‘Marvellous Melbourne’ was the nickname for Victoria’s capital in its nineteenth century heyday, but a hundred years later ‘Moribundd Melbourne’ might have been more apt. Here’s how it was saved.
Mid-twentieth century planning had not been kind to Melbourne. The vitality of the city was sapped as development favoured the suburbs, and Melbourne looked like it was headed for a future as the frumpy sibling of vivacious Sydney.
That’s all changed now. The media lines up to salute Melbourne as one of the world’s most liveable cities – it’s easy to navigate, it has great amenities, it has wow-factor architecture, it has Culture. These days, Melbourne is rather pleased with itself.
What happened? One man in a position to know is Rob Adams, the influential urban designer who directs Melbourne city council’s City Design division. When Zimbabwe-born Adams started with the council in the early 1980s he found a city careless of its built history, such as its original grid layout, and neglectful of its natural assets, such as the Yarra River. But Melbourne still had a lot going for it, especially its transport system of trains, trams and buses.
Taking advantage of the mid-1980s’ recession, Adams convinced building owners to convert unwanted offices to apartments. The ball started rolling as the council removed obstacles to inner-city habitation and commercial activity. In 1992 there were 738 dwellings in the city centre; by 2002 there were nearly 10,000. In 1983 the city had a handful of kerbside cafés; 20 years later, it had more than 1200. “It all starts with streets,” Adams says. “Design good streets and you design a good city”. And how do you get good streets? “There are some simple principles,” Adams says. “Keep heritage buildings, put in a height limit, if that’s useful, and build up to the street edge so you don’t get open space by default.” Balance diversity with uniformity, he adds. “For example, we’re using local bluestone paving for all the city footpaths. That provides consistency. Signage, shops, restaurants and the people in the streets – that provides variety.”
Adams makes several other points about Melbourne’s evolution. First, he says, change has come from “using our existing stock of streets, transport and buildings”. Second, “and contrary to what politicians want to hear”, transforming a city is a slow process.“It took 25 years to reconnect the city to the Yarra.” And third, not all urban design moves have to be big moves. Adams cites inexpensive initiatives such as granting a cheap lease to a flower-seller who will open his stall till 10pm and so provide a city corner with security as well as a service. Planting trees costs little but makes a huge difference, says Adams, and so his council digs in 1200 each year.
Don’t call it densification
R Rob b Adams knows that only a planner or politician with a professional death wish would try to disabuse Australians of their belief in the dream of suburban property ownership. But the traditional constituency for the nuclear family home-with-lawn attached is now a minority segment of the housing market. Adams says planners and politicians can have it both ways: attract the urban-inclined to the development corridors by designing high-quality mediumdensity housing, while leaving the remaining 90 per cent of the city as traditional suburbia which would function as the city’s green lungs’.
5 million by 2029
The population of Melbourne is projected to grow to five million by 2029. Must the city sprawl even further? Rob Adams says it can fit more people inside its existing boundaries. How? Concentrate residential development in the city’s existing tram and bus corridors. Adams has identified 34,000 sites alongside transport routes capable of supporting medium density development of four to eight storeys. Up to two million people could be accommodated in the corridors, which comprise 6600ha, or three per cent, of the 225,000ha inside Melbourne’s Urban Growth Boundary.
Right: Rob Adams