Town Planning Today

Perhaps town planning is best summed up as follows: The organisation of land use and development within towns and/or cities. For the purpose of this article I will use the example of my home town – Melbourne Australia.

It’s hard for us to imagine now, but prior to town planning towns and cities generally developed in an ad hoc way. You might have bought land in Melbourne in the early 20th century to build a house, only to find that the lot next door was developed for a factory, or a shop, or maybe for quarrying! Just walk through Melbourne’s inner suburbs and you can see many examples of how this happened. Apart from covenants on Title, there was no real way to ensure that such outcomes were avoided.

In Melbourne, that changed in the 1940s when Melbourne’s first planning scheme was prepared. This was the first time we broke the city down into ‘zones’ or land use specific areas. Housing was to occur in residential zones, factories were to occur in industrial zones, shops in business zones. This was a very basic start to town planning in Melbourne.

But town planning has evolved to be much more than this. To some extent, town planning starts with an ideal of creating harmonious and attractive urban areas – areas where people live work and play in a safe, pleasant and well ordered physical realm. But how does this occur?

Almost all town and cities of the world grow. Town planning is the discipline that gives order to this growth. Where should that growth occur? What will this growth look like? What infrastructure will need to be provided to service new areas? These are the more macro issues of town planning. We call this part of planning – strategic planning. Strategic planning has to think more broadly about what is good for people, their environment, where they will go for work, or schooling or recreation, and how they will get there. These are big decisions and are generally made at State government level.

Town planning has a more fundamental level where development and land uses on individual sites are considered – we call this statutory planning. To some extent this is the part of planning that causes more immediate concerns in communities. Town planners are all too familiar with the community reaction when someone first proposes a multiple townhouse or apartment development in a street of detached dwellings.

The zones in each planning scheme provide for lists of land uses and development that are allowable, or prohibited, or may be allowable subject to a permit. Where a permit is required, planning applications are made to the local Council. Each Council has town planners on staff to give consideration to these applications. In making their decisions they give consideration to whether a new use or development will have acceptable or unacceptable impacts on the character of the area, or to the amenity of neighbours. They also need to consider whether a proposed development is workable – does it have adequate parking, does it provide for appropriate on-site amenity, will there be enough greenery?

If you get both strategic planning and statutory planning right, then a City is well on the way to attaining a high livability. Melbourne is always high on lists of the world’s most livable cities. That would certainly suggest that past town planning decisions have mainly been successful.