By Ian Hundley
The City of Banyule’s recently released draft Ivanhoe Structure Plan covers the Ivanhoe Shopping Centre, surrounding commercial, civic and residential areas as well as the Ivanhoe and Darebin railway station precincts. The draft plan is generating a high level of concern amongst residents, for reasons good and bad, not least because multi-storey developments of up to eight stories (32 metres) are proposed in particular locations.
Banyule Council’s approach to public consultation is evidently also causing angst, with little open discussion prior to the public release of the draft strategy. This is not a very sensible approach to consultation and decision making, which work best when it provides for two-way community-wide learning and information flows. The technocratic and eye glazing character of much of the documentation is also unsuited for a lay audience. Residents deserve better than that and it is to be hoped that the Council will improve in their communications efforts in the coming months.
Many people want these areas to stay the way they are. That’s not surprising, especially if you believe that any change will be for the worst. That may seem to be a reasonable presumption given the chaotic way that planning in Melbourne has unfolded over the last 30 years. But it is unrealistic to believe that all things should stay the way they are in the light of the environmental, demographic and economic issues which now confront us.
In the discussion below I raise some of the more important issues that I believe should be addressed in the strategy planning process, not only by the City of Banyule but also the Victorian government, to ensure that Ivanhoe Major Activity Centre will be a better residential and commercial centre than it is now. If it is not done properly there is every prospect that the outcomes will, as many people fear, be worse than the status quo.
Many see population growth as the central problem, a view reinforced by the City of Banyule’s observation that the exercise is effectively being imposed upon them by the Victorian government who say that the Melbourne metropolitan area must cater for significant population growth. In this regard, it is said that the predicted resident population growth in the City of Banyule between 2006 and 2031 will be in the order of about 17,000. Framed in that way the structure plan exercise is also guaranteed to make residents feel that they are being put upon.
That the previous state government actually used population growth as a driver for lazy economic growth raises concerns that the current state government may see the world in the same way.
Whatever the truth of that proposition, it is certainly the case that national population growth is largely in the hands of the federal government and the ability of state governments to influence regional population growth for any sustained period of time is likely to be limited.
It seems likely that there will be population growth in Australia, including Melbourne, for the foreseeable future. This population growth may not be as high as predicted by some of the more excitable commentators, but it is on the cards nevertheless. Importantly, though, even if population growth were to remain low in this period, the case for some urban consolidation is compelling for environmental, social and economic reasons.
How large a population for the Ivanhoe Major Activity Centre?
With population growth a key element of the process it is important that the Banyule City Council should model the prospective residential population that is being contemplated under the Ivanhoe Structure Plan. This has not been done. Apart from anything else it is essential for the purpose of modelling future demand for services in the area, and especially transport. It is also likely that other major activity centres at Heidelberg and Greensborough will see continued consolidation and this needs to be publicly recognised and taken into in the strategy planning process.
Higher density living versus urban sprawl
Higher density living in specific well serviced locations is environmentally and economically superior to urban sprawl. Effective cities make the most efficient use of land and failed cities are recognisable for their poor use of available space. And most importantly there is a demonstrated demand for higher density and smaller dwellings in Melbourne. Some of the major influences are affordability, the long-term reduction in household size and the now rapidly unfolding climate change crisis.
Many current trends in Melbourne’s built form are unsustainable: the average house size has been increasing (it has been reported that Australia is now on average building the largest houses on the globe); there is a continuing housing affordability crisis; and the urban growth boundary and green space remains under constant pressure as a consequence. Changes in consumer demand will trigger some of the more desirable changes (for example, there are more recent reports that the “McMansion” is no longer as popular in new dwelling construction as it has been). However, other desired changes depend heavily on strategy planning processes.
One other thing to keep in mind which many of us will find comforting is that even with necessary urban consolidation in major activity centres like Ivanhoe it will be found that most of the resident population of metropolitan Melbourne, including Banyule, will continue to be housed in detached housing in a suburban setting.
Predictability and regulation of building heights
In developing the Ivanhoe Structure Plan for incorporation into Banyule’s planning scheme the Council would be assisting in injecting a degree of predictability about the future shape of the activity centre, including the maximum height of new buildings, that would otherwise not exist. In the absence of this process future outcomes are likely to be less certain.
People are quite rightly concerned that existing services will not cope with further development and increased population. They are worried, too, that as part of this exercise, the City of Banyule cannot provide any comfort that the Victorian government will do what it needs to do to maintain or improve local liveability.
It might seem preferable for the structure planning process to be abandoned. However, it may then only be a matter of time before developers would be seeking to build much larger scale projects than are contemplated in the draft structure plan. Significant social costs in the form of traffic congestion and overshadowing would be imposed on the wider neighbourhood. No-one who had thought about it would want that.
Demand for housing in Ivanhoe
Is there demand for more housing in Ivanhoe and Darebin? Almost certainly: both locations have and are within close proximity to excellent services and major employment centres. Train travel time between Ivanhoe and the Melbourne CBD is between 20 and 23 minutes, about the same as by semi-express train to the CBD from Box Hill, the largest activity centre in the City of Whitehorse. The Austin health precinct and the La Trobe University campus are ideally located employment destinations for residents of Ivanhoe and Darebin. It is unsurprising that new local residential developments in the area sell quickly.
