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Tag Archives: urban planning

Planning a city

“Between the Street and the Sky” describes itself as a “provocation for Melbourne” rather than an exhibition about urban planning. It is at the City Gallery in Melbourne Town Hall. The elegant little display is certainly provocative in putting the gigantic growth of central Melbourne into perspective. More people are living in tall buildings with an ever smaller footprint. However, increases in population have not been met with an equivalent investment by either the city council or businesses.

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“Between the street and the sky”, model by Christopher White/Bates Smart

Planning is currently a hot topic in Melbourne, maybe in the rest of Australia too. This is because the quality of planning in Australia is catastrophic. Consider another example not covered in the “Between the Street and the Sky” exhibition. A major tourist attraction damaged for the benefit of a short term commercial interest. It could be  the impact of the Culture Kings shop on Hosier Lane, it could be the Apple store in Federation Square or Adani coal mine in Queensland potential to destroy the Great Barrier Reef. Take your pick they are all examples of Australia’s lack of planning. It is not just tourism that is threatened but the environment, to culture, to being able to live a good life.

Rather than focusing on one issue I want to know why Australians repeatedly makes these kind of decisions. I will not be blaming one political party for it because that is simply false and the people who do that are part of the problem, as they are trying to get a short term political advantage while damaging Australia in the long term through entrenched partisanship. I am happy acknowledge that this kind of decision making is not unique to Australia if the Australian demanding this will acknowledge that Australia is amongst the best in the world at doing irreparable damage to its own long term interests.

It is a problem of poor planning, avoiding planning and not planning. It is as if many people living in Australia never intended for Australia to be a permanent residence. Even if they never did, most of Australia’s population arrived planning to exploit the natural resources, become rich and return to their home country. This is especially true of the British colonial immigrants who became Australia’s ruling class. Australians often don’t want any other people in the area because this would additional people who will just reduce the amount that they can exploit. This paranoid and greedy reaction to the limited resources drives both Australia’s abuse of refugees and a local defence of the status quo in suburban infrastructure and planning.

Instead of avoiding the difficult issues Australia needs plans.

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Wilson Avenue Urban Bouldering

The construction has been going on for months but the small new park off Sydney Road has opened in time for the school holidays. There is still work going on, a bit more paving and a wall for Makatron, Itch and Otis to finish painting but lots of people are already using it. I enjoyed the temporary pop-up park in Wilson Avenue February and March 2014 and I was keen to see the finished park. From a simple intersection, a more complex area has been created and at the centre of the complexity is a physical puzzle, an urban bouldering form.

Wilson Avenue Park

The plan for the small 700 square metre park won the Planning Institute of Australia (Victorian Division) Best Planning Ideas – Small Projects 2014 award. The initial public reaction has been just as enthusiastic. I spent almost an hour there just sitting in the sun, talking with people, watching how they used the space.

When I arrived a couple of little girls had found that the springy surface around the urban bouldering form was perfect for turning cartwheels. They were a bit too small to really climb the boulder but they had found their own use for the area. I talked to a skateboarder who hoped that they were not going to be put in skate stoppers as the moulded concrete seats and benches as they have excellent skating potential. Adding complexity to an area means that more people will different find uses for it.

Sam, a bouldering enthusiast explained the concept to me. “Bouldering is rock climbing for people, like me, who are scared of heights.” The short routes are close to the ground (under 3m.) so ropes are not required. The boulder terrain is suitable for novice to advanced climbers, with different trails of coloured holds. Sam told me that he normally climbs informal urban bouldering walls, like the one that used to be under the Burnley Bridge, and was unsure about “doing it in public”.

The Wilson Avenue urban boulder will be the first public art piece designed for bouldering. The boulder was designed Stuart Beekmeyer of Bouldergeist and fabricated by Big Fish.

Knowing that I was interested in micro-parks Stuart Beekmeyer started sending me emails and photographs from his Brunswick studio. Beekmeyer wrote, “I think people will be fascinated by the movement on the sculpture. It is a beautiful activity to watch.” And, after watching the people climb the sculpture today I agree with him.

Stuart Beekmeyer

Looking at one of the photos of the top of the boulder with the sunlight shining through making it glow golden it was easy to see the connection between it’s angular planes and a well known Melbourne sculpture, Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault. At the time I received the email with the photo I was looking at photographs of Emily Floyd’s Public Art Strategy on EastLink. At the park the drains and forms are yellow, as are the native flowers. (Are these more references to Vault? Denton Corker and Marshall would love it.)

Stuart Beekmeyer has more ideas for the urban bouldering installations. “I really like the idea if getting artists to sculpt climbing holds in the  future so its sculpture on sculpture.” What would be better if Beekmeyer got artists to choose the colours for the hand holds because the selection of candy colours looks like hundreds-and-thousands.

There is a small mound of grass, a few small trees and a lot of complex paving in the park, a mix of concrete, asphalt, cobbles, wooden decking and the spongy surface around the boulder. The sculptural aesthetics of the boulder, in its central position, surrounded by seating determines the look of the small urban park and the way that people move around it. The new park at Wilson Avenue appears to be very successful and fun.


Sewers and the City

Capitalising on fear of the bubonic plague in 1901 the suburb of Haberfield was built in Sydney. Australia’s first planned model suburb had limited height, there were no pubs and no back lanes. The back lanes were used for the ‘night-soil cart’; you can still see the low doors in the brick fences in some of the lanes in Fitzroy. We can assume from the absence of lanes that houses in Haberfield was connected to main sewers. (For more on Haberfield read Art and Architecture for more on bubonic plague and its effects on Sydney see the digital records of NSW.)

