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Melbourne 2030: Planning Rhetoric Versus Urban Reality



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

Activity centres are expected to become the focus of a diverse range of transport, commercial, administrative and housing functions. They are also central to the Victorian Government’s goal of increasing the utilisation of the public transport network. This chapter argues that the activity centre strategy is unlikely to succeed because there are too many centres and too few tools to ensure that the strategy is implemented. In addition, the aspiration to place 41 per cent of Melbourne’s additional dwellings in activity centres clashes with their envisaged commercial and transport roles. At a more fundamental level, the activity centre strategy does not come to grips with the economic realities of job location in contemporary Melbourne. This shows a strong trend towards dispersal rather than concentration. The aspiration to increase public transport usage through the centralisation of economic activities and housing in activity centres will be difficult to achieve. Even if more residents do locate in activity centres, international and Australian experience indicates that residential location in commercial centres does not necessarily lead to decreased car use.

One way to accommodate additional development in an existing area is to promote higher density of housing and jobs in designated centres. Melbourne 2030 attempts to do this with its activity centre strategy. Development proposals made in light of this strategy have already proved to be controversial and some have generated a sharp resident backlash. There are serious underlying problems in this aspect of Melbourne 2030 policy. These problems are outlined below.



The use of activity centres represents a continuation of past planning strategies and an acknowledgement that modern metropolitan areas, with economic activity shared between inner areas and middle and outer suburbs, are ‘quintessentially polycentric’ (Hall 2001). However, Melbourne 2030 has expressed the idea more forcefully through its use of a much larger number of centres than in the past or in most plans for metropolitan areas the size of Melbourne. Apart from the central activities district, the strategy identifies 27 principal activity centres, 82 major activity centres, 10 specialist activity centres and more than 900 small-scale neighbourhood activity centres. All are expected to have some statutory influence and capacity under Melbourne 2030. The strategy is justified in the Melbourne 2030 policy by claims that it will reshape the city’s built form in ways compatible with an ecologically sustainable development pattern, that it will help promote equitable outcomes, match housing choice to the needs of a changing housing market, offer a sense of local community in circumstances where the authors of the policy have assumed there is no sense of local community, as well as reduce car travel in favour of public transport.

The strategy suggests centres will accommodate retail and small office functions, high density housing for commuters, local workers and older persons, jobs in community services, secondary schools, TAFE colleges, justice and community administration, sport and entertainment facilities, and low-cost space for cultural activities and creative ventures. They will also act as transport interchanges and presumably will have some space for car parking. The before-and-after effect of how the planners envisage that a typical car-based activity centre could be transformed into an urban village is illustrated in the Melbourne 2030 documentation in several places.1

There is no explanation of the mechanisms that will achieve the change envisaged by the planners, nor reference to the time that change at this scale might take. The vision shows apartments (but none higher than five storeys) and offices which are intermixed. Between them is a substantial tree-lined plaza. Cars are notable by their absence, which is surprising given the adjacent strip shopping centre. Apparently the cars are located underground or perhaps the planners envisage that, with such good public transport access, residents and visitors to the centre no longer use their cars. The vision is an attractive one but clearly involves massive public and private investment in the aggregation of land from existing users, the demolition of existing buildings, and the re-creation of a new focus for community life in middle or outer suburbia.

A core feature of the activity centre strategy is that there is a hierarchy of activities and that these can be sorted and accommodated into a matching hierarchy of centres (the principal, major, specialist and neighbourhood activity centres noted above). This perspective can be seen in the observation that ‘the identification of a comprehensive network [will] ...overcome some of the challenges of previous activity centre development’. This will be achieved by ‘...planning for the whole network of activity centres...’ (Department of Infrastructure, 2002a p. 5). It implies that the Melbourne metropolitan planners of today imagine they have more power than those of the past to sort out the location of individual land uses. Nevertheless, the idea of a hierarchy provides a set of priorities for public sector investment and for the location (and perhaps re-location) of some significant community facilities (like health and education providers) that will play a significant role in the success of activity centres.

The release of names of centres of various size classes was upstaged by a prior announcement of nine ‘transit cities’ which have become, in effect, a sub-set of the principal activity centres. The transit cities are hubs in the public transport network, which in a number of cases also have major sub-regional roles as retail centres. These places would appear to be ‘activity centres’ par excellence and could provide a first stage focus for the activity centre strategy. The strategy, however, has no mechanism to direct or encourage the flow of private investment, and early applications for development approval in activity centres have not been in transit cities.


The activity centres, aggregated with strategic redevelopment sites in Table 2.1 (as supplied in the Melbourne 2030 documentation), are expected to accommodate around 41 per cent of the city’s extra households. This implies the construction of an additional 254,760 dwellings over the next 30 years. It is not clear how many of these new dwellings will actually be located in activity centres and what housing density will be needed to achieve that aim. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that these centres are expected to play a major role in housing the city’s expanding population by 2030. In addition, activity centres are also expected to contribute significantly to the supply of affordable housing in Melbourne.

Table 2.1 Proposed distribution of new households across metropolitan Melbourne from 2001–2030
# Greenfield development includes development within identified growth areas and broad hectare development in fringe areas outside identified growth areas.
* The likely feasibility of providing for such a proportion of housing demand in Activity Centres and other strategic redevelopment sites has been assessed on the basis of development within 400 metres of identified Principal and Major Activity Centres and major redevelopment sites close to major public transport (based on an assessment of completed major redevelopment sites [Residential Redevelopment in Melbourne, Issue 6], approximately 80 per cent of major redevelopment sites are located close to major public transport).
^ Dispersed residential development includes development within established urban areas, remaining major redevelopment sites not well-located for major public transport, and non-urban residential development. Non-urban development is generally located in and around small townships. It currently accounts for 3 per cent of development and is proposed to account for 1.5 per cent of all additional households by 2030. This equates to 9,500 households. Department of Infrastructure (Victoria). Melbourne 2030, Planning For Sustainable Growth, Implementation Plan 3, Housing, Draft. 2002 p. 8


A second expectation of activity centre policy is that people will find jobs within the centre near their new higher density housing, or will use public transport to get to work in newly clustered employment opportunities. This assumes that the location of jobs and people in high density housing in activity centres will be associated with a change in transport behaviour. The policy is intended to help the Victorian Government achieve its stated goal of doubling the share of work trips utilising public transport to around 20 per cent all home-to-work trips by 2020 (Department of Infrastructure 2002b p. 146).


The strategy suggests activity centres will create a village atmosphere in which the new residents will have access to the jobs and government services located there. This will occur, so it is implied, because their proximity to one another will help create a sense of community, which the planners allege is lacking in traditional suburbia.


