The City of Melbourne’s Director of City Design says that Australian cities must lift density levels in their centres in order to better utilize established infrastructure and accommodate surging population growth.

Speaking at the PrefabAUS Conference in Melbourne, Rob Adams said the projected surge in the population of Australia’s major cities will necessitate major changes to the country’s methods and models of urban development.

“Australia is a country where the capital cities will double in 40 years,” he said. “What that means is that you cannot do things by conventional methods – you’re going to have to change the way we develop.”

According to Adams, the potential doubling of the populations of Australia’s major cities will necessitate greater concentration and density in the downtown centres as peripheral areas play roles of diminishing significance.

“What is happening in all the capital cities of Australia is that people are living on the fringes are starting to suffer from lack of access to infrastructure and high cost of travel,” he said. “The Australian dream of being able to buy a house on the fringe…is not the situation today. You’re almost getting into a subprime industry on the fringes of cities – bankruptcies are coming from those fringe areas.

“So the future of Australian cities is not going to be on the fringe – it’s going to be coming back into the centres, and it’s going to be one of increasing density.”

Adams believes increasing the density of city centres will make Australian population centres more efficient and economical by enabling them to better utilise their existing infrastructure assets.

“If you look at Melbourne, the existing infrastructure we have is fantastic – it’s just underutilized,” he said. “We’ve got the infrastructure, all we need to do is build more on site.

“For every thousand houses you build within existing infrastructure you, actually save 300 million dollars over 50 years in terms of infrastructure.

“What that means for Melbourne is that as we double from just over 4 to 8 million residents, we can save 440 billion dollars in infrastructure.”

Looking at Melbourne specifically, Adams pointed to the ample opportunity for infill residential developments and increased population density along major roads and public transit routes by means of innovative methods such as prefabricated building.

“Melbourne is on the threshold of realizing what is possible on these routes…you can see development happening in places like Brunswick Street, where there are new developments cropping up in the historic streetscape,” he said.

“[On Nicholson Street] you can see the expensive infrastructure and the development alongside it – what if we actually built six to eight-storey buildings along the back of those tram lines?”

Adams said increasing the population density of central urban areas with well-established infrastructure serves to raise their efficiency and reduce associated levies and taxes.

“Since 1996 we’ve dropped our rates in central Melbourne from 13 cents to the dollar to just over four – not because we’ve been taking less money out of the system, but because we’ve got a greater population,” he said. “The thing that drives this economy is using your existing infrastructure to the greatest possible ability – that drives down the rates and taxes, and therefore makes this a more practical place to be.”

While Adams says the benefits of increasing the density of central areas with developed infrastructure are demonstrable, both the federal and state urban planning systems are failing to foster this mode of growth.

“There is no cities policy at the federal level,” he said. “Our planning scheme is broken – we actually need to throw it out, start again and ask ourselves what it is we’re going to achieve, and how can that help us accommodate the population we need.”