A lane in Brunswick

                  A lane in Brunswick

In his book The Australian Ugliness, Robin Boyd was appalled at the tangle of overhead wires but he doesn’t get beneath the surface ugliness to notice that although these suburban homes that were now connected to telephone and electricity had not yet been connected to the sewers. That Melbourne had a telephone system before a sewerage system is a striking fact. In 1880 a telephone exchange opened in Collins Street and seven years later, in 1887 the first Melbourne homes to be connected to sewers. Some homes in the suburb of Frankston were only connected to the sewerage in 1991.

Bootscraper in Carlton

Bootscraper in Carlton

The architectural evidence for nineteenth century Smellbourne’s muddy, shit covered streets and open sewers is still evident, not just with network of back lanes, but in the iron boot scrapers, a necessary architectural feature, built into the entrances of its older buildings.

My own suburb of Coburg, in Melbourne’s inner north, contains many examples of nineteenth and early twentieth century suburban development, most with back lanes but a few without. Lincoln Street and the adjoining street have a single house block, instead of the usual double blocks with a laneway down the middle. In “Lascelles Park” development there only a lane between the houses on Jamieson and Lascelles streets and two very short lanes behind the four larger lots at the Reynard Gosling Road ends.

Over last century suburban planners were turning against lanes as more suburbs were connected to sewers. In the nineteen-eighties and nineties the Moreland City Council was sell off several of the lanes in Coburg as they were no longer used except for fly-tipping and discreet access for burglars. The bluestone cobbles are expensive to repair and make traversing the lanes uncomfortable, difficult or even impossible especially for people with disabilities, cyclist and even ordinary pedestrians.

In spite of all of this the inhabitants of Moreland now want to preserve the lanes. After a 2,400-signature petition was presented to Moreland City Council in September 2013 the Council resolved to maintain Moreland’s bluestone laneways and there is now a plan to preserve these lanes. The Council explains on it web page devoted to bluestone lanes that “Moreland values the network of bluestone laneways as a community asset which is an important part of Moreland’s heritage and urban character.”

Unlike the lanes in the inner city Melbourne that are famous for their street art, little bars and boutiques these back lanes are amongst the least attractive features of the suburb, generally backing onto old rusted corrugated iron fences and old sheds. Maybe someone is hoping that their historic ambience of Coburg and Brunswick before sewers will add to their property value.

Coburg lane painted

                   Coburg lane painted


The City and the Spectacle

“It was fantastic; I didn’t see anything but the backs of people’s necks for the whole night.” A friend was telling me about his experience of Melbourne’s White Night in 2014. Many people have told me about their experiences with the crowds at White Nights. Nobody that I know will be going again.

Very early on in White Nights 2013

Very early on in White Nights 2013

I didn’t go in 2014 as the crowds in 2013 were enough for me – I don’t consider queuing for food to part of an enjoyable evening. Instead I retreated to Brunswick where I saw an excellent free gig and had some good food. I know where to find good food and music in Brunswick because I’ve lived in the area for many years. I might have viewed it differently if I was a visitor.

Mega-city Melbourne has a spectacle and events based economy that needs to attract tourists and local visitors to the centre of the city. A spectacle based economy is the post-modern version of the bread and circuses economic model for a city, drawing in the festival crowd.

People might complain about individual events nobody complains about the whole spectacle based city; after all for a post-industrial city Melbourne could have ended up like Detroit. However, as Rio and the rest of Brazil knows after the 2014 World Cup, Melbourne is learning creating a spectacle based economy has costs.

Living in a spectacle driven city where every week there is a festival or major event where a large part of the economy is driven by presenting constant spectacles to attract local, interstate and international visitors might seem great but there is a dark side to the bright lights.

Few question if being presented in a festival format is appropriate. Gina McColl in “Blockbusted” (The Sydney Morning Herald, May 12, 2013) argues that blockbuster exhibitions that: “distorting the wider role and purpose of our state-funded collecting institutions: curating, exhibiting and caring for their own archive, complete with scholarly research and conservation.”

Attracting international events costs, including bribing the members of the committee that decides where these events can be hosted, paying for the event takes away money that could be spent on the needs of local residents. The spectacular events can be alienating to residents; Melbourne’s Grand Prix attracts crowds while annoying and inconveniencing residents.

While the politicians are busy trying to attract major events they ignore the fact that Melbourne’s public transport infrastructure is insufficient for hosting spectacles. During the Melbourne Commonwealth Games workers were asked to work from home to make room on public transport for people going to the games. The central hub structure of the public transport network concentrates the crowds into a small section of the inner core of the city.

Public Event Ahead

What is the real evidence for the claim about a spectacular based economy? According to a recent an evidence review, zero (Evidence Review Sports and Culture, July 2014). I will repeat that number, in case you missed it, zero. There is no evidence to back up the claims that major sporting and artistic events contribute anything to local economy but there is still faith in Melbourne that the international reputation of the city will have some subtle unmeasured effect. However, evidence counts for little in current political debates.

How do we create diverse city, aware of the dynamic forces at work? What is the tao of urban design? Urban acupuncture projects? How does a mass spectacle benefit the residents? Not just thinking about profits for multinational construction firms but local business. What does it give to the people who use the area every day?


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