Despite their importance, the actual implementation of the activity centre strategy is being left to municipal councils:

In the short to medium term, councils will be required to review each of their activity centres and its direction for growth and change... [to] ensure that strategic objectives at the local level are consistent with the key directions and policies in Melbourne 2030... This exercise will also help councils identify priorities in planning for their activity centres and will form the basis of a longer term strategic planning work program (Department of Infrastructure 2002a p. 21).

The output of this work will be ‘... a planning scheme amendment which articulates in general terms the direction for change in each centre’. In addition, municipalities have to identify their Neighbourhood Activity Centres ‘... using the criteria in Melbourne 2030’ (p. 21). It has also been left to councils to specify the boundaries of activity centres.

The recent Mitcham decision, discussed below, suggests that in practice municipalities have very limited scope to create local outcomes. They are also expected to draft their plans according to numerical targets set by the scale of additional dwelling construction necessary for Melbourne 2030 to achieve its ‘compact city’ objectives.

Melbourne 2030 proposes to direct ‘out-of-centre’ activities into activity centres. These out-of-centre activities could include some office and retail functions that have recently expanded in land-extensive middle and outer suburban locations. This aspect of the policy recognises that past attempts to designate centres were weakened by lack of control over the location of economic activity across the metropolitan area.

As outlined in this section, much is expected from activity centre policy, although the sole implementation mechanisms are local scale statutory planning and limitations on the development of functions in other places. The combination of broad vision and narrow implementation tools suggests there could be problems with this strategy. The following section explores those problems in detail.



As outlined above, the thrust of the activity centre strategy is to provide a focus for the location of employment be it in retail or other consumer-targeted services, commercial and business enterprises, as well as local and other government administration. However, by creating such a large number of centres, the policy has in effect implied there is little or no selectivity. Indeed, the policy could have achieved its broader aims simply by saying that new development would be encouraged in any location with a current cluster of particular functions. The large number of places has stretched the allocation of any financial (and planning) resources so that the individual local impact is likely to be small. Note too that ‘the network of activity centres will not be static – centres can move between categories and new centres will emerge, particularly in growth areas’ (Department of Infrastructure 2002a p. 7).

Experience with activity centre policy in other metropolitan areas usually involves far fewer centres. For example, the Paris plan operates with ten major centres which receive high levels of public investment. The strategy might have been more effective if it had used just the nine metropolitan transit centres as its framework.


This issue has two dimensions. The first is the criteria for designation in a particular level in the hierarchy, and here the choice of place was based upon ideas about the location with respect to public transport, and the existing clustering of commercial activity. This approach means Glen Waverley (which has a railway, proximity to major roads and some open space for car parking) and Fountain Gate (which has no railway and a vast expanse of car parking) are in the same class. That such different places could both be designated as principal activity centres does not inspire confidence in the foundations of the strategy.

The second issue is a lack of clarity in the local specification of an activity centre’s borders. Where does a ‘centre’ end, and thus where do any special conditions on development cease to apply? According to the strategy, ‘Local councils will need to confirm the extent of each centre ...’, but there are no clear rules or guidelines (apart from references to walking distance and 400 metres, see, for example, Department of Infrastructure 2002a p.14; Department of Infrastructure 2002b p. 8) even though ‘...activity centres will be given statutory effect in planning schemes’ (Department of Infrastructure 2002a p. 7). So is the ‘centre’ the current commercial land or does it encompass all housing within a certain distance? Successful activity centre policies in cities like Paris and Tokyo have involved very precise central or regional government selection and definition.


The Melbourne 2030 planners also seem to have a very large number of places ‘up their sleeve’ so to speak. The large number further undermines the idea of a strategic focus on a few selected centres. These places include the so called neighbourhood activity centres which are mostly located around sub-regional shopping strips with retail floor space of less than 10,000 square metres. It may well be that these will play a much greater role in the shaping of Melbourne than is acknowledged in the current Melbourne 2030 documentation.

The locations of these centres have not been identified in any public document, but Melbourne 2030 indicates that there are ‘more than 900 Neighbourhood Activity Centres’ (Department of Infrastructure, 2002a p. 4). The implication is that the Government has at least made some attempt to identify and count them. Indeed, in some of the Government’s planning statements, they are precisely located. For example, in the Implementation in the Planning System Advisory Note, activity centres other than (and smaller in size than) the principal and major centres are identified on maps supplied for both the South Eastern and Werribee Growth Areas (Department of Infrastructure 2002c pp. 21, 27). The original designation appears to derive from a technical paper prepared as part of the background to the Melbourne 2030 planning exercise by McNabb & Associates in 2001. McNabb was an enthusiastic proponent of enhancing neighbourhood centres. In his words,

Fewer of these types of centres exist or are planned in the middle and outer areas of Melbourne compared with the very dense network of such places in inner suburbs. To enhance the sustainability of the whole network, we recommend that this situation be addressed by strengthening existing neighbourhood centres in outer areas, and planning new ones as part of the design or redesign of new communities.

The Government should indicate this as a priority. It should demonstrate its commitment to encouraging the improvement of the wide range and number of these important centres with a funded Neighbourhood Centres Improvement Program... (MacNabb & Associates 2001 p. 152).

It is not clear what ‘strengthening’ or ‘demonstrate its commitment’ means. However, Melbourne 2030 has created the potential for neighbourhood centres to become a development focus. It encourages the location of various mixed uses in or on the edge of these centres. In addition, it states,

...higher density housing will be encouraged in and around Neighbourhood Activity Centres. It should be designed to fit the context and enhance the character of the area while providing a variety of housing options for different types of households (Department of Infrastructure 2002a p. 8).

This approach undermines the idea of the concentration of investment and development in a few places to utilise public transport infrastructure and improve access to public services. Indeed, the fact that the strategy envisages development occurring in a very large number of nodes raises the question of whether there is really an activity centre strategy at all. This lack of precision has been reflected in recent Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) decisions discussed below.



As noted, activity centres (along with the strategic development sites) are to accommodate some 41 per cent of the growth in the number of additional households in Melbourne, probably in new buildings of the five- to eight-storey variety. An indication of the scale of this task for municipalities located in established suburban areas is shown in Table 2.2. It is not clear whether there are strategic redevelopment sites available for housing construction within each of these municipalities. The information cited in Table 2.2 is taken from the Victorian Government’s first Urban Development Program (UDP) Report of 2003. The UDP has been set up to help coordinate the provision of infrastructure and land availability for new housing. In its 2003 Report, longer term ‘aspirational’ objectives regarding dwelling construction (based on the Melbourne 2030 planning template) are stated.

