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Planning for healthier communities

 

Melbourne’s rapidly growing outer suburbs are building in opportunities for better community health and wellbeing when planning public transport, schools, shops, recreation and other facilities.

 

If, as the old African proverb says, “it takes a village to raise a child”, what does it take to raise a healthy, inclusive community in a major city? That’s the big challenge facing councils and residents on Melbourne’s rapidly growing urban fringe.

More than a quarter of Melbourne’s current population of 4.8 million make their homes in the seven local government areas designated as Melbourne’s growth corridors. Houses are low-rise and stretch over what were, until recently, paddocks.

In 2016–17, Cranbourne East, in the City of Casey in Melbourne’s south-east, was the fastest growing suburb in the nation, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. It went from 27,000 residents in 2016 to 34,000 in 2017 – an increase of 27 per cent in one year.

Victoria’s population is predicted to swell from 6.1 million in 2016 to 7.7 million in 2031, according to a report by Victoria’s auditor-general. And the seven greenfield growth areas on Melbourne’s edges are expected to absorb 42 per cent of that increase – about 672,000 extra people.

 

Liveability often comes later

 

Part of the problem is that the houses arrive first. Buses, trains, schools and supermarkets – those things that make an area easy to live in – come later, when there are enough customers to make the services viable.

The pioneers, the residents who come to these areas first, are forced to be car dependent and more sedentary. Those without access to a car are forced to spend hours a day commuting to jobs in the Melbourne CBD and elsewhere, which squeezes their opportunity for exercise and being involved in their new community.

‘In my opinion, we’re designing our outer suburban neighbourhoods for cars,’ says Professor Billie Giles-Corti, director of the Urban Futures Enabling Capability Platform at RMIT University. ‘The people who live there are doubly or triply disadvantaged. They go [to the outer suburbs] because they’re looking for affordable housing, but then they have to run two or three cars to be able to get around.

‘That puts the cost of living up. It’s not really affordable living, it’s just affordable housing.’

 

How higher housing density benefits a community

 

The Victorian Planning Authority’s (VPA) Plan Melbourne 2017-2050 strategy aims to create a city of 20-minute neighbourhoods that support local living. That means developing neighbourhoods with strong local economies where people’s everyday needs – access to jobs, shops, childcare and schools, parks, doctors and public transport – should be within a 20-minute walk, bike ride or public transport trip from their homes.

However the key to bringing more amenities, faster, to outer suburbs, says Giles-Corti, is to boost housing density in greenfields areas. The VPA’s most recent precinct structure plans outline a density of 16–18 dwellings per net developable hectare, but Giles-Corti’s research for the Heart Foundation found at least 34 dwellings per hectare were needed for public transport, shops and other services to be viable.

Plan melbourne

She would ditch the ‘monoculture of single residential homes’ for a more diverse mix of housing – townhouses, four-storey walk-ups as well as detached homes – to boost density. ‘But density is only as good as how much mixed use you have, and how connected the street networks are,’ she explains.

‘What you have to do is create walkable neighbourhoods, and walkable neighbourhoods have shops and services nearby.’

‘What you have to do is create walkable neighbourhoods.’ Prof. Billie Giles-Corti, RMIT

Lessons from Selandra Rise

 

The experience gained from the Selandra Rise estate in the City of Casey, about 50km south-east of the Melbourne CBD, has provided some useful insights.

Residents were mostly first home buyers working in white-collar jobs. They were couples (with or without children), and almost half were born overseas.

Health and social inclusiveness were key objectives in Selandra Rise’s planning, so access to green space within 300 metres of all residents was provided, plus walking and cycling paths connecting Selandra Rise to nearby estates.

Public transport was another essential need, and the local council has strongly advocated for a bus service to Cranbourne train station within three years of residents moving in, not five.

To encourage an enhanced sense of community, the Selandra Community Place was established early on in a former display home, with activities run by the City of Casey council.

A five-year study to assess the impact these design elements had on residents’ health and wellbeing was led by Dr Cecily Maller, from RMIT University’s Centre for Urban Planning, and supported by VicHealth along with developers Stockland, the City of Casey, the Planning Institute of Australia and the Metropolitan Planning Authority (now the Victorian Planning Authority.

Dr Maller and her co-researchers found that while residents could see real benefit in the community centre and green spaces, those people commuting more than an hour each way for work did not have time to access it. Although two in five residents said they had increased their physical activity after moving to Selandra Rise, for most people there was little change.

‘Where people work can almost hinder health and wellbeing,’ says Kirstan Corben, VicHealth’s Executive Manager, programs. ‘You might have a beautifully developed residential estate and community programs, but if people are spending the majority of their week commuting long distances, then that obviously counters their overall health and wellbeing.’

