In December 2020, the Monash Commission began a new inquiry.
In a world battered by Covid, the second and most recent inquiry by the highly regarded commission examined the “potential of intermediary cities in reframing post-pandemic liveability and explore what makes a ‘liveable metropolis’.”.
The commission brings together Australian and international experts to consider a specific question of priority facing our communities, business and government, and to deliver practical recommendations for urban planners, governments and communities for transformational cities of the future.
It made those recommendations in July last year and at the heart of them is a change in the way we view cities and approach their planning—the intermediary, or second, city.
Traditionally, the CBD with skyscrapers sits in a model of monocentric development: a hub or centre and a periphery of suburbs around it. People move towards the city and away from it for work, leisure and other uses.
But the pandemic changed all that, as Monash University’s vice-chancellor Professor Margaret Gardner explains.
“As the pandemic progressed, we witnessed a series of behaviors that seemed to show people that, frankly, you could have come in here and fired a gun down Collins Street and been lucky to hit anybody,” Gardner says.
“And you could be sure that every single coffee shop within a radius of many, many hundreds of metres ... had no one in it.
“Nobody believed that would happen—and all of a sudden the context was different.”
What the commission’s report found was that people’s behavioural changes seem to follow moving away from a single CBD model towards something more polycentric.
“Before the pandemic, countries such as Australia and Canada were already experiencing net internal migration of people into outlying cities and regional areas as the result of the rising cost of living and real estate in desirable areas close to the CBD,” the report says.
“This challenges assumptions about what was thought to be an irreversible trend of urban centralisation.”
It also says that the CBD model has not failed, rather, it is not suitable for all.
“What the pandemic has shown is that the concentration of infrastructure and systems do not necessarily translate into positive outcomes for all citizens,” the report says.
“It raises the question: what can be done differently?”
According to the report, that answer is planning and development.
Polycentric development is a set of several hubs or centres developed and connected at the same time.
Intermediary cities are distinctly not a CBD, have less than a million people and are part of a network, but are different from local government areas in that they may have specific identities or functions. They also do not compete with the CBD or each other.
The commission’s report had two recommendations: to use policies and communication between different levels of government to create intermediary cities, and to create a new representative living index to better measure resident wellbeing.
“It lays bare some of our challenges including the rising cost of living, social housing inequity, environmental quality, traffic congestion, and calls for a different way of planning,” City of Monash chief executive Andi Diamond says.
The concept of second cities has been around for a while and has practical examples, most notably Dandenong’s bid for revitalisation, which has been in planning and development since 2005.
Geelong has long called itself a second city, recently setting up the Central Geelong Framework Plan to help guide future development.
And in New South Wales there are plans well advanced to create and further develop two additional CBDs—Parramatta and Aerotropolis—partially driven by the need to provide affordable housing and then the transport networks, services and other infrastructure needed to support such large hubs of people.
The report also lists six features of intermediary cities within the larger urban landscape or metropolis to help planners, developers and government create or further develop such cities.
These are balancing autonomy and integration into the larger metropolitan network; citizen and community wellbeing; equitable and sustainable design; experimentation and innovation; diverse economic bases and jobs; and vision, leadership and governance.
Canberra was highlighted as an example of an intermediary city that has worked on citizen and community wellbeing.
The ACT government’s Wellbeing Framework uses data to drive its policy, investment and infrastructure decisions, and measure the impact.
The framework is also crucially embedded in government decision-making and budget processes.
Other examples include the autonomy created when setting up The Randstand in The Netherlands and Vienna’s Aspern to illustrate how sustainable and equitable design has been incorporated with mobility needs for all driving large scale planning of urban spaces.
One of the commissioner on the Monash body, urban designer and founder of KCAP Architects and Planners Professor Kees Christiaanse, says designing such a second city requires a network of nodes and that there are certain things that must be done.
“If you want to make the metropolis into a more polycentric landscape which is eventually more sustainable, then you have to do a number of things,” Christiaanse says.
“You have to limit greenfield development as much as possible and stimulate brownfield redevelopment as much as you can.
“If you start the process of implementing such a design, you should not work on one scale at the same time.”
Some places are also more ideal than others for becoming intermediary cities, such as transport corridor crossroads where there are services and infrastructure to support a larger amount of people.
It is also important to look at where the project sits in the network and ensure there is sufficient space for dense housing but also for public open space and corridors to move through.
Christiaanse says a growth model for infrastructure is important.
“Make a growth model in which your transport model grows incrementally in accordance with the critical mass,” he says.
Monash, the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne with an area of 81.5sq km, has been chosen for the Monash National Employment and Innovation Cluster. The idea of it being treated as an intermediary city has been raised.
Another of the commissioners, Massachusetts Institute of Technology city and transport planning associate professor and mobility initiative director Jinhua Zhao, says while governments and corporations were naturally more risk averse, it was an ideal situation for Monash University to experiment with becoming an intermediary city focused on innovation.
“We’re professors—we’re paid to fail, so the others do not need to,” Zhao says.
“What’s unique about the City of Monash is that we have all three— government, corporations and the university—combined in a unique way in this locality.”
Fellow Monash Commissioner and Global Institute on Innovation Districts head Professor Julie Wagner agrees.
“With innovation districts, if you look at it within an intermediary city concept and across the region it is an opportunity to drive your economy to new heights and bring your talent along with it if you have the right systems in place,” Wagner says.
But there is work needed to make it happen, Diamond says, with better transport links, more services, infrastructure and housing for the more than 200,000 residents who live and work in it.
“Outside the [Melbourne] CBD, it’s Monash where most people come to work each day,” Diamond says.
“What we have learned on the ground is that during a crisis it is not unusual for people to return to their place of origin, the place they grew up in.
“And we don’t have services to offer them and Covid has added a layer of complexity.”
Some of that will be resolved when the new Suburban Rail Loop stations are built, two bordering Monash University’s Clayton campus and another at Glen Waverley but there is still discussion about what else needs to be done to make it an innovation district.
It will require a change in mindset about how a metropolis is planned though some parts are already aligned, according to Victorian Planning Authority chair Jude Munro.
“Planning in Victoria, in relation to the whole of Victoria, supports the polycentric model,” Munro says.
“The Victorian government has a policy that 70 per cent of future growth should be happening in established Melbourne and 30 per cent in greenfields.
“Within metropolitan Melbourne, it has named three national employment innovation clusters. The Monash one is broader than the City of Monash and involves three municipalities.
“Our governance model of local government doesn’t entirely match what may emerge as the new policy in Melbourne.”
Wagner frames it another way and believes the second city concept is what lays ahead.
“The intermediary city concept is actually speaking to the gap of an intermediary form of governance and leadership—so what is your future going to mean?” Wagner says.
“If we were to act in an intermediary function, what does that mean for our councils? What does that mean for how the government realigns itself and thinks differently, and how we govern differently?
“I don’t believe you really have a choice.”
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