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.”

  • Further evidence of the lack of foresight on the part of high-level policymakers, and the imminent death of the Australian dream in the country's major cities.

    • I agree. There was a time when there were range of planning controls were in place [eg floor-space ratios, % site cover, boundary set-backs, on-site parking requirements, and of course building height limits] that largely controlled excessive site development, or at least necessitated larger sites to undertake denser, higher, development – within such limits.
      It is only in relatively recent times that the view developed in many cities that they couldn't be classed as of 'international standing' unless 'mega-rise' buildings could occur, with a consequence of many, or most, of the previous controls on site density and height being removed or greatly reduced. This meant that the previously 'unusable titled air-space' above any lot was then available for maximum site development, virtually up to the Civil Aviation maximum height limit. A recent Brisbane development approval for a 76 storey , 653 unit & mixed use building on a 1,526sqm city centre site has an equivalent residential dwelling density of 4,280 dwelling units/site ha. Not such a problem if a 'one-off'' development, but what are the impacts of such developments being repeated on other nearby lots?].
      Unfortunately the opportunity was lost [although was probably never recognised] for State acquisition of all 'titled air-space', above a defined height above ground-level [well below the maximum CA air safety limit of 274m], so that use of such space would require 'negotiating' the 'terms' under which it could be acquired [leased?] and used – primarily by demonstrating that any such project would provide sufficient 'public benefits' to justify such higher-order use.

  • Couldn't agree more, Barry.

    Yes, we need greater density, but there must be rules around that density so that it works for everyone and provides for reasonable levels of comfort and quality of life as well as enabling the delivery of a sufficent quantity of stock in order to meet requirements.

    And to think, Matthew Guy whilst simultaneously approving everything and anything in the city core did not a whole lot to unlock the inner suburbs to greater density for fear of upsetting coalition voters. This is shortsighted and foolish. We need to put some form of control upon the city centre and unlock some of these middle suburbs to medium density development.

  • Steve, you are right that we need controls on the density/height of buildings – and what WE collectively want for our city should be considered in the mix. But good luck with that one when developers have control of the major parties, they direct policy and everyone else has been locked out, mere powerless plebs. We may as well not exist and with no voice, for all intents and purposes we do not exist.

    Likewise when considering control of what is built – not just where and how high the buildings. The same dominant players 'build' whatever rubbish they want, once again it is a case of profits over people. Be it domestic, strata or public buildings – we who pay for the buildings have no 'control' over quality or safety. The 'regulators' do not 'regulate', the surveyors do not 'survey' and the widespread conflict of interest/collusion across the industry and the so-called 'governance' bodies has handed control to those supposedly meant to be 'regulated'! It sounds bizarre and it is! But this always was/is the 'strategic' intention! Hence, the ones 'controlled' are those who fund all building, be it home owners or taxpayers. Thus we have poor quality buildings, widespread use of dangerous non-conforming products (cladding, cabling, asbestos, etc.) and very unsafe buildings. Failure has been a spectacular success – endowed the winners with super profits – but at great cost to consumers, the community and future generations who will reap what our shameful 'Governments' have sown. Most disgraceful are the pollies who pretend to be the 'responsible Ministers' .Their irresponsible conduct and contemptuous disrespect for all those harmed (who pay their salaries, super and overseas jaunts, etc.) is unparalleled and unpardonable.

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