‘If people are spending the majority of their week commuting long distances, then that obviously counters their overall health and wellbeing.’ Kirstan Corben, VicHealth

City of Casey responded by scheduling events at the community centre on evenings and weekends, so commuters could join in. The Selandra Community Place became so successful that the council is now looking to replicate it in other new estates.

Maller says a sense of community grew almost informally along with the council activities. ‘The residents, because they were mostly first home buyers and were also culturally diverse, really bonded over the experience of building their first home,’ she says. ‘Some residents started their own Facebook community page where they would exchange information about “how did you get your back fence done”.’

She sees Facebook and social media as a useful way for council to help connect with residents in these new neighbourhoods, and find subjects of interest for community centre activities, whether that’s being a new parent or building a garden bed.

‘You really need to know your community and know what capacity and interest they have, before you just program something across the board. Something that was really important at Selandra Rise was that consultation with the community,’ Maller says.

Advocating for better public transport is also important. In the lead-up to Victoria’s 2018 state election, City of Casey is fiercely lobbying both the government and opposition for two new train stations at Cranbourne East and Clyde to reduce the south-east’s car dependency and traffic congestion.

‘Something that was really important at Selandra Rise was that consultation with the community.’ Dr Cecily Maller, RMIT

Local jobs cut commuting time

 

The negative impact of long commutes to work is something state planning has taken onboard, and employment hubs are part of the planning strategy.

‘Our growth area suburbs currently provide a substantial amount of jobs for Melbourne, with a total of 327,500 jobs based in these areas,’ says Alix Rhodes, VPA’s Executive Director, Outer Melbourne. ‘Furthermore, jobs in our growth areas increased at a significant rate of 16,500 jobs per annum (5 per cent) over 2011–16.’

She points to the Mt Atkinson and Tarneit Plains plan for the area south-west of Caroline Springs, on Melbourne’s western edge. Within 15 years, the new suburbs will house 22,000 people (in total) and have 19,000 long-term jobs in retail, commercial, industrial, office and education.

With the VPA’s emphasis on 20-minute neighbourhoods and focus on jobs, planning looks to be heading in the right direction. Giles-Corti believes that with higher housing density, local employment and walkability, communities on Melbourne’s fringes could be just as connected, inclusive and liveable as those in the city’s heart.

‘It's not rocket science but it seems to be very hard,’ she says. ‘It might just need rocket science to actually make it happen.’

What can councils do for a healthier greenfields community?

 

  • Activate outdoor spaces to increase social connection and promote physical activity.
    VicHealth’s community activation program, run in 2015–16, was particularly successful with the Tarwin Pop-up Park in Morwell and at the Bannockburn Civic Heart Project.
    To create a park, part of Morwell’s Tarwin Street was blocked off and laid with synthetic turf and seating, while at Bannockburn a carpark and grassed area were transformed into an adventure park. Both had bocce and giant play equipment for unstructured play, as well as fitness, dance and yoga classes, and demonstration activities put on by local groups to introduce residents to what was available in the area.
    In Bannockburn, the Golden Plains Shire now has both state and federal funding to permanently transform the space. In Morwell, the popular Tarwin Pop-up Park experience has influenced the Future Morwell CBD Revitalisation Project to create a more pedestrian-friendly precinct that prioritises people connecting.
  • Persuade developers to have elements such as supermarkets, playgrounds and cafes ready for residents when they first move in. As well as giving residents access to fresh food supplies, this reduces car dependency and promotes social connection.
  • Use walking and cycle paths to connect different housing estates, so residents don’t have to use the car.
  • Build cycle paths that connect to train stations, for a radius of 5km, so multi-car households can drop one of their vehicles.
  • Lobby for public transport connections, such as buses, sooner than the standard five years.
  • Have a community centre from day one to promote resident engagement and connection.
  • Provide pop-up council services and events at evenings and weekends, to cater for commuters.
  • Lay out streets in a grid pattern, rather than cul de sacs, for easier, flexible and more direct walking routes.
  • Move school drop-off zones 500 metres from schools, so children walk, cycle or scoot at least one kilometre a day. At the moment, 81 per cent of Australian children are not meeting the recommended physical activity guidelines.
  • Promote water as the best beverage by having drinking fountains in parks and on walking paths, and reducing the availability of sugar-sweetened beverages at council-run sport and recreation venues.
  • Design green spaces for diverse users. An oval may have space for sports in its centre, a walking track around its perimeter, an outdoor gym and children’s playground on its edges.
  • Create high-quality park areas to bolster mental health, with pleasant seating, vegetation to attract birds, undulations for more visual interest, and possibly a walking path.

 

Sources: Rosemary Calder, Australian Health Policy Collaboration, Victoria University; Billie Giles-Corti, RMIT University; VicHealth Local Government Action Guides