Environment Act 1987 (Melbourne City Council 1999).

Another zoning innovation was the ‘mixed-use’ zone (MUZ). This zone allowed for the coexistence of residential, commercial, industrial, and retail activities. Large sections of the Melbourne inner city were zoned MUZ. Interest in mixed-use settings partly reflected the belief of developers that, if zoning which excluded certain uses could be set aside, the profitability of projects could be enhanced by grouping a number of high-value land uses (Binning 1995 p. 12).


The assault on established suburban areas that resulted during the Kennett era (1992–1999) generated a ‘suburban backlash’. Residents mobilised against what appeared to be the random destruction of the established detached housing stock. Developers were taking up whatever opportunities arose (as existing occupants died or moved out) to replace existing houses with two new houses (as in a dual occupancy subdivision) or with flats and townhouses. The leading lights of the protest movement formed Save Our Suburbs (SOS) in 1997. The organisation turned Kennett Government consolidation policies into a major political issue. It put the Government on the defensive and it prompted the Labor Opposition to promise reform of the development process if it came to office.

The incoming Labor Government’s challenge was to promote itself as sensitive to criticism of undesirable urban consolidation outcomes while maintaining essential continuity in urban policy in favour of increased densities. In an attempt to distance itself from the planning policies of its predecessor, Labor stated that it would ‘restore the balance’ and ensure that planning conformed to the values of the community, particularly in relation to neighbourhood character (Department of Infrastructure 1999 pp. 2, 8).

The Bracks Government stressed that its strategic land-use planning would: based on extensive community discussion and debate. The Government’s approach will rely on creative and effective partnerships with local government, local communities, business, industry and other organisations and interest groups (Department of Infrastructure 1999 p. 4).

Nonetheless, hints that the Government would not let its overall planning goals be deflected are evident. It was asserted that, while the views of the community would be critical in determining the evaluation of neighbourhood character, policy also needed to be ‘forward’ looking (Department of Infrastructure 1999 p. 12).

The key policies which were to achieve this new ‘balance’ were the preparation of a new guide to residential development (ResCode which replaced VicCode 2 in August 2001) and the introduction of Melbourne 2030. ResCode appeared to be sensitive to resident groups concerns by the inclusion of a requirement that any new housing proposal had to be sensitive to the existing ‘neighbourhood character’. The implication was that, if a proposal was not appropriately ‘sensitive’, it would not be approved.

Melbourne 2030 complemented this conciliatory stance towards the SOS movement. It established an Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) which, on the face of it, limits the amount of land available to be zoned for development on the frontier. By this means, and by promoting opportunities for growth within established suburbia, the share of new housing on the frontier over the period to 2030 is to be reduced to around 31 per cent. The recent proportion is estimated to be about 38 per cent Department of Infrastructure (2002a p. 7).

This implies more pressure on established suburbia, the very outcome prompting the SOS protest movement. But Melbourne 2030 purports to avoid this outcome by requiring that some 40 per cent of the projected growth in the dwelling stock by 2030 be medium to high density dwellings located in activity centres or in designated precincts like Docklands. The implication is that the capacity of activity centres to absorb a high proportion of population growth over the next 30 years will take the heat off redevelopment pressures within existing suburbia. The goal of urban consolidation will be achieved, but not at the expense of Melbourne’s suburban ambiance.

A further carrot for the critics of past development practices is that the rhetoric of Melbourne 2030, particularly that associated with the new higher density activity centre projects, is suffused with the contemporary new urban planning ideals discussed earlier. These ideals include incorporating a communitarian urban village atmosphere in which residents will live, work and shop together. According to the Melbourne 2030 planning documents, this will be done through good design:

Activity centres must provide a high-quality environment if they are to attract visitors and use. Important facets of their design include energy efficiency, designing for climate (sun, shade and wind), and heritage values, creating a sense of place, visitor comfort and reducing the dominance of the car (Department of Infrastructure 2002b p. 14).

Good urban design in these locations will encourage sustainability, a sense of place and cultural identity. Excellence in urban design ... will be integral to implementing Melbourne 2030 (Department of Infrastructure 2002c p. 32).

Melbourne 2030 has been a great success at the ideological level. Its ‘vision’ has been praised by the planning fraternity because it has practical objectives in that it purports to result in a cheaper and more efficient, less resource-intensive urban form. But, it is also replete with the more utopian urban village ideas advocated by new urbanists. It has also gained support from green advocates (who endorse its commitment to preserving ‘green wedges’), from public transport advocates (because, in principle, the location of development in activity centres is expected to promote public transport usage) and from those intellectuals who are disdainful of suburban sprawl for its presumed detrimental cultural implications.

Melbourne 2030 has even gained the support of some of the leaders of the SOS movement because of its promise to focus new development in activity centres. The current president of SOS, Nigel Kirby, is a member of the Melbourne 2030 Implementation Committee. This advisory body is tasked to provide input to help ensure the plan’s objectives are implemented as envisioned. By accepting this appointment, Kirby has in effect endorsed the overall planing strategy which it embodies.


The support given to the Melbourne 2030 plan has some justification. Melbourne’s existing pattern of land extensive development has encouraged a high energy and high resource-use lifestyle amongst its residents. Only a tiny minority use public transport in their journeys to work and other activities. It is more expensive to provide new infrastructure to outer suburban locations by comparison with more intensive settlement in established areas.

