The communities affected by the fires, including Marysville and Kinglake, are within commuting distance of Melbourne. At the time of writing [March] more than 200 people had been confirmed dead. Many of these worked in Melbourne or had moved out of town in search of a better quality of life.
While Victoria’s premier John Brumby has offered the State’s assistance in rebuilding properties and putting communities back together, the severity of Black Saturday’s fires is prompting questions about whether it’s desirable simply to replicate what was so easily destroyed. And some of these questions could cut right to the heart of how Melburnians live their lives.
Australians as a people have come to typify themselves as suburban. For generations, the abundance of land around the edges of cities has encouraged people’s aspiration to own a newly-built home on a plot in the suburbs. And while the popularity of city living has increased in Europe, the suburb remains the community of choice for many Australians.
Melbourne is currently gearing up for its latest phase of expansion in anticipation of the city’s population reaching five million within the next 20 years. In its original form the plan, Melbourne2030, signalled a break from the traditional approach of setting growth areas to accommodate housing on the city’s edge. On its publication in 2002, it was hailed for its attempts to move planning in Melbourne towards a more European approach, centred on urban renewal.
So far, progress towards realising the document’s ambitions for containment and consolidation around a number of ‘activity centres’ has been limited. But the fallout from Black Saturday has led to calls for sprawl to be curbed and for housing development on dispersed sites to be ceased. And this could mean that Melbourne2030, with its ambition to direct development to defined areas of the inner and middle ring suburbs and for higher density housing, sets the tone for planning policy further afield as the State recovers from the bushfires.
The prioritising of six Central Activities Districts (CADs) in the 2008 Melbourne2030 update has been widely welcomed by those impatient at the lack of progress. But the update’s inclusion of a policy to widen the urban growth boundary to accommodate more housing in the outer suburbs has prompted criticism…a signal to developers that if they buy up land outside the boundary, then they will make a fortune when the boundary inevitably changes. Another danger… is that some of the new areas zoned for development outside the boundary could be at risk from fire.
Jane Monk, chair of the State Government’s Priority Development Panel, says that the prominence of the sustainability and climate change agendas is helping to persuade a public that was initially wary of Melbourne2030. She believes that the bushfires may have an additional galvanising effect. ‘It might make this endless fringe issue a little more carefully thought through,’ Barcelonashe says. One of the key challenges facing Ms Monk and her colleagues is to kick-start development in the CADs. She accepts the criticism that little progress had been made in the six years since Melbourne2030’s publication, something she attributes to the planning department’s focus on setting an urban growth boundary. But she insists that the CADs are now at the centre of the department’s attention. ‘There is lots of energy going into how we can start delivering CADs,’ she says. ‘Whatever lessons we can learn from those we can apply to other activity centres.’
While the State Government has signalled its approval for stepping up development in the CADs, it has indicated that growth pressures in the areas surrounding Melbourne will have to be managed more carefully. A study by Prof Buxton’s RMIT team for the Victorian Government advocates tougher planning controls in these areas to prevent the development of scattered holiday homes and hobby farms. This research has taken on new resonance in the wake of the bush fires.