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Urban Growth Boundary - Public forum - recap

We called a forum to debate the recent State government decision to expand Melbourne's Urban Growth Boundary. A crack team of experts was lined up to participate in a discussion on this announcement – the aim being to flesh out the context of the decision, the implications for Melbourne and outer-suburban communities (existing and future) and alternatives to urban sprawl.

Give the people what they want! (bananas?)

Tony de Domenico (Urban Development Institute of Australia) and Stuart Worn (Planning Institute of Australia) shared the pro-expansion corner; de Domenico claiming that developers are driven by creating affordable housing and 'what people want', a position that Worn carried further by valiantly expounding the inalienable right to live near work, friends and family (although failing to articulate just how this is achieved by making sheep paddocks available for suburban living). To be fair, it soon emerged that credit was due to both Worn and de Domenico for voicing what proved to be a minority view on a panel (and in front of an audience) that was otherwise roundly dismayed at the planned expansion and concerned about its consequences for Melbourne's sustainability.

Both seemed to plead a kind of helplessness of their respective bodies in the face of two intrinsic forces - the market (de Domenico compared houses to bananas in a reference to Cyclone Larry's impact on the Queensland banana crop in 2006) and the will of the people – essentially dictating where and what kind of housing is made available. This seemed to be something of a flimsy premise (is it always a choice to live in the outer suburbs, or might it be in some cases an inability to afford anywhere else?) and as Dianne Moy made an argument for the oppositecase – noting that the structure of the market can effectively prevent alternatives from emerging, and changes in the system are needed to present people with real choices of alternative forms of housing.

Housing affordability

The argument that expanding the UGB would improve housing affordability was dismissed as a fallacy by Kate Shaw, who suggested that the measure is in reality driven by the government's interest in economic growth through creating opportunities for developers, and Dr Carolyn Whitzman, who noted the financial disadvantage experienced by poorer outer suburban dwellers without access to infrastructure and forced into car-dependency.


While Dr Paul Mees was adamant that an effective public transport system is achievable no matter what the size of the city, there was general consensus that the current trend to create houses ahead of transport infrastructure is concerning, contrary to the historical growth of Melbourne and unsustainable.

Planning consultation

2030 inevitably reared its ugly head, and was criticised for its authors having failed to engage with communities during its development. As the discussion turned to politics, the need for a genuinely democratic planning process was raised, with a comment from the floor suggesting that lack of public consultation breeds a general sense of frustration and disempowerment among communities, who resort to lodging objections (sometimes leading to VCAT legal battles) in order to engage with the planning process. It was a sentiment that was evident in comments from representatives of residents' groups in the audience, clearly passionate about appropriate development, but frustrated by a consistent lack of governmental response to their concerns.

So, where to next?

Some of the key points to emerge from the discussion...

  • Planning reform needed (there are helpful overseas precedents)
  • Different forms of tenure could be made available to people – ie not just home ownership – co-housing/ownership as a possible alternative?
  • Strategies to address disempowerment and engage people in planning processes – not just as objectors to decisions
  • Need to lobby government
  • What role can design play? How can architects work more directly with people on small-scale incremental changes to their dwellings?

A number of questions remain. We want to continue this conversation and would welcome your contribution (please feel free to comment below). A video recording of the night will be up on the words page soon. Note that submissions to the Growth Areas Authority are currently invited - see for more info.

Thank you to the panellists for generously providing their time and insights, and a special thank you to Ian Woodcock for his input in the lead up to the forum, and for chairing a discussion that managed to be equally informative and entertaining!


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