For the local government areas selected in Table 2.2, two sets of figures are provided for the period 2002 to 2017. The first set shows the ‘trend distribution’ of new dwellings. This is a simple projection based on past2 growth patterns. The second set shows the aspirational figures – that is the desired distribution of additional dwellings according to the Melbourne 2030 policy. From the point of view of the municipalities affected, the aspirational figures have to be regarded as targets, which the Victorian Government expects them to provide for in their structure planning.

Table 2.2 Selected local government areas, distribution of projected additional dwellings (trend and aspirational), 2002–2017; and trend additional dwellings as percentage of total dwellings, 2001
* 2001 Census Basics
Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE), Urban Development Program, Report 2003

As can be seen, the trend increases in dwelling numbers in established areas relative to the stock of dwellings in the local government areas of Melbourne (106 per cent), Port Phillip, Maribyrnong, Manningham and Mornington Peninsula (all around 30 per cent) are substantial. For the remaining local government areas listed, the expected increases in dwellings are in the order of 20 per cent.

A notable feature of these figures is that the trend and aspirational numbers are virtually the same. The implication is that the Government has decided that a continuation of recent trends in the construction of dwellings in established suburban areas will achieve its ‘compact city’ objectives. The difference with the past is that much of this development is expected to be located in activity centres, rather than as ad hoc infill (discussed in Chapter Five). For example, in the case of Boroondara, where the aspiration level involves an additional (net) 10,500 dwellings by 2017, the table implies that thousands of units and apartments will be built in the Camberwell Junction principal activity centre and the Kew Junction and Glenferrie Road major activity centres.

The scale of housing development implied in these activity centres is very large, and its feasibility not critically evaluated in the formulation of the strategy. The ability of these centres to accommodate additional housing depends upon their size (that is, the issue of their borders as outlined above), and how much land is ‘lost’ to roads, car parking and commercial and community services.

To get a sense of the density of housing needed to meet the targets for activity centres implied above, we need to consider the size of an activity centre, and the loss of land to uses other than housing such as current and future commercial development, roads, parking, railway and bus operations and open space. Consider first that the activity centre has a radius of 400 metres – the distance considered to be ‘walkable’ in the strategy (Department of Infrastructure, 2002a p. 14). As shown in Table 2.3, this would create an area for development of just half a square kilometre. Inspections of current activity centres in Dandenong, Glen Waverley Ringwood and Doncaster showed that even now they occupy areas larger than that.

Table 2.3 Areas enclosed by different radial distances from central point to perimeter of activity centres

The Melbourne 2030 draft guidelines for the layout and structure of activity centres in new areas state that the centre and residential areas should be designed ‘so that at least 60 per cent of dwellings and activities are within 400 metres safe walking distance from a bus stop, or 800 metres from a railway station’ (Department of Infrastructure 2002a p. 45). The requirement that only 60 per cent of the dwellings need be within these distances implies that activity centres can spread beyond these definitions.

In the analysis carried out in Table 2.4, Scenario A is based on the assumption that the area of the activity centre is one square kilometre, the activity centre in Scenario B has a radius of 800 metres and encloses two square kilometres, and Scenario C spreads a little over one kilometre from its centre creating an area of four square kilometres. In the analysis, different levels of loss of land due to other activities (road and commercial development), which increase with the size of the centre (ranging from 25 to 50 per cent), were considered. We then need to consider how many houses will need to be fitted into these spaces in order to meet the municipal targets outlined in Table 2.2. To illustrate the policy impact, it is assumed that one principal activity centre will be the focus of new residential development. For simplicity’s sake, levels of 30 per cent and 50 per cent of the municipal targets are assumed to locate in this one centre.

Table 2.4 Scenarios of housing densities in activity centres

These simple calculations show that, in an activity centre of one square kilometre, densities will approach the levels associated with high rise, not the low rise shown in the attractive drawing included in the Melbourne 2030 documentation of the urban village created from the old car-based centre. Low rise might be achieved in circumstances where the activity centre is spread over a larger area (in the process reclaiming large amounts of established housing stock) and a smaller share of the municipality’s new housing accommodated. Hence, one has to assume that the activity centre housing strategy is really only workable where substantial areas of established suburban housing are reclaimed for higher density development. This outcome is not made clear in the presentation of the strategy.

Without funds to buy up the established houses and without substantial political support to press ahead against the local opposition that will emerge around the demolition of existing housing, it is difficult to see the activity centre policy really working.

It also assumes that there will be sufficient commercial motive for developers to supply housing in these locations. An indication of the difficulties of selling high-rise apartments in outer suburban activity centres is the recent action on the part of VicUrban (the Victorian Government’s urban development agency3) to remove the high-rise component of its Dandenong saleyards project, thereby reducing the scale of development by some 800 dwellings (see further discussion below).


The activity centre policy is based on the expectation that couple and single households become a much larger component of the increased number of households in Melbourne to 2030. This is correct, but analysis in Chapter Four shows that most of these households will be headed by persons aged 55 or older. In the past these households have shown little interest in high density housing. Any interest they have may be further dampened by the additional cost involved in high density construction (also detailed in Chapter Four). Few of these households will be willing to pay the minimum $400,000 (current) price tag for a two-bedroom apartment when that is in excess of the value of their existing homes. In addition, there will be housing opportunities available elsewhere in municipalities as the infill process proceeds (see Chapter Five). The latter will be price competitive and offer more space and privacy, and thus are likely to draw demand away from high density housing located in the activity centres.

This analysis suggests that the housing side of the activity centre strategy has been developed with little real regard to the reality of land availability and cost of construction and development in suburban centres. It is perhaps sobering to think that ‘despite the efforts of polycentric urban development’ in Singapore (which has much more powerful controls over land use and housing location than government in Melbourne), Han (2005 p.22) found that ‘there was no clustering around the regional centres discernible in the 1990s’. Hence, attempts to control the location of housing using simple land-use zoning techniques will probably be ineffective in Melbourne.


The strategy has indicated that affordable housing is to be a priority in the provision of housing in activity centres. That would be an important part of a socially sustainable policy. However, it is likely to be a difficult objective to meet as the commercial interest expected by the strategy, along with the government functions, transport node and car parking will put pressure on land supply and so drive up site costs. As a result, residential construction costs will not be low. The provision of affordable housing in these circumstances will require some special funds to purchase land, or dwellings, within development proposals. This would require special financial arrangements that have not been detailed in the strategy.


The Melbourne 2030 planners confidently assert that a wide range of industries, and thus workers, ‘are better located’ in activity centres. However, the plan’s accompanying documentation suggests that the planners do not understand the factors shaping the distribution of jobs in Melbourne, or the difficulties likely to be encountered in changing this distribution to focus more on activity centres.


