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Visions – The future of Melbourne’s transport systems

Posted in Research, Visions by Ferne Edwards on July 13th, 2007

The article below, MAKING OUR CITIES WORK; Melbourne – ‘still the place to be, published in The University of Melbourne Voice Vol. 1, No. 9 9 – 23 July 2007, discusses how urban growth is challenging Melbournes transport infrastructure. DAVID SCOTT and NERISSA HANNINK talk to experts whose contributions to research, debate and policy will help reshape our city to meet these challenges.

July, 2007. Melbourne. The public transport system is overcrowded. Freeways are clogged. Level crossing safety is a public issue. The price of petrol continues to rise. Somewhere to live costs more than ever. And the State is suffering one of the worst droughts on record.

At the same time, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Victorias population growth is outstripping that of the entire country. In 2006 Victoria recorded its biggest growth on record: 77 000 people – up 1.5 per cent.

Can the city cope? Is Melbourne still ‘The Place To Be?

Professor Rob Moodie thinks so. As chair of the Victorian Governments first five-yearly audit of Melbournes long-term planning strategy ‘Melbourne 2030, he is in a position to assess just how well the city is progressing towards its aim of being what Planning Minister Justin Madden referred to as “a more prosperous, sustainable and fairer city”.

“We (the four person audit team) acknowledge the successes Melbourne has had over the years in these areas – and it continues to rank near the top of the most livable cities in the world – but we do need to improve,” says Professor Moodie.

“The challenge is how we can enhance what we like – such as having small shopping village networks, not only giant shopping centres.”

Professor Moodie, who is Professor of Global Health in the University of Melbournes Nossal Institute, rejects criticism from some quarters that the Melbourne 2030 plan (and by extension, the audit) – which outlines 212 initiatives, nine key directions, 35 priority actions and 95 major activity centres – is a stunt.

“Having a good plan is fundamental to our citys future. Yes, the plan has received some negative press, but it needs to be put into context. Melbourne 2030 is an ambitious and visionary plan of managing growth, both physical and human. The intention is to work out how you ensure fairness, prosperity and livability is shared and the environment is both safe and sustainable,” he says.

“However this enhancement needs to be planned. If there is no plan, then it means market forces are the sole operators, creating unequal players in the citys future. We recognise that its about finding the right mix and balance. The plan is not about solving problems specifically, but setting the big directions for our future.”

The University of Melbourne has taken a prominent role in the future of the city, particularly with the City of Melbourne in the ‘Future Melbourne partnership. Speaking at the launch of ‘Future Melbourne, Chancellor Ian Reynard said that it gave the University an opportunity to “…use the knowledge and the skills weve acquired for the benefit of the community were in – thats in one direction – and to listen and to benefit from the wisdom of the community.”

He said the University sees ‘Future Melbourne as a push to develop a strategic vision for the inner citys growth, with the aim of positioning it as the Asia-Pacifics pre-eminent capital for living, working and investing by 2020.

Dr Paul Mees, senior lecturer in Transport and Land Use Planning (Architecture, Building and Planning), believes Melbourne requires massive improvement in public transport.

He says Melbournes privatised public transport system is now Australias most expensive – a daily ticket costing nearly $2 more than in Sydney. Despite ticket cost, however, Connex figures show that the number of train passengers has increased almost 20 per cent in the past two years.

Dr Mees suggests the current train and tram providers – Connex and Yarra Trams respectively – be replaced “with a dynamic, accountable public transport agency modeled on the best in the world, such as Zurich or Vancouver”.

“This new public transport agency needs to be staffed with a small core selected from the best transport planners in the world, and needs to be responsible for upgrading, integrating and extending all forms of public transport to provide a European-style service across the whole city,” he says.

He also suggests the State government “abolish the planning division of VCAT (the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal) and replace it with an independent Local Government Commission with the powers to review local government decisions and reverse those where corruption, unfairness or illegality has occurred”.

Finally, the government should “scrap the current ‘policy-based land-use planning system and replace it with clear, unambiguous rules about whats allowed and whats forbidden. And keep the system flexible by requiring regular reviews, and by designating some parts of the city as preferred development zones, in which exemptions from the rules will be permitted”.

