What planning and infrastructure challenges do growth areas face?
Transportation is always challenging, State Government talks about public transport, but it’s really hard to get it out here. The whole development of infrastructure is driven by arterial roads, which are important. You need to have those in place, but they create incredible barriers for communities.
We’ve done a lot of work with State Government and Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources to try and get them to think about their KPIs and standards for a service. Even when you have the right catchment numbers, public transport services are unreliable if you’re trying to plan a short trip to and from your house. We have encouraged experimentation with bus stop distances. We are trying different timetable models so we can get a faster and more frequent bus service. So rather than having a bus stop for residents every 200 metres or 400 metres and slow down a trip, we’ve asked the department to consider 800 metres as a catchment for a bus stop.
Cycle paths are put in place with new development, but the sense of riding is all wrong. You’ve got to cross a six-lane arterial road just to go shopping; it’s actually much easier to simply get in the car. So all the principles are there, but the actual reality and timing of when and how things get delivered is lost.
The whole model of shopping centre development is also really challenging. We try to create the concept of a High Street or a village and it’s really hard to do that. If you compare a growth area shopping centre or a shopping strip with something that you find in the inner city, the whole nature of it is different. You don’t have freehold. You don’t have multiple titles. It’s just one big shopping centre, and generally it’s managed by a big property developer or property group. So there’s not that localised differentiation, where you could potentially get the up-and-coming business, the smaller scale retail which creates the sort of diversity that makes inner shopping strips more attractive. In growth areas, we end up having really monochrome town centres that visually aren’t great, that meet the basic service needs of the community but don’t allow for the finer grain, varied shopfronts and diversity that actually makes Brunswick Street amazing, or Chapel Street vibrant – which is that really interesting interface. So I think that’s probably the most challenging. We have come some way, and our urban design team work hard to try and influence retail centres, but fundamentally, the development model doesn’t support a different approach.
What social challenges are new communities confronting?
We see social consequences in terms of domestic violence, high rates of alcoholism, really difficult issues around isolation and suicide and marital breakdowns. There’s a whole range of social issues that we see, and we have to deal with, as consequence of people not having the services, time or capacity to be part of community.
We have a serve local job deficit with more than seventy percent of our working population leaving Casey each day to secure work elsewhere. Residents are time poor and have little time to exercise resulting in low participation rates in sports and community for both the young and old. Consequently we are seeing obesity and diabetes as the fastest growing diseases in our population.
Council is trying hard to address these challenges through service expansion and advocacy working across other levels of government.
What is the importance of delivering community infrastructure early?
Early delivery is really important and makes a big difference to the community. Selandra Rise estate in Cranbourne East is different; it was part of a broader demonstration project where community infrastructure like parks were delivered early. Council negotiated with Stockland to deliver a upfront community space and an eight star Green Star House in the display village with free building consultations, showing people how to build more sustainably. We have been running a variety of community programs out of these houses such as gardening, craft, a walking group and so on. RMIT are doing some really interesting research on the approach, trying to understand whether this model worked. Certainly the feedback we’ve been getting from the community is that it was actually a space where people could come and meet their neighbours.
In a new estate, people are reluctant to invite people over to their house because you’re inviting strangers over you don’t know. It’s not like an established neighbourhood, when someone moves in next door you invite them over for a cup of tea. These communities are complete strangers coming together. So there are all sorts of natural barriers. New residents in brand new estates that are developing may have very little furniture; or they may be recent arrivals with limited English; or no physical neighbours if the street is being developed. There is no nearby coffee shop or library or other opportunity to meet with a neighbour. Typically one vehicle households with no public transport access young mums, for example, are isolated and stuck at home alone with no nearby support network. The circumstances of a developing estate creates many of the difficulties families are facing.
Council works very hard to get open space infrastructure in place early so new residents have access to sports facilities, playgrounds and ovals so families can meet informally. We have developed a $440 million Leisure Facilities Development Plan which will deliver new sporting facilities to communities in a timely manner. This is the largest sports and leisure plan ever developed by a local government.
How can you understand community needs, particularly when there is no community?
Our Strategic Planning, Sport and Leisure and Community Strengthening & Services areas work very hard to understand who’s out there. We have a range of ways in which we try and get a sense of what’s happening and to plan for it. From a broader planning perspective it’s a little bit difficult. We look at permits, building approvals, current ABS and census data, and the number of people who have come into Casey trying to plan ahead.