State and local government must be in this together
It is important to call the Victorian government and the Banyule Council to account with demands for sound policy settings and for the services that they are separately responsible for to ensure that they are available for the Ivanhoe Major Activity Centre as they are required. And it would be useful to think of it within an appropriate time frame of, say, about 30 years. It is something for the long-term. Equally, it is unlikely that there will be immediate substantial changes to the neighbourhood. The changes implicit in the structure plan are more likely to occur over a decade and beyond.
One of the key objectives is to ensure that transport is placed on a more sustainable footing. Traffic congestion is top of mind for most people. Already a problem in Ivanhoe, congestion will get worse if any significant additional car travel is encouraged in and around the area.
Public transport a State responsibility
It is the responsibility of the state government to provide public transport services. The rail service from Ivanhoe and Darebin is passable at best and very poor at particular times of the week. The Hurstbridge line did not receive any extra services in the timetable upgrades that were introduced on the rail network in May 2011. Higher frequency services are particularly required during peak periods and on weekends. Sunday evening services are particularly poor. The Victorian government should address these deficiencies in further timetable upgrades scheduled later in 2011.
The two connecting route bus services at Ivanhoe railway station are poor. The 548 service between Kew and La Trobe University only operates Monday to Saturday, and the 510 service to Essendon railway station has a very restricted service on Sundays. Only one route bus service connects with Darebin station, the 546 between Heidelberg railway station and Melbourne University. It operates only weekdays. To reduce car dependency it is essential that there be better connecting route bus services at each of these railway stations.
An effective approach for public and resident car parking is required
Public car parking
Even so, improved public transport, coupled with better access for active transport (walking and cycling) as proposed in the draft Ivanhoe Structure Plan, will not be sufficient to maintain the liveability of the Ivanhoe Major Activity Centre if there is expanded residential and commercial development in the area. There are a number of steps that the Council itself should take to remedy this.
The first requirement is a strategic assessment of the need for public car parking and its pricing. One of the major sources of motor traffic congestion in and around relatively poorly performed activity centres is the large numbers of motor vehicle drivers seeking free or otherwise highly subsidised car parking spaces. The Council should calibrate the quantum of car parking spaces actually required for commercial and other visitor needs and to establish a sustainable mode mix of travel (public transport, walking, cycling and by car) for the activity centre. To achieve this objective public car parking would also need to be charged for at a level that would leave the local road network and the car parks themselves relatively free of congestion at all times. This is likely to mean that charges during the day should be higher than at other times when charges would be relatively low or (possibly) no charges at all.
This will also require a change of mindset by many of those users who are accustomed to getting parking for free all the time and by traders who see free parking as a cost-free inducement for their customers. But free parking is not cost-free (in the same way as burning greenhouse gas emitting fuels is not free) and as can be observed from the road congestion already evident in Ivanhoe. A significant increase in residential population and business activity in the area will, in the absence of such an initiative, stimulate greater road congestion, and make Ivanhoe a much less attractive place to be in.
Resident car parking
The second issue relates to resident car parking. Too often the reflexive response of local government to existing resident concerns for access to on-street parking is to maximise the amount of car parking in new multi-occupancy residential developments.
However, it should be found in the Ivanhoe Major Activity Centre that there will be strong demand for new multi-occupancy dwellings with no car parking or only one car park. Where car parking is provided people will generally purchase cars. Where no or relatively little resident car parking is provided residents will use public or active transport for a larger proportion of their trips. This reduces local traffic congestion and significantly enhances the liveability of the area because it is quieter, the air is less polluted and it is far more pleasant to walk around.
Further, reducing residential car parking also frees up valuable space for superior uses, whether it be for additional residential, commercial or public purposes. Also of significance is the fact that parking in multi-occupancy dwellings is very expensive to provide, somewhere in the order of $50,000 per car park in construction costs alone. Minimising the quantity of dedicated resident car parking in these developments improves the affordability of this housing. This is money that residents have to spend on other things, including on local purchases.
The provision of schools
Concern has been expressed that the already overloaded Ivanhoe Primary School would be placed under even further pressure if the Ivanhoe Major Activity Centre was included in its catchment zone. The school is already under enrolment pressure, reportedly because the nearby Bellfield Primary School was closed.
This cannot be taken as an argument against prospective residential development associated with the activity centre. It is another illustration of the concern of local residents that the state school system will be unresponsive to increases in demand for student places in response to any increase in the local school age population. Again, as with public transport it is a Victorian government responsibility to provide the guarantee that as the residential population grows the school system will be able to meet the demand for school places in the area. This is unlikely to occur immediately but should be under active planning consideration by the state education authorities.
Whilst population growth may be a stimulus for urban consolidation, as proposed with the Ivanhoe Major Activity Centre, the concept has substantial merit quite independent of population growth. The discussion above spells out some of the more important issues that will need to be resolved by the City of Banyule and the Victorian government. Managing transport with an increased resident population and a higher level of commercial activity is particularly central to the effective development of the Ivanhoe Major Activity Centre. The steps required are by no means unique and have been comfortably achieved elsewhere.