Up Versus Out

By Gareth Mogg



In the wake of the recent gazettal of Melbourne Amendment C270 (Central City Built Form Review) - as well as the release of the State Government's final 'Better Apartment Design Standards'  - now is a good time to revisit one of Melbourne's most contentious debates... is urban consolidation an appropriate response to urban sprawl?

We’ve all seen them, those images of a sprawling metropolis. Highways weaving their way out into the distance, flanked by suburban low rise dwellings, stretching in a seemingly endless retreat away from the urban heart of the city. These ‘boomer’ strongholds have recently become more archaic in their desirability with large sought after back yards replaced with city vistas, and the proximity to small local neighbourhoods overshadowed by a need to be close to large scale urban amenity. Urban densification has become the new modern, with population numbers surging in city centres. One needs look no further than Melbourne to see this.

The vision of the city has taken many forms, from the idyllic garden settings proposed by Ebenezer Howard, to the urban revitalisation envisioned by Le Corbusier. The idea of the city has undergone a variety of 'facelifts' and has over the years, embodied a mercurial personality. Back when Melbourne city centre was an industrial hub, there was little in the way of the amenity and services enjoyed by us today. The city was for work, not for play. And so, our suburbs formed. Large backyards, plentiful space, local communities far from the smog and a safe environment were on offer for families who were not condemned to live in slums.

Our cities changed however.  Melbourne’s notorious slums were replaced with renovated, highly valued accommodation, the far reaching suburbs became the vestiges of those who were unable to live closer to the city centre and urban populations grew alarmingly. City skylines are no longer dominated solely by office buildings and hotels, but with high rise apartments. These trends are seen from Vancouver to Melbourne and from London to Berlin.  Densification has grown in place of the economic agglomeration of residences and business along stretching highway and rail corridors. Postcode 3000 is now desirable. 


The topic of urban consolidation versus sprawl has been hotly contested in Melbourne. While it is acknowledged that sprawl is an inherently poor response to city growth (for matters ranging from sustainability and car use, to equitability and housing stress), urban densification has also been lambasted with arguments around its impact on population numbers, internal and external amenity for residents and resulting in less interaction with neighbours. 

So what solution is there if both sprawl and consolidation are considered inadequate responses? The arguments for and against both are quite convincing, yet our population must go somewhere and the provision of accommodation close to services, amenity and connectivity seems a much more positive response than pushing residents to under serviced, far flung corners of our cities. The new Better Apartment Guidelines demonstrate a way within which Melbourne is adapting to this growth and demonstrating management protocols to best facilitate this trend.

There has been a degree of flirtation in European and North American countries with the notion of satellite cities, working in a polycentric manner, instead of focusing growth in one location. Melbourne’s nearest urban centres are Geelong and Bendigo, which are too far away to serve as Melbourne’s second city centre. While there are areas of Melbourne, such as Box Hill, which are emerging as places of employment and accommodation, there is still a predominant ‘single city’ idea prevalent in Melbourne. With Melbourne’s population increasing, simply providing higher rise apartments will not necessarily alleviate the issues of congestion which comes with the mass grouping of people.

What are your thoughts? Is it time for Melbourne, as well as many other cities around the globe, to embrace the multi-city ideas of the past? How can cities combat sprawl yet control densification?

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