Look what happened when the Melbourne suburb asked its 126,000 plus residents: What does a good life look like in Moonee Valley?
The attraction of living in a small community within the context of a large metropolis is that residents feel more connected to their surroundings and to themselves. When each resident can feel like they know the elected official who represents them it creates a more transparent relationship between the city and its citizens. Such a closeness can be found in Moonee Valley, Australia, a fast-growing suburb of western Metropolitan Melbourne. Moonee Valley is not a typical suburb that some urbanites deride, but a municipality that is enriching its biodiversity, and plans to plant hundreds of thousands of trees in the coming decades.
“The feeling that I get from most of our residents is that Moonee Valley is like a village,” describes Mayor Narelle Sharpe. “You cannot walk around without seeing people that you know. This is one of our strengths.” Sharpe, who has lived in Mooney Valley for her whole life, has been on the city council for 11 years. In the state of Victoria, councillors are elected every four years, and then the mayor is elected by the council for a one-year term. This helps to keep the council focused on its long-term plans without a new mayor unilaterally changing course every four years. This is Sharpe’s third time as mayor.
When Moonee Valley had to come up with a plan for their city, rather than have a council and a collection of urban planners impose a vision, they turned to their 126,000 plus residents. They asked their residents about their vision for the city, with one question: What does a good life look like in Moonee Valley?
For two years, in this metropolitan village, residents gladly attended pop-up community events and consultation sessions to give their input for the Moonee Valley they wanted to see in 20 years, focusing on the themes of people, place, and movement. What came next was a wealth of ideas to improve the liveability and sustainability of the city, so that residents could see themselves, and future generations, living a good life. Residents want a Moonee Valley that is fair, healthy, thriving, green, connected, and beautiful. However, the city council did not just ask for ideas but even asked residents where resources should be invested. Those valuable conversations helped council draft MV2040, Moonee Valley’s long-term neighbourhood planning approach for improving the health, resiliency, and vibrancy over the next 20 years.
“We also have neighbourhood engagement officers whose primary role is to be the link between the community, Councillors and Council on a neighbourhood basis,” Sharpe explains. “This linkage will ensure Council is engaging with the community, and their feedback is consistently being understood.”
Of all the residents who shared their vision, some of the most significant were those of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation, the traditional inhabitants of the area where Moonee Valley is situated.
“They have an impact in how we manage our lands and how we bring back the traditional fauna and flora that use to be here,” says Sharpe. The ancestors of the Wurundjeri People lived a good life off of the many waterways and creeks in the area, so many of the ideas their ideas, and those from environmental groups, focused on bringing residents closer to the traditional lifeblood of the area. In recent decades, the rich biodiversity of these waterways was destroyed by pollution, but Moonee Valley has been slowly repairing the mistakes of the past.
“One of our creeks was concreted back in the 1970s,” Sharpe recalls, “and now it is described as one of the worst planning disasters in Melbourne. I grew up next to the creek when I was a kid, and I have only known it to be concreted. That has just stripped the place of wildlife, so we’re hoping to bring that back to its natural state.” In connection to beautifying the waterways, Moonee Valley is planting thousands of new trees. In 2018, approximately 20,000 new trees were planted, on streets and in parks. By 2040, Moonee Valley wants to have a tree canopy cover of 30%, which is three times higher than now.
By law, municipal councils in Victoria must plan to improve the wellbeing of their city and reduce health inequalities, for now, and the future. In addition to producing a four-year land use and development plan, as well as an overall four-year council plan, cities in the state must also produce a four-year public health and wellbeing plan. Moonee Valley and its neighbouring cities are some of the fastest-growing in Australia, so securing a resilient, healthy, and equitable future is an urgent reality. Moonee Valley’s population is expected to increase by about 28,500 by 2040. Most of that growth will take place in the neighbourhoods closest to Melbourne City Centre, such as Moonee Ponds, Ascot Vale, and Flemington. The city is aware that they do not have the quantity nor diversity of housing to accommodate that growth, so they are developing it.
“We are undertaking strategic planning work for each of our neighbourhoods and activity centres to make sure we have appropriate planning controls for the proposed growth, capitalising on existing infrastructure, jobs, services and public transport,” Sharpe explains. With MV2040, council plans to invest $1.2 billion AUD in infrastructure and urban design. Some of those funds, collected with their planning scheme, will be spent on widening footpaths, creating more public spaces, and developing community hubs. “We will need to accommodate higher density residential and mixed-use development in each of our activity centres to ensure they remain economically viable and meet the day-to-day needs of the community.”
