One of Melbourne’s celebrated laneways

Reading this article, Cities for people: Jan Gehl, you might conclude Melbourne’s internationally famed laneway culture is all down to those talented, far-sighted and influential planners and urban designers.

The author, Mitra Anderson-Oliver, seems to think so. She gives much of the credit to Danish architect Jan Gehl, who was a visiting professor in Melbourne in the 1970s and subsequently worked with Melbourne City Council in the early 90s. Much of what Melburnians now take for granted, she says, like the laneway culture and outdoor dining is a

consequence of Gehl’s influence – and the perseverance of local collaborators Rob Adams (architect and director of City Design at the City of Melbourne) and Rob Moore.

Other cities seem to think so because quite a few are seeking to retrofit laneways or improve existing ones with the hope of emulating Melbourne’s success. But is it that easy? Can cities everywhere simply capture Melbourne’s buzz through design?

I think the planners and designers made a valuable and significant contribution to the culture of Melbourne’s city centre as we know it today but they didn’t “create” it. What they did was to facilitate powerful underlying, or structural, trends – a very valuable contribution in its own right – rather than single-handedly generate a new world.

That’s an important understanding because it explains why, even though other cities have been trying for decades, it’s very hard to replicate elsewhere the success of Silicon Valley or the magic of Paris.

Back in the late ‘80s I moved to Perth from Melbourne. Returning to Melbourne a few years later, it was like coming back to a completey different place. Something dramatic and exciting had happened in the inner city while I was away. It had been transformed. In my old stomping ground in Fitzroy, it seemed like new bars (in those days tapas was the big new thing) and restaurants had sprouted everywhere.

The change was due to implementation of the recommendations of the Nieuwenhuysen report on the Liquor Control Act commissioned by the Cain government. The reforms were intended to create an urbane and civilised way of life similar to that enjoyed in European cities. Importantly, the cost of liquor licences was reduced and conditions were relaxed, encouraging a culture of small bars rather than “beer barns”.

Bar operators no longer needed large premises to obtain the economies of scale required to pay high licensing fees. By fortuitous historical circumstances (e.g. Hoddle grid, decline of manufacturing) Melbourne’s laneways and inner city streets offered the sort of low cost premises of varied size that entrepreneurs were looking for. The proliferation of venues gave operators the scope to specialise and offer unusual and idiosyncratic experiences.

There were 571 on-premises (restaurant) licences in Victoria in 1986, but by 2004 there were 5,136. That’s a phenomenal nine-fold increase over the period.

Although arguably not as important as the Niewenhausen reforms, other structural changes have contributed to the distinctive city centre culture of today too. For example, changes in education and residency requirements encouraged investors to build new housing developments in the CBD, creating a pool of permanent residents. Structural changes in the economy turned around the long-standing decline in CBD jobs, providing another source of demand for hospitality services. Growing international tourism helped as well.

As is almost always the case, the planners didn’t intentionally create the underlying demand through land use decisions or design. Their most important contribution was to recognise the benefits of what the Niewenhausen reforms had started and work positively to facilitate them.

They deserve credit for using the tools at their disposal to improve both the commercial and the physical environment of central Melbourne in support of the reforms. But for all its value, good design isn’t the only force that lit and fuelled the city’s spark. Much of the credit should go to the (Cain) government of the day and to economist Professor John Niewenhuysen.

Importantly, the spark created by the liquor reforms was no accident – it was what they were consciously intended and expected to achieve. It’s disappointing that their key role in the creation of today’s version of ‘marvellous Melbourne’ isn’t given more recognition.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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