Melbourne: The world’s most liveable city, but for how long?

According to an article in ‘The Conversation’ by RMIT’s Ralph Horne and Megan Nethercote, Melbourne is in danger of losing its prestigious title of being the world’s most liveable city (https://goo.gl/rbBZsI). Contrary to other major cities, construction in Melbourne is comparatively under-regulated. Latest CBD constructions have been called “vertical slums,” 1-2 bedroom apartments, half of which are under 50 square metres, according to the article, not much bigger that a generous double garage.

Apartments under 50 square metres do not allow for adequate ventilation, and also lack enough storage and living space. Another practice taken on by Melbourne city developers is designing bedrooms with no windows, these rooms need to ‘borrow light’ from shared spaces like lounge-rooms. This practice is illegal in cities with much higher populations like New York, Hong Kong and Vancouver. The article states that a recent report unfavourably compares Melbourne’s high-rise rules to those of other world cities. I guess at one level this is understandable as the inner city growth is only now beginning to ramp up to a new level. However the time is now to put tighter rules in place. Currently we are allowed to develop at four times the density of cities such as New York, Tokyo or Hong Kong, with no obligation for developers to contribute to public infrastructure. This could include leaving space for affordable housing and community facilities.

The issue of developer contribution is a critical one as we consider the wellbeing of communities and the liveability of cities. Similar issues face local councils in outer suburban areas like City of Wyndham (West) and the Shire of Cardinia (South East), where there has been massive growth, with cookie cutter houses going up in their hundreds. Unfortunately much needed infrastructure that enables people to live well is lagging behind. Community consultations in these areas tend to bring up similar issues around access to adequate transport and places for individuals and families to gather and just hang out or perhaps play some games.

As someone with a passion to see people thrive and flourish in the context of the places and spaces they find themselves, the community side of housing developments is of great interest. It’s beginning to shift and Wyndham is a happy example of this, however many councils still believe that community building is about providing space and running events. The truth is much more complex and involves understanding the relational web around people and what happens when it breaks down. Good community building is about fostering a different attitude that recognises the value and worth of everyone in the community, enabling vision and ideas to flow from that base.

The City of Melbourne recognises this in the prelude to their housing strategy document for 2014-18, ‘Homes for People’ (http://goo.gl/yQfbdR).

We support our community members – whatever their age, sex, physical ability, socio-economic status, sexuality or cultural background – to feel like they can be active, healthy and valued. We plan and design for our growing city, including safe, healthy and high-quality public spaces.

Picking up on a few of the housing challenges that the report highlights; more affordable housing, ie subsidised; buying in the inner city is out of the reach of many households; current high level housing supply isn’t delivering a good housing mix or social diversity; quality, amenity and performance are decreasing while density is increasing; mix and affordability impact on long-term community building and support for a vibrant cultural life.

I’m not sure if I can paint the picture adequately, our city is growing, more people are and will be living in the CBD, this is a global trend as cities expand. Currently in Melbourne, what’s being constructed will not meet the needs of this growing constituency. Most apartments do not meet the needs of growing families and thus there will be a stilting in the demographic of those living in the city, affecting the mix, cultural diversity and the ability to build sustainable communities of wellbeing.

This is an issue close to home, literally, as I’ve mentioned before I live in an apartment in an inner city suburb. Apartment living is good! This is the second stint that my family and I have had in an apartment, the first being in Dandenong. Both times we downsized, relatively easily from a four bedroom suburban house. Growing up I never thought about apartments, although I grew up in a relatively small house, it was on the, at that stage typical Sydney quarter acre block. When Mum and Dad sold the land was worth much much more than the house.

Currently Amy, Josh and I live are on the 7th and top floor of our building. We look directly onto a public housing estate and in fact our building is an experiment that brings together public, social and affordable housing options, for that mix of social demographic. However from our balcony you can see a corner of the city to the west and the Dandenongs in the far off distance to the East. Literally million dollar views as they say.

Yet the social mix and liveability of the building has not been a simple one to juggle. The organisation contracted to manage and develop the building have focused on creating a great space to live, yet have lacked the focus, resources and skill to effectively build the community. In fairness there have been factors outside their control, which has meant the task of community building has been made more difficult. The community centre that was initially to be for the use of residents and others wishing to hold gatherings, changed to be managed by the local council who attached fees to the hiring of facilities, making its use unattainable for most in the building. There are no other indoor spaces where residents can easily gather together.

In the beginning of our time here a small group of us attempted to work with management to develop some community building processes, including events but due to personal busyness, shifting priorities and frustration with management this is largely defunct.

For me this highlights the importance of people in the midst of development. Although it helps its not enough to offer well planned and designed apartments, even if they are affordable. Richard Wynne, the current Victorian Minister for Planning has released a discussion paper, ‘Better Apartments’ (http://goo.gl/7Mt9LS), it sets the context, however focuses on the internal design of apartments and complexes and misses the community infrastructure argument.

I agree apartments need to meet standards that make them liveable for people and families with varying needs, however if these are built and people move into higher density living without the proper social and community infrastructure, we will be in danger of creating ghettos of loneliness and despair, lovely ghettos that they may be.

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