Central Melbourne is rapidly transforming into a high-density urban jungle as lax planning regulation permits the unchecked proliferation of multi-storey apartment towers.

That’s the conclusion of a recent report by Leanne Hodyl for the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust of Australia which investigates planning policies around the world for hyper-dense, high-rise residential environments.

The Hodyl reports points out that the density of high-rise apartment towers currently under development in central Melbourne is four times the maximum density levels permitted in some of the world’s most overcrowded cities, including Hong Kong, Tokyo and New York.

The report slams current policies governing the development of high-rise buildings in downtown Melbourne, referring to them as “weak, ineffective or non-existent.” It also blames those policies for the potential emergence of ultra-dense urban environments that are detrimental to both living conditions and real estate values.

“[Existing policy] enables the approval of tower developments that are very tall and that squeeze out the space between buildings, with little regard on the effect on the residents within, the impact on the streets below or on the value of neighbouring properties,” said the report.

According to the report, the chief problem with existing policy is that it offers “cheap density” to developers, permitting them to build without any restraints on density levels while requiring comparatively meagre contributions to the community.

This mode of development of contrary to that currently being pursued by urban planners in some of the world’s leading metropolises, including New York, Vancouver, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Seoul.

While Hodyl acknowledges the importance of expanding high-rise apartment supply in the central city in order to provide conveniently situated housing to those who work downtown, she remains concerned that a surfeit of such developments in the absence of proper regulation will foster the creation of urban malaise.

“Developing at these extreme densities will have negative, long-term impacts for Melbourne, eroding away Melbourne’s celebrated liveability,” said the report. “It will create a legacy of apartments that are of poor quality – homes that lack access to light, air and an outlook – and diminish the quality of the streets and parks below by blocking sunlight, increasing wind drafts and obstructing sky views.”

Hodyl advocates a raft of policies for improving the quality of Melbourne’s urban development, including the establishment of appropriate density control, the provision of density bonuses that link development with public benefit, as well as apartment standards and an enforceable tower separation rule.

Her report also proposes the implementation of a dual planning stream for large-scale development approvals – an “as-of-right” approval for projects that satisfy controls, thus giving developers and the community greater certainty, and a negotiated outcome based on community review for when controls are exceed.

The Victorian government is already undertaking measures to address the lax state of urban development regulations, with the recent launch of the Better Apartments discussion paper by Planning Minister Richard Wynne.

The guidelines set to emerge from the discussion paper are expected to remedy the lack of design guidelines and minimum size requirements for apartments in the state, which many blame for the prevalence of shoddy house throughout parts of Melbourne.