Care needed in growth of the peri-urban

Opinion by Trevor Budge

Communities in Melbourne's peri-urban area have awoken to find that the state government sees them as part of the answer to accommodating the city's burgeoning population.

Melbourne's peri-urbanPeri-urban areas are that conflicting mix of agriculture, forests, quaint rural towns, low-density sprawl and, recently, bushfire-prone areas, fanning out for about 100 kilometres from Melbourne. They are already facing issues such as biosecurity, loss of agricultural land and tourism proposals.

The nomination of additional places for growth is a realistic strategy but it will provide many challenges for government. Many will applaud that the state government has a clear plan, but with that clarity comes the need to confront some complex issues for the growth to be sensible and sustainable.

Towns like Ballan, Broadford, Kilmore and Wonthaggi have been targeted in the new metro plan for accelerated growth. It has led to substantial new residential development. However, it's nothing like the increase in the numbers of new residents in the Melbourne growth corridors. But times are changing.

The range of contested land-use and development issues in peri-urban areas is only likely to increase as developers move into them in a big way.

There will be some in these communities who will welcome growth. However, the research and planning projects that colleagues and I from La Trobe University have been undertaking over the past 20 years or so show it is clear that many will not. Families have shifted to these places because of the tree-change opportunities they provide. There will be particular concern that the new Melbourne Planning Authority will lead the investigation of their potential for growth.

The peri-urban area is beyond Melbourne's highly prized green wedges. It is those shires like Moorabool to the west of Melbourne, which stretches to the outskirts of Ballarat, or Mitchell to the north beyond Seymour or Baw Baw embracing West Gippsland.

These areas have now been brought into Melbourne's sprawl under the policy to 'better manage Melbourne's peri-urban region, including designating towns for growth'. The policy also includes towns such as Bacchus Marsh and Drouin-Warragul that have already been experiencing rapid growth for the past two decades.

Of course the planning industry will welcome the much firmer commitment to holding Melbourne's urban growth boundary - a line that was meant to last 30 years but has seen two different governments continually push it out. The credibility of the new strategy will be lost in the eyes of the public if a future government caves in to land developers and further extends it.

Listing towns for consideration for accelerated development and designating regional cities such as Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong to accommodate more growth is now firmly on the agenda. This is a far better approach than the predecessor Melbourne 2030, which raised expectations with vague references to the role of regional cities and their transport corridors.

A major test of the new strategy will be its capacity to confine the development industry's attention to a limited number of places. Residents in the Macedon Ranges Shire, for example, have been fighting proposals for increases in the population of towns such as Gisborne and Woodend for years. They will be particularly concerned to read some of the statements in the strategy, such as:

Identify a pipeline of new rural village-style developments to attract growth out of Melbourne and into the peri-urban area and regional Victoria.

Investigate the potential and opportunities for additional small towns to accommodate peri-urban growth.

Local councils will be concerned at their and the state government's capacity to keep up with the demands for new facilities and services in the peri-urban. Communities will be looking for local jobs to accompany the growth. There is increasing evidence that long commutes are unsustainable for the social and health wellbeing of individuals and families in the long term.

Andrew Butt, a colleague at La Trobe, has found that agriculture remains an important land use in the peri-urban, but is centred on a few high-value activities, which face significant constraints to growth through population and housing development. He said:

This presents risks to ongoing food production with the majority of peri-urban farming unable to adjust to changing farming structures. Agriculture will continue in these areas, but its value as food production and as an economic activity is vulnerable.

Melbourne relies on its peri-urban area for much of its fresh food. Many of these spaces are now overrun at the weekend by those looking for tourist and recreation pursuits. The peri-urban areas also play critical roles for water supply. And of course these areas have proven to be some of the most vulnerable in terms of bushfires. There will be many questioning development in these places if there is a prospect of greater loss of life from wildfire.

The reality of all these pressures saw more than 150 delegates from around Australia and overseas gather at La Trobe University’s Melbourne campus last week to attend Beyond the Edge, Australia’s first national conference on peri-urban areas. Australia’s leading demographer Professor Graeme Hugo, from the University of Adelaide, told delegates that most of the two billion extra people expected worldwide by 2040 would be living in what are now peri-urban areas. This is despite the best efforts of planners and governments to constrain sprawl.

It is this clash between population growth and the resource base of peri-urban areas that has prompted La Trobe to use its expertise and focus one of its five research areas, securing food, water and the environment, on the peri-urban. We are taking the lead in a consortium of universities across Australia to better understand these pressures, work with all levels of government and ensure a planned response.

The peri-urban has been largely overshadowed by the growth of metropolitan areas for years. But it appears its time has come. Its future, and that of the next generation of residents, is in the balance.

A version of this article was published in The Age on 11 October 2013.

Associate Professor Trevor Budge heads the Community Planning and Development Program at La Trobe University's Bendigo Campus. He will shortly take up the position of Manager Strategy at the City of Greater Bendigo concurrently.