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Melbourne’s ambitions to be a ‘20-minute city’ aren’t likely to be achieved by its recently updated planning strategy. Nils Versemann /

A 20-minute city sounds good, but becoming one is a huge challenge

Liveability is an increasingly important goal of Australian planning policy. And creating cities where residents can get to most of the services they need within 20 to 30 minutes has been proposed, at both federal and state level, as a key liveability-related mechanism.

The previous federal government’s 2010 National Urban Policy stated:

Liveable cities are socially inclusive, affordable, accessible, healthy, safe and resilient to the impacts of climate change … Liveable cities provide choice and opportunity for people to live their lives, and raise their families, to their fullest potential.

Further reading: ‘The 30-minute city’: how do we put the rhetoric into practice?

In Victoria, keeping Melbourne “attractive and liveable” is the cornerstone of the state government’s newly updated Plan Melbourne 2017-2050 strategy. Liveability is seen as a way to stay globally competitive, attracting more business and more international students, Victoria’s most profitable service export.

Our summary of research on liveability indicators also points to strong links with general population health and environmental sustainability.

Plan Melbourne’s vision of liveability involves:

… a city of 20-minute neighbourhoods … where people can access most of their needs within a 20-minute walk, cycle or public transport trip.

The plan discusses people’s need for access to a long list of local services – shopping centres, health facilities, schools and lifelong learning opportunities, playgrounds and parks (including community gardens, green spaces and recreation facilities), affordable housing (including the ability to age in place) and “local public transport”.

It also values attributes such as “safe”, “walkable” and “attractive”. Specifically excluded is a 20-minute commute to most employment, although the plan mentions local work opportunities.

Further reading: Victoria can still do more to get housing and planning right

To create a city of 20-minute neighbourhoods over Plan Melbourne’s 30-year time frame, at least three strategic planning challenges must be overcome.

How do we define and measure success?

First, the plan fails to specify what access means and how it is measured, as well as what local needs are key. For instance, the average speed of a leisurely walk by a healthy adult along a relatively flat footpath is five kilometres per hour. Older and younger pedestrians may be slower.

Including the time lost to stopping at intersections and meandering footpaths, a “pedshed” analysis often equates a 20-minute walk with a distance of 800 metres.

Plan Melbourne does not list the essential social infrastructure or distance measurement methods that will be used to create the 20-minute radius for each neighbourhood. This poses problems for the important task of tracking progress.

In contrast, the US city of Portland’s strategic plan for a 20-minute city requires four key pieces of social infrastructure located close to affordable residential housing. These are: public primary schools, grocery stores, green parks, and public transport stops with minimum travel frequency standards.

Regular public transport is one of four key pieces of social infrastructure that Portland’s strategic plan specifies must be close to affordable housing. Dee Browning /

In Australia, given our growing elderly population, bulk-billing health services might also be required infrastructure in each 20-minute neighbourhood.

Infrastructure deficit is daunting

In 1995, homes selling for A$100,000 or less were well within the means of median-income households in areas with good public transport access, like Maribyrnong, Dandenong and Heidelberg.

By 2015, homes selling for $415,000 (the new 25th percentile) were in areas like Gippsland, Sunbury and Bacchus Marsh. That’s well beyond the reach of metropolitan public transport.

Plan Melbourne does talk of “two cities” – the well-serviced, unaffordable central city, and underserviced middle and outer suburbs. But the plan does not adequately recognise the city’s severe and unfairly distributed infrastructure deficit.

The words “liveable” and “liveability” appear 40 times in 152 pages (with prefixes such as “protect”, “improve” and “world-renowned”); “equitable” and “equity” only five times.

This infrastructure deficit casts a daunting shadow over Plan Melbourne. To provide adequate transport and health services to Melbourne’s outer suburbs, SGS Economics and Planning, working with the National Growth Areas Authority, estimated funding of $5 billion a year will be needed over the next 15 years.

The Grattan Institute has calculated that Victoria will need around 220 new schools, mostly in outer suburbs, over the next ten years. Each primary school costs an average of $15 million to build, and high schools more than twice that.

In May, the state auditor highlighted the chronic underfunding of 1,500 existing primary schools as a concern. The report also emphasised the need to greatly improve strategic planning for new schools.

Social housing, recognised as a vital priority in Infrastructure Victoria’s recent 30-year strategy, is a critical shortfall across Melbourne. The shortfall is particularly acute in areas with adequate infrastructure. The strategy estimates 75,000 to 100,000 low-income households’ needs are unmet.

To keep pace with population growth, 50,000 dwellings a year must be built. At least half would need to be accessible to households in the bottom half of the income scale.

A Commonwealth advisory report on housing affordability found almost half of Australian renters are in housing stress, as median home ownership costs have risen from the recommended 2.5 times annual household income to well over six times.

Further reading: Tackling housing unaffordability: a 10-point national plan

The well-serviced central cities have the highest housing prices, with Sydney and Melbourne the worst.

Plan Melbourne talks about housing affordability in general terms. What it lacks is specific affordable housing targets for inner and middle suburbs with adequate infrastructure to overcome inequalities in delivering the 20-minute city.

Tax system hinders funding

The state is responsible for strategic planning and most infrastructure provision, but the Commonwealth controls most of Australia’s tax revenue. The result is that, despite being home to one in four Australians, Victoria gets only about 8% of federal infrastructure spending.

And the federal government is one of the main contributors to the affordable housing crisis by subsidising housing speculation through negative gearing and capital gains tax exemption.

The Grattan Institute estimates these measures cost the budget almost $11.7 billion per year. That’s enough to fund essential infrastructure improvements across Australia.

Further reading: Negative gearing windbacks could deliver $5.3bn a year: Grattan

Possible pathways to improvement

So what is the prognosis for 20-minute cities? What could be done to increase the chances of achieving this important goal?

The state government could clarify its definition of key access indicators, and begin mapping 20-minute access by neighbourhood to monitor progress, as Portland does.

Vancouver, Canada, has included access indicators in its planning for family-friendly, high-density housing since 1992. The indicators include a maximum distance of 800 metres to a community centre, a grocery store, a public primary school and associated play area, daycare centre and after-school care; and 400 metres to a playground and a frequently serviced public transport stop.

An evaluation of the 50,000 residents in the central Vancouver community of False Creek North showed high levels of satisfaction among households that settled there.

Victoria could also follow Portland’s example of giving priority to improving infrastructure in under-serviced areas and to providing affordable housing in well-serviced areas. Plan Melbourne still lacks mechanisms to achieve this.

The 20-minute city is a worthy goal. As difficult as it may be to imagine at the moment, federal, state and local governments must collaborate, along with private developers and investors, if the access needs of all city residents are to be met.

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