The Urban Sprawl Debate Part 1

Urban sprawl and the urban growth boundary designed to control it, are a hot topic of debate for Melbournians. The Victorian State Government announced yesterday that it would increase the urban growth boundary by 5858 hectares to accommodate 6 new suburbs. To help understand urban sprawl and the surrounding issues, I will attempt to explain the driving influences and common ideas and arguments

Similar to an Essendon versus Collingwood blockbuster, the urban fringe debate has two distinct camps, pitched against each other not willing to give an inch. One side sees the opportunity to build a new house in a new suburb on the fringe of Melbourne as a right, or in some cases even as their only choice. On the other side, players cite environmental, social and economic reasons for their unfaltering position against sprawl.

What is driving urban sprawl?

Urban sprawl is driven by the search for ever cheaper land. Developers want to find more land to sell to the public and the public eat it up. Not only does it look like a cheaper option, but many Australians also have a cultural desire for low density housing.

The middle suburbs of Melbourne grew out of the expanding tram network, which allowed workers to find cheaper housing on the outskirts whilst still commuting to the city. The rise of the automobile allowed this phenomenon to continue to the city we have today which is almost 100 kilometres wide.

What are the arguments for continuing urban sprawl?

The primary argument for continuing the sprawl is that it is essential for keeping housing prices affordable. On the surface it is easy to draw this conclusion. Restrict new land for low density dwelling construction and the price of such homes will increase. This assumes that demand for detached low density housing is a constant. Even if this were the case, the argument right at this moment is not a particularly strong one. This is because of two reasons. Firstly Melbourne’s population growth has reduced significantly recently which has a direct impact on the demand for new housing. Secondly with the possibility of a second GFC looming, house prices look likely to continue to fall for some time.

Another common tool in the argument of the pro sprawlers, is their imagined alternative. Spruikers of low density development present the alternative as a high density city like Tokyo, with homes the size of caravans. This argument is saying that because one extreme is bad the alternative extreme must therefore be good.

Perhaps the most logical argument for low density housing is that some people enjoy the lifestyle associated with it. Indeed in a recent Grattan Institute Report it was found that 48% of Melbournians have a preference for detached houses over other forms of dwellings. However the report also found that Melbourne housing stock in 2006 was 72% detached houses. It also found that 68% of the new dwellings constructed between 2001 and 2010 were detached houses. This to me suggests that new supply of detached housing should be curtailed to more closely match our dwelling preferences.

What are the arguments for restricting urban sprawl?

Environmental sustainability is a very common reason for people to oppose urban sprawl. This argument draws upon several factors.

  1. Heavy reliance upon private motor vehicles and therefore fossil fuels
  2. Higher energy usage by detached houses (despite 6 star requirements)
  3. Land clearing
  4. Embodied energy in roads and infrastructure

The second key argument is that living on the outskirts of a city in low density dwellings, have a significant impact on the health of those living there.  The reasons for this are

  1. With more time spent commuting to and from work, people are less likely to find the time and energy to eat well and exercise causing higher risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
  2. Medical services such as hospitals are further away and emergency ambulances take longer to arrive.
  3. Greater incidence of motor vehicle accidents and trauma due to a greater duration spent in motor vehicles.

Often people living in low density dismiss the health argument. They claim housing type doesn’t make people fat, not exercising and eating rubbish is doing it. They’re right that housing is not the only contributing factor, but it’s important. My counter point would be that not all people with asbestos in their homes will develop symptoms either. Clearly asbestos in dwellings can be harmful to a significant percentage and therefore as a society we banned it.

The final argument against urban sprawl is the social fragmentation and class division that further sprawl will be creating. The people who have low incomes look at these outer suburbs as a low cost affordable housing solution. What they are really signing up for however is in fact far more expensive.

On average, workers who live in the outer suburbs commute two and a half times further to get to work than their counterparts who live in the inner city. Using RCAV data costs for running a medium sized car and supposing an additional 20 kilometre each way daily commute, the additional travel expenses equate to a weekly travel bill of approximately $140. This weekly expense is the equivalent difference between paying back $300,000 home loan and paying back a $375,000 one over a 25 year period.

So what is the R+BA solution?

Firstly we need to fix the urban growth boundary from now until substantial progress has been made on the infrastructure which is required to make outer suburban living sustainable such as public transport.  This mechanism needs to be managed in such a way that the continual political changes every few years don’t impact on the long term goal.

New low density dwellings should be built fewer in number and within the now fixed urban growth boundary. They should be built primarily in the north and the west where they can be closest to the city. It is not economically feasible to turn this industry off like a tap and so there needs to be a staged transfer from building low density dwellings to building moderate density ones.  Medium and high density dwellings will need to be designed and constructed to a higher quality to ensure the current swing to higher density preferences continue.

We will also need to do our level best to fix the sprawl we currently have. This is done by working towards better infrastructure, particularly transport infrastructure.  This will be a big task and probably take many decades. The simple fact is that infrastructure costs a bomb. There has been talk of a train stations at Rowville and Doncaster for decades, yet no government has been able to come up with the goods. Many believe that the ‘greedy’ developers should pay for this infrastructure in its entirety. The problem with this is that the numbers simply do not stack up. Developers already pay contribution fees for some infrastructure (ie roads and street lights) but would simply walk away from the deal if they had to pay ten times the amount for a train line and station too.

This debate is about setting the path to the brightest future possible. It is not good enough for one side to blame or alienate the other. In a democracy there needs to be debate and the more educated that debate is the better.

Check back next week for Part two of this post, a review of the Victorian State Governments recent announcement and their growth corridor plans for Melbourne

Architecture is for everyone.

Further reading

Australian Government
Department of Infrastructure and transport

The Grattan Institute
‘Getting the housing we want’

The Growth Areas Authority
Growth Corridor Plans


About Michael Smith

Architect and Director of Atelier Red + Black based in Melbourne, Australia
This entry was posted in all posts, Government Policy, Urban Design. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Urban Sprawl Debate Part 1

  1. Pingback: Volume house builders and the great Australian nightmare | The Red and Black Architect

  2. Pingback: Red and Black for 2013 | The Red and Black Architect

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