Book giveaway – ‘1835: The founding of Melbourne’

I’ve got two copies of James Boyce’s new book, 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia (RRP $44.95), to give away to readers of The Melbourne Urbanist thanks to the publisher, Black Inc.

All you have to do is tell me your favourite song that references or evokes Melbourne in some way and you’re in the running. To enter, just follow this link or go to Giveaways in the sidebar under the PAGES menu). Entries close midday, Thursday 25 August.

As usual, the quality of the song you choose doesn’t matter, because the winners will be chosen at random (if you’re stuck, Up There Cazaly will do). Still, it’s nice to show some taste and wit if possible. It would be wonderful to compile a comprehensive anthology of Melbourne-related songs from all eras.

If you’re one of the winners (and the odds are pretty good!), you’ll have to give the publisher, Black Inc., your address and they’ll post your bounty to you direct.

Here’s a summary of the book from the publisher:

In 1835 an illegal squatter camp was established on the banks of the Yarra River. In defiance of authorities in London and Sydney, Tasmanian speculators began sending men and sheep across Bass Strait – and so changed the shape of Australian history. Before the founding of Melbourne, British settlement on the mainland amounted to a few pinpoints on a map. Ten years later, it had become a sea of red.

In 1835 James Boyce brings this pivotal moment to life. He traces the power plays in Hobart, Sydney and London, the key personalities of Melbourne’s early days, and the haunting questions raised by what happened when the land was opened up. He conjures up the Australian frontier – its complexity, its rawness and the way its legacy is still with us today.

Here’s a review by Mark Rubbo from Readings. Here’s an interview with James Boyce that appeared in the Herald Sun and another he did on ABC Radio National’s Late Night Live.

And to whet your appetite, here from the author himself is a dozen things you may not have known about the founding of Melbourne: Read the rest of this entry »

What makes great architecture?

House of Mukesh Ambani, richest person in India

I’ve written the odd bit about architecture and design before (see here) but I always intended to write more. I’d especially like to review buildings, but it’s hard to get any hard information on how buildings perform for their owners and users – that’s one reason why so much architectural writing is either self-serving or vacuous.

So this interesting piece by Indian economist, Ajay Shah, offers another way to approach the subject of architecture. He poses the question: “when and where do great feats of architecture come about?…… Why do some places achieve great feats of architecture, while others routinely opt for merely functional structures?”.

He says that he is instinctively unsatisfied with the claim that the USA lacks great architecture because Americans have poor taste. Instead, he offers the following five explanations for “great feats of architecture”:

Surplus — To go beyond merely functional structures requires resources to spare. At low levels of income, people are likely to merely try to get some land and brick and stone together. In these things, we have nonlinear Engel curves. Pratapgarh looks picayune because Shivaji lacked surplus

The desire to make a statement and to impress — Ozymandius wanted to make a point: He wanted ye Mighty to look at his works and despair. I have often felt this was one of the motivations for the structures on Raisina Hill or the Taj Mahal

Arms races — There may also be an element of an arms race in these things. Perhaps the chaps who built the Qutub Minar (1193-1368) in Delhi set off an arms race, where each new potentate who came along was keen to outdo the achievement of the predecessor. I used to think that the Taj Mahal (1632-1648) was so perfect, that it could not be matched, and thus it put an end to this arms race. But then I saw the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore (1671-1673), and I had to revise my opinion……

Transparency — You only need to impress someone when there is asymmetric information, where that someone does not know how great you are. Shah Jahan needed to build big because the targets of his attention did not know the GDP of his dominion and his tax/GDP ratio. In this age of Forbes league tables, Mukesh Ambani does not need to build a fabulous structure for you to know he’s the richest guy in India. A merely functional house suffices; a great feat of architecture is not undertaken

Accountability — The incremental expense of going from a merely functional structure to a great feat of architecture is generally hard to justify. Hence, one might expect to see more interesting architecture from autocratic places+periods, where decision makers wield discretionary power with weak checks and balances. As an example, I think that Britain had the greatest empire, but the architecture of the European continent is superior: this may have to do with the early flowering of democracy in the UK. Read the rest of this entry »

– What can history teach us about rail?

What happens when you have real data on transport

Back on April 5th I noted that the suburban rail network we have in Melbourne today was substantially in place by the end of the nineteenth century.

I asked why, with the threat of climate change and peak oil hanging over us, we can’t replicate the achievements of the nineteenth century and massively expand Melbourne’s rail network. If our forebears of four or five generations ago could do it, why can’t we, with our superior technology, do even better?

I pointed out – quite accurately as it turned out – that I couldn’t bring an historian’s eye to the subject. I proposed six hypotheses to explain why it would be much harder to build the suburban network today. One of my reasons was that back then the railways covered their operating costs. A reader, Russ, pointed out that the experience in Victoria was quite different:

After the 1880s the government stepped in, and via the combination of rampant corruption and misplaced optimism in the largest real estate bubble in Australian history built 90% of the existing network – most of it completely wasted expenditure.

On his recommendation, I’ve been flipping through The Land Boomers by Michael Cannon. According to Cannon, transport was so vital to Melbourne’s growth that the story of Victorian politics in the 1880s was largely the story of the building of railways:

Hundreds of miles of track, some of it quite useless, pushed out from the egocentric city to the rampant suburbs and the far countryside. Hardly a member of Parliament whose vote could be bought went without his bribe in the form of a new railway, a spur line, or advance information on governmental plans to enable him to buy choice land in advance – the value of which was enormously enhanced when the line went through. It was a dispiriting chapter in Victorian political morality. Read the rest of this entry »

Why can’t we have more train lines?

