The changing nature of Melbourne’s urban environment, from the point-of-view of the street, 60 years back and a few forward
Ed. This piece was originally published on July 28 2009, at cityofsound.com. Last week Melbourne gave itself over to State of Design, the now annual design festival that somehow wraps up the entire city into a frenzy of all things design (I say “somehow” — it’s due to the hard work of Ewan McEoin and team, as well as the receptive culture engendered in the city over the last two decades. Last year I was one of the speakers at Design Capital, and I’ve rarely been as well-treated at a conference.)
This year, I took part in an ‘urban mobility’ workshop for the 2040 City Design Laboratory (thanks to Crowd Productions for enabling that) and was invited to give the opening speech at a new exhibition at the Town Hall’s City Gallery: “Bluestone Lounge Room: Designing the streets of Melbourne”. (I’ve included my speech below. Unusually for me, I read it out in order to fit into the five minute time limit.)
(The Lord Mayor of the City of Melbourne, Robert Doyle, actually gave the opening opening speech, and I followed him. I don’t think I broke too many official civic protocols.)
This small but fascinating exhibit bleeds out into the street outside in order to illustrate the changing nature of Melbourne’s urban environment over the last 60 years or so, changes which have rescued the city from the demise that looked all too likely in the early ’80s. While the outer city of Melbourne largely continues to go in the wrong direction, all too familiar to sprawling cities across Australia and the USA, the inner city has become a byword for progressive urban development, almost at the level of a Barcelona or a Copenhagen.
In doing so, it’s ever clearer that these last two decades’ worth of positive changes to the city are down to teams and strategies led by a handful of people: the ongoing development of RMIT’s campus and buildings, used as a ‘lever’ to transform the northern CBD and create a generation of high-quality architects, led by Leon van Schaik; and tunnelling from the other end, as it were, Rob Adams, Director of City Design and Urban Environment, and Ian Dryden, the city’s lead industrial designer.
You can hear Rob Adams speaking about his work on last week’s episode of excellent local radio show The Architects on Triple R. It’s a great introduction to his 25-year career in Melbourne, which has certainly shaped the city for the better. It’s an extraordinary and ongoing legacy, including the Postcode 3000 strategy and more recently the ‘linear Barcelona’ or ‘6% City’ strategies, sensitively introducing Melbourne to the idea of 150–200 people per hectare via 4–5 storey-high densification. This would enable a genuinely sustainable city in all senses, including a far more enjoyable city. (By way of perspective, Adams notes that the average Australian city currently manages around 10–15 people per hectare. Depends how you measure it, but by way of comparison Barcelona would be about 200 people per hectare.)
Ian Dryden’s work is less well-known, but perhaps more directly visible to Melbournians. The exhibition contains his original drawings for much urban infrastructure, as well as examples of his absolutely quotidian objects. These, for all their sheer ordinariness (in the best sense), are nonetheless carefully considered and often beautifully designed, whether they’re bins, catenary light fittings, streetlamps, kiosks and so on. The layer of everyday that helps glue the city together.
It was an honour to introduce both their work, and that of others stretching back to late-Victoriana, and this excellent exhibition curated by my friend Dr Michael Trudgeon of Crowd Productions, whose idea of the ‘urban lounge room’ is key to whole venture (the ‘bluestone’ reference pertaining to the local stone that the streets are covered in) and acts as a kind of bookmark to a set of further, deeper thoughts about urban form and experience.
In the speech below, you’ll see I’ve managed to shoehorn in a few of my personal concerns, but I hope not at the expense of highlighting the importance of the work, and this small but powerful exhibition.
The exhibition runs until September 30th 2009, at the City Gallery, Melbourne Town Hall.
Speech for the opening of ‘Bluestone Lounge Room: Designing the Streets of Melbourne’ exhibition, 16 July 2009:
I’m not going to talk specifically about the particular content of this exhibition, as I only have a few minutes, and you’re about to see it for yourselves.
Instead I’ll try to focus on what this might all mean.
Taken together all this forms an important layer of the city’s built fabric, and one often overlooked. It’s a gesture to the city, from the city — it helps define what the city is, it shapes our understanding of Melbourne’s identity, through its coherence, function, placement, robustness, styling. What Melbourne stands for can be read in all these objects. A city is not just a large village; it’s a quite different thing — a civic and thus profoundly more civilised form than a village, frankly — and this exhibition indicates the natural habitat of the city itself.
Yet when I showed some of these exhibits to a colleague at work — a Melbournian, originally, but long since relocated to Sydney — he was struck by the photos of the ‘Paris End’ of 1960s Collins St . He said, the amazing thing is that Melbourne back then was a strictly Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 affair (not far off Sydney’s CBD now, ironically enough.)
So the Paris End of Collins Street, though it might have looked a bit like Paris — a bit — never actually had the condition of Paris. It was essentially a ghost town from early evening to early morning and at weekends (with some exceptions). So the radical change in the city has been the increased inhabitation of these spaces — encouraged by Postcode 3000, or legislation restricting private vehicular traffic — and the amenities for the 24/7 city that come along with people — initiatives for accentuating small bars, rediscovering laneways or creating cultural facilities, say.
