Melbourne @ 8 million

Cadastral model

2010 Computer model of intensification scheme, Melbourne, Australia (green & dark blue areas do not change)

Rob Adams, Director of City Design at the City of Melbourne, Australia, and Professor at the Europe-Australia Institute, Victoria University, Melbourne, presented a concept in 2010 that would double the population in Melbourne. Dubbed Melbourne @ 8 Million, the program calls for doubling the population of the city by using only 7.5% of the urban footprint. The premise that only a small footprint of urban land is required to expand urban populations in cities experiencing over 60 years of modern sprawl is open to question. Growth is the engine of change. The prospect of leaving 93.5% of the city untouched raises questions about what things there are that may need changing in the vast areas developed as suburban sprawl.  I explored the idea of residential intensification on the arterials locally in 2009. Some details of Ron Adam’s presentation don’t stand up to scrutiny. For example, defining buildout as 5-storeys-plus leaves the door open for market manipulation.

At the outset of the study the buildable land in Melbourne (view video here) is classified into four groups:

  1. 3% Activity Centres (TOD)
  2. 3% Urban corridor (arterials with BUS or TRAM)
  3. 4% other
  4. 90% Suburban

The analysis continues with a Land Capacity study based on cadastral parcels in Metro Melbourne. The method identifies Exclusions and Sensitivities to be subtracted from the set of all buildable properties in order to arrive at a final set of building sites available for intensification:

  • 1,570,000 total number of cadastral parcels or building sites in the city


  • 122,000 sites — after CBD & TOD removed
  • 119,000 sites — after Parks removed


  • 114,500 sites — after Public and Industrial uses removed
  • 40,600  sites — after Parcels without rear lanes removed
  • 40,150  sites — after Recent development removed
  • 39,700  sites — after Heritage sites removed
  • 34,750  sites — after 50% of Heritage overlay removed
  • 34,450 sites — after Frontages less than 6 meters wide removed

From this analysis the study arrives at the capacity calculation:

  •  34,450 — Total available sites
  • 6,693 hectares — Total available land
  • 12,450 sites — near TRAM
  • 22,000 sites — near BUS

If redevelopment is planned at densities of 180 − 450 people per hectare (mega densities of 63 – 188 per acre), then the population increment will be between 1 million and 2.46 million people.

The secret? 90% of the suburban lands are unaffected. The only urban design principle cited is that … “Good cites equal good streets because streets account for 80% of the public realm”. Normally, we look at the percentage streets account for in the urban footprint: 30%. If 20% of the public realm in not-streets, then Melbourne may be under in total number of parks and public open spaces. Will these quantities be identified in the analysis?

Adams maps the build out in three different groups:

Green Yellow

Green & Yellow: Protected Areas

Orange areas

Orange: Zoning Unchanged

red areas

Red: Fast-Tracked Areas (make it “as easy as possible to redevelop” here)

Analysis of the Plan

The Red plan will look very familiar to Vancouverites in 2013. This is very much like the brand of redevelopment proposed for Vancouver’s neighbourhoods in the current planning review. A “towers” approach has the neighbourhoods up in arms! Neighbours worry that 90% of their neighbourhood will be unaffected. One suspects that 100% of what makes the communities tick is not understood by the planning department.

density table

Table: Melbourne @ 8 Million


The proposed High and Low density targets for Melbourne @ 8 million are shown in the table above and compared by Adams to Barcelona. I added two more columns to show density per quartier (persins/qtr) and the density in acres (persons/ac). Going back to my last visit there in 2004, Barcelona was fully built out at six to eight stories. And new projects on view to those driving in the city were of the tower variety.