Figure 2.1 shows that most of the employment in metropolitan Melbourne in 2001 was concentrated in an employment region extending east and south from the City of Melbourne, with an outlying region in the north-west. However, as shown in Figure 2.2, the majority of the activity centres, and in particular principal activity centres, lie outside this employment region. The Melbourne 2030 planners do not appear to have considered how activity centres could develop strong employment bases when not located in the main employment regions of the metropolitan area.

Figure 2.1 Location of the workplaces of Melbourne workers by municipality, 2001
The data show the local government area of the workplace of the main job held.
Australian Bureau of Statistics, Census 2001, customised matrix

The consequences of job location go deeper than the general pattern displayed above. The success of activity centres will also depend upon the type of work available. With that in mind, data on the character of employment has been analysed. The approach taken here was to separate industries in terms of their likelihood of location in activity centres. It was assumed that activities such as retail trade (called lower order functions) and finance and insurance, property and business services and government administration (called higher order functions) were most likely to be found in (or be attracted by) an activity centre, while many other jobs are dispersed because they need to be close to their client population (such as education and health services) or have technical needs like large land area or road frontages and so bar them from activity centre location (such as manufacturing, transport and storage). Table 2.5 shows the distribution of jobs in these four classes in three separate locations: the Central Activities District (CAD), the seven suburban municipalities (each with more than 50,000 jobs) which make up the main employment region identified in Figure 2.1, and the remaining municipalities grouped together as the rest of Melbourne. The actual industries in each employment group and the municipalities in each class are shown in the notes in the table.

Figure 2.2 Main employment region (municipalities with more than 50,000 jobs) and location of principal and major activity centres
Australian Bureau of Statistics, Census 2001, customised matrix; Department of Sustainability and Environment, Addendum to Melbourne 2030, Activity Centres and Principal Public Transport Network Plan, December 2003

The data displayed in Table 2.5 indicate the spread of the different types of jobs across Melbourne and provide a guide to the potential for job location in activity centres. First, the two ‘dispersed’ employment groups together account for more than half of the jobs in the metropolitan area. In effect, the potential for employment growth in activity centres will involve less than 50 per cent of the current workforce. Of the two employment groups most likely to locate in activity centres, one is disproportionately concentrated in the CAD, with only small shares available to be located in activity centres outside this area. Thus the main potential for activity centre employment growth lies with the 19 per cent of Melbourne jobs in retail, accommodation, cafes and restaurants. Most of these jobs are currently spread across the Rest of Melbourne. The many activity centres will have to share them, leaving only a small number of opportunities for each centre.

Table 2.5 Jobs by employment character, Central Activities District, main suburban employment region and rest of Melbourne, 2001
Notes: the Central Activities District (CAD) is as specified in Melbourne 2030; that is the cities of Melbourne, Port Phillip and Yarra aggregated. The seven main suburban municipalities, which were each the workplace for more than 50,000 persons, are Boroondara, Monash, Greater Dandenong, Kingston, Whitehorse, Knox and Hume. Rest of Melbourne is the remaining 21 municipalities (or part thereof) within the Melbourne Statistical Division.
Activity centre lower order industries include Retail Trade, Accommodation, Cafes and Restaurants.
Activity centre higher order industries include Electricity, Gas and Water Supply, Communication Services, Finance and Insurance, Property and Business Services, Government Administration and Defence.
Dispersed population-related industries include Education, Health and Community Services, Cultural and Recreational Services, Personal and Other Services, Non-classifiable economic units, not stated.
Dispersed technical clusters industries include Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing, Mining, Manufacturing, Construction, Wholesale Trade, Transport and Storage.
ABS, Census 2001 Working Profiles

Unless activity centre policy can induce some major shifts in the way that employment opportunities are currently located, the potential for their job growth seems slight. The strategy has no precise actions (such as lower cost land, higher site coverage regulations, rate incentives) that could be expected to shift some employment toward activity centre sites. Until such actions are taken, the very substantial strength of the current pattern of job location as displayed in Table 2.5 will be hard to change.

It is important to note that clustering around suburban centres is not significant for most suburban firms. This is illustrated by the fact that not one of the top 19 companies (in terms of employment) in the City of Monash is located in (or even near) the Glen Waverley principal activity centre (City of Monash, website). Coincidentally, the recently announced winner of The Age Export Award – a pharmaceutical company – is located in a Mulgrave industrial estate.

In the United States, there has been some dispersal of office-based activities into suburban locations, but Lang’s research on that outcome shows that the jobs are dispersed across a large area creating what he called edgeless cities (Lang 2000). Freestone and Murphy (1998), working on job growth in the northern part of Sydney, also found that job location was widely dispersed; they judged this to be inconsistent with the ‘edge city’ (that is activity centre) idea. This experience is not encouraging for Melbourne 2030’s ambitions to have a range of different jobs in activity centres. This is especially so given that the strategy has no formal mechanism to attract employment – not even one to compel Government agencies to move. The latter has usually been important in the application of activity centre policy in most cities.


The one policy action designed to attract jobs to activity centres involves stopping them locating elsewhere. The authors of the Melbourne 2030 strategy were aware of past failures to create district centres or other forms of concentrated employment activity. Businesses expected to locate in these centres in the past simply located elsewhere. The result can be seen in the very substantial spread of low density commercial development in industrial and commercial sites in the suburbs – very little new commercial building took place in the nominated district centres included in the metropolitan plans of the 1970s and 1980s. Hence Melbourne 2030 has explicit action to limit what it identifies as ‘out-of-centre activity’:

Melbourne 2030 discourages out-of-centre development by giving preference to in-centre and edge of centre locations for new development. Such out-of-centre proposals will only be considered where it can be convincingly demonstrated that the proposed use or development is of net benefit to the community in the region served by the proposal (Department of Infrastructure 2002a p. 10).

It is not clear from this statement which sectors the action will target. At the extreme, such measures could limit growth in the two dispersed categories of employment which together, as Table 2.5 shows, account for almost 60 per cent of the metropolitan area’s jobs. Firms facing restrictions on location will probably consider locations other than the metropolitan area. These could include non-metropolitan sites, but could just as easily involve relocations to other capital cities within Australia.

If, as is likely, the measures only apply to local population-serving functions like retail, it is difficult to see them producing the scale of employment growth that is needed for activity centres to flourish as planned.


Melbourne 2030 makes the remarkable assumption that workers have an interest in living close to their site of employment. This is remarkable because it is contrary to past experience in Australian cities. Australia’s urban history is distinctive for its commitment to the creation of residential areas which are set apart from workplaces.

