More than 60 years ago, the revered Melbourne architect Robin Boyd was railing against poor design in our suburbs. He described 1950s suburbia as “a material achievement in aesthetic calamity”. If he were alive today, Boyd would surely be horrified by the quality of many of the apartments that are being built in modern Melbourne.
Boyd wanted to make high-quality design available to everyone, and so in 1947 he started the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects’ Small Homes Service. He and his team produced designs for affordable houses that could be bought for only 5 pounds and built by any builder.
Each week they would produce a design for a modern home, which would be published in The Age alongside a column by Boyd advocating for modern design and the new ways of living it enabled.
Anyone who looks around Melbourne today can see that the Small Homes Service needs to be resurrected. Too much of what we’re building is a scar on the streetscape.
The good news is that the State Government is doing just that via the Future Homes program. Under the program, the government invited Victoria’s best architects and designers to submit plans for medium-density housing to an architectural competition, to encourage and showcase high-quality urban design.
To encourage developers to pick up the winning designs, the Government is trialling a fast-track approval process in the Maribyrnong City Council area for buildings based on any of the four Future Homes exemplar designs.
With the state election looming, both sides of politics should commit to extending the program across the rest of Melbourne in the next term of parliament. It would help more housing to be built quicker, while also ensuring it is high quality.
And Development Victoria, the Victorian Government’s development agency, should pick up those designs and use them when building new housing.
Melbourne is in the middle of a rental squeeze as rents surge and vacancy rates plummet. And now that Australia’s borders have reopened after the COVID closures, population growth, and with it housing demand, is expected to rise sharply. The federal Treasury expects Australia’s population to boom by 470,000 people in the next two years. Historically, close to half of migrants to Australia have chosen to make Melbourne their home.
Melbourne needs more medium- and high-density housing. Our city remains much more sparsely populated than cities of similar size in other developed countries. This is so, even when comparing Melbourne to North American cities such as Toronto.
Often new homeowners buy a detached house on the city fringe simply because that is the cheapest dwelling available.
This is not what most Australians want. It is a myth that all first-home buyers want a quarter-acre block. Grattan Institute research reveals that many would prefer a townhouse, semi-detached dwelling, or apartment in an inner or middle suburb, rather than a house on the city fringe.
Smaller dwellings – townhouses, apartments, etc – made up 33 per cent of Melbourne’s homes in 2016. Yet, 52 per cent of Melburnians say they actually want to live in an apartment or a townhouse, given what the different options cost.
The key problem is that many states and local governments restrict medium- and high-density developments to appease local residents concerned about road congestion, parking problems, and damage to neighbourhood character.
The politics of land-use planning – what gets built and where – favour those who oppose change. The people who might live in new housing – were it to be built – don’t get a say.
But a lack of public confidence in the quality of what gets built also makes it harder to build the housing we so desperately need. Once new apartments are built, they will last for decades. If neighbours can’t be confident that new townhouses and apartments will be well-designed and well-built, it’s no surprise that they object when plans are posted.
A proliferation of good design across the suburbs would raise community expectations – and spirits. All of us – developers, existing residents, visitors, and would-be new homeowners – would benefit.
Better design will help reassure locals that the housing built in their suburb will contribute to the community and enhance the neighbourhood for generations to come.
Expanding the Future Homes initiative has the potential to make Melbourne even more marvellous – a modern metropolis Robin Boyd could be proud of.
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