What’s Melbourne good at?

What's the answer?

It’s natural in discussions of planning and development issues to focus limited energy on the areas where Melbourne could do better. But it’s easy to forget our blessings – the areas where Melbourne is doing well. That’s not to say that things couldn’t be better, but it acknowledges there are some areas where things could be much worse. It’s conceivable there are even areas where Melbourne punches well above its weight.

It’s the season of goodwill, so I thought it timely to look at the positives. Hopefully readers will have some suggestions too.

One of Melbourne’s great blessings is its extensive rail system. Please, while your first reaction might be disbelief, many cities elsewhere – in the US for example – don’t have anything even remotely as good as our network. And our tram system is reputedly the largest in the world. Again, many cities elsewhere are scrambling to retro-fit light rail and streetcar systems. We have rolling stock that’s getting friendlier for wheel chairs and successive governments have (belatedly) ordered new trains and trams.

In many places if you change modes you have to pay again. Not in Melbourne – there’s unlimited travel on a single ticket within a time window no matter how many times you transfer. While it’s had teething problems and isn’t out of the woods just yet, we have a smartcard system too. And two high frequency bus services now orbit the suburbs from the deep south to the west and from (relatively) early till late. Heck, I even heard there’s an extra NightRider service next weekend.

The Regional Rail Link has gotten the green light and design work is continuing on Melbourne Metro. It’s not good enough for most people I know, but we have a 24/7 airport public transport service operating at 10 minute frequencies for the great bulk of the day.

Fortunately, large parts of our freeway system are tolled. There are significant barriers to getting a drivers licence in terms of time and out-of-pocket costs. And just this week the Government had the good sense to bang up registration charges.

Successive governments and councils have promoted high density residential growth in the city centre. New inner city brownfields sites such as Fishermans Bend have been earmarked for development. There are large tracts of historic housing in areas like Fitzroy Nth and Carlton Nth that are largely intact. And we have inner city parks and the glorious Yarra River park system that other cities would die for.

One of Melbourne’s great assets is it has capacity for growth in the west, still within a reasonable distance of the CBD. Average lot sizes in all the growth areas are smaller than the older middle ring suburbs and getting smaller.

Perhaps the jewel in the crown is the wonderful and vibrant city centre. Its laneways and public spaces are rightly the envy of other cities who think (mistakenly) that they can replicate Melbourne’s success. I believe (admittedly without much hard evidence) that within ten years or less, inner Melbourne will be widely acknowledged as one of the world’s coolest cities (that’s a prediction!). Many major trip generators like the MCG are located in the centre, where peak crowds can best be served by public transport (unlike, say, Brisbane’s entertainment centre at Boondall).

We have Fed Square and the free Ian Potter Gallery. We have a culture that’s interested in the public realm, including planning and development issues, for its own sake (maybe I’m overdoing that one…)

That’s a start. I’ve focussed mainly on infrastructure, but there are also institutions and people who give Melbourne a positive outlook. For example, I reckon the Lord Mayor, to the surprise of many, is a real asset. I’d like to think there are some areas of social and cultural policy where we do well too.

Anyone else got any ideas on what Melbourne does well?

P.S. More on that statistics question.

10 Comments on “What’s Melbourne good at?”

  1. Jim Wright says:

    Well, yes, Melbourne is a great place to live in and most of what you say is true. However, the management models for some of our resources and infrastructure leave something to be desired. Still, so long as we get what we need in the end…
    I have one quibble which arises from my former career as a civil/structural engineer and town planner (well, I did make a pretty good contribution when I was employed by a highly thought-of planning consultancy about three decades ago). I believe that we have some exciting building concepts built or being built in Melbourne, but unfortunately, due to the arrogance of our architects, who have no respect for streetscape, many are built in the wrong place. Fed Square, for instance, jars with both the cathedral and Flinders Street station. It would have been terrific if it had been placed further downstream in its own grounds, somewhat like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Similarly, the Melbourne Museum is not in tune with the beautiful row houses in Carlton. I did have some reservations about the entrance to Storey Hall in Swanston Street, but I had to give it credit when I saw it during a huge rainstorm when it glowed like a jewel against the uniformly grey background of the flanking buildings.
    We need some sort of architectural/social/planning committee which will judge submissions on their merit in place. Then there will be no doubt about Melbourne’s pre-eminent place in the universe.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Since that was mainly a complaint Jim, I think you also need to come up with something positive about Melbourne (as penance!) 🙂

    • A lot of what you are saying is subjective. I love the juxtaposition of the modern and striking Museum compared to the older housing and Exhibition Centre. Federation Square certainly gets mixed responses at best but I think its position is justified, and certainly it is an improvement on the previous buildings located at the same site!

  2. rohan says:

    Actually Melbourne is already considered one of the coolest cities on earth in some quarters. Pretty sure it was one of the top seven in Monacle Magazine (successor to Wallpaper) last year. PT and lanes and music got high scores. And my french barber (backpacker) the other day said “and the Art Gallery – it is free !” not that he’d been yet.

    Must be good place ‘cos everyone is bloody moving here, especially all those poms, driving up property rices and crowding the trams, annoying those of us who got here first….

    My profession is al about saving the best bits, and I do that because I truly think what we’ve got it rare and special on an international scale.

    • Alan Davies says:

      In that case my “cool” prediction is looking pretty good! Rohan, could you elaborate on the “rare and special on an international scale” in terms of heritage?

  3. Nathan Alexander says:

    In my opinion, Melbourne is very blessed architecturally. We have great examples of architecture from every period from about 1850 on, especially in the central city and inner suburbs. Although we certainly have jarring architecture, we have a huge diversity of architecture, including a lot of interesting architecture from the last two decades. Melbourne’s affluence comes through in the quality of the architecture.

    We also have the ability to grow a wider variety of plant species than most places in the world, from cool temperate to subtropical, given the right microclimate.

  4. Jac says:

    “Successive governments and councils have promoted high density residential growth in the city centre. ”

    I think the key error that many of these governments and councils are making is the difference between high density and high rise. Much of the high density growth is occuring in high rise form and I really don’t think this is necessary.

  5. Matthew says:

    I think we have done well with open space.

    We have great open space areas in close proximity to the city centre (rejuvenation of the Yarra River, Yarra Bend Park, Treasury Gardens, Botanical Gardens, Flagstaff Gardens…), scattered through the inner and middle rings (Edinburgh Gardens, Catani Gardens, the Bay foreshore, the Merri Creek…), and great areas of open space set aside in Melbourne’s green wedges – our city’s lungs.

    Lets hope the importance of open space and green wedges remains when planning for the development of our city.

  6. Urt says:

    I think Melbourne’s destination streets- bridge rd, toorak rd, chapel St, fitzroy St, acland St, Clarendon St, Sydney rd, Brunswick St, smith St and Victoria St, have been its best assets for me. In the parts of the city I’ve lived in, entertainment can constitute just “going to” one of these streets. Grab a coffee, look in some shops, whatever. They each have vibrancy and are unique partly because they can draw people from the city centre, so they don’t suffer the homogeneity of strip shopping that only serves a local population.

  7. Adrian says:

    Melbourne’s best asset is its grid. The grid was built before trams with a width wide enough for bullock carts to do a u-turn and turn right without disrupting traffic – conveniently this meant that trams were then able to be put in later with enough space for wide footpaths to ensure the street remained a key focus of the public domain. The Melbourne grid’s large size required laneways which give way to intimate passive space away from the bustle of the wider streets. Without the gird Melbourne would not be the amazing place it is today with all the things we associate with Melbourne.

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