Cowboys vs. Aliens: Planners vs. Architects, the NRZ’s and the apartment apocalypse.

In a recent blog here I opined on the antipathy between planners and architects. I was surprised to get quite a few anonymous responses from both architects and planners. The very best response I received, perhaps from a statutory planner, simply said:

“I am a planner and I hate you.”

Another respondent proposed that the antipathy between architects and planners had an economic basis arguing that:

“A planner makes money from the same share of a project that an architect does and naturally in a free market way, seek to cut their share.”

Another planner stated in response to my assertion that few planners understand urban aesthetics argued that architects are just as much to blame:

“Says someone from a profession where a smooth featureless 50 metre-long glass facade is seen as totally acceptable at ground level in a densely populated area. Urban aesthetics indeed. Architects would inflict a rash of dead lobby space on this city if allowed, and frequently do in less powerful LGAs (local Government Authorities).”

It would be harsh to say that the above response underscores the critique that planners do not really understand architecture or urban design. Nonetheless, the same correspondent noted that planners are also pretty angry about the planning system:

“Politicians write the legislation, under immense pressure from developers and banks. Planners bring as much pressure to bear as we can but ultimately we’re not a wealthy cohort, and are mostly public servants so we couldn’t give money as political donations even if we had it to give.”

Of course I also received a number of comments from architects bemoaning the idiocy of the planning system and their experiences with it. As one architect noted:

“As architects we despondently watch planners merrily approving the work of drafting services and developers because they tick all the boxes of the planners ‘design-by-guideline’ approach. The reality we face is that planners actually have no idea what design really is. They want applications to comply to regulatory frameworks and think that architects waste their time as we usually challenge the frankly moronic and ill-conceived mathematics of site coverage, articulation, FSR and whatever their rulebook happens to say that day of the week.”

These comments indicate the quagmire that we are now in. It is a quagmire where the lines a blurred between who are the so called Cowboys and those who are the Aliens. Arguably the real problem may not lie with the conflict with the professions of architecture and planning but the alliances formed between small minded small business, councillors, provincial politicians and developers out for a buck. These are the real Cowboys. Two recent, and in some ways contradictory developments, in the planning quagmire in Melbourne appear to underscore this.

Development 1: Non Residential Zones or NRZ’s

The first development is a little in the past but it seems to contradict, and in some ways fuel the things which the second development seeks to alleviate.  It is to do with the Non Residential Zones or NRZ’s. This was a Matthew Guy ministerial initiative that you can read about these here and here. Under NRZ zoning a lot is restricted to the development of only two dwellings. This sets a maximum building height of 8.0 metres and enables local councils to set minimum lots sizes. I was alerted to the NRZ when I was invited to attend and found myself (and my De Niro style mohawk haircut) on a panel-speak at an Architeam CPD event entitled Planning Better Suburbs. Funnily enough, I was a bit nervous in finding myself as the only architect amongst the planners invited the panel. I was waiting to be killed by the planners as the only Alien on the panel  but fortunately it did not eventuate.

Colleen Peterson from Ratio Consultants (yes, I am actually citing a planner) creditably argues that these zones, by limiting more than two developments per allotment or site, prevent higher density urban housing form being developed. For example in August 2013, in the City of Glen Eira, Minister Guy approved a zone regime that placed 84% of that municipality’s residential land into the NRZ. This effectively shuts down the supply of medium-density housing in most of that municipality.

In some ways Glen Eira set a benchmark for other municipalities. Following hot on the trail of Glen Eira were other local government areas seeking to, and locking in, between 70% and 90% of their residential land into the NRZ’s. Hence in these zones anything over 2 units will be prohibited regardless of the surrounding urban fabric.

Development 2: Draft Apartment Guidelines  

The second development is the announcement of the recent draft apartment guidelines. Or as they are titled in policy spin world “Better Apartments Draft Design Standards.” This blogger is not really sure these standards actually have anything to do with design. Despite the fact that the proclaimed aim of these guidelines is to approve the design amenity of high rise inner city apartments. The planning minister seems to reinforce this by stating that:

“We are plugging a hole in the planning rules which allowed dog boxes to be built because we want future apartments to be constructed for long-term living,”

Richard Wynne is an ok guy. But maybe he should sack his spin advisers. I love the spin words on this especially “Plugging a hole” and “dog boxes” and of course “long-term living”.  In a nutshell the guidelines, plug the holes of the dog boxes for long term living, by addressing room depth, windows, cross ventilation, storage minimum room sizes, and communal open spaces. Nothing in any of this is suggested about the complex nexus between housing design, urban design and well being.

