Melbourne: sprawl, liveability and climate change

Melbourne: sprawl, liveability and climate change

opinion piece, 2008

It is hardly news to anyone that Melbourne is, in global terms, an incredibly sprawling city. We are constantly losing open space, remnant vegetation and agricultural land to new urban development. In order to rein in the sprawl, we will need to move to a denser urban form, which was the aim of Melbourne 2030. With the current review of Melbourne 2030 and seemingly relentless criticism of the plan, we are in the midst of perhaps an unprecedented discussion about what type of city we want to live in. And while it is easy to be critical of the failures of the strategy, we should be cautious about joining the backlash against urban infill and medium density housing.

This debate needs to be seen also in the light of climate change. To do this is to acknowledge an unavoidable truth: Melbourne’s relentless sprawl is pivotal in our over production of greenhouse gases, driving as it does our reliance on cars for transport.

According to the recent book Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change, published by the US-based Urban Land Institute, urban development is both a key contributor to climate change and an essential factor in combating it. As in Australia, a growing number of bike riders in US cities has not seen a reduction in the numbers of cars on the roads, because of urban fringe growth. The book warns that if sprawling development continues to fuel growth in driving, it will overwhelm expected gains from vehicle efficiency and uptake of low-carbon fuels.

It is clear that one of the best ways to reduce vehicle travel is to build urban places where people can do more with less driving.

This book suggests that compact development reduces driving by 20 to 40 percent, and more in some instances. In those parts of the USA and Western Europe where people are living in compact urban neighborhoods, people drive about 30% less than those in car-oriented suburbs.

Recent reports in this newspaper have suggested that Melbournians don’t want to give up detached home living in favour of more compact apartments. However, Growing Cooler notes that market trends suggest that a majority of future housing demand does lie in smaller homes and lots, townhouses, and apartments in neighborhoods where jobs and activities are close to each other. Demographic changes, shrinking households, rising petrol prices, lengthening commutes, and shifts in culture which see a greater value in social conviviality and cohesion will all play a role in creating the changes that are coming.

The authors calculate that shifting 60 percent of new growth from urban fringe to compact patterns would save 85 million tons of CO2 annually by 2030 in the USA. Urban neighbourhoods – if well catered with public transport – obviously allow people to do a lot more of their travel by PT or bike: which is good for individual and public health, air quality and greenhouse gases, and household budgets.

It would be tragic for the government to back away from its commitment to urban consolidation because of perceived community opposition. Given the reality of global warming, there is an onus on neighbourhood groups to move beyond personal concerns about impacts on their amenity to holding a broader vision of what a sustainable future might look like. We must demand ‘smart-growth’ development strategies, appropriate state government regulations, clear roles and powers for local governments, and government spending that reflects environmental imperatives – that is public transport such the proposed rail link to Doncaster, instead of the current priority on freeways and ring roads. Developers must also rise to the challenge and stop producing wasteful and energy consuming housing stock.

A significant aspect of urban form lacking from the current 2030 vision is that of food production. While there have been a number of recent media stories about the rising costs of food, few commentators are drawing the link back to climate change. Once we also consider the phenomena of peak oil – that is, dwindling fossil fuel supplies – and the danger that a simple shift to biofuels will impact on food prices as these fuels start to compete for land, any review of urban form must consider food security. In a similar vein, these documents should consider and support electrical energy production from urban areas through non-polluting renewable means such as wind and solar.


While debate about climate change can easily drift into alarmist terrain, there is no doubt that global warming will bring changes that will impact on all of us – and hence should influence our urban planning decisions. In Melbourne, these impacts will include rising sea levels and storm surge damage, heightened bushfire risk, continued depletion of water supplies, and flooding following extreme weather events. In light of these considerations, it seems that we do really stand at a point where we can and should profoundly reconsider our approach to Melbourne’s urban form. The endless sprawl could be transformed into a more compact and highly liveable city – a Copenhagen or Edinburgh in the bush.



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