People-first cities: In conversation with Rob Adams.

People First Cities, Collectivity Talks

"There is strong evidence to show that the outward expansion of our Australian capital cities is driving not only an affordability crisis but a social and environmental crisis."

Design Director, City of Melbourne Rob Adams

What are the hallmarks that make Melbourne one of the world’s most liveable cities? What challenges does the pandemic pose to maintaining this liveability into the future? 

GB: How has Melbourne evolved over your 30 years as design director?

RA: If you look at Melbourne then and Melbourne now, you will notice three things: there are a lot more people, the central city’s density has increased dramatically, it is much greener, and there is more activity. These three changes are related to particular initiatives that the City and the State have taken over the past 30 years. The greater population density comes out of the early 1990s with the Postcode 3000 initiative, which was a policy that came out of a strategy plan I worked on back in 1985. We said we need to get more people living in the city. There was no magic number but we aimed for 8,000 in 15 years.

The successful implementation of Postcode 3000 has seen the residential population of central Melbourne jump from 680 residential units back in 1985 to over 45,000 today. When you bring that many people to live in a city, you inevitably get cafés, restaurants and supermarkets. And that is where the activity comes in; people that live in a place rather than just coming in simply for work and then retreating to suburbia.

The next biggest initiative was to make it greener. Today, we can look back and say that we have taken over 80 hectares of asphalt out of the central city, widened footpaths, planted thousands of trees, created new open spaces. This was a major initiative to incrementally adapt the city and the way people move through and enjoy the city.

The last one is events; Melbourne became an event city and the event capital in Australia The State and City policy were geared to winning events like the Comedy Festival, White Nights, Grand Prix and the Australian Open.

Mark Janetzki, Nicky Drobis, David Lee, Genevieve Brannigan, Rob Adams

In terms of the denser city initiative that you just mentioned, do you envision that post-COVID with a lot of corporates downscaling their CBD presence that there will be that kind of opportunity again to welcome even more residents into the city of Melbourne by repurposing commercial buildings?

I’m not sure it will all go to residential because I think residential has moved on from that phase of converting offices. The thing that strikes me, is that one of the groups of people we drove out of the city, unintentionally through Postcode 3000, were the creatives; the people who were going two stories above the street into abandoned accommodation to create studios. So, I think there is an opportunity to invite the creatives back into space that is sitting idle. I think any opportunity that gets creatives back into the city would be a major benefit for central Melbourne.

How did your Postcode 3000 initiative work?

We went out to people in Melbourne and said, ‘if the accommodation was available, would you like to live in the central city and what would you like in terms of accommodation?’

In the late 1980s, we got 700 people who wrote back and said they would love to live in the city, 50% didn’t need a car, and others said ‘I don’t’ need three bedrooms, I just need a NY loft-type apartment’ etc. So, we got this rich set of data and went to the developers and said if you re-develop some of these buildings that are vacant, we will put you in touch with the list of people who are interested in living in the city. We choreographed the marriage between the developers and those people. That became a success story.

How did you implement that community engagement process without digital and social media?

We did a few things. We went out to a broader community and advertised what we were doing through normal media chains. We also started a program called ‘keys to the city’. At that stage, we had converted three floors of a building opposite the Town Hall into six apartments. All they had was an open space, a kitchen space and a toilet. We invited people into the city and walked them around this and a number of other properties. So, we showed people the opportunities and it just grew by word of mouth. People got excited.

We also asked, ‘what are the barriers that need to be fixed for people to change buildings from office to residential?’ One of them was fire regulations and another was land tax. We overcame these by introducing the idea of buying off the plan, the value you’re buying in at is the undeveloped value and therefore the stamp duty was reduced by about $3k on each apartment and the subdivision into multiple ownerships saw the individual land value drop below the State’s threshold further saving costs.

Can you take us through the City of Melbourne’s COVID recovery plan and how that is going to impact those key topic areas of arts, culture, master planning, affordable housing, and people-first design?

There are a large number of initiatives the City has introduced including 40km of new bike lanes, the expansion of the outdoor dining arrangements where we had 800 applications for sidewalk cafes; we have created park-lets for cafes; we have had a business concierge program to help businesses when they’re in difficulty; and we have also put money into the creative sector and put out a number of temporary artworks in the lanes and arcades. We created new jobs for people cleaning up during COVID and much more. It is an impressive initiative by the Council and is helping the city to bounce back.

People First Cities, Melbourne Design Week, Collectivity Talks

Post-COVID as Melbourne continues to become denser and more expensive, how do you think we can maintain our status as one of the most liveable cities in the world?

That is the big challenge, and we will not succeed if we can’t produce more affordable housing and get creative people back into the city. In the short term there is the possibility for the State to use its ‘Big Build’ program to purchase apartments in the central city to rapidly increase the stock of affordable units. In the longer term we will need to accept that inclusionary zoning is introduced to ensure that 20% of all new apartments or houses are affordable. This is common practice in many cities, so Victoria needs to catch up. Ultimately, we need to shift the narrative away from the cost of housing to the costs of living and there is strong evidence to show that the outward expansion of our Australian capital cities is driving not only an affordability crisis but a social and environmental crisis. The current accepted process of urban expansion without the necessary social and physical infrastructure needs to change.

In a study we carried out in 2010 called ‘Transforming Australian Cities we illustrated how Melbourne could double its population from 4 million to 8 million people by not expanding but coming back in on itself. By doing this and building around existing transport infrastructure you could build on only 7.5% of the Metro area to heights of no greater than 5-8 stories and at an infrastructure cost saving of over $400 billion. Not only would this allow the reinvestment of this money into much-needed infrastructure it would deliver better social cohesion and greater sustainability.

This would be a city with multiple CBDs where our recent experience of hyper-local could become a pattern for the future. This would not be at the cost to the central city as a denser well-connected city would put more people in easy access to our current CBD where the many attractions and opportunities could be reinforced.

There is a lot of debate around smart cities and big data, and the benefits to humans but also the monitoring from the government. Is there anything you can add around that in terms of what CoM is doing?

We need to move past ‘smart’ to ‘wise’ cities. Wise is more about not just data and technology but a cleverer way of doing things. As you go through the city you will see more soft landscapes and medians, more parks; we have strategically placed rainwater storage tanks around the city where water flows from areas such as Carlton are collected at Lincoln Square and University Square, and we can empty those tanks before a storm. We can then collect the water when the storm hits us, and we can slow the over-land flow so we don’t get flooding and then we can use that water back in the landscape.

Every city can do that, every city can plant trees. We are going from a 20% canopy cover to a 40% canopy cover. All those things are simple and non-expensive initiatives, and they are the ones that need to be shared with other cities. These wise programs are supported by smart city technologies. Technology itself will not get us out of the challenges ahead we will need to return to a more common sense approach of the wise use of resources to adapt our cities.

Anything else we need for our city to thrive?

We need to get the students back. One thing people don’t realise is 40% of the central city population is made up of students. We need to work out a way to quarantine people so they can come back and use our city as the education hub it is. I don’t think of ourselves as a university city but that is one of our strengths and we need to recapture.

Delivered to an audience of architects, designers, property developers, and those interested in making our city a people-first place, this Collectivity Talk showcased CC’s ongoing work in the built environment. Engaging our network of industry leaders, the event was one of CC’s most successful to date, offering guests insights into the evolution and future of Melbourne through an engaging in-person experience.