Since the early 1800s, when the first non-Aboriginal people came to the area, Moonee Valley has always been a transfer point between Melbourne and the outside world. First as a passage during the 1850s Gold Rush, and now as home to Essendon Fields Airport, one of the Melbourne region’s four airports (Melbourne Airport is less than ten minutes away by car). Today, Moonee Valley is a young city, with about 30% of the population under the age of 25, and 27 % of residents born outside of Australia from almost 150 countries.
Since movement of people has always been important for Moonee Valley, residents see mobility as vital to their vision. To create a more accessible and convenient city, Mooney Valley is following a 20-minute neighbourhood planning approach. The Government of Victoria’s strategy to sustainably handle the growth of a city such as Moonee Valley is to develop areas where every resident has access to services and amenities within a 20-minute walk, bike ride, or transit trip. For Moonee Valley, which is already a small city in comparison to Melbourne, that meant dividing the city into 13 micro-neighbourhoods, all one square-kilometre in area. This creates a hyperlocal sense of what each neighbourhood needs to be its own sustainable unit, which by extension will help Moonee Valley be more equitable. It is not always possible for residents to work locally, but increasing employment opportunities in each neighbourhood will reduce commutes. Currently, only 20% of residents live and work in Moonee Valley.
With 7 childcare centres, 5 libraries, 10 maternal and child health clinics, 13 kindergartens, 17 community assembly spaces, 5 neighbourhood fitness hubs, 97 playgrounds, 220 parks, and 26 sport pavilions, Moonee Valley provides substantial amenities and services for its size. They allocate resources relative to what is actually needed in each neighbourhood, instead of an across the town leveling of services which would only ensure equality, but not equity. If a neighbourhood has few parks, then it needs more sports pavilions than a neighbourhood with many parks.
For example, in a 2016 census, the difference in the overall unemployment rate between neighbourhoods in Moonee Valley was as much as 25% or more, proving that even within a small suburb, the gap between those with easier access to economic opportunity and those without can be as wide as the inequities found within the central city. Keep in mind, this was just overall unemployment. When Moonee Valley began to examine each of their neighbourhoods in terms of education, recreation, health, household income, accessibility, and other aspects, more inequities became apparent. Most suburbs of 126,700 people would have an overall set of data about their city as a whole. By viewing Moonee Valley as 13 smaller neighbourhoods, council hopes to help the residents access more services and get a closer understanding of the expectations of each citizen.
The direction that Moonee Valley wants to take includes creating a city with a dynamic network of accessible community facilities and services, where residents can influence change and can access affordable housing. A city where more than 50% of the population commutes by modes of transportation other than a car, and with a larger tree canopy. “We believe being healthy encompasses mental health, community engagement, and reforestation,” Sharpe says. “By 2040, we want to have a truly healthy city and not just a green city.”
At the neighbourhood level, to ensure that every part of the city can be a 20-minute area, they plan to activate a network of co-working spaces with coaches and mentors within nearby community hubs. Even with 94% of residents living within 800 metres of a train station or within 400 metres of a tram or bus, Moonee Valley plans to provide community bus routes through underserviced areas of the municipality.
“There is a lot of car use,” admits Sharpe, “but we have an environmentally conscious group of residents. Our public transport use is one of the highest (in Metropolitan Melbourne). Our trams, buses, and trains are always full to the brim during peak times.”
The plans for each neighbourhood also include a network of separated walking and cycling paths, especially adjacent to rivers and creeks. In many places, Moonee Valley does have beautiful and vibrant public spaces that encourage walking, but the goal is to improve it even further.
“We have been encouraging children to walk and ride to school for many years and are now beginning to focus our efforts on getting people to walk, cycle and take public transport to work,” explains Sharpe. “In order to achieve this, we need to significantly invest in this area and increase our advocacy efforts. Some strategies we’re using now include footpath stickers and street signs indicating distance in minutes.”
With all that Moonee Valley has planned, they make sure that their connection to their youngest citizens is frequently nurtured, hosting activities such as a youth carnival. “Once a year we run a youth summit involving every school in the municipality. On a monthly basis, we hold a principals breakfast, where we get to hear from the principals of the schools directly. We learn what is going on with the kids, where our emphasis needs to be as a city in regards to youth mental health and youth homelessness.” Such events are an acknowledgement that the youth are as precious as the creeks, waterways, and trees. A good life in Moonee Valley means nothing unless the youth can grow into the strong adults of the future.
What else would you expect from a village?
Words Phil Roberts