The headline in today’s Age ‘Melbourne’s sick suburbs’ is an interesting reminder about the roots of the town planning profession. Oddly however, while early instances of ‘town planning’ focused on separating houses from each other (and from other land uses) in order to avoid the spread of disease, today’s newspaper article highlights the health problems associated with having houses that are too far removed from other uses. In particular, the Age article highlights health issues and problems associated with new houses that are too far removed from key supporting services and facilities, and the resulting reliance that this disconnect creates on cars as a principle mode of transport. (The article also refers to the prevalence of bottle shops in some communities – but that’s another issue altogether!).

In previous blog articles we have highlighted the merits of encouraging higher density residential development in infill locations. One of the key advantages of infill housing is that it’s not dependent on the construction of new parks, hospitals, schools or public transport – rather it can utilise the range of services and facilities that already exist in the area (recognising, of course, that some of those existing services and facilities often need to be upgraded to cope with the additional demand).

But that’s not to say that higher density ‘infill’ housing is the only option or even the best option for meeting housing needs. On the contrary, that new suburbs have a vital role to play in helping meet the demand for extra housing in Melbourne and in ensuring that an appropriate balance and variety of housing options are available. But those new suburbs must be well designed and provided for in terms of sustainable living.

The key challenge with new suburbs is to co-ordinate the timing of all of the components that contribute to a successful new community and to manage the delivery of those various components in an efficient, logical and timely manner. This continues to be a governments / industry wide challenge – for example: governments have a responsibility to ensure that sufficient land is available to allow growth to occur as well as a responsibility to plan and provide for parks, libraries, sports facilities and so on; developers have a responsibility to ensure that land areas are well laid out (that they provide for the right mix of land uses in the right areas) and that the built form is appropriate to the local needs; and, Government has a responsibility to provide key infrastructure including public transport and schools. Communication and coordination between the key players is vital.

The issues and problems that the Age article highlights aren’t the result of poor urban design – rather, they are the result of poor planning in its broadest sense; of infrastructure delivery not keeping pace with housing development. The real message here is that to create truly happy and healthy new communities there needs to be better communication and coordination between all of the businesses, organisations and agencies that have a role to play.