Australia’s outer suburbs have been growing at a rapid pace.  Despite recent shifts in metropolitan planning toward urban containment and infill development, housing at the fringe continues to dominate our nation’s residential growth.  With Melbourne’s urban growth boundary under its second revision and further revisions planned every two years, it is likely that new fringe development will continue well into the future.  How to plan for change and adaptability in such areas is the focus of the Grattan Institute’s latest report, Tomorrow’s Suburbs.


The Grattan Institute is an independent ‘think tank’ based in Carlton that focuses on matters of public policy.  Earlier in the year, it released a report highlighting the importance of social spaces in cities.  It was, as the author’s noted at the launch at Federation Square, something of which urban planners and designers had long been aware.  But getting the subject onto the public stage is a different matter, and this report helped to do that.  Tomorrow’s Suburbs is following a similar path.  Adaptability and flexibility aren’t especially new terms within planning circles however, their presence in the public forum is less obvious.

People’s housing needs change over time and this, the report argues, is not being taken into account in the design and layout of Australia’s outer suburbs.  While young families may focus on the physical elements of a dwelling (number of bedrooms and outdoor space), older generations may be more concerned with access to services and amenities.  But housing stock in our fringe areas overwhelmingly caters to the family, offering inflexible and homogenous housing.  When a household’s needs do change, there have been limited options available to them in the surrounding area.  Thus, the report notes, “if a suburb cannot change as households change, then residents’ quality of life will be diminished”.

The issues related to inflexible housing not only impact upon residents, but on suburbs and cities more generally.  If a suburb can’t adapt to changing resident needs, it will become a less desirable place to live. Local business and shops may not be sustainable, reducing employment opportunities and local commerce.  On a city-wide scale, suburbs that are inflexible and segregated are less likely to undergo urban regeneration in the future – as much of the inner- and middle-ring suburbs can – and may be passed over by developers, resulting in even more greenfield development.  Suburbs that don’t provide local access to goods and services necessitate travel, thus placing strain on public transport and road networks.

While we may not be able to turn back the clock and change the segregation of uses and basic layout of suburbs on the fringe, the report argues that there are ways to enable greater flexibility in the future.  This includes innovative models for the sale and redevelopment of land, such as a group of neighbouring residents selling or redeveloping land as one large site.  Assembling land is often the greatest barrier to redevelopment and such models, while only suited to a small portion of the population, could provide flexibility.  Town centres, which are often owned by a single corporation and feature homogenous, low-risk businesses, could be better integrated with surrounding areas and feature adaptable buildings that could accommodate local entrepreneurs.  Nearby housing could enable future use for medical practices, as has occurred in the inner suburbs.

If anything, the report highlights that in cities and suburbs, the only constant is change.  While we may not know how communities will change, we do know – or at least we are learning – how to enable such change.

The Grattan Institute is hosting a free public seminar on 9 October at the Melbourne City Conference Centre.  Details of this and a full copy of the report can be found at http://grattan.edu.au/.