From a service delivery perspective though, it’s really about trying to anticipate demand. We collect data on local hospital births to plan Maternal and Child Health services and kindergarten services four years later. Our major challenge is the fast rate at which new developments are happening. Kindergarten services might not be scheduled for a few years, or the land is not yet available which makes service planning a very complex task in growth areas.
Do Precinct Structure Plans (PSP) provide certainty to the planning and development of growth areas?
There’s much greater collaboration now. Moving to the Metropolitan Planning Authority (MPA) PSP process means there’s not just a single focus on each growth area, there is a much broader view. More recently we have seen changes back to a more traditional planning process, meaning there’s much more collaboration and coordination with the MPA, which is very positive for growth area planning.
This means high level planning can be informed using a local understanding of place and the unique characteristics for a specific site response. Such collaborative and coordinated approaches using the knowledge and local experience of local Councils will always result in better outcomes.
The PSP process is making sure that there’s planning up front for those critical pieces of community infrastructure, like schools and town centres, kindergartens, sports ovals and so on, which is good. It doesn’t solve all the issues around creating community as you’re still dealing with major developers who are working on a large scale. Unfortunately, we find that many developers are not in the game of actually creating communities. There are still those who simply try to maximise lot yields and fight against those things that make a community function well over time; quality open spaces, playgrounds in good locations and attractive streetscapes. Council officers spend a lot of time trying to negotiate outcomes for the future community. This is where the PSP process helps with planning and gives a sound basis, but it doesn’t guarantee outcomes on the ground.
We’re still not getting diversity of built form through PSP’s. Something as fundamental as new cemeteries are just not planned for anymore, as far as I’m aware. We are going to have millions more people housed in Melbourne over the coming decades and they deserve to be buried somewhere, so it seems fundamental to include those sorts of assets you see in older suburbs. Maybe they’re problematic from a management perspective and the economics of ‘highest and best use of land’ work against those assets, but at least let’s have the conversation about what is the diversity of assets that a vibrant community needs.
Are 20 minute neighbourhood’s achievable in growth areas?
It’s certainly the aspiration, but there are multiple factors at play that challenge that concept in a growth area; the viability of commercial offices for example. In a growth area, the market may not be ready for commercial offices, even though we know we need them and council wants to see commercial offices developed. We fight very hard for employment land being set aside and protected through a PSP. But the development industry in growth areas isn’t really interested in delivering something unless it achieves returns quickly, and this generally results in residential housing.
This is the commercial reality of development and financing arrangements unfortunately. For shopping centre development, it seems to be a liability to create some small scale retail, and offices on top due to additional cost, smaller rental returns, and perceived lack of demand, however these are the types of spaces we know are needed. You’re not going to get your physiotherapist, local lawyer, or other smaller business type product in the high rent retail spaces that are being provided now, and there is nowhere else for them to go that is close by. Another challenge is that even when a PSP, designates land for commercial or office use this may not come on line for a very long time. Really it’s about planning for a 20-minute neighbourhood as opposed to the delivery of it.
The fundamental challenge is the commercial reality, and the ideals of early delivery and diversity of retail and commercial offer, versus the commercially driven decisions by a land owner and/or developer. How do you manage the vacant land held aside so that it doesn’t come under pressure to be swallowed up by more housing? How do we address the lack of early services for an extended period of time? The reality is that the aspiration is there, but it’s often the delivery that’s lacking.
Can DCP’s be used effectively to deliver community infrastructure?
DCPs are an effective way to deliver community infrastructure and the current approach to developing and managing DCPs today is much more rigorous. DCPs are a means for new communities get some facilities much earlier than has been previously possible. The challenge though is in managing the DCP. We want to deliver the obvious early infrastructure that a community needs like key roads, sports facilities, community buildings, but Council must have enough money left to deliver the back end, which might be additional roads and supporting infrastructure.
In managing any DCP Council has to make some pretty hard decisions about what and where it’s prepared to offer developers infrastructure credits based on priority need. Without a disciplined and strategic approach, there is a risk Council won’t be able to deliver infrastructure wants in a timely manner, or may run out of money.
