Thanks to inadequate regulations directing the development of high-rise buildings, Melbourne is building towers at four times the density of Hong Kong, Tokyo, and New York.

“We have highly competent developers and design and planning professionals in Melbourne,” wrote planner, consultant and Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellow Leanne Hodyl. “It is the lack of effective policies that is letting Melbourne down.”

According to Hodyl, this is causing rapid population growth in neighbourhoods that may lack the infrastructure to deal with the influx of new residents, poorly designed apartments lacking in adequate natural lighting and views, and a missed opportunity to use density bonuses to fund infrastructure.

Hodyl released her report on the subject, Social Outcomes in Hyper-dense High-rise Residential Environments. She interviewed planners, architects, real estate professionals, academics, and government policy makers in five cities: Hong Kong, Tokyo, Vancouver, New York, and Seoul. Her research focused on four questions:

  1. What planning controls govern the densest residential developments in their city?
  2. To what extent do these controls require developers to consider the social outcomes of the people who will live in them?
  3. What are the best examples of high-rise living in their city that demonstrate this policy in practice?
  4. Are they aware of any evidence that high-rise living is detrimental to people who live in this type of building/development?

Hodyl concluded that Melbourne’s system for regulating development is lacking. Despite their differences, the cities studied “all have in place similar policies to promote positive high-rise, high-density development outcomes.”

Specifically, Hodyl noted:

  • Every city regulates density and offers density bonuses in order to “link development capacity with local infrastructure capacity and delivery.”
  • Building setbacks are controlled in every city, as are tower separation distances in all cities but Tokyo.
  • All cities regulate apartment quality and amenity, such as minimum apartment sizes and requiring windows in all habitable rooms.

These controls, Hodyl said, protect land value on adjacent sites, create funding streams for community facilities and open space, and consider both building inhabitants and the bigger picture for the city.

To be sure, Melbourne does have regulations in place that address density, but they are “ineffective and obsolete in practice” due to weak wording, such as regulations stating that development ‘should generally not exceed 12:1’ for floor area ratio, and their focus on the whole block basis rather than a site basis.

One effective way to fund infrastructure, Hodyl noted, is through density bonuses. When properly incentivised, developers can fund the addition of parks and plazas, cultural facilities like performing arts spaces, and affordable housing options where low-income workers are often priced out of the market. In return, developers are allowed to increase density above the site’s development cap and boost their potential profits for the project. Density bonuses are “a common tool used in planning systems to balance private development profits with community benefit,” Hodyl said, and Melbourne has used them in the past.

“These were removed at a time when the current drivers for developing very tall towers on small development sites were not evident and when demand for living in the central city was far lower than today,” she wrote.

Melbourne’s lack of density and height controls has resulted in large jumps in land value, Hodyl said. That leads developers to aim for greater financial return on their projects to compensate for the land costs. Developers then increase density and reduce basic amenities.

Soaring land costs also inhibit government entities from acquiring land for open space and community facilities that help to make increasingly dense neighbourhoods more liveable. Melbourne’s open space per person, at around 0.1 square metres per person, is dwarfed by Vancouver’s at three square metres per person and Hong Kong’s at 1.5 square metres per person.

One of Hodyl’s case studies illustrates how far out of line Melbourne’s regulations are in comparison with the other cities studied. While one block in Hong Kong would see 3,600 residents in 1,650 apartments and 61 per cent site coverage, that project in Melbourne would house 8,600 residents in 4,300 apartments at 92 per cent site coverage.

Fixing this mess, Hodyl noted, can be done by adopting the policies that other cities use, such as:

  • Establishing density controls in central Melbourne
  • Introducing density bonuses to incentivise developers to create community benefits like affordable housing and new open spaces
  • Establishing apartment standards
  • Creating an enforceable tower separation rule

Without such controls, Hodyl noted,“the social and economic consequences of this pattern of hyper-dense, high-rise development are unknown.” It’s clear from other successful cities, fortunately, that extreme urban density is unnecessary. “This scale of densities is not required to support population growth in the central city as there is sufficient land supply to meet the growth projections.”