City planning – a view from the top

I recently managed to catch up with Roz Hansen about her thoughts on the direction of Melbourne’s Central Activity District. 

Roz is a highly experienced urban planner and she is chairing the re-convened Plan Melbourne Ministerial Advisory Committee – reporting to the Minister of Planning, Richard Wynne.

Her role on the committee started under the previous government – however, she resigned due to concerns about the changing directions and emphasis.

The committee is now back and her role is advise the minister as to how to “refresh” the strategy with specific emphasis on housing, climate change and energy efficiency.

The focus of our discussion was around architecture in the city and the evolution of a new building type within the city centre.

Historically the starting point was the 40m height limit that applied to many buildings. It is a height that was determined as the maximum reach of fire ladders and this height limit was maintained until the ICI building at the top of Lonsdale St spectacularly broke this limit.

During the 80s and 90s the office-building model evolved into a form which consisted of a 40m high podium with taller towers above but set back about 10m from the street edge. 

Under Evan Walker’s plan height would be concentrated at the two ends of the city (western and eastern areas) being the higher land rising from the compact, highly-pedestrianised retail core in the valley.

Under the Walker plan the retail strip of Swanston and Elizabeth streets would largely retain the 40-metre height limit where high volumes of pedestrians occupied streets during the day.

This urban structure gave Melbourne a distinctive dish shaped skyline.

In recent times Roz explained that height limits, upper level setbacks and plot ratios were no longer strictly applied and we have seen a proliferation of high-density tall buildings on small sites including in the little streets of the Hoddle Grid.  The intensification is happening throughout the city and especially to the northwest parts.

Apartment buildings of 50-70 storeys with little or no setback to the street and in close proximity to each other are now the norm.  Tall (with small footprint) apartment buildings are now creating a forest of buildings inside the city.

Whilst each application is viewed separately – it is the cumulative effect of these buildings which is dramatically changing the public realm at street level.

Roz’s view is that the city has lost its urban structure and shape and that the intensification of new buildings means that the city no longer has a clear strategic vision.

The new developer-led building type is highly efficient. However, they often compromise both the internal and external quality of spaces.   A key consideration that Roz expressed over coffee was the lack of architectural innovation which results in bland, minimalist and somewhat drab elevations that have become the norm along streets such as Spencer Street. Clearly architects need to play their part here and education around sustainability and design related issues are key.

This “lost skill”, as Roz described it, is worrying.

The lack of place making and the protections for daylight amenity at street level from the built form contribution is also concerning.   

The imposition of very tall, hard edge to the street buildings is affecting public space design considerations and the enjoyment of that public space by pedestrians.  Driven primarily by the economic returns, the trade off is becoming one-sided.

Roz envisages that the way this situation can be remedied is through a back-to-basics planning approach.  Mandating height, setbacks and providing clearer guidelines for public and private interface needs to replace the current performance and discretionary system.

It is clear to her that the performance-based approach for the central city does not guarantee good design outcomes and a more robust “public benefit” approach is needed.

A vision for Melbourne needs to determine where height is best located and how to protect the urban precinct at ground level.

Melbourne, justifiably, has long prided itself as a place where culture matters.  Architecture, urban design, arts and design all contribute to this reputation.  Architects and urban designers possibly need to better educate clients on the value of design and sustainability so that the legacy of this building boom provides a positive legacy to future generations of Melburnians.

A vision for Melbourne is by no means easy to conjure up.  However, at the same time as Melbourne is growing, the need to give shape and structure back to the city and protect amenity of public spaces such as our streets means the challenges are made even more difficult.

Planning Minister Richard Wynne has made it clear he wants his legacy in urban planning to be a positive one and I daresay the contribution the Plan Melbourne Refresh committee will make is a small step in the right direction.

Antony Di Mase is a practising architect at Di Mase Architects.
9482 5144
antony@dimasearchitects.com.au

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