Figure 2.3 Growing self containment (municipalities where the number of persons who lived and worked locally increased by more than 2000 between 1996 and 2001) and the main employment region
Australian Bureau of Statistics, Census 2001 and Census 1996, customised matrices

In addition, researchers have established that many factors other than work are considered when households make residential site selections, as shown by Downs (1992), Guilano and Small (1993) and Wachs et al. (1993). Summarising much of that work, Peng (1997 p.1217) observes that ‘..the jobs-housing balance at the macro level within a fixed boundary – ie a major city, county or metropolitan area – is not a significant determinant of travel behaviour’.

An insight on the current links between major job locations and the residential location of their workers can be seen in Figure 2.3, which shows that very few of the activity centres are located in municipalities where the number of jobs which were filled by locals increased significantly between 1996 and 2001. In fact, the greatest gains in local links (self-containment) are in the more distant outer suburbs (where the size of municipalities exaggerates the effect somewhat). Across the main region of the metropolitan labour market, increases in the number of persons who live and work in the same municipality has not been so strong and in one case (Greater Dandenong) the number of people who lived and worked locally fell. It is difficult to see activity centre policy as currently established making a difference here.


Activity centre policy relies heavily on the assumption that the clustering of jobs and houses at higher densities can have an impact upon the way in which Melbourne residents connect their jobs and houses and, in turn, reduce travel and even their car use. This assumption derives from well-publicised research that used an international comparison of cities in different cultures, with different public transport systems and different petrol prices to show that housing density and energy use (in effect, car traffic) is connected (Newman and Kenworthy 1989). However, that connection may not necessarily hold at the local level in an individual city. Peng (1997 p. 1232) examined the link between compact city policy as applied in the well known case of Portland, Oregon, a much smaller city than Melbourne. He found that ‘hardly any land use policy action could affect the jobs-housing ratio so much that any significant change in vehicle miles travelled per capita would result’, an observation consistent with Breheny’s analysis of cities in the United Kingdom (Breheny 1995). In fact, Levinson (1998) and Guilano and Small (1993) have both shown that urban structure (that is the distribution of centres within a metropolitan area) is not a major influence upon the patterns of travel.

Barlow (2001), working on inner city areas in Melbourne, found that higher density development has actually been associated with increases in car use and work-journey trip length, while Hodgetts (2003) found no difference in car ownership and use in new high density parts of the inner city compared to older less developed areas. Currently many of the reported congestion problems of Melbourne are found in locations where there has been substantial additional housing in recent years. Analysis carried out by Cox (1999 p. 6), incorporating a report by Portland’s regional government, has shown that ‘Portland policies will produce more traffic congestion and air pollution, not less’. This research insight does not support the simple idea in Melbourne 2030 that activity centre location will lead to less car use.

Canadian researchers Filion et al. (1999) believe that the separation of jobs and houses is ‘entrenched’ in modern cities by an array of socio-economic influences that extend beyond the location of work and the cost of transport to involve influences like multiple wage earners in a household, shared responsibilities of child rearing and preferences for space over access to jobs and services. This array of factors was strong enough to favour outer suburban locations even in a highly centralised and high density metropolitan area like Paris (Brun and Fagnani 1994).

Car use in Melbourne is shaped to some degree by the pattern of job location. As shown in Figure 2.4, public transport is not utilised at all by the great majority of Melbourne workers who live in middle and outer suburbia. It has been shown above that most jobs located in these areas fall into the ‘dispersed population’ and the ‘dispersed technical’ categories of employment. The location of these workplaces is unlikely to shift to activity centres. Because of current difficulty in servicing these dispersed locations with public transport, it is very unlikely that work trips will shift from their current private car pattern. This fact, together with research and practical insight on the lack of connection between housing density and travel behaviour, suggests that activity centre policy by itself will have very limited impact on car use and travel behaviour generally. Currently, medium-density housing projects located in or near commercial or transit centres invariably offer one or even two parking spots per dwelling, and many households buying into these sites possess two cars. An indication of car ownership in this type of medium-density development (in this case, close to public transport in Brunswick) is illustrated in Figure 5.7a in Chapter Five.

Figure 2.4 Percentage of work trips which used public transport for part or all of the journey and main employment region 2001
Australian Bureau of Statistics, Census 2001, customised matrix


A significant weakness in the policy is that it relies on the location of both housing and jobs in the same set of centres. The driving force behind this idea is the new urban vision that people can ‘live, work and play’ within a local high density community. This means that activity centres need to be places that can accommodate commercial investment for employment, as well as housing. However, the issue of co-location raises some further problems.

These problems arise because the circumstances that are conducive to housing growth are not necessarily the same as those which are likely to promote commercial investment and employment growth. Indeed, they may conflict. Housing development consistent with the activity centre model needs high capacity public transport, accompanied by convenience shopping facilities for the local population, as well as personal services. However, if a major activity centre is to become a centre for financial and business services offering a diversity of employment opportunities, a much wider variety of complimentary services will be required (legal, accounting and other consulting services). The provision of these services is likely to conflict with housing development because of competition for land, as well as the high level of traffic generated in such centres.

Activity centres with high levels of employment development are likely to grow most rapidly where the services located there can draw on demand from a surrounding regional economy. Hence, these larger activity centres are likely to develop at a few very accessible locations at the heart of major sub-regions in the metropolitan area. In addition, they will expand rapidly where many services can locate and benefit from inter-linkages between one another.

This means that the likelihood of combining housing and serious commercial development in the same centres will probably be limited.



The Melbourne 2030 documentation is replete with visual presentations implying that the activity centres of the future will accompany apartment blocks with attractive park-like open space and public institutions such as libraries and hospitals. To achieve these outcomes will require considerable public intervention and public investment. Melbourne 2030 offers no indication of the mechanism which will fund its vision. This is especially relevant for activity centres.

For activity centre policy to be effective, some organisation will have co-ordinate the planning policy, aggregate land for each of the functions which activity centres are supposed to accommodate, and provide the finance necessary to bring it all about. The president of VCAT, Justice Stuart Morris (2003) outlines just such an approach:

...the vision is not capable of being achieved unless there is active government involvement in consolidating land, in and around Activity Centres, so as to provide efficient, high yielding development opportunities.

Morris also suggests that land could be compulsorily acquired under the existing Planning and Environment Act, under which the State had ‘sweeping powers’. Further, a ‘revolving fund’ might be established to provide seed funding for land acquisition which, although a considerable sum, would have a ‘particularly high benefit to cost ratio’.

This point was also made by the Melbourne 2030 Implementation Group (whose status is discussed below). They proposed the provision of incentives for developers (such as waiving of stamp duty and land tax, and municipal ‘rate holidays’) to facilitate development. Assistance with compulsory property acquisition was also identified as a necessary tool (Implementation Reference Group 2004 p. 7). Until such arrangements are in place, Melbourne 2030 activity centre policy is unlikely to be implemented.