Unfortunately Community infrastructure remains underfunded even with DCPs in place. For example population and housing densities have increased markedly, but Open Space contributions remain unchanged, placing too much pressure on these spaces.
How are developers responding to changing lifestyles and housing diversity?
We’re faced with a really interesting dilemma. Traditional lot sizes were 600 square metres plus. This means you have the potential for future subdivisions where you could start to get some medium density. Growth areas are really interesting though because the lot sizes are now much smaller. So while our land efficiency is much better, I think it’s actually constraining our housing options now and in the future; creating a lack of housing diversity and density.
If you wish to deliver a more diverse product down the track, like medium density town houses, you’re going to have to negotiate these larger lot sizes now. It’s really hard to get a developer to think about how we can get some diversity upfront. Developers tend to be in the game of selling land, not townhouses, which is a problem. There are some examples in Casey where developers have delivered a diverse product and they have sold very well, so we continue to encourage this kind of diversity. The PSPs now identify this aspiration as well which helps support our planning objectives.
We’ve done the research and developed a housing strategy; we know the need is there it’s just the delivery side of things, how the economics play out and trying to make sure we can see delivered what we know we need.
I’m convinced there is a market for townhouse’s located near town centre communities, the coffee shops, the boutiques and those sorts of things that actually make people want to be in an area rather than just come in, get your groceries, and go. Like all of Melbourne, we also have a significant ageing population, in addition to the young families buying their first home. The older population want to stay close to their communities, or be near their grandkids. We just don’t have the medium density housing in the growth area that allows them to sell the family home and move into something smaller and more manageable.
Do you see a connection between a community’s health, well-being and their ‘place’?
Yes, in a multitude of ways. It’s a complex connection though. Place is one part of the picture, but not the whole picture. The whole basis on which we develop, and the economics of land, work against a fundamental principle that health and well-being should drive land use decisions. Although we have come a long way, we must still negotiate hard to secure enough money through the DCP system. On the plus side, we now have actual land budgets and allocated money to deliver open space, sports fields, footpaths, shared paths and bike lanes on roads. The downside side is generally the land allocated for sport, recreation and public open space is often the ‘leftovers’ and can be compromised; too small, an odd shaped parcel, too wet, under power lines, or too close to a major road.
We have an example of a football field where the goals are up against the road, because the land allocated doesn’t reflect the actual land needed for these types of assets, or the volume of demand we need to cater for. These poor outcomes can dictate the feel of a ‘place’. The other outcomes we see every day are less tangible but fundamental to community. Young families with kids moving into a community want their kids to play sport for all the benefits that brings and sporting clubs are the perfect way for families to connect. However there may not be enough fields for the local club to run extra teams, and the kids miss out. This is the reality of the land decision made years earlier where an oval or field was cut out of the final land budget for public open space.
There are other factors like busy lifestyles and personal choices that contribute to health and wellbeing outcomes, but if community infrastructure is compromised from the start then, that creates another barrier to an active and healthy community. We try very hard to design and deliver facilities to be practicable and useable for the community, but there’s a whole lot of other stuff that we just can’t manage for or have control over.
Another factor is the dominant philosophy of car-based development. No matter how hard we advocate, we’re not getting the public transport services in early, when we need it, when behaviours are established. The cost to families who are highly mortgaged and need to buy another car is significant. The cost to society in traffic, congestion, poor health and so on is enormous.
The lack of local jobs means that we’ve got people, tradies commuting 70 and 90 kilometres into the city, or to other parts of Melbourne to get a job. So they’re spending an hour and a half each way to get to work. They’re too exhausted to actually go to the gym, or spend time with their kids. I mean, there are problems at so many levels; it’s almost hard to kind of work out what the critical issue to pull out is?
Again, we’ve got parks in place, which is great, but people don’t have the time in these areas to use them. That’s why the walking group at Selandra Rise Estate, that came out of Selandra Community Place, our interim community family, was great, because it actually got people out there, talking and meeting.
How can you stimulate more local employment opportunities?
Our economic development department is an absolute priority for Council. We have a strong partnership with Cardinia Council and market ourselves as a whole region. Starting at the macro level we lobby hard for employment land and really fight to keep that as much as we are able to. We then try to look at how we attract businesses to the Casey-Cardinia region. Council officers are continually working to understand what existing businesses need to grow, understanding who’s out there beyond Casey looking to expand or move and what they may need to relocate to Casey-Cardinia.
