Plan Melbourne, it’s ‘Refresh’ and State & Local Policy in all planning schemes reference and support sustainability / sustainable development. The principle legislation embeds this position in the objectives for planning in Victoria: to provide for the fair, orderly, economic and sustainable use, and development of land. [1]

These over-riding objectives for sustainable development are as important now as they were when the term was first popularised in a report, Our Common Future – more commonly referred to as the Brundtland Report, which includes the following definition: development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs [2 pg. 41].

There have been hundreds of interpretations and definitions of sustainable development since the publication of the Brundtland Report [3], however a clear, fixed, and immutable meaning remains elusive, resulting in its widespread use without consideration.

With such reference and importance placed on sustainable development in the planning system, why is its influence lost on many development assessments in inner Melbourne? Why, on the other hand, does neighbourhood character play such a pivotal role in decision making, in many cases supersede other planning objectives and in fact stifle urban consolidation?

Are we losing sight of the fundamental objectives of urban planning and using character as an ‘out’ card where decision makers fear the backlash from the existing community over increased density?

Infill development in Melbourne is essential to meeting housing demand and addressing affordability. Increasing densities close to public transport, community services, entertainment options and employment is the most sustainable option available. When lower density is spread outwards, it becomes increasingly expensive and unviable to provide the same accessibility to essential services and infrastructure. Car dependence becomes a serious problem, in addition to social isolation.

Protecting undefined character becomes an impediment to increased density and more liveable outcomes. There are many mechanisms for the retention of areas and sites worthy of protection: heritage, vegetation, landscape and (very specific) neighbourhood character overlays.

The widespread use of generalistic character policies, precincts and guidelines that often cover different suburbs, streets of significant variance and architectural forms of multiple era’s, is both unrealistic and near impossible to use on a site-by-site merits basis. This causes a lack of clarity for all stakeholders, frustration, delays and unsustainable outcomes.

We need to refocus our direction, away from holding onto the past where there is no clear reason to, and embrace contemporary development which meets the needs of future residents and society. This doesn’t infer allowing a free-for-all and endorsing ‘concrete jungles’ to be formed. On the contrary, we should look at developments on a case-by-case basis, with a fully balanced decision made in line with sustainable development principles.

We need to refocus our attention to the paramount issues facing modern society and actually Plan – take responsibility now and plan for the future.

Development proposals in inner Melbourne, where heritage, etc. is not a consideration, should be assessed against the following:

  1. Architectural Design;
  2. Energy Efficiency;
  3. Water Management;
  4. Livability.

Strategic planning should dictate where densities of different scale are suitable and these decisions should be made on sustainable planning decisions, rather than an attempt to appease NIMBYism.

We should be approving developments that will be functional in 10 years time and beyond. They should be adaptable where necessary. We should be incorporating space within buildings and on-site to meet current and future challenges. Buildings should actually be designed to function rather than just meet bare minimum building standards. Contemporary architecture, if allowed to be free of ‘pitched roofs and Rescode setback diagrams’, can create these functional buildings.

As an example; car parking and storage space are near prerequisites for all development approvals. We need to bring such acceptance of housing requirements forward and incorporate space to meet current and future challenges. Space to include: battery storage, solar PV, rainwater tanks, permeable surfaces, independent and accessible bicycle parking and tree cover.

If architecture was allowed to be ‘free thinking’ and not constrained by ‘tick the box’ Rescode standards and unaccountable character assessments, we could achieve better design, functional buildings and increased density.

At present, we are stuck in limbo – there are many creative and well-designed developments occurring but there are numerous examples of housing that is simply not functional, does not provide a response of any architectural merit and for the most part, is unsustainable with regard to energy efficiency, water management and livability.

Environmental Sustainable Design policy is emerging within many planning schemes, but is often fighting battles against other policy provisions and developer push back.

The mechanism needs a change to allow planners actually plan, undertake a holistic assessment and not merely tick the box and push through the numbers.


  1. Planning & Environment Act 1987, Section 4 1(a)
  2. G.H. Brundtland, Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Med. Confl. Surviv. 4 (1987) 300.
  3. A.A. Kates, Robert W, Parris Thomas M, Leiserowitz, What Is Sustainable Development?, Environment. 47 (2005).

Image Credit: Architects: Environa Studio Commonwealth of Australia Department of the Environment and Energy [2017]. Your Home: Australia’s guide to environmentally sustainable homes. Your Home is CCBY licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.