According to State Government data, metropolitan Melbourne had approximately 23,700 hectares of public open space in 2016. 

This included all land which is freely accessible to the community and is set aside for one or more of: outdoor recreation and leisure; conservation; waterways; and heritage.

Public open space provides enormous social, environmental and economic benefits.  To take just one example, access to ample, good quality, open space encourages exercise, including walking.  Forty six percent of Victorians report that they regularly walk for exercise.  This generates a staggering $24.5 billion annual benefit in leisure value and health cost savings measured using the Australian Transport Assessment and Planning (ATAP) guidelines published by the Australian Government.

Melbourne’s stock of public open space in 2016 translated to around 50 square metres per capita.  Local councils had custody of about 54% of this stock, so they provided approximately 27 square metres of public open space per capita on average.

A key funding source for the expansion and embellishment of public open space in Melbourne comprises contributions of land or, more likely, cash from developers.  Planning rules in most metropolitan Councils require developers producing 3 or more titles for residential units and sometimes commercial, retail and industrial occupancies to provide a public open space contribution set at a given percentage of their sites’ market value or developable area.

Councils accumulate these contributions in dedicated financial reserves and may apply them to buy more parkland if the opportunity arises.  Because of the cost and difficulties of assembling suitable parcels of land, the more usual deployment of the funds is to improve the quality of existing public open space.  This includes provision of better sporting facilities, installing irrigation and drought proofing, erecting lights to enable extended use of playing fields and building children’s playgrounds.

To a point, boosting quality can be considered a reasonable substitute for expanding the area of open space.  For example, a smaller but better equipped park could deliver the same utility for the catchment community as a larger but less well developed park.

Subject to State Government approval, Councils may apply percentage contribution rates that they deem to be best for all or parts of their jurisdiction.  There is considerable variation in these rates both within and across Councils.  But they tend to vary within a narrow band.  More than half of metropolitan Councils operate contributions policies of 5% or less in most of their municipal areas.  Contribution requirements of the order of between 6% and 8% are not uncommon but they are typically confined to small areas earmarked for housing intensification.  Rates of 10% or more are rare outside of greenfield growth areas.

When Councils frame their contribution rates, 5% is taken as something of a benchmark.  This is a legacy of Victoria’s Subdivision Act which, in the decades preceding planning legislation, established a 5% maximum open space contribution rate.

This benchmark is now badly out of sync with needs generated by contemporary urban development.  In the long ago days when Melbourne grew almost exclusively by low density expansion on the urban periphery, perhaps at 12 dwellings per hectare or fewer, a 5% public open space contribution would have translated to 15 to 20 square metres per resident.

Over the next 20 years, the majority – 70% by government policy – of housing development in Melbourne will be occurring in established areas at much higher densities than greenfield expansion.  Based on current population projections, Melbourne will see the net addition of 835,000 homes over the next 20 years, probably delivered at a metropolitan wide average density of at least 60 dwellings per hectare.  Development projects at this density would generate as little as 3 square metres of public open space per resident at a 5% contribution rate.

If planning contributions from housing developments were to be the sole means by which Melbourne’s stock of public open space is expanded, the current policies of metropolitan Councils portend a significant and rapid deterioration of parkland availability measured on a per capita basis.

Allowing for population growth between 2016 and 2023, and the public open space contributions brought by that development, the current metropolitan average provision would, at best, be around 43 square metres per capita including all public open space, and 24 square metres per capita if only Council land is included.  Area provision rates are likely to be lower than this because Councils in established areas will have more often than not opted to improve existing open space rather than acquire additional parkland.

Looking ahead, if the average contribution rate across the entire metropolis were 6% – a reasonable assumption given current practice – and Councils could find land to purchase, area provision rates would fall to 33 square metres (all open space) and 18 square metres (Council land) per capita by 2043.

In other words, open space per capita in Melbourne could shrink by about one quarter over the next two decades.  This would not be an issue if the metropolis had surplus public open space to begin with.  But current provision of municipal open space already falls at least 20% short of a commonly quoted planning standard of 30 square metres per capita – a standard first adopted in Melbourne in 1954 when leisure patterns and expectations may have been less demanding.

A focussed funding response is urgently needed if the flow of social, environmental and economic benefits from Melbourne’s open space assets is to keep pace with population growth.  Contribution rates in planning schemes will need to be significantly increased and/or alternative sources of open space funding will have to be tapped and/or new ways will have to be found to improve the recreational, environmental and economic productivity of existing open space assets and allied parts of the public realm.


By Dr Marcus Spiller, Principal & Partner, SGS Economics & Planning Pty Ltd


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