Melbourne 2030 has a structure to engage local communities in the planning process. Each municipal council, along with some ‘community’ representatives and other major stakeholders (such as the Urban Development Institute of Australia (UDIA) – the body representing land developers), is participating in a Regional Housing Working Group and associated ‘smart growth advisory committee’. Representatives of the Department of Sustainability and Environment lay out the Government’s expectations of the scale of dwelling construction required in each municipality for the activity centres within its borders. Participants are invited to debate the implications of these expectations. However, municipalities do not have much room for manoeuvre. In essence the implementation process is about disseminating each municipality’s ‘responsibilities’ as regards meeting the Melbourne 2030 urban consolidation targets.

The only avenue for contestation of the Melbourne 2030 template (apart from resident protest) is via the Melbourne 2030 Implementation Reference Group. This includes representatives of the various stakeholders in the planning process. So far, however, this reference group appears to see its role as advising the Government on how to achieve the Melbourne 2030 objectives better – rather than as a constructive critic of the plan itself. The Group recently asserted that ‘the strategy implementation will falter unless protracted disputes are removed from approval processes’ (Implementation Reference Group 2004 p. 9). One proposal still on the table is for a draconian ‘as-of-right’ development within areas designated as activity centres:

...the statutory planning controls in Activity Centres need to be recast. As a basic principle, if a development proposal is consistent with an approved Structure Plan or Comprehensive Development Plan, then it should not be subjected to giving notice (and objections), or appeal rights to objectors (Implementation Reference Group 2004 p. 10).

This approach implies, of course, that activity centres are clearly defined with legally denoted borders.


Municipalities are being required to prepare structure plans for their locality which will facilitate the appropriate level of development. To this end, they are being provided with funding assistance for the planning consultants or extra staff needed to do the required structure planning. However, activity centre development calls for a lot more than structure plans.

Figure 2.5 Glen Waverley principal activity centre, radial distances from the railway station and non-residential zones to match Tables 2.3 and 2.4
Prepared from Department of Sustainability and Environment Planning Scheme for City of Monash

Consider the case of the Glen Waverley activity centre. It is shown in Figure 2.5. If this area is to be transformed to create a village feel with high-rise housing estates fronting to open space and linked into the Principal Public Transport Network (PPTN), it will require major intervention to change existing land uses. As the figure shows, apart from a couple of small areas in the residential neighbourhoods some distance from the commercial area, there is no existing public space. The shopping centre is surrounded by conventional detached housing with some medium-density infill. Apart from one three-storey apartment block adjoining The Glen Shopping Centre on High Street Road, there is little sign of developers buying up the existing detached housing in order to take advantage of the alleged interest on the part of households to locate in high-density housing in such areas. Indeed, one such proposal was withdrawn and replaced by an office building as the local market for high density housing was not strong enough. Again, it is hard to see the Melbourne 2030 vision coming to pass in Glen Waverley without a committed, powerful and well financed authority in place to guide it.

Another example of the weakness of relying upon municipal planning alone can be found in the suburbs at Brandon Park in the City of Monash. This area has been designated as a major activity centre, even though there is no fixed rail station in the vicinity. It has a shopping mall and a cluster of small office buildings and a large hotel at the junction on one of Melbourne’s busiest roads, a junction which has the dubious record of a high number of car accidents. The morning and evening peaks are currently marked by traffic congestion that backs cars half a mile up Ferntree Gully Road from Springvale Road. Local residents struggle to get in and out of their locality. There is a development opportunity here as an unused school site (the old Brandon Park Secondary College) adjoins the shopping centre. In anticipation of the possible sale of the school land by the Education Department, the Monash City Council is considering an outline plan involving medium-density housing for the site. The simple statutory part of activity centre policy will involve a re-zoning. The municipality has no power to provide additional transport services of any kind. New houses on the old school site will mean even more cars since the jobs around the road junction will not be sufficient to ‘absorb’ the new resident population in the unlikely event that locals could monopolise them.

Dandenong is another instructive example. The City of Greater Dandenong Council, like other municipal councils, is obliged to identify where it will locate its share of the extra households which Melbourne 2030 demands of established locations. In Dandenong’s case, this involves an extra 16,700 dwellings on top of the existing 46,000 dwelling stock. The Council has proposed that some 7,000 of these dwellings will be located in Dandenong Central. This is consistent with Melbourne 2030 because Dandenong has been nominated as both a principal activity centre and a transit city. The Council’s vision is of central Dandenong becoming a ‘vibrant, active residential city with new medium-density living options and attractive open spaces’ (City of Greater Dandenong 2004). Linked into this project is a redevelopment of the old livestock saleyards site which adjoins the south side of the station. In its preliminary planning for this site, the developer, VicUrban, originally proposed that some 1,400 dwellings would be constructed. As noted above, this project has since been scaled back to some 800 dwellings.

To transform Dandenong as proposed by the City will require the aggregation of building sites within the central city area – where currently there is a mixture of office and retail activities, but few residences. The Dandenong City Council plans to co-ordinate the project. It only has a Victorian Government grant of five million dollars to help in funding the transit-oriented-development component linked to the station.

These examples point to a growing concern within the development community about the prospects for activity centres. Lindsay (2004 pp.88–89) outlines this lack of Government resolve about investing in the public transport component of the plan, noting that in the recent prebudget economic statement there was only one mention of Melbourne 2030 and, in the budget itself, no financial initiatives which address the issues raised above.


The initial application of the Melbourne 2030 activity centre strategy has been felt in a number of proposals to build high-rise residential or commercial offices in nominated activity centres. These proposals did not recognise the hierarchy of centres, with one (Camberwell) in a principal activity centre, a second (Smith Street Collingwood) in a major activity centre and a third (Mitcham) in a neighbourhood centre. This suggests that private-sector developer interest in activity-centre sites is spread across many different locations, and the use of a hierarchy, where public investment can match private sector interest, is not influencing investment action at ground level.


The Mitcham case has provided perhaps the clearest illustration of the way in which the loosely specified activity centre strategy can be used to justify land-use change in unexpected ways. Mitcham is located in the suburban heartland of eastern Melbourne. The only notable commercial presence is the big box furniture and household goods stores lining Whitehorse Road. As noted, Mitcham station is not defined within the Melbourne 2030 plan as a principal or major activity centre, but rather as a neighbourhood activity centre. Nevertheless, Golden Ridge Investments proposed to build a twin-tower 17-storey residential block with accompanying gymnasium and commercial activities on the site. The proposed building had nothing in common with the surrounding neighbourhood. After the proposal was lodged with the City of Whitehorse in September 2003 it was advertised for public comment. Some 631 objections were received. The Whitehorse Council did not support the proposal. Subsequently, the developers lodged an application with VCAT in February 2004 (VCAT 2004 p. 7). The proposal was given the green light by VCAT in September 2004.