Rail system 1890, Melbourne and Victoria

By the time of the economic depression in 1891, Melbourne and Victoria already had an impressive network of railway lines. The last significant addition to the metropolitan rail system – the Glen Waverley line – was built in 1930, just before the Great Depression.

It’s reasonable to ask why, with the threat of climate change and peak oil hanging over us, we can’t replicate the achievements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and massively expand Melbourne’s rail network. If our forebears of four or five generations ago could do it, why can’t we — with our superior technology — do even better?

I think the answer is that circumstances were vastly different then and much more sympathetic to constructing a network of rail lines. I can’t bring an historian’s eye to this topic but here are some of the broad ways – consider them as hypotheses – in which I think the great rail-building era differed from today.

First, train patronage was very high in that era. Virtually everyone relied on trains to travel any sort of distance. The proportion of the metropolitan population that lived and/or worked in the inner city where rail access was best was much larger than today. Hence there was a real will to build rail lines.

Second, the railways covered their operating costs. All of the first lines built in the 1850s from Melbourne to the suburbs were financed by private money.  I don’t know when it happened in Australian cities, but US railways weren’t subsidised directly until after the second world war. If lines are profitable – or at least cover their operating costs – getting funding for expansion of networks and services is much easier.

Third, competition was limited. Investors in rail, whether private or public, had to compete with horses and in some localities with trams, but they had nothing like the competition that contemporary rail lines get from cars. The widespread market penetration of cars, especially after world war two, strangled the demand for train travel in Melbourne, reducing it’s share of motorised travel to around 10%.

Fourth, many Melbourne train lines also extended beyond the metropolitan boundary to country areas and interstate. They did double duty, carrying not only suburban commuters but also country freight and passengers. As this was an era when a much higher proportion of the nation’s population lived in the country, it would have made the case for building new lines right into the heart of Melbourne considerably stronger. Of course, country trains didn’t have to compete against trucks or planes, either. Read the rest of this entry »

What is the inner city?

We all use the term “inner city” but I doubt we’re all talking about the same geographical area.

For some people, the inner city means the area where cafe society thrives – probably a 10 km circle around the CBD in cities like Sydney and Melbourne. Or it might mean the extent of medium density historic terrace housing.

Some Brisbanites think of the inner city as the large area covered by the Brisbane City Council (1,367 km2) while some Melburnians think of it as the area serviced by tram lines.

Planners have addressed this problem by adopting simple measures. For example, in Melbourne the inner city is customarily defined as the area covered by the central municipalities of Melbourne, Yarra and Port Phillip (77 km2). Sometimes the Prahran portion (SLA) of the City of Stonnington is also included.

In my work on Melbourne I define the inner city as the area (79 km2) within a 5 km radius of the City Hall . This approximates closely to the three inner municipalities, but I use it because it’s consistent with what’s done elsewhere. US researchers typically use a 3 mile radius to define the inner city – an area approximating the size of the central Counties of the larger metros.

There are a number of problems with this sort of ‘administrative’ approach. A key one is that there is no underlying rationale for where the boundary is drawn – why not 2 km or 10 km? Another is that it doesn’t really connect with people because it has no obvious reference like, say, the tram network. Read the rest of this entry »

Historic short films of early Melbourne, 1910-1947

Melbourne Today 1931

There’s a wonderful video of Melbourne in 1931, Melbourne Today, put up by Gillian over at Melbourne Curious. This inspired me to track its original source to the Screen Australia web site where there are literally hundreds of films on diverse aspects of Australian life dating from the end of the nineteenth century.

I went looking for films with a specifically Melbourne urban perspective and picked out these four:

Marvellous Melbourne, circa 1910

City traffic in variable moods, circa 1920

Melbourne Today, 1931

Beautiful Melbourne, 1947

Melbourne Today was made by F.W. Thring, renowned Melbourne film maker and father of Aussie film legend Frank Thring (who memorably appeared as Pontius Pilate in the 50s sword and sandals epic, Ben Hur). More over the leaf….. Read the rest of this entry »

W Class trams – is this a great opportunity?

Melbourne’s W Class trams have serious limitations when it comes to doing what urban transit systems are supposed to do – move people around efficiently and quickly.

But they might potentially provide enormous benefits – particularly in relation to tourism and city “branding” – that could make their continued operation (and expansion!) more than worthwhile.

Twenty five W Class trams currently operate on the 78/79 route (Chapel St) but the Minister for Transport says they will be phased out by 2012. Another twelve operate the free City Circle route. There are possibly another 200 W Class trams in storage.

While they exude history, they are old and more like museum pieces than components of a modern public transport system. The youngest models were built in the 1950s, but the design dates from the 1920s. So there is no denying that the W Class has many shortcomings for use on a contemporary transit network.

They are slow. They are not air conditioned. They don’t have low-floor access. They are extremely noisy. They are bumpy. They do not offer adequate protection to the driver in the event of a collision with another vehicle unless they run at speeds lower than 40 Km/hr. On mixed routes they would hold up faster and more efficient trams like those operating on the 109 route, preventing them from being used to their potential. Read the rest of this entry »