Peter Seamer, CEO, Victorian Planning Authority


How do you see the role of the MPA?

In the Greenfields we’ve been very successful in implementing a number of principles with a more consistent planning approach, leading to a greater variety of outcomes.

We’ve tried to do two things: One is to have a more powerful planning system that makes things happen more quickly, in far more detail and underpinned by a lot more vision and principles. That has meant we have now got the most active market in Australia by a long way for Greenfield growth. By having the competition and supply out there, the price of housing has dropped significantly, whereas places like Sydney – where they haven’t done it – prices just keep rising.

The second thing is that supply has driven higher quality of design and outcomes. Quite simply, if you’re out in the Greenfields and you’re not producing an affordable product meeting modern people’s expectations about where they want to live, you’re not going to sell anything. You’re out of business.

The supply and competition has driven a lot of outcomes, plus the fact that the actual plans (PSPs) for these areas do supply the infrastructure and core outcomes. We protect the environment. We ensure that if you want to work in a suburb that’s got the best bike paths, go to the growth areas. If you want to work in an area that’s theoretically got the best access to schools, go to the growth areas. They’re all quite consistent.

We have a whole lot of rules around the aspirational targets about making certain things happen. We sat down one day and ended up with 100 golden rules of design. The most obvious one is creating genuine town centres, not just shopping centres. So the aim is to have a proper town centre that has a community side beyond just council services, a place where you go to have a glass of wine and talk about the footy or whatever on a Friday night with your friends. We decided that 90% of all new houses have to be within one km of a town centre. Only a reasonable sized population will support a town centre so it can work economically. You need the right developer that will build those things. But the town centres can’t just be something with a car park built around the outside. You need to be actually able to walk there with a road system that will get you to those places easily. You can also go by bike.


For example, if you go to places in Melbourne that were designed as car-based suburbs over the 70s, 80s, 90s, many have now got the best footpaths. Beautiful, big, wide footpaths all through the place, but there’s no pedestrians on the footpaths. The reason there’s no pedestrians on the footpaths is because there is nowhere that is close enough to walk to. So it’s really quite logical – if you can put a vital town centre within proximity of where people live, people will use it. It will be their place, their community gathering place. It’ll be a place that you might go to pick up a magazine or something. I’ll go for a walk to get there rather than going for some big drive to a shopping centre. Kids can go there after school to get a milkshake or whatever kids do. These centres are literally the centres of their community. I almost feel like putting a post in the middle of the thing and saying well, that’s the centre point. Literally at the centre of town.


But the trouble with a lot of the centres that we’ve had is that they are so economically driven, they get built by a development company who want to sell or hold them. They want to put a little box around the outside and say this is the one entry. It’s all owned by us and we will control our centre. Whereas if you go to a strip centre, say like in Ormond Road, they’re all individually owned so you have vitality there and you have different sorts of uses.

If you go to one of the 1980’s box centres they’re all owned by one person. They’re often sold off to a commercial entity looking to build a profit rather than a sense of community. So it’s the government’s role to actually come and say, yes, it has to be more than just a series of shops, there is a community role. My biggest problem with the public domain and the way buildings are designed with their interface is that most people, including governments, developers and even most architects don’t pay enough attention to getting that community outcome. Nobody wants to talk about. They all want to talk about how great Degraves Street is but much less about the local town centres were most people actually live.

Where do you feel you add the most value to the impacts of these new growth areas through that structured planning to roll it out effectively and logically?

The plan for the town centres is pretty important. But you don’t want to over plan it. You don’t want to start getting down to detailed design on these, because the actual design has to be done by the person that’s building it. We don’t build anything, but we influence the way things are being built. We make them work better – things like sorting out the infrastructure, the roads, and the public transport.


Our starting points for planning are the area’s natural features and existing character. For example, you may have a cultural heritage site, so you integrate that into a park and you put explanatory material so it’s not just a normal park. It’s actually got a feature to it. In all of our areas there are walking and cycling trails, so we connect them in a big loop so it’s actually a three kilometre walk. You can take your dog for a walk or do something that’s interesting. We have a consistent approach to the way we plan, but the diversity of things we do are different… for instance there should be bus services, jobs and at least a little town centre, a public square, and some other businesses. At the end of my street there’s a kiteshop, there’s two nail shops, a lawyer, a real estate agent. There’s ten different restaurants to go to and this is the vitality that you need.

But the stuff that we produce now will not necessarily work in 40 years’ time, because people will be doing things differently and we don’t know what that is, so we need to plan for flexibility.

A real issue is making our town centres different. The quality of the work in terms of the interface of buildings at the street level or even the entrance to them is usually poor. We’ve got to start getting people to talk about this. It’s about getting the fine grain. If you look at some older town centres, they’re fun, but the question is whether that actually meets the need of the community or not. You’ve still got to drive to get there, therefore 99% of people going to that centre will drive because it’s not proximate enough. So how do we get that sort of local, interesting, vibrant, attention to detail type of stuff integrated into our centres?

The other thing is we need consistency with an area. What I’m trying to do with various Councils at the moment is actually have, if not permanent, a long-lasting, at least 10 to 15 year palette of materials the Council agrees is its palette.

We’re actually doing a review of our PSP guidelines at the moment, and we’re also doing one for infill. And we’re doing one for our regional centres too. These pieces of work will help to create greater consistency.

Things also have to work economically for businesses. We’ve just done a study in Monash, the big cluster around Monash University and Monash Hospital about what businesses want. And they say we need somewhere to go to lunch. They need some public transport. They need some interest there. Look what MABs doing at University Hill – they’re spec-ing buildings in the middle of nowhere. Why is it working? Because they’re building a good product and they’re actually gutsy enough to invest in them in.

Do you have any case studies?

I think that as some of these localised centres are built that serve 10 to 15,000 people at the centre of their community, we will see change. But we need more time. I can show you lots that were designed 100 years ago, before we had cars… they’re actually designed around a pedestrian scale and they work. And now they’ve been refurbished from every little centre from Fairfield and beyond.

What is the one thing you would do differently to create a more vibrant community, what would that be?

It’s about creating diverse town centres that enable people to do a whole range of things, not just get your wallet out. It’s about kids going there after school, having some local businesses and a wide variety of good basic services, the supermarket, the medical clinic, the local school and all those sorts of things. It’s about having the design detail right that gives a centre complexity at a human scale. You feel good about being there. That is exactly what we’re trying to do.



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