VCAT was guided in its judgement by the imperatives of Melbourne 2030. Its reasoning was that if the plan was to achieve its objectives of consolidating development in activity centres, then proposals like that of Mitcham Towers would have to progress. As VCAT noted, the City of Whitehorse’s own Municipal Strategic Statement indicates that ‘perhaps the biggest challenge facing the City’ was to achieve urban consolidation in a way that would effectively utilise existing infrastructure and provide appropriate housing for the changing population (ageing with decreasing household size), while defending the attractiveness of family-orientated areas that are characterised by detached dwellings (VCAT 2004 p. 13). Furthermore, according to the VCAT judgement, the Whitehorse strategic statement concluded that, given the short supply of surplus land within the municipality, ‘...any large parcels of land that become available must be put to the use that achieves optimum benefit for the whole of the community’ (p. 14).

VCAT concluded that ‘Development should, therefore, be targeted into areas with excellent public transport access, shopping, entertainment and employment opportunities’ (VCAT 2004 p. 13). On these grounds it approved the Mitcham Towers development. This decision served to emphasise that Melbourne 2030 had radically changed the planning framework for high-rise development. In particular, it has called into question the idea of a hierarchy of activity centres.

Why promote Mitcham when it is close to Ringwood which is both a principal activity centre and a transit city? Ringwood has spare land for expansion at the edge of its currently developed commercial core. Under those conditions (and assuming the hierarchy idea has some influence) government land-use policy could seek to assist, as much as possible, the expansion of housing and other activity into Ringwood, where it can be backed by the targeted investment of the transit city program. In those circumstances the supply of a large number of new apartments at nearby Mitcham would seem to undermine the fortunes of Ringwood. VCAT appears to have ignored the hierarchy of activity centres which is central to the Melbourne 2030 vision. It observed: our opinion the answer is not to be found in classifications but must be found in fundamentals... [para 63]... As a generality, it is true that large, high density developments will be more suited to activity centres towards the top of the hierarchy. But to treat the hierarchy as a definitive guide would be to ignore the purpose of the hierarchy [para 65] (VCAT 2004).

Another decision on a proposal for a 10-storey building in Lygon Street further illustrates VCAT’s perspective. As reported by Barber et al. (2004 p. 25):

The tribunal found that the height and scale of buildings within activity centres will not be determined so much by the position of a particular centre within a hierarchy of activity centres, rather it will be determined by particular locality characteristics...

Barber et al. (2004 p. 24) also reported that VCAT allowed extra height on a building in Footscray ‘ a smaller building would unnecessarily limit Footscray from achieving its role as a key centre within the metropolitan area...’

Clearly, the activity centre strategy has been applied in an inconsistent manner. The concept of the activity centre hierarchy was developed to guide the application of the policy and direct development to the most appropriate areas. It was to be used as a framework to focus public investment and action, and ensure ‘consistent decision making’ (Department of Infrastructure 2002a p. 5). Morris’s decision cut across the distinction between the role of higher and lower level activity centres. Neighbourhood activity centres barely receive a mention in the original policy documentation. In its decision, VCAT placed a priority upon neighbourhood activity centre development which was not foreshadowed by Melbourne 2030. If this inconsistency could be rectified, the potential for success of the activity centre strategy would be greater.

In the aftermath of the controversy generated by the Mitcham experience, the Bracks Government has announced interim planning controls which stipulate a nine metre height maximum for buildings in neighbourhood centres. These only apply if councils take the initiative to implement the new measures (Office of the Premier 2004). This response adds another level of uncertainty to metropolitan planning process. Are the recent interim height guidelines to be taken as a guide for municipal structure planning or not?

Another example of the Pandora’s Box opened by neighbourhood activity centre policy is the nine-storey apartment proposal at Wheelers Hill in the City of Monash. The site is a hill overlooking a spectacular view of the Dandenong Valley and the Dandenong Ranges beyond. There is a small neighbourhood shopping centre nearby but otherwise the area epitomises low-rise detached suburbia. There is no fixed rail transport in the vicinity, though there is a bus route passing the site. The proposal is completely out of character with the locality and quite outside the spirit of Melbourne 2030 with its concern to concentrate high-rise dwelling activity around transport nodes. From the developer’s point of view, an argument was put forward that the proximity to the neighbourhood centre and the lack of high-rise housing in Monash justified the proposal’s contribution to the city’s new dwelling stock. There was an obvious profit to be made because the proposed building offered valuable unimpeded views. But from the nearby residents’ point of view, the project was benefiting from the low-rise nature of area and would represent a severe visual intrusion on their outlooks. In this case, the Monash Council opposed the proposal and has applied for interim height controls as described above. The Bracks Government did not allow a subsequent appeal to VCAT. No doubt fearing a judgement similar to that of the Mitcham case, the Government ‘called the project in’ and in December 2004 completed an internal inquiry before a Priority Development Panel staffed by Department Sustainability and Environment officials. (One of the authors – Birrell – gave evidence at this inquiry on behalf of the Monash Ratepayers Association.) On 16 February the Government announced that it had accepted the Panel’s advice that it should reject the proposal.


There is a harder edge to the implementation of higher density policy in suburban locations when a community has buildings and neighbourhoods of heritage value. The proposal to build high-rise apartments atop the Camberwell railway station is a case in point. This proposal has become a rallying point for residents alarmed about what Melbourne 2030 might do to their neighbourhood. The residents leading the Boroondara Residents Action Group (BRAG) formed to oppose the project appear to see the project as symbolic of an attack on the wider fabric of Camberwell. They have made it clear that their feelings are tied to fears that the built heritage of the area is under threat and that their sense of place is intimately linked to the maintenance of this heritage. Most of the buildings around the station were constructed following the establishment of the railway line in the 1880s. From the perspective of current residents, they have always been there. Their role in shaping residents’ sense of local identity is profound.

Residents’ complaints about the station proposal, delivered at the several well attended protest meetings during 2004 and observed by the authors, indicate that people assume that the station proposal is just the beginning of a wider assault on the built heritage of Camberwell. This is where the BRAG response differs from the position of SOS and of most advocates of Melbourne 2030. The latter two seem to assume that such high density projects can be quarantined from the surrounding low-rise detached suburban area. This is not the way the residents see it. Apart from the radical changes to the ambience of the area implied by a blocky high-rise building over the station and its surroundings, residents hold a well-founded suspicion that such developments will impact on the character of the nearby area and add its already congested nature. They have a point. Melbourne 2030 proposes to give developers the legal right to locate medium- to high-rise housing projects within a 400 metre (or more) radius of the heart of major activity centres. In Camberwell’s case, some of Melbourne’s most valuable period housing, constructed over a century ago, lies within this boundary.

