Engagement the key to unlocking Melbourne's infrastructure challenges

With a population that is expected to grow around two per cent per year over the next decade or so, Melbourne’s infrastructure requirements will soon outstrip what the city currently has to offer

For Victoria> Insights

Infrastructure Victoria has recently put forward Victoria’s Infrastructure Strategy 2021-2051 for consideration by the State Government. It contains 94 recommended projects, policies, and reforms with a combined price tag of around $100 billion.

If some elements of this strategy are to become a reality, we can assume that Melbourne will receive a substantial portion of infrastructure project energy and funding. But to hit the ground running on such a grand program of works, questions will need to be answered.

How do we accommodate our growing population without throwing established communities under the bus? How will we prioritise essential infrastructure like hospitals, schools, energy, water, and transport when we can’t feasibly deliver all these projects at the same time? How do we keep the community onboard and up-to-date in such challenging socio-economic times?


Balancing the necessity of development with community sentiment

While Infrastructure Victoria’s strategy creates a clear vision for the future of our state, it doesn’t provide a game plan for generating the social license necessary for such a large volume of projects.

When it comes to residential development, the strategy suggests reviewing existing planning regulations to increase density in established suburbs. It references Plan Melbourne’s goal of having 70% of new housing built in established suburbs by 2051.

Increasing density is often an unpopular move within established communities who may think they are losing the unique culture, aesthetics and ‘feel’ of their suburb. ’Outwards not upwards’ is also not a sustainable option for Melbourne when you consider we are already the 29th largest city in the world (geographically speaking) but house a comparatively small population of only five million people or so.

While this isn’t an insurmountable issue, we need to start thinking about the approach we will take towards communications and engagement on issues like density, and how we can adopt a longer-term social value creation approach at the start.


Combatting construction fatigue

Construction fatigue has well and truly set in across Melbourne, both on a smaller scale, with plenty of apartment blocks and other housing developments going up, and on a larger scale–we’re currently witnessing the most ambitious infrastructure programs the Victorian government has ever commissioned.

This is, unsurprisingly, leading to disruption in the form of things like traffic delays and construction impacts. Again, quality engagement regarding project activities and timelines can help manage community expectations while work is being done. People need to understand how various projects connect and intersect when work is happening, and the benefits that projects will deliver once they are complete.

Anyone who works in infrastructure knows the power that communities can have in putting the brakes on projects, or even having them shelved. Melburnians have spent more time in their local areas than most over the last couple of years. They are likely to be even more interested and invested in what’s going on close to home than ever before.

"We need to ensure communities get a say in impact reduction and mitigation strategies for infrastructure projects if we are to keep them moving forward. They have a wealth of knowledge about the local area and what mitigations would be most effective."

Kate Sandford, RPS Communications and Engagement Director is standing outside Pellegrini's Espresso Bar in Melbourne CBD with a tram in the background.

Will we see the CBD abandoned?

While COVID-19 has certainly impacted Melbourne’s CBD in the short-term, how the pandemic will shape inner-urban land use in the future remains to be seen.

A lot of our past and current development planning has been centered around the CBD, but Victoria’s Infrastructure Strategy 2021-2051 acknowledges a potential future in which many formerly CBD-based professionals choose to remain in the suburbs, and even rural areas.

While much has been done to reinvigorate Melbourne’s CBD and shake off the ‘doughnut city’ effect (where a skew towards commercial office land use transforms the city centre into an empty ghost town outside of office hours), Melburnians have become comfortable close to home over the last two years. While lockdowns were the catalyst, a rediscovery of suburbia may prove catalytic in itself.

Other Australian cities like Brisbane have shrugged off similar concerns and proved that their CBDs are alive and well in the wake of lockdowns, so only time will tell. Understanding what it is that people love about their city and engaging them in conversation about the types of infrastructure and services that will draw them back in earnest will be vital.

Melbourne has a bright future ahead. And bold strategies like the one put forward by Infrastructure Victoria will help us to define, design and manage a more efficient, liveable, and productive city.

If we're engaging Melburnians in this vision and listening to their wants and needs, we're already halfway there. 


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