Professor Moodie says any upgrade or improvement must focus on available – or potential – infrastructure. “The most pressing priority for the plan is linking it to infrastructure. For example, if you want to increase housing then you need to increase urban density or you need land. And if we want a new ‘Caroline Springs, we need buses and transport to reach the location.

“To me a key theme of Melbourne 2030 is that Melbourne is best served by diversity – diversity in housing, but also diversity in transport options.”

Integrating vegetation into our buildings and suburbs is a key step in adapting Australias cities to climate change, according to the University of Melbournes Professor Nigel Stork (School of Resource Management) and Professor Tom Kvan (Architecture, Building and Planning).

Professor Kvan notes that the benefits of urban agriculture (growing plants and producing food in the local urban environment) can be significant. He says the large surface areas of buildings and other constructed urban elements offer an opportunity to make cities productive in many ways.

Urban agriculture can use up waste (such as compost), generate plant biomass, and reduce transportation distances for the food produced. Additionally the benefits of gardening and proximity to plants can include health maintenance in an aging population, he says.

The second stream of benefits from urban agriculture relate to energy saving, particularly reducing the urban heat island effect where an area, such as a city or industrial site, has consistently higher temperatures than surrounding areas due to a greater retention of heat by buildings, concrete, and asphalt.

Professor Kvan says plants can benefit urban areas by reducing heat gain in structures (roads and buildings), providing a cooling effect through transpiration (releasing water to the atmosphere through their leaves) and increasing the sequestering of carbon in their mass. These benefits can be directly translated into milder urban microclimates, a reduction in energy consumption for cooling and also reduced pollution and smog from power generation.

Professor Stork notes various ways in which vegetation can be used to cool cities. These include traditional techniques such as planting trees to shade the western and northern sides of buildings and new technologies such as ‘green roofs and ‘green walls which carry a cover of vegetation.

He says studies overseas show that trees, parks and ‘green roofs have the potential to reduce the urban heat island effect by up to 2 degrees C by lowering ambient temperature through evaporative transpiration.

With energy use by buildings in our cities accounting for 40 per cent of carbon emissions, even small reductions in city air temperature can lead to large reductions in the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

Professor Stork says little scientific data exists to evaluate the applicability of ‘green roofs to Australian conditions. School of Resource Management staff hope to change this with an experimental green roof at Burnley campus by monitoring its impact on building temperatures and roof water runoff.

Evaluating the suitability of selected Australian plants to the harsh roof environment will be an important part of this research. “If ‘green roofs are to be successful in Australia we will need to develop a suite of attractive drought tolerant groundcovers.” He says selection of appropriate plant material, however, is crucial to ensure the success of these new systems and also to reduce maintenance costs.

Integrating urban agriculture can also benefit commercial and institutional buildings. For example, offices with gardens rent at higher returns, provide healthier environments and schools with playgrounds support better child development.

Professor Stork believes an integrated research program is needed to bring together urban form, agricultural science, economics, and urban governance,

He says the integrated design approach saw award-winning results when Land and Food Resources researchers John Rayner and Peter May provided expert advice to the City of Melbourne for the design of Australias greenest building, the award winning Council House 2.

Architecture Building and Planning researchers Dr Anna Hurlimann and Dr Dominique Hes are investigating the use of recycled water at Council House 2, as well as other design features, to reduce water and energy demands.

The environment is central to planning concerns raised by Dr Leigh Glover, of the Universitys Australasian Centre for the Governance and Management of Urban Transport. “Our motor vehicle fleet depends on fossil fuel energy, the combustion of which produces greenhouse gases and a range of urban air pollutants. Vehicle fuel efficiency is far less than is possible using available technologies and has improved little over the past four decades.

“Energy use for transport is high and each year Australians travel further in their cars. Federal Govern-ment forecasts to 2020 depict increasing greenhouse emissions from the transport sector. And our cities are yet to curb transport emissions growth. These are not encouraging trends.”

Dr Glover suggests the city makes greater use of environmental sustainability principles and practices in urban design and development, including ‘transit-oriented development.

“There are many steps to making Melbournes transport system more sustainable, but priorities must include providing public transport to the outer suburbs, improving and integrating existing public transport services, coordinating land use planning and transport planning, and developing more ‘transit-oriented development, with the overall goal of creating an integrated transport system with low environmental costs for the whole community,” he says.

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