Inside Story

How Melbourne became cool again

Books | How did the Victorian capital regain the “intensive urbanity” that made it Australia’s leading city in the 1890s?

Alan Davies 27 March 2018 1214 words

Melbourne’s famous laneways — like Centre Place, above — get most of the attention, but much more has changed around and within the city. Ozimages/Alamy

Urban Choreography: Central Melbourne 1985–
Edited by Kim Dovey, Rob Adams and Ron Jones | Melbourne University Press | $44.99 | 277 pages

How was the City of Melbourne transformed from the “doughnut city” it had become in the 1970s, empty of life at the centre, into one of the world’s coolest and buzziest places? This is the fascinating question examined, but only partly answered, in the twelve essays and the extended interview that make up Urban Choreography.

The book’s editors begin by describing Collins St 5pm, John Brack’s renowned painting of Melbourne in the 1950s:

A stream of dour faces all point the same way, in a ritual march from work to suburban homes. This picture depicts a city full of people and buildings, yet it is monochromatic and flat. It has become iconic not only because it captured a mid-twentieth-century conformity, but also because it stood for the loss of an intensive urbanity that had flourished in the period of “Marvellous Melbourne.”

Perhaps the conformism has changed form rather than disappeared, but the change — as documented in words and extensive images in this beautifully produced volume — has certainly been extraordinary. The editors acknowledge that the city still faces many challenges, but they’re not shy about claiming success. Central Melbourne’s transformation since the 1980s is a global success story,” they write. “Melbourne is now emerging as a city with a depth of character and urban buzz that is palpable…”

The laneways, once decrepit and forgotten, now “filled with hip bars, housing and art,” get most of the attention, but much more has changed than creation of a twenty-four-hour city. As the growth in residential towers attests, the central city has become a highly desirable place in which to live. The CBD’s population, less than 1000 in 1981, is more than 41,000 today. The city has embraced the river, claimed back space from traffic and brownfields, acquired new public spaces, revitalised retailing, grown greener (both literally and metaphorically), relinquished many on-street parking spaces, and integrated spatially with universities and other institutions.

Melbourne Choreography is an enthralling and rewarding read supported by a gallery of fascinating images. For the most part, though, it doesn’t seek to analyse how and why the changes happened. Few of the contributors — many of whom have been involved in managing the central city at various times since the 1970s — attempt to identify the transformation’s wider implications, including the key question of who has benefited from the changes.

In fact, this collection could more accurately be thought of as a heritage project: a collection of mostly personal perspectives that commemorates and celebrates a decades-long achievement. That sense is reinforced by the decision to devote sixty-odd pages to an extended, and somewhat soft, interview with one of the editors, Rob Adams, director of city design and projects at the City of Melbourne, in which he explains his views about planning and his work with the City of Melbourne since 1983.

The book’s strength is that it provides insider interpretations of what happened and why. The contributors include a former lord mayor of the City of Melbourne, Lecki Ord; the head of the state planning department from 1982 to 1988, David Yencken; and, of course, Adams. They provide useful — and often fascinating — perspectives.

Ord provides an absorbing, informative account of “taking council” in the early 1980s and the development of the council’s 1985 Strategy Plan; David Yencken looks at central city planning in the 1980s from a state government perspective; and Marcus Spiller contributes a welcome but all-too-brief survey of wider structural forces. Even the interview with Adams by fellow editor Kim Dovey, which the uncharitable might see as an editorial misstep with the potential for excessive self-congratulation, is a worthwhile and wide-ranging read.

The weakness of this approach is the possibility that the viewpoints would be self-serving and unreceptive to alternative explanations. It could mean the book offers limited insight into how the experience of central Melbourne might apply to other urban areas. All the contributors are believers, but some of them readily acknowledge the complex forces that led to the revitalisation of the central city.

The Nieuwenhuysen liquor-licensing reforms under the Cain government in the 1980s; the exodus of finance jobs to Sydney in the 1990s; the international growth of the knowledge economy; the changes in the rules governing tertiary education; the complex shifts that rendered much railway land surplus; the relatively permissive attitude of successive state governments to large residential towers — most of these factors are nodded through with limited elaboration. Yet they were key drivers of change, and some of them even warrant essays of their own.

The Nieuwenhuysen reforms, for example, meant that bar operators were freed from paying very high licensing fees. No longer needing to seek the economies of scale provided by large premises, they could now operate small bars profitably. With low-cost premises of varied sizes to be found in Melbourne’s laneways and inner-city streets, the proliferation of food and drink outlets gave operators the scope to specialise and offer unusual and idiosyncratic experiences. Partly as a result, the number of on-premises restaurant licences in Victoria ballooned from 571 in 1986 to 5136 between 1986 and 2004.

Urban Choreography largely gives the glory to the custodians of the physical environment: the planners, architects, environmental activists and, in particular, the urban designers. Whether or not the book overstates the designers’ contribution, it’s a great story very ably told in a stand-out essay (clocking in at sixty-five pages!) by landscape architect Ronald Jones. Jones is particularly insightful in recounting some of Melbourne’s great struggles with public space, like the saga of the city square.

Given the prominence accorded to urban design, it’s perhaps unsurprising that local government emerges as the book’s hero. That sense is reinforced by two of the editors being closely associated with the City of Melbourne. They rightly give a former state planning head, David Yencken, a chapter, but the weight of the volume leans heavily towards the part played by the politicians and bureaucrats in city hall.

That’s contested territory. Some former senior state government bureaucrats give much of the credit for central Melbourne’s design transformation to the progressive government of Labor’s John Cain, and particularly its first planning minister, Evan Walker. Cain came to office in 1982, three years before the date nominated in the book’s subtitle; on one view, the council mostly filled in the gaps between the strategic beams laid by Walker and his team.

This is the book we have, and there’s much in it that’s interesting, useful and important about the contribution made by good urban design to central Melbourne over the last thirty to forty years. The central city is a much better place because of that valuable work.

But this isn’t the book we need. The change in central Melbourne since the early 1980s has been dramatic and it’s not an exaggeration to say it’s caught the attention of the rest of the world. A rigorous and detached account of the relative contribution made by the various structural forces — and the various players — could have provided important lessons for public policy elsewhere. The question lingers: has urban design been a key driving force of central Melbourne’s vitality, or should the city’s transformation be characterised as primarily a consequence — perhaps even an inevitable one — of broader influences? ●