Casey has developed a Business Hub in partnership with Waterman Business Centres which is working really well. This is a commercial space that small and micro business can access if they need a professional office space and resources to support them in taking the next step. We also support training for small businesses to expand. We create networking and promotion opportunities such as Business Breakfasts and the Casey-Cardinia Annual Business Awards. We have set up a job matching service so local employers looking for staff can find local people ready to work. These are all aimed at creating business opportunities and employment for residents.
How do you celebrate the diversity of culture and ethnicity across your communities?
Our community strengthening area does a lot of work in that regard. It’s really hard for us to judge or know who’s in a new area and to adapt an activity to what that group might want. You can’t simply bring a kind of Australian-Anglo understanding of community to a new estate. In Casey, as you would find in the other growth areas also, there is quite large numbers of different ethnic groups and migrants. So we’ve got a very large Indian/Sri Lankan community that have migrated in recent years and are buying into new estates. The Anglo approach to barbecues and so forth may work in some circumstances, but in other circumstances it doesn’t, so we need to better adapt to address a wider mix of cultures, responding to their needs in a way that makes sense and is relevant to a community.
Unfortunately, we don’t collect enough community or demographic data until census, which is not regular enough to plan community events. It would be really useful to look at the sort of data developers capture to help us with programing events.
Does Casey engage in a Place making strategy?
Place making in a growth community, where you’ve got nothing to start with other than a retail centre and a whole lot of new people, I think needs a bit of extra thinking about, to really understand critically, “What are our objectives for place-making?” We work very hard to build a sense of community, even when the built form in growth areas is so uniform, and the diversity of place and space doesn’t exist in any true sense.
In growth areas we engage in place making through our Strengthening New Communities Program focussing on community development rather than other strategies such as Neighbourhood Renewal. Casey rolled this program out in Doveton some years ago under the State Government’s Neighbourhood Renewal program, which we continue to implement today.
This program set out a framework for the community support team to provide a series of linked neighbourhood activities to help new residents get to know each other, get to know what services, programs and facilities are on offer in Casey, and feel that they belong. Our goal is to accelerate the organic community building process to avoid new residents feeling socially isolated and lowering the risk of developing associated mental and physical health issues.
Each season of the program runs from around October to May and focuses on a different suburb in the growth area. The reason for this is that we want to get to know who the community leaders are and eventually get them involved in the delivery of activities to encourage lasting community outcomes. When the program moves on to another area we hope that some of these activities may continue in some form.
Focussing on a catchment area gives us more time to develop those relationships and provides greater opportunities for neighbours to connect with each other. This season we are holding two pop-up cafes in local parks that provide a relaxed opportunity for socialising, four local walking tours to help people settle into their local area and two bus tours that will show people what is on offer in other parts of Casey. Council is interested in identifying external partnerships opportunities that will enable us to expand the program.
Getting people together can actually create a sense of vibrant community I think….but at a deeper, structural level, what does place-making in a growth area really look like? To follow the example above, what does a vibrant community look like when the neighbourhood demographic of for example, 40% Sri Lankans who have just moved into the area, can’t access a local culturally familiar space or even access a community centre because it’s not yet built.
Perhaps the retail model doesn’t encourage diversity; like a spice shop or a local Sri Lankan restaurant? That type of retail diversity would be interesting and a positive for the whole community whatever their background. When the local shopping centre has tenancies with the same fish and chip shop, and hot chicken shop and cheap pizza takeaways that every other shopping centre in a 10 kilometre radius has, it is hard to see how the vibrancy of diverse, community ‘places’ can come about.
Part of any strategy needs to explore and understand what some of the actual contextually sensitive barriers and challenges are for residents living in these estates. Growth areas must identify what place making looks like for them, as Casey did.
If you could change one thing about the way we currently create communities what would it be?
The ideal would be three levels of government working together at the front end of large-scale development and land use change to coordinate investment in new communities. At a State Government level and a Federal level there is no real understanding of the fact that growth area communities require investment to ‘build community’. It requires investing in quality facilities, quality public spaces, and people as place facilitators to do ongoing community development which is really needed and makes a difference, rather than expecting council to somehow do it all. We don’t have the resources to invest at the rate new communities are being developed.
For more information on Selandra Community Place