Melbourne @ 8 million is affecting more like 2% of the urban footprint. The problems we are seeing in the application of a 10% Solution to Vancouver are these:

1. The Density is too high.

At first glance, even the high targets for Melbourne appear to be in line with human-scale targets for quartier intensification. It is possible to achieve densities of 20,000 per quartier building no higher than 4 storey row houses and apartments. However, the density in the table is given as an overall average in the city as a whole. The ‘red’ areas are not quartiers. The Melbourne proposal is to mass all the density fronting arterials or around transit centres. The latter is an American strategy known as TOD: transit oriented development. The former—depending on how high over 5-stories the build out goes—could result in walling off the neighbourood middle with hi-rise lining the neighbourhood edge. The resulting streetscapes would be long, shadowed corridors, with little solar penetration during the winter months. The TOD—if build out takes the form of districts of tall buildings—could also result in shadowed streets and blocked views of the sky for entire areas of the city.


Melbourn urban acres


In weighing the relationship between built form and density several factors enter into consideration:

  1. Human scale
  2. Solar aspect
  3. Built Form
  4. Missing elements
  5. Social functioning
  6. Economics & Democracy

1. Human Scale

The baseline measure for human scale in urbanism is typically set at 2.0 FSR of the plot area (net measure) and 3 stories in height. A brief survey of street widths in Melbourne yields a multiplicity of results with a large number of streets about 100-feet wide. The winter solstice sun angle is 29° above the horizon (SAR 1 : 2) and the maximum mean temperature is 18°C.

When environmental considerations are taken into account, 5-storey build out should be a maximum height (rather than the base amount to build from). Thus, the Adams prescription for Melbourne seems too high. Even in Australia’s superlative weather, do residents wish to live in constant shadow? More importantly, there is no discussion about using all this new built form to make ‘places’. Some mention is made of the high levels of social functioning being achieved in the laneways downtown where bars are now open, and many of the lanes are pedestrian priority space (i.e. traffic movements restricted).

The analysis appears to be over-reliant on metrics and not sufficiently vested in an understanding of the making of place.

2. Density and built form

Jarring juxtapositions are acknowledged in the proposed build out. Within the span of just one building parcel the built form will “drop” from hi-rise on high streets at the neighbourhood edge, to 3-storey houses in the neighbourhood middle (the +90% untouched suburban realm). What is not discussed are the shadowing effects from slabs and towers built next door to houses and yards, cottages and gardens; or the change in the sense of place triggered by putting existing residents up against a wall of buildings that will block views to the water, the horizon and the sky. The problem of overlook of house lots by hi-rise and towers ‘next door’ is also left unexplored.

Furthermore, results of living in conditions alienated from the street and the ground plane are not acknowledged. As a consequence negative results in social functioning at the scale of the street, the district, the quartier and the neighbourhood are glossed over.

The sensitivity about parcels less than 6 meters wide (see above) signals a judgement against middle-density products with human scale. The row houses first used in Paris in 1600—then spreading to all the European capitals and their colonies—had frontages measuring 1/4 chain, 16.5 feet, or 5 meters wide. Many were built without a rear lane. Adams’s Cadastral analysis arbitrarily rules these products out of hand, without explanation. One suspects there is a base lack of capacity understanding urban typologies.

3. Missing Elements

We have shown that Cadastral analysis carried out at the level of the building parcel can be blind to elements further up the urban hierarchy of place, including: the block, district, quartier, neighbourhood, city and region. While the higher end of the hierarchy functions at the level of administration and policy—and may well be inserted in later stages of the Melbourne plan—the primary elements arise directly from the human experience of place and must be considered from the outset, or risk being shut out of the plan. Such a result would replicate the worse outcomes in suburbanism, perpetuating the very thing trying to be overcome—vertical sprawl in this case—and failing to use Human Scale urbanism to support the social functioning of place.

4. Social functioning

It soon becomes clear that Ron Adams’s scheme is in danger of producing a dystopia. The calculations are in spreadsheets (i.e. cadastral analysis in this case). There is no understanding of—and no value assigned to—the human experience of place. The multiplicity of middle-density typologies is not referenced. Furthermore, there is no discussion about using the Human Scale urbanism to support social functioning. The technical analysis betrays a weakness in understanding the complexity of human interactions in urban quartiers and urban neighbourhoods. It is worrisome when establishments for the consumption of alcohol feature almost exclusively among the prime examples of ‘high functioning’ urban places.

