The world’s most liveable city is about to get bigger, but will it be any better?

In a move hailed as visionary by Ugg boot manufacturers, Melbourne’s urban sprawl is set to grow in the coming decades, with the construction of six new outer suburbs – Diggers Rest, Lockerbie, Lockerbie North, Manor Lakes, Merrifield West and Rockbank North.  The new suburbs will encompass 37,000 lots, around 100,000 people and an estimated 47,000 pairs of Roxy tracksuit pants.

The locations of Melbourne’s future suburbs

 The Victorian state governments announcement, of the release of 6,000 hectares of green wedge land for urban development, or 3,500 MCG’s, in keeping with the mandatory football comparison for all things big in Australia, has set planning tongues wagging.

Coincidentally, much of the rezoned land and development contracts awarded have been to donors, lobbyists and supporters of the Baillieu Liberal government.  The Age reports that Parklea, Watsons, Peter Compton of Brompton Lodge Egg Farm and former Liberal MP Geoff Leigh all stand to win big bucks from the rezoning of farmland to residential land.

Adding to the controversial decision, is that many of the new suburbs will have limited access to public transport– not necessarily a disadvantage if you live in Melbourne and value punctuality – however those who will have access, will be relying on the V Line train system and buses.  With Melbourne’s public transport more strained than one of Joe Hockey’s belts after a big lunch, one wonders how it will cope with the extra demands.  Moreover, will promised public transport infrastructure really be extended to the new suburbs or will the plans fall into the Waverley Park train line black hole?

Planning minister Matthew Guy, in front of an aptly signed train

The overarching question is what sort of Melbourne and to a larger extent Victoria, do we want to live in in the coming decades?  Already metropolitan Melbourne is home to 70 per cent of the states population and more and more people want to live in the inner city.  Do we want an ever expanding LA style sprawl of urban Westfield cellulite or a higher, compact and more densely populated city, presided over by Lord Mayor Adam Bandt?  One thing is for sure and that is without improvements in public transport neither will succeed.  A continued expansion into the old Zone 3 and beyond will require real investment in extension and interconnection of train lines, something that every state government promises yet never delivers on.  If they spent half the money they do on revamping ticketing systems and feel good advertising one of them might eventually be able to get it right.  Without investment into the new suburbs, more cars will be on the roads and with fuel prices ever increasing those in the new suburbs, most likely low income, will feel the strain.  On the flipside, a more vertically developed city would have to be better thought out than the disaster that is the revamped Docklands.  Despite being walking distance from the CBD, it feels a world away and has about as much class and appeal as a Ricki Lee music video.

A further option, one I favour, is to look outside of Melbourne and develop the regions.  The city does not necessarily have to grow exponentially.  Investment in and development of Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Gippsland, Wangaratta and Shepparton, with improved access via road and train to Melbourne and each other, would more evenly spread the states population and ease the pressure on metropolitan Melbourne.  Within the city itself I would favour moving up rather than out.  Better to develop and improve with what we have in Melbourne rather than to continually expand out, creating ever more bland and unreachable suburbs.  Concentrate on bringing the public transport we have up to a satisfactory level before promising more further out; make Melbourne and the journey in to and around it more bike friendly; develop urban gardening projects; build on the multicultural strength of the city; and create inner city areas with soul and spunk, not Nando’s, warehouse stores and unoriginal Ferris wheels.