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Our Expanding Problem — Urban Sprawl

As Melbourne’s housing affordability decreases, while our population increases, the issue of urban sprawl continues to grow. For decades, negative economic, social and environmental issues resulting from urban sprawl have become an ongoing problem for Melbourne. This is despite numerous metropolitan strategic plans aiming to address the issue.

What is urban sprawl?

Urban sprawl is a pattern of urban development. It is characterized by market led growth, which lacks strategic direction and planning. Urban sprawl can be traced to the introduction of land use zoning, which aimed to separate residential housing from the pollution caused by commercial factories. This was then compounded by the popularization of the car, which opened up the possibility for residential development located even further away from the city centre. Currently, urban sprawl is being aggravated by the lack of affordable housing. New developments on the city’s edge provide a low cost, low density option for young families and migrants, who have been priced out of options on higher value land.

What are the effects of urban sprawl?

New suburbs are often located away from existing tram and train lines, with line extensions taking decades. This builds a culture of car dependency within these communities. Car dependency, while well known to increase likelihood of obesity in both children and adults, has also been found to increase chances of asthma and antisocial behaviour. This de facto compulsory car dependency is also highly problematic for the poor, elderly and disabled, who are often drawn to these outer suburbs due to lower accommodation costs. This need for a car can present a financial, and often physical, barrier for these groups to meet social, employment, educational and medical commitments.

The urban encroachment onto undeveloped land, has had the negative environmental impact of a large loss of biodiversity. This has been exemplified by the decrease in the genetic diversity in the once abundant growling grass bullfrog, and the loss of 99% of Melbourne’s natural grassland. This urban expansion also has very real economic and food security effects for Victoria, as prime agricultural land is bought up and built on. Currently, Melbourne is able to obtain 41% of its food from Victoria’s agricultural land. However, by 2050, with continued urban sprawl and increased population, we will only be able to access 18% from local sources.

What are we doing about urban sprawl?

Since 1929, there have been 21 different metropolitan strategic plans for Melbourne. The first one to address urban sprawl was the 1971 document ‘Planning Policies for the Melbourne Metropolitan Region’ by the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works. This document introduced the ‘Green Wedge’ plan and the concept of targeted growth areas. This need to plan for growth was reiterated by further reports in the 1980’s, which called for urban growth to be located in areas with good connectivity. However, it wasn’t until 2002 that ‘Melbourne 2030’ first implemented an Urban Growth Boundary, which drew a physical boundary for future urban expansion. This measure however, has been controversial, as the boundary has since been extended four times. It has also resulted in speculation and pressure on smaller towns on the boundary edge. Plan Melbourne, and its Refresh, have both called for a permanent boundary to provide certainty and sustainability for the future. This would be supported by requiring established suburbs to absorb a specific portion of any new development to occur across Melbourne.

Are our policies working?

It has been argued that Melbourne’s strategic policies have slowed, but not halted urban sprawl. Rather, Melbourne has developed as a city which covers around three times the geographic area than London, but holds a third of the population. It is important to acknowledge that this statistic may not be a result of policy failure, but rather a consequence of the cultural ‘Australian Dream’ of large, low density suburban houses. This culture has seen the establishment of groups such as ‘Save Our Suburbs’, who express concerns around the effects of urban intensification on the amenity of existing suburbs.

When analyzing the effectiveness of our polices, it is also important to highlight the increase in political involvement in planning since the 1971 report by the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works. The Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was a board external to politicians, and therefore unaccountable to the people. Now, planning decisions are made by a government department, accountable to a political minister. This has increased opportunities for community consultation and strengthened the democratic nature of the decision making, however it has also placed pressure on politicians to juggle competing interests. The issue of urban sprawl exemplifies this, as politicians face pressure to allow development, as growth supports GDP, housing and employment numbers. It is, therefore, encouraging to see both Plan Melbourne and its Refresh advocating for a fixed Urban Growth Boundary. When a similar policy was introduced in London it was argued that it would halt development and growth. In practice, however, it was found development investment instead shifted to infill development. The question is: can the planners and politicians of Melbourne convince the citizens that urban intensification is necessary to combat the social, economic and environmental consequences of urban sprawl?