Building height has been the subject of recent national news with the City of Glen Eira recently announcing the imposition of new zones associated with mandatory height controls. Headlines have read 'Low-rise Glen Eira to 'fuel sprawl' in The Age and 'Melbourne Zoning reforms to block infill development' in the Financial Review.
In city making, building height is used for different purposes and including:
To meet housing demand in a more sustainable manner,
Place making and defining city form and function,
To make better use of infrastructure, and
As a symbol of influence and power.
Many decisions are made with regard to the location and extent of building height within a city. Some examples of the variance of decisions are evident in Europe. The inner urban suburb La defence in Paris is a good example of decentralised height to protect a traditional form and, in this case the tourist dollar. The City of London on the other hand has taken a very different approach in regard to development in the tradition core of the city, with height being fair game.
In Melbourne there are differences across the metropolitan area with respect to attitudes towards height. Depending on their point of view and motivation, different groups, organisations, lobby groups and individuals will advocate for more or less height. Planners and designers can wish to have height in strategic locations for a variety of reasons including to define city form and function and economics.
Australian municipalities dominated by low-rise housing and residents with financial means to fight and protect their 'way of life', battle challenges to the status quo in regards to height development. On the flipside, other municipalities can see height as a way of promoting economic development.
In recent times activity centre policy and structure planning has slowly been changing city form. Through the courage of councillors to adopt plans such as Melbourne 2030, developers have been able to realise the opportunistic nature of these plans and deliver incremental changes to the form of Melbourne. Centres policy in M2030 has resulted in change that is now real and palpable. 'Higher' in strategic locations is the new normal.
The next battleground for the height debate is the larger extent of land beyond the centres. The new zones have the potential for creating a larger footprint of change. Equally, they have potential to be used defensively to ’shutt down' this potential.
Managing and facilitating that change process should be informed by detailed character analysis and consideration of state strategic objectives for consolidation in well serviced locations. Introduction of new residential zones should include consultation and hearing by the Planning Panel process to ensure and open debate and rigorous assessment. This has not occurred in the case of Glen Eira with the Planning Minister unilaterally signing in the changes.
Introduction of Neighbourhood Residential Zones, in particular, requires careful consideration. While the zone seeks to protect existing character it also curtails the ability for people to age-in-place by a strategy of the localised downsizing of their dwelling and realising the value of their retirement nest egg through a capping of height and restrictions on subdivision opportunities.
With the imminent roll out of the new zoning changes through other municipalities, this issue of height will continue to present itself. Height is an emotional debate that will continue to be discussed, challenged and fought in cities and municipalities across the globe.