City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Father of modern Brisbane

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A face of modern Brisbane - the Riverside Expressway

Clem Jones seemed like a decent man. A dedicated republican and Labor party stalwart, he died aged 89 on Saturday 15th December 2007. The press are widely crediting him with ‘building Brisbane’, which is now the fastest-growing city in Australia and the ‘Third Metropolis’ finally forcing the traditional cultural capitols of Sydney and Melbourne to sit up and take notice.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh says Jones was “the father of modern Brisbane … his lifelong civic contribution and love of the city of Brisbane was unsurpassed … Clem will long be remembered for his vision and commitment to transforming Brisbane from a conservative country town to a vibrant and cosmopolitan city.” Local boy and new Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd – another sign of Brisbane’s currently rising star – said “Clem was a longstanding personal friend of mine, a great source of support and encouragement and friendship.”

He may well have been the key catalyst in transforming Brisbane in the latter part of the twentieth century. The city is increasingly unrecognisable to that described by those who saw it in the ’70s and ’80s. Wealthy from numerous sources, a strong hi-technology-oriented industrial base, with an increasingly well-respected university and research sector, the best new art gallery and library in Australia and currently the country’s most innovative architecture scene, a wonderful sub-tropical climate and handy for the jaw-dropping Queensland coast, increasingly good restaurants and fabulous local produce, a tree-covered hilly topography on which the extremely liveable suburbs sit, and with the distinctly Asian aspect that most Australian cities should have.

There is still a residual sense of the earlier Brisbane in the culture, of course, as these things take generations to shift (more on this later). The city had to come a long way too, from the frankly unbelievable Joh Bjelke-Petersen years. But the character is now orientated towards an educated, cultured, outward-looking and sophisticated city – a world away from the ‘Brisvegas’ that the out-of-touch in Sydney and Melbourne would still tag the city with, albeit with an increasingly insecure note in their voice.

Jones, as lord mayor for 14 years from 1961, pulled the city’s socks up and set the scene for all of this. But along the way Clem Jones was also the man who pulled the trams out of Brisbane in 1969. By all accounts, no-one was particularly happy that last day of the trams, except a few of the traffic engineers.

Last day of Brisbane's trams, 1969

Last day of Brisbane's trams, 1969

You won't see this again

As a replacement, Jones and his administration embarked on the vast road-building schemes that now define the modern Australian city, and all to no avail. Brisbane is horribly clogged with car traffic, no matter what. Just as Sydney is. And that, perhaps more than anything, holds both cities back from fully realising their modern vision. Jan Gehl’s recently announced plan for Sydney’s centre is not without its flaws – listen to his lecture from September to see where it comes from – but a pretty close version of it needs to be implemented in Sydney, and Brisbane should do likewise, though spreading the ambit of the plan over the sprawling city’s outer suburbs.

As with most cities, the trams were a part of the urban infrastructure that resonated long after their demise. The great Brisbane writer David Malouf suggests that the city is still marked up with the ghosts of the tramlines:

“The city is conceived of in the minds of its citizens in terms of radial opposites that allow them to establish limits, and these are the old tram termini: Ascot/Balmoral, Clayfield/Salisbury, Toowong/The Grange, West End/New Farm Park, to mention only a few; and this sense of radial opposites has persisted, though the actual tramlines have long since been replaced with ‘invisible’ (as it were) bus routes. The old tramline system is now the invisible principle that holds the city together and gives it a shape in people’s minds.” [David Malouf, ‘A First Place: The Mapping of the World’, Southerly, vol.45, no.1, 1985. Found in The Third Metropolis by William Hatherell]

Cars and trams travelling along Victoria Bridge, Brisbane, 1952

That’s such a beautiful evocation of the city’s form that it seems churlish to wonder how many people today, a generation later, would sense those radial opposites. Malouf’s imagery is so strong that it would defy simple quantitative measurement, and by repeating it here I’m hopefully reinforcing the image one more time. However, today’s Brisbane has very visible swollen arteries – principally Coronation Drive into Riverside Expressway, and the ICB (Inner-City Bypass) – rather than invisible principles, and they appear to do little to hold it together.

