What’s so good about the middle ring suburbs?

What’s so good about the middle ring suburbs? The simple answer is, not much. The middle ring is sort of like the middle child. It’s hard to get excited about. It’s not older and established, nor new and shiny… and it often gets forgotten about.

Plan Melbourne has recognised the plight of the middle ring suburbs and has sought to address the issue by encouraging redevelopment in key locations. There’s a great deal of latent opportunity in the middle ring – you know, the place just beyond the suburbs with the hefty price tag. It’s the place where the blocks are a bit larger, you get a back yard and a car space, but the housing stock is a bit more homogenous and, well, forgettable. It’s a location with a lot of schools and families with two cars (because public transport isn’t very accessible nor affordable – sorry, your train station is just in Zone 2) and it’s also a location where there are few housing options… unless you think single storey, three bedroom detached housing in a range of different colours provides housing diversity!

So I guess we’re saying there is a consistent character to many of the middle ring suburbs, not only in Melbourne but in all of our capital cities. Some of the building materials change between Brisbane and Melbourne, for example, but the general pattern of development and community profile remains much the same.

So what’s important to protect? Is it the existing character of these suburbs or the community that lives within them? Is it the look of these suburbs that make them comfortable places to live or is it the sense of community and homogeneity of the population that makes it so damn comfortable for the two car family with the 2.4 children? It’s probably a bit of both.

So why don’t we plan for ‘a bit of both’ with some increased diversity thrown in? You see, the wide open spaces of the middle ring suburbs (in comparison to the busy inner ring) can be quite desirable for some, but if you’re not a traditional ‘family’ doing the traditional things then these suburbs can be very isolating and uncomfortable. Essentially, the homogeneity of the built form of the suburbs is a reflection of the homogeneity of the society that resides there.

Perhaps subconsciously, Plan Melbourne recognises this and seeks to make the middle ring suburbs a more interesting and diverse place which, by default, will attract a greater diversity of people. However, it seems that some councils’ proposed application of the New Residential Zones, with large swathes of Neighbourhood Residential Zone, overstates the importance of the ‘physical’ character of their suburbs. Is this because it somehow undermines the established homogenous community in some of our more ‘leafy’ suburbs?

So when we think about ‘character’, it’s not just physical density that defines it, it’s also the people. In terms of the ‘physical’ character it’s more about the general road and settlement pattern, the width and hierarchy of streets, building setbacks, street trees and materials. All of these character elements can be responded to in a sensitive way while allowing for some limited increase in residential density, including smaller apartments, to provide more housing options for residents in these communities.

Yes, there are some people who like being the middle child and want to stay in these areas!! These could be older people who no longer need the family home but want to maintain their social ties by downsizing to smaller units/apartments, or they might be younger singles who have grown up in these suburbs, studied at the local schools, played local sport and now work nearby and want to establish their own roots in ‘their’ suburb but can’t afford (or need) the three or four bedroom detached house with two car garage and don’t want to live with their parents into their 30s

So let’s stand up for the middle child and let them be heard. Let’s ‘unlock’ the potential of the middle ring suburbs and support them to be a more interesting and vibrant place with more housing options for everyone, while maintaining the front yards and leafy streets. Application of the General Residential Zone in these areas will support that.


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