Is The Melbourne Of Tomorrow Riddled With Slums Or Opportunity?

Is The Melbourne Of Tomorrow Riddled With Slums Or Opportunity?


By targeting low-rise commercial buildings for conversion into residential skyscrapers are developers potentially creating suburban slums? Or, by increasing supply, are they creating opportunities that go part of the way to solving housing affordability?

A panel of planning experts appointed by the Andrews Government has this week been assembled to address this very dilemma. The panel will begin hearings into the future development of Melbourne’s Box Hill, a suburb that currently has 149 residential projects within different stages of development.

Located 14km east of the CBD in the City of Whitehorse, the local Planning Scheme outlines that Box Hill is one of Melbourne’s nine major metropolitan activity centres.

Within the planning scheme local council have set the objectives to create a precinct that maximises employment growth, expands in line with market demand, offers diverse opportunities for recreational and social engagement and encourages the use of public transport.

A large portion of Box Hill is zoned for major development and the local council is seeking to encourage taller buildings in these zones around the Box Hill railway station and Whitehorse Road.

These plans have been met with some opposition. Local association Whitehorse Active Transport Action Group (WATAG) have expressed their concerns that the new skyscrapers would turn into “slums”.

This is not a new declaration. In a 2016 article by the Editor of Crikey’s The Urbanist, Dr Alan Davies explains that the term “slum” finds a familiar place in debates around the future of Melbourne’s skyline.   

“It doesn’t take long in any discussion of the Victorian government’s proposed apartment amenity standards before someone claims those city centre towers are “slums” or, in the more temperate version, they will be in the not-too-distant future. Even Melbourne’s Lord Mayor, Robert Doyle, has invoked the spectre of slums.

“It’s a common charge but Melbourne’s city centre apartment towers aren’t remotely like real slums and nor are they likely to be in the foreseeable future.” Davies said.

Concerns have come from local organisations and residents that suggest the Box Hill precinct is incapable of handling the surplus of 4400 people that would be housed by these developments.

In addition, local infrastructure could be stretched to a nonfunctional extent, potentially resulting in a modern day slum. The Age reports that public transport usage at Box Hill interchange is tipped to rise from 16,300 rail passengers, to 31,300 in 2039. Bus patronage is tipped to rise from 13,700 to 30,000 over the same period.

In an article published last month, Senior Editor of 
The Atlantic and Founder of CityLab, Richard Florida considered how cities were making the global housing crisis worse.

According to Florida, nearly 900 million people around the world live in slums, lacking access to adequate water and sanitation or adequate housing.

By 2025 it is estimated that 1.6 billion people—a fifth of the world’s population—will lack access to secure, adequate, and affordable housing.

A new study by the World Resources Institute (WRI) explores how bad policies on public housing, an emphasis on home-ownership and problematic land use policies have worsened conditions in slums and made the global urban crisis worse.

Florida adds that more than 330 million households in the world suffer from a lack of secure, adequate and affordable housing, a figure that will grow by 30% to 440 million households by 2025.

Although the percentage of the world’s population that live in global slums has declined over the past couple of decades, the absolute number of people living in urban slums worldwide has grown from less than 700 million in 1990 to 880 million in 2014, and will expand further in the coming decades.

While Davies’ was not directly referring to the concern of over-development in suburban Box Hill, he helpfully sets out the key characteristics of a slum. And inner-city high rise
 developments certainly don’t fit the definition.

“The key characteristics are insecure tenure, overcrowding, inadequate infrastructure, and decrepit housing. In western countries they’re generally populated by residents who’re locked-in by very low incomes and, although it’s not true in all cases, some have high levels of social dysfunction.” he says.

Davies goes on to add that these developments aren’t particularly slum-like:

  • Residents have security of tenure. They’re either owner-occupiers or renters protected under the state’s landlord-tenant act.
  • Residents have access to high quality infrastructure. In the first instance, they usually have exclusive use of some hardly slum-like communal facilities such as a roof garden, common room, gym, pool.
  • These buildings are in or very close to the CBD which is the most well-endowed location in the metropolitan area in terms of transport, health, education, cultural, and recreational infrastructure.
  • These towers are brand new. They aren’t decrepit old buildings that’ve fallen into disrepair with no water or no heating. They’re constructed in accordance with the requirements of the building code of Australia.
  • Residents of small apartments aren’t poor. Most aren’t rich either, but they’ve got sufficient income to buy their apartment or to pay upwards of $400 p.w. for a one-bedroom apartment. Most are young and well-educated with high lifetime income-earning potential. Living in a high-rise tower means they live slap-bang in the middle of the largest concentration of jobs and education services in the state.

There’s a similar alignment by Florida who suggests the key to thriving communities are ones that are empowered to create positive change whether they are disadvantaged slums or not.

“Urban centers are the basic engines of mobilizing talent and human capabilities that provide opportunities that can benefit both advantaged and marginalized groups [sic]

“It is also in line with Jane Jacobs’ long-standing argument that economic development comes from enabling local communities to solve their own problems and create their own opportunity.” he said.

Davies concludes by pointing out that centres of cities much more urbanised than Melbourne like Paris, London and New York are crammed with very small apartments – typically less than 30 sq m – carved out of old buildings, compared to the typical 45 sq m floor area of a one-bedroom apartment in a Melbourne new-build.

“Many have poor daylight and a host of other amenity deficiencies when judged by the housing expectations of Australians, but they’re in neighbourhoods that couldn’t even remotely be described as slums. Moreover they make a valuable contribution to the vitality of these cities because they allow more people – and a greater diversity of people – to live in places such as Manhattan and Paris intra-muros.” he says.

Melbourne is now one of the 10 fastest growing large cities in the developed world, growing more rapidly than Vancouver, Mexico City, London and New York.

With a current population of nearly 5 million, that number is expected to grow to nearly 8 million by 2050, which is effectively close to double the population growth in less than 20% of the time it took to Melbourne to reach 5 million people.

This inevitably means that middle-ring precincts such as Box Hill will have to develop to the sky in order to solve greater city issues. The challenge will come in creating cohesive communities whilst doing so.    

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