Jones did what he thought was necessary – albeit advised by American planners, apparently. Certainly, someone had to lift Brisbane into the post-war period. Before Jones, many of Brisbane’s roads “even those just a kilometre from the GPO”, reports The Australian, breathlessly – were “uncurbed and unsurfaced dirt”. Admittedly the dirt roads weren’t tenable and Jones’s administration sorted all of that. But in doing so, it fully orientated the city towards the car. There’s an in-built prejudice against public transport around this. Jones was quoted as saying that <a href="
“>his ideal was for the working man to be driving his own car, not catching a tram. This is where Australia looked to American values rather Mittel European or Asian, and for the worse. There are clearly spatial similarities between Australian and American cities, but I’m yet to perceive the swing back towards public transport seen across the US west coast, from the Bay Area up to Portland and Seattle (never mind New York City, which might be a special case). It’s not a party political issue either; Jones was solid Labor, though his sentiment was close to Margaret Thatcher’s infamous statement: “Any man who rides a bus to work after the age of 30 can count himself a failure in life.”

Hear we see not only Thatcher’s near-psychotic levels of misanthropy but also, crucially, her lack of long-term strategic vision. The question now is, at what point will we be saying “any man who doesn’t ride a bus won’t be getting to work”.

Jones was far less destructive than Thatcher but either way, an entire car-centric infrastructure will now have to be taken apart, bit by bit, and reconstructed with mass-transit systems in the ascendancy. As with Sydney, that realisation is not widespread yet, and the culture is so ingrained as to actually prevent people from thinking there could be another way. The dramatic flourish in Gehl’s plan for Sydney, pulling down the Cahill Expressway across Circular Quay, is described by the <a href="
“>Sydney Morning Herald’s urban affairs editor as overly “drastic and impossible”.

Frankly, that’s the unconsciously defeatist talk of someone who’s spent too long in their city’s skin, and can’t think the the unthinkable. Equally, in Brisbane, it seems people can’t think of another solution to near-fatal levels of individual car traffic than building more roads. Listening to Gehl’s talk, they’d hear that building more roads only leads to more traffic, a pattern we’ve seen many times over. Almost every day in the local rag, the Courier Mail, you’ll read of a simple unfortunate accident causing hours of chaos throughout a system organically interconnected through necessity rather than strategy. They even have a ‘Stop the carnage’ campaign, due to the increasing number of road deaths on Queensland’s roads. These are all symptoms of the same spiralling metastasis you see when systems run at overload (see also Heathrow, the world’s worst airport). Yet the solution offered up – despite the carnage, even – is usually tunnels, bypasses, bridges, while rail and bus services suffer from the bad management often seen when implicitly deprioritised.

Sadly, the shrill new urbanist agenda doesn’t help change people’s views that often. It’s overly orientated towards the pedestrian, and needs to find a way of handling moderate levels of private car traffic as well as mass transit and pedestrianisation. Equally, some of those elevated road systems can be amongst the most thrilling aspects of modern cities, particularly Brisbane’s Riverside Expressway (section pictured top), which is virtually a big-dipper casually sweeping out over the river. It’s going to take far more imaginative campaigns than we’ve seen thus far – it’s a hegemonic battle, ultimately – alongside serious build around mass transit systems and related infrastructure, hard and soft. And even then the strongest clear message will probably be peak oil.

A recent BusinessWeek article seems to assume that citizens have got the message:

“The size of a city determines its need for a metro system. Cities of a few million people—or those anticipating huge population growth—really can’t do without a mass transit system. But cities of one or two million inhabitants can choose between a subway and a surface tramway, which costs far less but also runs more slowly.”

But I’m not sure it’s that well understood – simply a case of choosing between subway or tramway. Of course, there are now plans to for the trams to return to the 1.8m strong Brisbane (the person holding that ‘you won’t see this again’ sign in 1969 was wrong), along with bus systems weaving underground and around the centre. Bike lanes are emerging, albeit threaded through some of the busiest and most dangerous roads in the country. These are usually seen in addition to road-schemes, rather than as progressive replacement. So it’s a start, but hearing the currents in everyday conversation in this city, people have yet to understand the scale of change required to the city, that quite shocking sense of dismantling the entire infrastructure.

