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Urban greening in high density environments

Creating 'Vertical Forests' in high density residential developments

Southbank’s new green spine

By Danielle Cull

Traditional boulevards of the past have been adorned to celebrate the car, sometimes with perfunctory landscaping used to break up the vast sea of ash felt. Take Melbourne’s St Kilda Road for example, with origins dating back to the 1840’s – the now world famous 8-lane boulevard is lined with landscaped medians breaking up vehicle traffic.

Whilst the boulevard is a beautiful sight and recognised the world over, it could be said that boulevards like these with generous medians could be better used for pedestrians than the current 3m footpath at the roads edge.


What if these roads were reconfigured and the medians were used for meaningful public open space?

It’s not a foreign concept. Perhaps the most notable boulevard transformation is the world famous Times Square in New York. Completed in April 2017, the busy intersections of Broadway between 42nd and 47th Streets are now primarily pedestrianised spaces that welcome more than 45 million visitors annually.

Or on a much smaller scale, take Seattle’s Bell Street for example. The small inner city street has been transformed from a car dominated street into a pedestrian and vehicle shared space.

It seems the City of Melbourne has embraced the cries of the community and created a concept to rejuvenate a busy Southbank street into a much needed key pedestrian link and public open space spine, connecting the Southbank waterfront and St Kilda Roads Arts Precinct.

The Southbank Boulevard and Dodds Street Concept Plan has done just that. By reconfiguring the current 4-lane road and wide centre median and shifting the vehicle traffic to one side, means pedestrians and residents get to use what was a meaningless median as purposeful public open space.

Southbank Boulevard - before and after (concept) (source:

Is this the new boulevard where pedestrians are embraced and cars are secondary? Read more about the new open space here:

Is there a spot for contemporary street art in planning?

By Sam Palma

It is no secret that innovative urban street art captures the eyes or interest of most people who come across it, sparking a social element to what can commonly be a blank interface. Melbourne has the privilege of having some of the world’s best laneways and urban street artists which see locations such as Hoiser and Union Lane become not only a tourist attractions but add a layer of culture to our City. Contemporary street art and murals have the potential to stimulate conversation and awareness towards social, environmental and political issues, while providing opportunity for local artists to exhibit their work to a wide audience.

With the ongoing acceptance and appreciation of contemporary street art within an urban environment, does the planning system within Victoria have the provisions or tools to regulate commissioned street art on what would otherwise be a blank concrete wall?

Specifically, inner urban suburbs that see the construction of apartment complexes built to the boundary and left with four storeys of concrete walls exposed to the public realm, remaining blank and unappealing until the adjoining block is eventually developed.


Such interfaces bring to light the term ‘concrete jungle’, as overbearing, tall and dull interfaces proclaim and dominate streetscape views. Understandably, any development occurring on a property boundary will require the use of such concrete walls, and although there are mechanisms of texturizing the facades to soften the profile of them, is there scope to implement greater improvements or change? 

These photos from a recent trip I took to Berlin reveal the potential some of these blank facades can have to express art, social or political issues/change to the public realm and streetscape. Although street art is commonly conducted without permission, does that mean there is not opportunity to not only regulate such forms of art, but incorporate the delivery of such projects into the planning system to ensure appropriate messages are delivered?

Within a Melbourne context, this response would be best suited to podium style apartment developments where they comprise a boundary wall of up to 3-5 storeys high (which typically comprises of car parking facilities) and a single or double storey development on the adjoining site (as shown below).


It is noted that in some instances the introduction of street art to some of these blank apartment boundary walls has the potential to influence the architectural context of the building within the streetscape and broader context, and this will need to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Potential avenues for implementation within the planning process:

At the time the planning drawings are endorsed by the Responsible Authority, a design is agreed upon, shown and form part of the endorsed plans as a one off proposal.


Is there potential for developers to be granted ‘concessions’ for implementing innovative urban art on boundary facades, acting as a catalyst towards the idea of regulatory art on building facades.

What other avenues could be explored as a way of uplifting these blank concrete facades to spark social interaction?

Privatise planning assessment or as of right unit development – do we dare?

By Jonathan Halaliku

The Smart Planning program has acknowledged that over the past 20 years, Victoria’s planning system has grown significantly whereby the planning system now includes a massive 75,000 pages across 8500 documents and 15,000 PDF maps.[1] As acknowledged by the State Government, the consequence of planning regulation has become complex, inaccessible and inefficient.[2] Reform is required and I agree with this principles behind the program.

However with the Smart Planning program reaching the next stage of its roll out (VC137[3]) we as an industry should consider the difficult, and not so difficult, questions of wholesale reform – dare I say not just a cosmetic ‘nip and tuck’ to process. I believe transformative reform is required – and we need to be brave.

