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Market-driven compaction is no way to build an ecocity

The uniquely weak regulation of high-rise, high-density development exemplifies the market-driven growth of Australian cities. Julian Smith/AAP

Market-driven compaction is no way to build an ecocity

This is the first of a series of articles to coincide with the 2017 World Ecocity Summit in Melbourne.


As Melbourne hosts the Ecocity World Summit this week, we might ponder the progress of Australia, a “nation of cities”, toward achieving sustainable urbanism.

Australian metropolitan planning has long subscribed to what urban geographer Clive Forster called the “compact city consensus”. This is a commitment to consolidated, well-designed, low-energy cities with high usage of public and active transport. But after decades of halting pursuit, we seem no closer to this ideal.

The 2016 State of the Environment report makes critical findings on metropolitan development. It casts these trends, at least in part, as market-driven compaction rather than planned consolidation. Leanne Hodyl’s much-reported 2014 study showed that:

High-rise apartment towers are being built in central Melbourne at four times the maximum densities allowed in Hong Kong, New York and Tokyo – some of the highest-density cities in the world.

She concludes that Australian regulation of high-rise development is uniquely weak.

Market prevails over planning

The compact city vision that has guided Australian metropolitan strategy for at least three decades was intended to realise sustainability in a form that departed from the extensive, car-dependent monocentrism of the post-war metropolis.

Yet planning has not been the principal directional force for urbanisation during this period. Instead, it has been dominated by a far more powerful political consensus, neoliberalism.

Whatever one thinks of the compact city ideal – and it is contested among urbanists – its realisation required a commitment to planned urbanisation. But that was never likely during an era of relentless hollowing-out of state capacities, including those needed to manage cities.

Instead, other forces have shaped the course of urban change. These include national policies (especially immigration, taxation and financing), technological innovation, cultural shifts, political economy (notably neoliberal governance) and increasingly unrestrained market power. This set of transformational “furies” can be grouped under the rubrics of intensification and pluralisation.

These forces have undeniably produced many welcome and stimulating changes in our cities. However, our current course, if left uncorrected, will potentially drive Australian cities further away from the ideal of sustainable urbanism.

The increases in “bad pluralities” – notably social polarisation and poverty – betray this ideal as much as physical failings do. Rising social ills, especially the ice plague and family violence, are markers of this betrayal.

‘Urban fracking’ undermines the city

Market-driven intensification has in many places permitted a fracturing and ransacking of urban value and amenity, and of human wellbeing, by development capital that has worn the thin robe of legitimacy provided by the compact city ideal.

We might summarise this as “urban fracking”: a new means of blasting through accumulated layers of material and symbolic value to extract profit.

Miles Lewis observed in 1999 that much redevelopment in Melbourne’s middle-ring neighbourhoods was parasitic. That is, it draws on (and thus depletes) existing amenity without adding to it.

More generally, this dispossession of urban value, from public (or communal) to private, takes myriad forms: amenity and infrastructure mining through overdevelopment, transfer of public housing stock to private investors in redevelopment, the continued non-taxation of unearned land value increments, privatisation of assets and services, and fast-tracked and favourable development approvals.

Ill-prepared for climate change

These various plunderings and injuries also potentially reduce the sustainability and resilience of our cities at a time of clear threat, especially the “climate emergency”.

Reducing green space and open space ratios in redevelopment areas raises particular risks for rapidly rising inner-city populations.

Climate changes means cities must plan for increased risks of both heatwaves and floods. Dave Hunt/AAP

Consider that Melbourne City Council has prepared a Heatwave Response Plan, which will evacuate city residents to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Etihad Stadium and the Convention and Exhibition Centre. The council recognises that 82% of residents now live in buildings “without passive ventilation”. That’s code for the air-conditioned towers that have done little for the cause of sustainability.

New modelling reveals that sea-level rise is likely to flood many inner-city high-rise redevelopment areas in Australian cities. This includes the zones identified for evacuation in Melbourne’s Heatwave Response Plan.

Governance must be restored

As the 2016 Census confirms, our rapidly growing core metro regions are evolving into ever more complex landscapes, which defy simple description. It could be tempting to conclude that the sources of their problems resist identification. But this is not true. At the core of our urban failing is governance in all of its necessary forms – economic, social and spatial.

Our cities appear increasingly unsustainable, chaotic and frankly ungovernable only because we allow this to happen. Long historical stretches of firm urban governance, notably in Brisbane and Melbourne, produced much more balanced and agreeable patterns of urbanisation than we are now experiencing.

The ever-mounting costs and failures of the “long night” of neoliberal governance are resonating ever more strongly within national politics. Economist John Quiggin believes this is feeding a new, if nascent, appetite for public intervention and ownership.

We must hope this desire for restoration of state capacities extends to the cities whose rapidly deteriorating development trajectories threaten national wellbeing.

The first necessity is to reinstate capacities for public economic governance. The need is especially great in the areas of infrastructure and urban services, which powerfully shape the general course of urbanisation.

After decades of relentless privatisation and deregulation, however, there is little to govern and little to govern with.

To improve metropolitan functioning, there will be no escaping the necessity of what the late ANU academic Peter Self described as “rolling back the market”. This will require nationalisation of key assets, especially infrastructure, and stronger regulation of urban amenities, especially energy, transport and hydraulic services.

This is the first, urgent step towards resetting our urban course for sustainability. State governments could do so without delay.

Unfortunately, most cannot yet conceive of a true break from neoliberal urbanism. The New South Wales government recently privatised its land registry. South Australia and Victoria plan to do the same.

If this mindset can be changed, the next imperative is to establish strong planning governance for our metropolitan regions so our freewheeling development furies can be steered towards more sustainable ends. Renewal of governance is the key to surviving let alone thriving in the urban age.


The Ecocity World Summit is being hosted by the University of Melbourne, Western Sydney University, the Victorian government and the City of Melbourne in Melbourne from July 12-14.

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