It’s too simplistic to blame Jones or his administration – as a New World city boss of the 1950s and 1960s, almost anyone would have seen cars as a first order object to organise around. Only the already dense cities of the Old World were fortunate enough to have the right form for mass transit (even then Paris, New York, London, Boston, Barcelona et al did their best to slice their fabric apart with roadways, turning their backs on rivers or harbours, only to have to now re-build.) Yet even with a shift towards private ownership of cars, there was no real reason, strategic or economic, to pull the trams and light rail systems out of cities, and certainly no need to go as far as Jones or Thatcher suggested.

So. Brisbane is potentially beautiful and Clem Jones seemed like a good man. He helped shaped what’s emerging as a great city, and now is not the time to speak ill of his generally valuable work. Yet it’s symptomatic of the lack of understanding of the ills of the modern Australian city that few people are pointing out the flaws in building Brisbane around the car.


7 responses to “Father of modern Brisbane”

  1. robert harris Avatar
    robert harris

    Bring the trams back as soon as possible, also have a heritage line for tourists


  2. Ben Kraal Avatar
    Ben Kraal

    I love your Brisbane posts. I’ve lived here for 24 of my 28 years and you always look at things in a way I wouldn’t consider.


  3. Mark Rogers Avatar
    Mark Rogers

    I cant see anyting like this happening until we have a party that is able to get this exact message to the masses. While Mr Can Do is around all I can see is more tunnels and roads. Such a shame….i just hope to see the return of the trams in my lifetime. I’m only 29 so fingers crossed. FANTASTIC POST, WELL DONE.


  4. Blake Shaw Avatar
    Blake Shaw

    campbell newman seems to be doing a bit for public transport with the amount of new buses but as the comments suggest he is using public transport as a secondary rather than primary focus. He has an attitude that people will choose cars no matter what.
    I hope for Brisbane’s sake that this attitude changes and quickly. I recently have been to Sydney and seen how 3 or 4 lane each way arterials wind through most inner city suburbs, destroying the atmosphere of these areas. I hope that the same thing does not happen here.
    Love the post.


  5. Sean Avatar

    A fascinating perspective, thankyou ! However I disagree with the comment that Brisbane has the country’s most innovative architecture scene. I still haven’t seen anything particularly impressive come out of Brisbane, the impressive innovation is almost all imported from Sydney and Melbourne with second fiddle works of architects like Harry Seidler, Cox and Denton Corker Marshall. I spent most of my life in Brisbane but now live in and love Melbourne. The things I hated about Brisbane were the lack of trams, the ugly buildings, the riverside expressway and messy one way CBD streets. So Clem might have brought prosperity, but he may also made Brisbane bland. The things I like were all introduced later like the Queen Street Mall, Myer Centre, banana buses and CityCat ferries. In retrospect, in terms of development, Sallyanne Atkinson and to a lesser extent, Jim Soorley were fantastic servants for the city.


  6. Dan Hill Avatar

    Thanks Sean. RE ‘the innovative architectural scene’, I meant over the last few years. For example, QLD cleaned up at the RAIA awards last year, and the Placemakers show on in Brisbane at the moment should give even more credence to this idea. Obviously Melbourne/Victoria is still very strong in general, and Sydney has strengths, albeit scattered and fragmented. But I was really talking about this later wave, rather than the Brisbane of Clem Jones. The new State Library is a good example of what I’m pointing too.
    Although I’d say don’t underestimate the fantastic 60s/70s work of James Birrell in particular (Centenary Pool, Toowong Library, several UQ buildings etc.)


  7. karen Avatar

    Great post.
    The same thing happened in Perth. 😦
    I’ve just been looking at some old photos.
    It fills me with a strong sense of dismay, to realise how difficult and improbable it would be to bring trams back now that cars have taken over the roads. 😦


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