It’s the behaviour of the city itself that has been the radical shift in Melbourne, this transformation of a city through rediscovering its heart. Within urbanism there is still too much focus on the appearance of things, rather than the strategy for the city. Put simply, what the city is for.
And so, as we shift from the industrial age to what my colleague Peter Head calls the ecological age, urban strategies like the ‘Linear Barcelona’ ideas of Rob Adams become ever more important — perhaps alongside the reintroduction of light manufacturing, urban agriculture and so on. And with that increasing yet realistic level of densification, a more beautiful, more efficient, more resilient city with a higher quality of life and a fitter population.
This progressive idea of Melbourne is imbued within these objects and designs. Really valuing public space becomes an important foothold against withdrawing from the city altogether. Now we are returning to the city, rejecting sprawl, rediscovering that our feet are not just for putting up in front of the Foxtel box, public space and public design become ever more fundamental.
For the civic layers and public spaces need to keep on raising their game. Though Melbourne’s freeway architecture is incredibly high quality, it’s increasingly out of step with the times, in a way. When you design a city with cars in mind , the urban fabric becomes incredibly crude and low-res, akin to an early video game — slow down and the jaggedy pixels become clear. Most Australian cities, including Melbourne, went this way and can still suffer from this crude urban fabric, designed for metal moving at 60kph.
But now cars are fourth at best in a mobility hierarchy, designing for walking and cycling and public transport leads directly to an increased quality of the urban fabric for people. It leads to high-res, high quality, as we’re standing next to it, leaning our bike on it. When we experience the quality of this offer from the city — in this gallery and on the streets — we are also engaging with the idea of Melbourne as a 21st century place, built on the scale of — and with the resolution of — people, first and foremost.
Finally, returning to my earlier point about the behaviour of the city, this isn’t so far from this exhibition as we might think.
With what we call urban informatics, we can fuse furniture, signage, transit, buildings and virtually every other bit of urban fabric with smart sensors that convey the object’s or space’s performance in real-time. We finally have meaningful data on how the city is being used, as objects within it are alive to the touch, a sensory network connecting benches to signs to traffic lights to trams to plants to peoples’ mobiles and so on.
Everything we see in this layer overlaid onto the city — from robustness to security to aesthetic choices to coherence — exists in this informational layer too, and we need to start engaging with that, as designers, as policy makers and as citizens. The way the street feels may soon be defined by what cannot be seen with the naked eye.
The great Japanese industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa talks of “design dissolving in behaviour”, and the previously inanimate objects we see around us will be imbued with behaviour too. Benches will know how many people have sat on them that day, for how long, and how much they weighed. They’ll have discreet plug sockets, wifi routers and become characters in impromptu public art at night.
It’ll seem odd that street signs once weren’t able to talk to our phones (and vice versa), downloading maps that indicate ‘you are here’, or pointing out attractions shared by your friends.
Street lights, trams and buildings will talk to each other, sharing limited resources across the network in response to both anticipated and actual demand. User-generated buses will move towards you when you need them, rather than the other way round, public transport so efficiently distributed that its virtually free. Pavers will drop the City of Melbourne a line if they feel a crack emerging, your street’s tomato plants will email you when they need a drop of water …
All these behavioural, qualitative characteristics exist in the information space hovering in the street.
Better still, its intrinsically adaptive, such that people can define and construct their own services, deciding how much of their own behaviour to share with others and the city.
The beautiful balancing act between anonymity and community that city life represents continues, yet we’ll finally have a sense of how the shared public space of the city is being used in real-time; finally understanding that the city is a real-time system itself, and so we can create services better able to respond to its citizens needs.
Imagine what this exhibition will be in a decade. Taking Michael’s idea of the city as a ‘collective lounge room’, the blurring and un-zoning of all urban spaces and activities implies the infrastructure of a pervasively connected culture needs to exist in all these things, perhaps consonant with the ‘recessive design strategy’ or backgrounding we see here.
Having said all that, this informational layer isn’t virtual reality but part of the physical reality of the city, which is still the most profoundly rich multi-sensory experience imaginable. A bench is a bench is a bench. It just has to work, ideally beautifully. A sign likewise. Yet a behavioural analysis of how these things are used can still indicate why some things work and others don’t.
I’ll close with a passage by the great William H. Whyte:
“Some of the more felicitous spaces, furthermore, are leftovers, niches, odds and ends of space that by happy accident work very well for people. At 57th Street and Madison Avenue in New York there is a bank with two window ledges. They’re low enough for sitting and are recessed enough to provide wind protection. There is sun all day, a parade of passersby, and at the corner a vendor squeezing fresh orange juice. It is a splendid urban place. There are other such places, most provided by inadvertence. Think what might be provided if someone planned it.” [From The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces]
Some, if not all, of the places we see in this exhibition have been carefully planned and designed; and yet all will be adapted and appropriated by the city and its people. So let’s enjoy this exhibition and then go outside and enjoy the ongoing real-time exhibition that is Melbourne’s streets.
Ed. This piece was originally published on July 28 2009, at cityofsound.com.
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