Transit the Key to Making Melbourne Polycentric

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Monday, January 25th, 2016
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According to transportation expert Dr. Chris Hale, Melbourne is also tipped to become a more diffuse, polycentric metropolis, with the establishment of a second CBD in the eastern suburb of Box Hill already in the cards.

Hale notes that focusing exclusively on the further development and expansion of established CBDs is no longer such a viable option for many Australian capitals as residential growth continues to outpace pre-existing facilities and infrastructure.

“I used to be a very strong advocate of developing the inner city for a long time,” said Hale. “Then more recently I’ve come to realise that the inner suburbs of Australian cities are really struggling now because there has been an extended residential growth boom without the enhancements to transit capacity, the public realm and services that would have been required.”

A preferable option to straining inner city infrastructure with a surfeit of development is the expansion of established hubs outside the traditional city centre into more prominent loci of business and employment. In the case of Melbourne, the eastern suburb of Box Hill is perhaps the best candidate for conversion into an alternate CBD.

“I think a certain sub-set of Melbourne’s non-CBD activity centres will be able to sustain sensible growth across housing, employment and institutional uses,” said Hale. “Box Hill is the leading and most promising of Melbourne’s activity centres, so if we can’t get it right there, we may as well abandon any thought of polycentricity, or indeed of transit-oriented planning.

“Box Hill is a convenient train ride from Melbourne’s CBD – just over 20 minutes on train, and sits on the confluence of several rail lines, which means turn-up-and-go frequencies are available. It has long held preeminence as one of the leading suburban rail-bus transfer hubs in Victoria.

“Overall, it is a highly transport-advantaged location, with connections and service quality that would be the envy of many places geographically much closer to the CBD.”

The creation of a more polycentric Melbourne via improvements to alternate activity hubs dovetails perfectly with the policy and development recommendations of density advocates such as Rob Adam, the City of Melbourne’s Director of City Design. They point out that it’s far more economical to dial up development in locations with existing infrastructure than it is to spend exorbitant amounts on the new infrastructure required for development along the fringes.

Hale notes, however, that creating polycentric cities also entails significant upgrades to and investment in the transit infrastructure of established activity centres.

“The crux of polycentric planning is the treatment of transit facilities – but this aspect has been poorly understood in Australia over the past decade,” he said. “You’d have to say that realistically there will be a risk to ongoing growth and investment, and to the quality of the urban environment, if the approaching limitations of transport infrastructure are not recognised and acted upon in a timely and sensible manner.”

While advantageous transportation conditions favour the development of Box Hill into a leading activity centre, its existing transit infrastructure remains inadequate for this vaunted ambition.

“The transit facilities – both bus and rail, have reached the end of their fitness-for purpose. A lot of people assume that because the building itself is still sound, that it is surprising anyone would be calling for redevelopment or substantial refurbishment of the transit interchange,” Hale said. “We have a bit of a problem in Australia with our understanding of the fitness-for-purpose aspects of infrastructure life cycle.”

Hale – who submitted a report entitled Building a Better Box Hill on the needs of the suburb’s transit facilities to Whitehorse Council just prior to Christmas, believes a major overhaul is needed if the area is slated to assume a more prominent role.

“Making a world class activity centre out of Box Hill will require a world class 21st century transit station. It should be an architectural highlight, it should work for passengers, and in doing so will sustain several decades of manageable growth and positive change,” he said.

“Box Hill really needs a new or substantially renovated transit interchange offering better transfer and access opportunities, easier people movement, better access for people of lesser mobility, and a more up-to-date ‘image’ and presence for public transport in design and architectural terms.”

These changes will include addressing the issues of accessibility on foot or bike, as well as the creation of an urban environment that distinguishes itself from other parts of metropolitan Australia by taking its cue from Asian and European cities.

“I’d suggest there are challenges in terms of upgrading pedestrian and cycling access, and renewing the design sensibility and public realm of the surrounding precinct,” said Hale.

“I’ve suggested to council and other stakeholders that a stylish ‘European’ approach to streets and public space should be considered, while ‘Asian’ examples might be useful in terms of creating a lively night time environment for shopping and hospitality – perhaps something like the fun, excitement, safety, and easy access we find at night in various parts of Tokyo, for example.”

In spite of challenges, Hale remains optimistic about Box Hill’s prospects to become an alternate urban centre, pointing to the salutary effects of strong leadership by local government and the positive cues this has given to private business.

“Whitehorse Council are pretty advanced, progressive and professional compared to a lot of local governments around Australia. They understand the value of their key node, and are doing the right things to see it grow in a sustainable manner,” he said.

“Industry, employers and investors are mostly smart enough these days to be able to pick out the more robust councils and direct their investment where it will receive the most sensible and predictable responses.”

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