The draft guidelines appear to have a number of sensible measures but as Vanessa Bird the President of the Victorian AIA notes they do not go far enough and they seem to be more about regulating a kind of existenzminimum approach to apartment design: As she states:

“Minimum metric standards are really about weeding out the worst of the worst,” she said. “It’s like all regulation, it’s about weeding out what’s at the bottom and you balance that with allowing some flexibility and innovation though a parallel process that allows design excellence. That’s always been our position.”

In other words the guidelines are minimum requirements that do not involve the mandating or use of architects in the process. This is not surprising given that the project reference group for the guidelines, amongst others, consisted of the cowboys: Building Designers Association of Victoria, Housing Industry Association, Master Builders Association of Victoria, Property Council of Australia, Real Estate Institute of Victoria, Urban Development Institute of Australia and the Victorian Planning & Environmental Law Association. These are all groups or lobbyists not really known for their design acumen or expertise. Of course, the Office of the Victorian Government Architect was involved in the mix somewhere in the process and perhaps they should have been the only reference group involved.

Even with the recent changes to heights and plot ratios the draft guidelines do nothing much to avert the apartment apocalypse that we will be witness to in Melbourne’s future.

Development 1 x Development 2 

Taken alongside the NRZ’s the apartment guidelines seem to push us into an ever downward spiral of the diminishment of design in our city. The new apartment guidelines do nothing to encourage typological diversity and only really set minimum standards.  In fact whenever I hear the words “performance standards” attached to a policy I just think of toothless regulations and policies that maximise developer outcomes rather than urban design, real housing and architectural outcomes that are enduring.

The NRZ’s prevent the development of new architectural typologies; in other words, they prevent a broader range of housing types. The draft apartment guidelines effectively promote the idea that “tick the box” and BCA like regulations and minimum standards are the way to go: Fuck design value and fuck architecture say the Cowboys.

Helping the cowboys feel warm and fuzzy 

But, really ? A city cant be regulated like the dimensions in a disabled access or an emergency egress code. We seem to be stuck in a machine that is creating more housing junk; more frustration and conflict between architects and statutory planners. The NRZ’s will only force developers to build more high density apartments in some places in order to meet the demand created by NRZ driven affordability and land supply issues in other places. The minimum standard guidelines will do nothing to alleviate the boom of inappropriate and badly designed high density apartments. Worse still the guidelines will give the Cowboys a warm fuzzy feeling that they are law abiding citizens in this anarchy.

I am an architect not an Alien

It would be great if more planners, politicians and policy makers aligned themselves with design and design thinking. Planners involved in policy need to recognise and understand the value of design in more complex ways. What cities need are comprehensive policy approaches and systematic urban governance rather than regulation contradiction and fragmentation. Because after after all isn’t it the job of politicians and strategic planners to make wise policy. Moreover, these players have to stop treating architects like Aliens in their battles against the actual Cowboys. And we all know who they are they.




The Apartment Apocalypse: “Peak Apartment” and the trashing of brand Melbourne.

In my city of Melbourne the apartments are coming. This has also is happened in other cities around the world but at the moment Melbourne is just about to reach “peak apartment.” It is an unprecedented development onslaught that will change the face and the character of the central city and the broader city of 4 million people. But will this onslaught of lowest common denominator design destroy Melbourne’s image as a great place to experience, do business and learn in? Will the apartment apocalypse destroy the image of the student friendly city?


Data Sources

The first problem that exists in approaching this question the lack of comprehensive, easily accessible and independent data. No one government institution or organisation independently collects and communicates aggregate data on these developments. Hence, the data describing the real situation needs to pieced together, compared and substantiated from a range different sources (A task obviously too much for this blogger).

Currently the sources about the apartment boom might include research and data available from: The ABS, the  Property Council , Melbourne City Council and of course the media including newspapers such as  The Age .

One reasonably reliable data source that appears to provide a good information is the the Urban Melbourne Project Database. This data gives a good overview of what is being currently being planned for and built. As of the date of this post Urban Melbourne states that within the Central City of Melbourne there are currently.

  • 18 projects under construction
  • 11 Projects with sales campaigns under way
  • 39 projects that are being assessed by the minister or already approved.