Today, such dark omens and ill portents for an urbanism to come are state of the art in planning among the practicing professionals.

4. Economics & democracy

Finally, what comes across as the open-ended five-stories-plus prescription for built form risks putting the project of building the city into the hands of a few developers—that relatively small number of firms that can pull off large projects. As we are seeing in Vancouver today, this can have distorting effects in the democratic process, presenting destabilizing results in local real estate markets and building unwanted results in the neighbourhoods.

In the conception of the plan for the city it may be better to build 1,000 units on 300 sites than to build 1,000 units on just one, large tower parcel. On one hand, spreading the advantages of new construction to engage a greater footprint in the city maximizes positive results, while on the other, avoiding hot points of densification minimizes the costs of upgrades to infrastructure. A diversified economy is more robust than an economy dominated by just a few large players.

The distorting effects of concentrated capital threatens both the livability of our neighbourhoods and the integrity of political process in local elections. It will be not too long after that, when the democratic process itself comes under strain.


The Adams analysis for Melbourne points in the direction of new opportunities for intensification in cities experiencing over 60 years of suburban development. In these places, shifting paradigm to human-scale urbanism presents a comparative advantage over building more sprawl—specifically ‘vertical’ sprawl. Suburbs are out of favour with the ageing Baby Boomers and global capital investment portfolios (see this story in the Georgia Straight). This type of investor—and the banking and development industries that stand behind them—is after a standardized product with a market-tested, known record of performance. However, the construction of luxury condominiums is fuelling land speculation and driving up housing prices beyond the reach of most working families.

Human-scale, middle-density urbanism built from garden apartments, courtyard houses, row houses and cottage lots, represents the buildable middle ground. However, achieving a human-scale city presents new and interesting challenges. We must acknowledge that for more than 60 years ‘urbanism’ has not been practiced in many of these suburban cities. After such a long sojourn the primary elements of good urbanism are either long forgotten, or not well understood. Hence, a careful and balanced conversation must unfold incrementally, educating the community as a whole about alternatives, and identifying through public consultation the concrete values upon which we can build a consensus vision of change.

By identifying the ‘easy targets’ or ‘low hanging fruit’, and then assigning as much density as necessary to reach arbitrary figures of future population growth, the Melbourne approach fails to present a reliable prescription for change. By excluding row house frontages, parcels without rear lanes, industrial zones, heritage sites and heritage overlay districts, the analysis is excluding too much. The emerging portrait of planning either has its head buried firmly in the sand, or is in the pocket of a few key syndicates. The disturbing possibility dawns that the best bits of cities (10%) are being auctioned off to the tower builders while the rest of the city (90%) is being left to fester. There are many important points in Don Adams’s presentation (view video here). Yet, in the final analysis, this is another version of ‘the city we get is not the city we want.’

[Review June 2020:]

Melbourne would be better off allocating towers to a singe, hyper-density tower district, then focusing on a neighborhood by neighborhood approach that sought to build quartiers as new ‘cores’ or centres supporting much higher levels of social functioning than the prevailing suburban sprawl. We note that the footprint of Melbourne is 10-times that of Vancouver or San Francisco (see table above), thus the potential to support build out with the middle-densities rather than hi-rise should be available in quantity. From there, the opportunity arises to expand the city tram network into a regional commuter service by using the hybrid ModernTram. This will put within reach any number of new TramTowns and neighborhood expansions where the social benefits of Human Scale build out can be delivered in even greater quantity without damning the population to suffer multiple hours stuck in traffic in automobile commutes.


Video presentation recorded:

22 May 2010

CarriageWorks, Sydney, Australia

Ron Adams

Director of City Design, Melbourne

Europe-Australia Institute, Victoria University

P.O.Box 14428

Melbourne City M.C. VIC 8001


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