Reviving Polycentrism for Better Australian Cities 1

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Tuesday, September 15th, 2015
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Making polycentrism the guiding principle for urban planning could be the key to creating more sustainable and efficient Australian cities.

One of Australia’s leading experts on urban sustainability says that Melbourne would make huge strides in terms of equitability and efficiency if planners were to adopt a more diffuse, polycentric city design.

According to Brendan Gleeson, Director of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute and Professor of Urban Policy Studies in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne, the CBD-heavy development of the Victorian capital is a step in the wrong direction when it comes to long-term urban planning objectives.

“We really have to stop the overdevelopment of the central part of Melbourne,” said Gleeson to Sourceable. “It’s already a highly monocentric city and the science available tell us that very large, monocentric cities are both inefficient and inequitable.”

“We know that Melbourne is going to continue to grow through natural increase – births are at historically high levels, and through immigration both externally and from elsewhere in Australia. We need to share our growth more evenly through the larger metropolitan fabric to make it more efficient, equitable and resilient.”

This warning from Gleeson about overdevelopment of Melbourne’s central area arrives following research from Leanne Hodyl projecting that parts of the city are set to become the most population-dense urban communities on the planet, outpacing storied megacities such as Shanghai and New York.

Gleeson believes that polycentric urban planning is the key to achieving more sustainable, equitable as well as efficient modern cities in Australia, in order to bring a raft of benefits to both the urban economy and its inhabitants.

“We should reject the idea that we need to continue to build massive employment concentrations in the centre of the city and try to haul people inwards, even on public transport,” he said.

“I think a more efficient and productive metropolitan form is one that shares out employment, jobs and investment, into well-sited and well-planned concentrations throughout the metropolitan fabric.

“We need to do that according to the principles of polycentrism. That’s not allowing unmanaged dispersion of course, but to identify an urban structure grouped around sub-regional centres.”

Gleeson notes that polycentric urban planning is nothing new in Australia, which strategies devised in accordance with its principles dating back to the mid-twentieth century.

“It’s an old planning principle, dating right back to the 1950’s and planning by the Board of Works, which recognised the importance of sub-regional centres and polycentricity,” he said. “It’s an old planning principle.

“What we need is not so another whole effort in identifying those centres – they are pretty well known and identified in planning. There has been some fairly good thinking in Plan Melbourne, for example, which identifies sub-regional centres and connects that thinking to the historical policy ambition.

“Places like Dandenong would be an obvious area, and there’s already been some success in building that up as a sub-regional centre. There’s also Frankston and that area to the south of Melbourne, and we need sensible places for sub-regional concentration in the west and the north and in the east of course.”

Gleeson calls for more concrete and pragmatic measures to ensure that those areas identified as prime candidates for sub-regional centres are properly developed.

“We have just not been resolute in making [polycentrism] happen,” he said. “We actually need the levers and determination to make sure that growth is actually directed towards those centres, and that is actually where the failure has been.”

“We need to be more resolute about directing further development, public investment and private investment, commercial and employment generating opportunities into sub-regional centres that are well connected with public transport.”

Gleeson recommends following the lead of Sydney, which has pursued a polycentric development plan outlining the proposed creation of a second CBD in Parramatta, in order cater to residents of the city’s huge western hinterland.

“Sydney has had a city of cities framework for quite some time now and I applaud what they’re doing in Parramatta – there’s been a history of attempts to build up Parramatta as a second CBD going back to the 1970’s.

“It’s done better than Melbourne over the past decade in terms of directing growth towards sub-regional centres, and Melbourne could really look at some of the things they’re doing and learn from that.”

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  1. Roy Barrett

    I fully support Brendan's argument for greater polycentric urban development, with a wider range of employment opportunities [beyond mainly retail] spread through the urban areas on and along the major transport routes. There is a strong case and need for 'wired' hubs of serviced offices and business parks to bring employment closer to people's homes and reduce dependence on increasing longer [time and distance] commutes. A recent study indicated that about 40% of peak hour traffic activity is related to people delivering or collecting children to and from school. This is a crazy waste of useful time. I believe our suburbs are going to need to undergo a phased process of major re-development and re-design over the coming years to make them more sustainable, and that will require a major re-think as to how such might be achieved in a manner that is supported by current residents, and that achieves sustainable outcomes – it won't be easy but I consider it will be necessary for our future.