A different driver

A 71-storey residential tower proposal, what would be the tallest of residential buildings in the central city of Melbourne, has re-sparked debate in the city over how high buildings should be. The same debate seems to surface around about every 6 months in Melbourne, usually due either to a new “vision” or, as in this case, a property developer’s eye-catching proposal. The Age reported the story last week: “The new tower that has tensions rising”. The report largely focused on the competing views of the proposed building’s architect and the local government authority. It pointed out that the tower is subject to the approval of the state government who, through the minister for planning, is the planning authority for any building development in the city that is over 25,000 square metres in gross floor area (which the proposed tower is).

Aside from the usual debate about the height of the building itself — the aspirational symbolic city-defining merits of its height versus the “blight” the height would cause — an op-ed by Robert Nelson published in The Saturday Age highlighted the direct relationship between low density in the inner city and the on-going expansion of low density car-dependent urban sprawl further out. Nelson wasn’t commenting on the proposed 71-storey residential tower, per se, rather pointing out the competing attitudes towards a city’s spatiality, and the influence of the views of a powerful elite in shaping the city — in his article, NIMBY-views resistant to a greater densification within the established city.

But despite the extension of the discussion from the mere height of one building in the city to city density, and the ecological and social implications of continuous urban sprawl, the entire debate, as per usual, has focused entirely on city form. Whether the architect, local government, state minister for planning, or anyone else are right or wrong in their determination of just how tall a building or how dense a city should be, height and density are incidental to how cities are made.

If we were to seek better cities, we would need to deal with the core drivers of how they exist. If we wanted a certain height or density we would need to look to the industries by which these are produced, and not regard them as if it they were arbitrary forms of an abstract and idealised city whose shape is at our discretion.

It was timely that I had recently posted a piece relating to this very subject, titled “Lessons from a child: Thinking about thinking — about cities — and the design cities need: The business of community”, as it helped me prepare a letter to The Age in response to the current debate. The letter focuses on the specific business within a city that determines height and density form, and introduces the idea that height and density could be appropriately determined through a business that represented community — what I referred to in my previous post as “the business of community”.

The letter was published yesterday and can be found on The Age’s website (see 4th letter down by the same name as this post); it has been slighted edited, so below is my original “uncut” version, all within the 200 maximum word count required of letters to the editor.

Robert Nelson is right in saying planning involves so much more than looks. But height is yield, not appearance.

Buildings are created by property developers investing in real estate, not community. Our cities are the aggregate of individual and disparate real estate investments. These have little collective intention and are unable to deliver on the broader forms of wealth a community requires. Whether a building scrapes the sky or hugs the ground doesn’t matter; it makes no difference to the community while community is a consequence of development, not a lead driver of it.

The essential cause of planning’s limitation in delivering on how cities need to perform, is that planning prioritises buildings as the lead driver of cities.

What if the planning minister had something to be guided by other than height?

What if we were to imagine a process whereby developers invest in what the community desires and needs and this was a healthy local community economy, not the economy of real estate? Building height could then be determined by community economy — an extension of, and contributor to, its function, not an exclusive economy itself.

We may then avoid the same debates over looks 100 years from now.

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