Urban Melbourne predicts that if only half of the projects in this pipeline are delivered this will in itself add 15,000 to 17,000 new CBD residents. The potential boost of all these projects is an extra 42,000 to 43,500 residents.

In contrast the Melbourne City Council states that there are 20,038 residents in Melbourne CBD represented which represents 21 per cent of the municipality’s overall population. Remember that the figures I am citing here are only for the central grid. They do not include the population or dwelling numbers for other zones or small areas in Melbourne City such as Southbank or Docklands. According to the MCC there were:

16,320 dwellings in Melbourne CBD representing around 28 per cent of the municipality, with residential apartments comprising 69% of all housing types in the small area Melbourne CBD’s population is forecast to reach around 52,000 by 2036; an increase of more than twice today’s population, living in around 27,500 households.

There are some disturbing trends in the demographics of the MCC statistics. Around two thirds of residents are in the 20 to 24 age group with a median personal weekly income of around $560. Median income is relatively low, median rents for individual properties are above these and the age demographic is under 30. Many of the residents are stduents and Mandarin speakers dominate. As this 2013 snapshot states “The most common workplace location for employed Melbourne CBD residents was within the Melbourne CBD small area (45%).” 

Given these statistics it is not hard to imagine a city comprising an  underclass of service workers, or worse still “guest workers”, pursuing education opportunities in the city and funding this through part-time work. It is like the entire central city is becoming one big  7-11 which is adjunct to and servicing a very large office that employs workers from the dormitory suburbs.

There is more that could be written about the economics of the situation. But I will save that for a later blog.


Design Shockers  

As this process of densification takes place there are some notable design shockers both under construction and in the sales or planning pipeline.  But, there are some real shockers about to be built.Off the shelf curtain wall systems combined with a bit of branding are the worst offenders. A lack of consideration for wind effects and a disregard for urban scale and amenity at street level.I would be keen to see the fluid dynamics (wind) models for some of these new proposals.

All of this shabby development is obscured by the expert opinions, future technology, urban lifestyle, smart infrastructure chatfests and Ted talkie Linked-in Types (I should talk) types who grace out city. We are beset by gurus and a  week doesn’t go when there is a new guru trucked in proclaiming a bright new densified future for our city.  I think the first of the trucked-in-to-Melbourne Gurus Jan Gehl has a lot to answer for. Gehl’s slogans have been a mask to a city that is increasingly privatised and where civic and public space has been lost and is increasingly regulated and surveilled. Even Federation Square, with its compositional parti based on open field spatiality, in theory enabling a range of civic activities and “possibilities”, has easily facilitated, the capital flows through Melbourne’s machinic grid. The position of developers is evident in the debate over Fed Square East .

All of this suggest that we are witnessing a new phase of development and a property market driven largely by the Property Council advocates and developers. The housing market in the central city has been distorted at a number of levels. The debates over Negative gearing and the nature of capital inflows from elsewhere into the property market exemplify this. Inadequate planning governance in Victoria is another factor. It is appears easier to get a planning permit for a high rise building than a small internal renovation in the inner suburbs. Thirdly, a kind of “no policy” regime exists that always privileges the developer. You would think after the Docklands (and Fishermans bend) debacle that politicians and policy makers would exercise a greater rigour and toughness towards development.

Infrastructure also remains a real problem. At least the state government is building a new metro. But, where are the social services for the increase in central city population? Indeed, what services are needed ?

Being able to so easily characterise this current boom and its associated phenomena suggests that it is large scale property speculation and branding that is driving the boom in apartments in the central city. Where is the real vision for inner urban communities and affordable housing in all of this? Affordable housing that is social and sustainable and not 53 square meters on the 40th floor with an empty gym above a low ceiling carpark, some small biz retail, a coffee roasting  barista heaven; with a bit of wireless some bain-marie action and a sandwich toaster. The developers would say, what more could you want for in a city?

The “densification of the city”argument by sustainability academics has only led to unsustainable (replete with green star rated curtain walls)  and aesthetically horrific developments. In Australia, property markets are distorted and social housing reform is stuck. This is pretty much what happens when capitalist property development runs amok. As we all know after every boom there is a bust; Melbourne is now in that strange state just before the flow of capital seeks other markets.

We are entering a new, strange, surreal and distorted phase of city development in Melbourne. Despite the appearance of densification we are approaching, and driving, densification’s opposite condition: emptiness.  An emptiness epitomised by a city scrubbed clean with capital flows and the corresponding erasure of its history as a once great 19thC city.