Melbourne was built around the ideal that residential areas should be separated from the work environment. This ideal continues to shape current outer suburban development patterns, even though it may not be as relevant as it once was when the goal was to protect the health of residents by separating housing from noxious industrial activities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Much contemporary work involves service and office work which could be intermixed with dwelling areas without detriment to the latter. New urban and smart growth advocates seek this outcome. Their ideal is that settlements integrate activities rather than separate them. Homes, shops, schools, workplaces, parks and civic buildings should be intermixed and within walkable distances (Rees 2003 p. 97). Their expectation is that this would diminish energy demands and enhance residents’ sense of place and civic consciousness. Likewise, residences should not be of one type, such as detached houses catering just for families with children, but diverse so that a broad range of income and family types could be accommodated near to each other.


The issue in focus in this book is not so much with the ideals which underpin Melbourne 2030. After all, most people would agree with the goals of environmental conservation, having clean air and water, living without traffic congestion, access to appropriate and affordable housing, living in secure and culturally fulfilling communities, and having a positive sense of place. It is easy to be utopian – to imagine a wish list of ideal outcomes. Instead, the focus of this book is upon whether the policy measures prescribed in Melbourne 2030 will be effective in creating such outcomes. The planners seem to assume that the long heritage of the separation of work and residence and the ideal of the suburbs as a domestic haven – built around ample space – is ripe for change. This expectation seems to be based on hope rather than evidence.

The success or failure of Melbourne 2030 hinges in large part on the feasibility of the activity centre proposal. Yet, there are many unanswered questions about activity centres. Is it really possible to retrofit established urban centres so that they embody the village ideals central to new urbanism? How are existing commercial hubs to be converted to places where people both live and work? How is affordable housing going to be constructed in centres where the costs of aggregating land and the costs of building high-rise apartments are inherently high? Will employers wish to establish in these centres? Given the dispersal of jobs across Melbourne, will those who live in activity centres be able to work there? There are many factors which influence people’s decisions about residential location and place of work in a free market economy. Is it really feasible that the two can be made to coalesce on the village scale alluded to in Melbourne 2030? If it is assumed that jobs and the residential location of workers can be brought closer together, will there be sufficient investment in the public transport network to prompt a reduced level of dependence upon the car?

Melbourne 2030 assumes there is a ready market for high density dwellings located in activity centres. Since the greatest change associated with the growth of households in Melbourne to 2030 will be the increase in the number of older childless households, this is a bold assumption. Where is the evidence that such households will trade their peaceful spacious suburban surroundings for the cluttered life of apartments in commercial centres?

There will be a market for semi-detached houses, if only because many of the next generation of households will not be able to afford the price of detached houses in much of inner and middle suburbia. Why would such households prefer an apartment constructed in an activity centre to a medium density dwelling constructed as infill in a suburban setting? Our analysis of ResCode indicates that dispersed infill remains possible and profitable. Indeed, if there is no tightening of the ResCode regulations, infill could transform the present green ambience and uncluttered state of Melbourne’s established suburbia.

What about the option of further extension of the suburban frontier? Will Melbourne 2030 really arrest the spread of fringe development? This is a serious question because the Bracks Government has stated repeatedly that the UGB will be extended whenever it can be shown that there is less than 15 years land available for residential development within its borders. This question can only be answered in the context of a detailed analysis of the housing industry on the suburban frontier.

A final set of questions have to do with the economic foundation of Melbourne 2030. Does it come to grips with the underlying dynamics of industrial growth and location in the contemporary urban economy? More particularly, are the changes in land use and location of activity that are expected to be achieved in the future by Melbourne 2030 consistent with the underlying trends in the location of Melbourne’s major economic activities? If they are not, are the actions proposed by Melbourne 2030 likely to be effective enough to shift the current economic pattern to the plan’s desired future one?

In overview, does the plan have the power to shift the metropolitan area’s structure in the way outlined? An effective plan should have a range of strategies capable of complementing the standard land-use zoning approach of metropolitan and local planning. These strategies might include co-ordination of government agency action, the use of price mechanisms to change consumer and commercial behaviour, and the application of financial incentives and expenditure planning, all linked to the spatial framework used to manage change. If these strategies are absent from Melbourne 2030, it suggests that the plan will be unlikely to achieve its desired outcomes. These questions, and the broad issues that underpin them, are analysed in the chapters that follow.


1     The Australian Bureau of Statistics (2003) defines detached houses in a way that may include some houses deriving from the infill process described later. As will be shown, a major form of infill in Melbourne is dual occupancy which consists of two separate houses (as defined by Australian Bureau of Statistics), even though these houses occupy sites which were formerly standard allotments (500 – 700 square metres) taken up by a conventional detached dwelling.

2     The election of the Liberal-National Party Coalition in March 1996 saw the program virtually wound up (Australian National Audit Office 1996).

3     During the 1970s, newly available intra-urban mobility census data revealed that the continued pattern of outward residential mobility had led to significant net losses of residential population from inner to middle and outer suburban areas within Melbourne (Maher 1982 p. 45–51).


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Cite this chapter as: Birrell, B; O’Connor, K; Rapson, V; Healy, E. ‘Looking back, looking forward: urban policy for metropolitan Melbourne’. In: Melbourne 2030: Planning Rhetoric Versus Urban Reality, Monash University ePress, Melbourne, 2005.

Melbourne 2030: Planning Rhetoric Versus Urban Reality

   by Bob Birrell, Kevin O’Connor, Virginia Rapson and Ernest Healy