Year in review

According to DWELP’s planning permit activity monthly report[4], planning applications for alterations to a building, structure or dwelling, extension to an existing dwelling, single and mutli-dwelling totalled 23,281 applications across the state !! The sheer number of applications in our system is mind boggling and it is further reflected in the average gross days of Responsible Authority determinations of 121 days across the State. Worryingly, but no surprisingly, only 62% of all applications were completed within the 60day statutory timeframe. This is a system under immense pressure and steps need to be taken to remove not only the burden but the onus from the under resourced Local Government sector.

Given the weight of applications which have a residential redevelopment outlook, I believe our first point of call for reform is to the drafting of the residential provisions in the VPP’s.[5]

What should change - Rationale

We as constituents need to come to terms with the concept of change. Change in our cities, change in urban form, change in the way we experience, utilise and engage with our physical environment. Seldom do the masses spend the weekends tending to the quarter acre block. The once cherished quarter acre is now realised as being an asset not only to the land owners but as a resource for our broader needs of the City.

As our urban environment changes, the type of amenity we experience may change – not necessarily reduce. Where once we would marvel at expanses of freshly mowed lawns, now, the sheer pleasure of home ownership or the ability to house several generations prevails. The utilitarian benefit of urban consolidation has (and should) supersede the protection of underutilised land. So where I am going with this…?

Well, change in urban environment (often termed neighbourhood character), does not, if managed properly, equate to a reduction in amenity. It is commonly misconceived that changes in character negatively change amenity experiences. Hence, neighbourhood character is at the heart of most, it not all, planning stoushes. It is as much a ‘shield’ as it is a ‘sword’. It is a coveted mechanism of planning control, and I say, the defining difference between the planning and building worlds.[6]

Neighbourhood character, its identification, assessment and evolution needs to be forward looking rather than an exercise in preservation of the built form and amenity expectations of days gone by – character, like the intangibles of our city, should be allowed to evolve organically.

The assessment and consideration of neighbourhood character is, in my mind, the main difference between assessment of siting requirements under Part 4 of the Building Regulations, and the processes and delays of residential planning permit applications that we see today. What if we could design a test for neighbourhood character that allows assessment to take place within a confined siting criteria – a tick box assessment? Following this, I would then question why would extensions, single, dual occupancy or multi-unit[7] development proposals actually require planning consent?

Provided the test for neighbourhood character can be resolved, ResCode should return to its origin of assessment – as part of the siting requirements under Part 4 of the Building Regulations.

Granted there will be architectural expressions which won’t be as appealing as others they would nevertheless be an expression and provided mandatory siting provisions are met (i.e. confining unreasonable offsite amenity impacts), there is no reason for the enormous amounts of residential applications that we see in single, dual occupancy and multi-unit applications (of less than 4 dwellings) clogging up Council and Tribunal resources.

The takeaway – form an objective approach to neighbourhood character,[8] formulate a test for character performance that can be incorporated into a ‘siting assessment’ or similar criteria, and relinquish the burden of assessing thousands of straight forward applications by Local Government.

What could change - Zone Provisions

As an example, within the General (32.08-6) and Neighbourhood Residential Zones (32.09-6) each respectively trigger the requirement for a planning permit for the construction and extension of two or more dwellings on a lot. To release the pressure, and on the back of a well considered assessment framework, the requirement for planning consent for more than one dwelling on a lot should be removed, or, “as of right” for dual occupancy and multi-unit development of 4 or less dwellings on, for example,… “of dwellings less than two storeys on a lot size of 1200m²”.[9]

I acknowledge that a robust assessment framework must be established to release various densities of residential redevelopment to “as of right” status. The provisions and assessment (by private assessors or otherwise) would need to be grounded in mandatory requirements (with few areas of discretion). A suite of Planning Scheme amendments would need to be initiated from a platform of up to date character studies, needs analysis, landscaping and housing strategies for which ‘lock in’ preferred character expectations. Maybe it is wishful thinking however the concept of releasing the assessment burden by removing permit triggers is a reform strategy that could be employed if, and only if, the assessment framework is itself well resolved.

Essentially, extensive work on the ‘front end’ of Planning Scheme amendments could then facilitate a ‘tick box’ assessment phase for siting (similar to the new garden area requirements). Here, neighbourhood character can evolve organically rather than with the ‘detached, pitched roof and eave reproduction’ often forced as a result of responding to neighbourhood character concerns.

What could change – Assessment of applications

Privatised assessment of various planning applications should be considered.