The Council submissions, invited when Melbourne 2030 was first outlined, put these points politely. In the case of Boroondara, it is argued that the designation of activity centres within its borders reflect a failure to ‘...demonstrate any refined understanding of the specific values of the suburbs in terms of their valued urban character, amenity, [or] areas of special protection. These contradictions must be removed [italics added]...’ (City of Boroondara 2003 p. 7).

The City of Yarra faces a similar problem. It has argued that protection of the local heritage and amenity would become virtually impossible with the growth implied by Melbourne 2030. Heritage overlays in Yarra, aimed at preserving the low-rise Victorian built form, and which were essential to the preservation of neighbourhood character in parts of the City, would not occur under the policy as it stood. The Yarra submission concluded that: ‘In the old inner Melbourne suburbs there appears to be some conflict between the growth/development objectives of the Activity Centres and the conservation/character protection objectives of Melbourne 2030’ (City of Yarra 2003).

That sense of conflict was well expressed in fierce local resistance to the Banco Group proposal covering 132-172 Smith Street. Some 1,500 objections were received by the City of Yarra (Stefanski 2004 p. 81). This proposal involves the construction of some 253 dwellings comprising three towers, a supermarket, offices and a multi-level basement car park (capacity 400) (Lewis 2004 p. i). Nearly half the residences will be fully furnished, managed student apartments, not an element of the housing market considered in the broader vision of housing in activity centres. It contradicts the basic idea that activity centre housing is predominantly for new small households, including empty nesters (Shaw 2004 p. 40).

In a local activist’s words, the proposal will lead to ‘the creation of traffic and transport nightmares on Smith and surrounding streets... It is aggressive and conspicuous; dwarfs surrounding architecture; is inconsistent with the heritage values implied by the area’s Heritage Overlay; and its size, scale and design are intrusive and destroy the streetscape’s integrity’ (Stefanski 2004 p. 81). The developer justified the proposal by reference to the Melbourne 2030 template (Fargo 2004 p. 64). On 8 February 2005, the City of Yarra asked the Planning Minister to ‘call in’ the application if Banco goes to VCAT.

These cases illustrate that Melbourne 2030 has yet to provide a way to deal with the heritage interest of established suburbs in its aim of increasing density.


Perhaps some of the problems outlined above emerge because Melbourne 2030 imposes an activity centre template across a large number of very different actual and potential centres. All are expected to comply with the same planning directives; that is, to accommodate more residential, retail and commercial activities. Municipalities rightly complain that there has been no attempt to investigate the differing capacities of activity centres to accommodate such functions or to consider what might be lost in and around the centre by so doing. The Mitcham case study shows that municipalities actually have very little scope to define outcomes for their centres. In cases where there are valued historic precincts – as with some of the shopping strips – municipalities have in the past sought to deflect development elsewhere. In Boroondara the policy has been to direct bulky offices down Camberwell Road, well away from the Burke Road shopping strip and the Camberwell Railway station. As a result of Melbourne 2030, the council now finds itself wrestling with directives to place more development in the vicinity of, and above, the station.

By contrast, there is plenty of room for investment in additional housing and offices at Broadmeadows, Sunshine, Dandenong or Fountain Gate, including locating some ‘out-of-centre’ activities within these precincts. Old or outmoded box shopping facilities could be demolished with few tears from anyone. The same is not the case for many inner city activity centres. Various municipalities made this point. The City of Yarra’s Melbourne 2030 submission contended that the strategy did not sufficiently identify the specific characteristics and limitations of particular activity centre locations.

Melbourne 2030 promotes development for all the nominated Activity Centres without reviewing the particular circumstances and context of each centre... the strategy for Activity Centres applies across the board from inner councils to outer suburban areas. The City of Yarra believes that differentiation is required (City of Yarra 2003).

Likewise, the Boroondara submission states that the Council was not involved in the selection of activity centres. Its concern was that there had been no preliminary scrutiny of the locations designated as either principal or major activity centres prior to council examination of their merits. It was feared that a ‘message’ was being prematurely sent that these locations are already deemed appropriate for ‘substantial intensification proposals’. The position of the Council was that interim controls over activity centres were needed to ensure that strategic objectives other than intensification, such as ecologically desirable design criteria are met. Council recommended that the ‘onus be placed on developers to justify why a proposal is strategically justifiable and appropriate’ (City of Boroondara 2003 p. 10).

This suggests that much more thinking is needed to develop a workable definition of activity centres, and to link those definitions with local circumstances.


The above review of activity centre policy has exposed some serious problems with its background logic, application and current interpretation. Though few will deny a multi-centred approach is needed to manage the growth and change of Melbourne, it is important to keep in perspective the difficulty of changing land-use patterns sufficiently to meet the broad objectives of this strategy, given the limited tools available to the current planning system.

Perhaps the most sobering perspective on the difficulty of implementing an activity centre land-use plan is provided by Hall’s review of the achievements of the Stockholm plan, which created the first ‘high density apartments around rail station’ metropolitan plan in the 1950s. He notes how a shift away from apartments to single-family homes began to weaken the approach, and on a recent visit noted the outskirts of Stockholm are ‘...a vast linear edge city of business parks and hotels and out of town shopping centres stretching along the E4 Highway for twelve miles and more towards the Arlanda airport. It is almost indistinguishable from its counterparts in California and Texas’ (Hall 1998 p. 878). Warneryd (1999 p. 584) confirms Hall’s observation by describing the current Swedish urban pattern as an ‘urbanized landscape without limits’.

Concentrating public and private investment in a few centres will improve accessibility to services and perhaps employment for a population spread across the middle and outer suburbs, but the locally focused new-urban world of people living at high density and walking to work is unlikely to emerge in most of Melbourne. Bender (2001) has observed ‘the plans for pretty suburban neighbourhoods proposed by the new urbanists somehow miss [the] essential aspects of metropolitan life. Life in the metropolis is far more cosmopolitan, even more egalitarian, than the new urbanists imagine’. Perhaps that advice should have been considered in the decision to link much of the urban management of metropolitan Melbourne to a very ambitious activity centre strategy.


1     See Department of Infrastructure 2002a p. 15; Department of Infrastructure 2002b p. 32; it is also available at [accessed February 2005].

2     It is not clear from the Melbourne 2030 documentation what period is used for trend projections.

3     VicUrban was formed from the merger of the Docklands Authority and the former Urban and Regional Land Corporation on 1 August 2003.


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Melbourne 2030: Planning Rhetoric Versus Urban Reality

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