The assessment of various classes of low impact, straight forward planning applications should be privatised, or at least, Council’s should be equipped with facility to refer to a third party assessor to make determination in place of the Responsible Authority. The legislative framework underpinning the authority to make a decision on planning applications should be extended to include privatised assessment for various classes of permit applications. I understand that determining such classes of applications beyond the obvious single dwelling, dual occupancy and multi-dwelling townhouse developments (without overlay controls) is beyond this piece, however the conversation about privatised assessment should not be intimidated by recent visible (although not relatable) examples such as Lacrosse[10] or Mount Waverley.[11]

Granted there are lessons to be learnt from our building surveying brethren, but where the appropriate assessment frameworks are in place, and the relevant professional standards and liabilities are accepted by privatised assessment parties, then Councils should have the legislative facility and discretion to refer assessment to a private assessor where deemed appropriate.

It is acknowledged that planning has intricacies of discretion that may not be prevalent in the building surveying comparison, nevertheless, the concept and principles behind privatised assessment, are, as per ResCodes genesis in Part 4, equally applicable if the provisions and development controls are correctly drafted.

Blue-skying change

Easing the burden on the planning system could be achieved by:

a) Elevating some forms of residential development to “as of right” status based on density and built form, and;

b) Privatising, or at least providing the facility for privatised assessment, of various classes of low impact planning permit applications should be considered.

Either or a combination of the above would initiate a shift in onus and burden from an under resourced public sector. Unfortunately I am a realist and I understand the breadth of work that is required, top down, and from all sides of the industry to put these concepts in place. Nevertheless, as per the 1989 classic - Field of Dreams - “if you build it, they will come”.


[2] Above 1 consequences of these growing issues include:
  • lengthy approval times 
  • inconsistencies in planning schemes and decision making 
  • a system that is difficult to interpret and understand 
  • barriers to public participation 
  • higher compliance costs than necessary 
  • less effective policy implementation. 
[3] Which seeks to expands the Vic Smart fast-track planning process by changing the Vic Smart Planning Assessment provisions at Clauses 90 to 95 of the VPP’s. Amendment VC137 is required to implement an extension to the VicSmart permit process by transferring particular classes of application from the standard permit process to the VicSmart process.


[5] Obviously governed by changes to the legislative framework.

[6] Understandably neighbourhood character is primarily concerned with fit, contextual design response and ‘looking out’ of a site, rather than confining consideration to the boundaries of a site.

[7] Up to 4-5 dwellings in a townhouse configuration

[8] Tainted by political platforms or grandstanding for a vocal minority.

[9] An arbitrary, but reasonable, threshold for planning permit trigger chosen for illustration purposes only. A detailed empirical assessment would be required to establish density and lot size provisions.

[10] Media release, “Lacrosse Building Surveyor to face disciplinary action”, VBA, 23 March 2016.

[11] Media release, “Mt Waverley Building Practitioner to face disciplinary action”, VBA, 29 April 2016.

Must see films for Urban Planners and Designers

By Julia Moiso

Sometimes it seems like the profession of urban planning and design shifts between being bureaucratically mundane to wildly imaginative, exciting and futuristic.

One of the great aspects of urban planning is that everyone at one point, whether they realise it or not, has formed basic thoughts about what they perceive as “good planning”. Everyday citizens interact with different typologies of the built environment; a women stuck in traffic on her way home most probably wonders why there are not better routes for her to travel home, a pedestrian caught at a red traffic light maybe wonders why such timely provisions are set up to prohibit him from crossing the road, even though there is little vehicular cross traffic. These interactions between citizens and the environment are a such common thread of everyday urban life, it can be said that planning is a fairly popular topic in the media, both directly and indirectly. Whether it’s a blockbuster dystopian future film or an anthropology documentary, planning has found it’s way onto the big screen.

I’ve compiled a list (in no particular order) of some of my favourite planning and design related films and documentaries that planners and non-planners alike may also find both visually intriguing and thought provoking:

Blade Runner (1982)

It’s hard to believe that this film was created in 1982 featuring such futuristic visions for urban design, and it’s even harder to believe that Harrison Ford features in discussions about urban planning! This film, created by Ridley Scott, is one of my favourite dystopian, fantasy films that triggers viewers fascination with space and place. The film is set in what is supposed to be Los Angeles in 2019 (37 years into the future from its conception) and opens with a nightmare scene of future LA where ‘air-cars’ maneuver through the darkness lit by fires and explosions among a sea of monolithic commercial towers. The visuals of these towers dominate the city and embody a “Times Square vibe” of supersized commercial billboards as a constant reminder of the corporate powers that control the city. In the film, the wealthy citizens live in isolated high-rise towers, where powerful corporations control the city of 106 million people and the poor are shunned to polluted, crime filled streets. In my opinion, Blade Runner is one of the most visually stunning movies ever created.

Metropolis (1927)

Yes you read that correctly, yes it was created in 1927 and yes it is a silent movie, but don’t let that deter you from viewing one of Fritz Lang’s more famous creations, and a masterpeice of early 20th century film. Metropolis is an amazing piece of a architectural sci-fi film, set in a dystopian Orwellian urban future where citizens are enslaved to huge industrial organisations. The built form comprises of intensely dense and souring high-rise buildings, mass freeways (which were barely common in 1927) and, of course, flying cars. Metropolis depicts the dark side of urban places which may have either intentionally or unintentionally urged viewers to move towards a suburban lifestyle.
If silent film isn’t really your thing, I recommend you watch this film purely for the visuals, as it’s hard to believe that this film was made before the advent of CGI (computer generated imagery). Lang’s unrestrained imagination created a city of the future in which step-pyramid towers rise from vaguely glimpsed streets, drawing inspiration from iconic New York architecture such as the Rockefeller Centre.

Back to the Future (Part 1 and 2 - I have no time for the 3rd film) 

Ah, the Back to the Future series, a cult CLASSIC, and it even makes the cut to some of my favourite childhood films. Speilberg’s classics can be portrayed as some of the most memorable films about urbanism, since it shows the comparable disparity between built environments of different ages; walkable urban and driveable suburban (in 3 different time periods). The walkable urban environment is dominant during a scene in 1955 in downtown Hill Valley, a fictional small Californian town centre based around a landscaped plaza. As the camera pans, and the movie progresses, you will notice an overwhelming town centre vibrancy as jobs, shopping, schools, and houses are all within walking distance to the local centre, integrating well into the character of the walkable town.

Another form of the built environment the film indirectly explores is the driveable suburban characteristics that dominate the fictional town of Hill Valley in 1985. The nearly abandoned town centre is now home to x-rated theatres and the landscaped plaza has been converted into a parking lot. For those of you with A+ memory and have seen the movie 20 times like me, you will remember that Marty McFly parks his DeLorean behind an old 1955 billboard that advertises a planned mass subdivision and master planned estate (in which Marty will be born into), thus demonstrating the shift from walkable urbanism to driveable urbanism over the next coming decades.

In Back to the Future 2, the film aces typical downtown walkable urban re-development trends that occurred within America during the late 20th century. The film also shows that the outer suburbs have become slums, which can reflect 21st century suburbanisation of American poverty. For predicting such accuracy (minus the whole flying car deal) I strongly recommend you re-visit this urban classic this weekend.

Human Scale (2013)

The Human Scale, looks at ways to turn urban places into better places to live and makes an excellent case on how to design cities around people instead of automobiles. This wildly intriguing film/documentary examines cities, from New York to Chongqing, which demonstrate various problems, solutions and possibilities for urban development. This film, heavily inspired by Jan Gehl, explores how humanity is rapidly urbanizing and how humans are increasingly adapting to the new automated lifestyle and questions the way cities are being built and if they are being built conducive for our human needs of the future.

Another popular category of planning movie includes films that are determined to exploit the underbelly of picture-perfect American suburbs.

Truman Show (1998)

Another classic, this film directed by Peter Weir stars Jim Carrey and was filmed in Seaside, Florida (known as Seahaven in the film) - one of the first and most iconic new urbanism projects at this time, characterised by mixed uses and walkability. Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, a man whose entire life is a 24-hour reality TV show. The irony is that not only is The Truman Show a satire of reality TV, but also of urban planning. On one hand, the film explores a place where everything (places of employment, retail, and social settings) is delightfully within walking distance. On the other hand, it may remind planners of the dark site of utopian master planned visions and the dangers of paternalism.

American Beauty (1999)

Similarly to The Truman Show (and even Edward Scissorhands), at a surface glance, the film is set in an ideal suburban american lifestyle with roses, white picket fences, nice large homes with sizeable backyards and extremely happy neighbours who appear to have it all. However the closer you pay attention, you will notice that it is that very notion of the perfect community is what makes the film both divisive and cynical. This isn't a revolutionary concept, but instead it offers a cynical examination of suburban lifestyles.  To me, viewing it as a dark satire of mega-suburban lifestyle is far more enjoyable and satisfying than interpreting it as (the still brilliant) poignant drama as it’s normally perceived to be.

While there may not be an “urban planning and design” section in your local video store, an awareness and understanding of these movies can visually create the potential for some self-reflection as planners and designers. By understanding which movies resonate (both positively and negatively) with our profession and why, deeper enlightenment can be sought of what we may feel to be the most daunting challenges and possibilities that this practice promotes. Film helps us to reconfigure our perspective on what is possible and what is real in planning, the construction of human interactions in any given place.