“We need an approach that will see our cities repurposed by getting more from less: a re-timetabling rather than the grand engineering projects of the twentieth century” — Rob Adams, Director City Design, City of Melbourne
[A two-part series of this article was published for The Urbanist. This version also included images of some of Seattle's activated alleys to demonstrate the potential for the city following Melbourne's approach - refer to Part 1 and Part 2].
Only a few decades ago, the intricate network of laneways in Melbourne, Australia, carved into the street grid by property owners for access, sewerage, and waste disposal during the Victorian era, were overlooked and devoid of life. As a result of incremental initiatives, Melbourne’s laneways are now world-renowned — transformed into inviting passages, lined with an enviable mix of alfresco eateries, unique bars, boutiques, street art and residences. The revitalization of Melbourne’s laneways provides an example of re-envisaging these spaces as public assets.
In 1994, only 300 meters of laneways in central Melbourne were considered to be activated and accessible. But within 10 years this had increased 10 fold to approximately 3km. This change is significant. The City of Melbourne's Walking Plan (2014) estimates increasing walking connectivity of the central grid just 10%, generates an additional $2.1 billion per annum to the local economy. Melbourne's lanes are unique public spaces, providing important north-south connections as well as interesting places for social interaction, outdoor dining, live music, and art. They also provide a service function for waste management and car parking access.
Compared to main streets, the lanes are more conducive to a human scale, with narrow widths limiting vehicular access and favoring the buzz of pedestrian movement. There was no single policy or approach that led to the experience offered in Melbourne’s laneways today; rather, economic, social and cultural circumstances, coupled with state policy reform and urban design strategies to build upon the city’s assets and historic charm. Whilst Melbourne is now internationally renowned for the successful laneway revitalization, the City of Melbourne and State Government of Victoria delivered a suite of initiatives to improve the public realm over the long-term. In Seattle, there are several successful examples of activated alleyways as well as temporarily programming for events that demonstrate the potential for enhancing other parts of the network here.
From the 1970s, Melbourne’s Central Business District (downtown area) was in decline, as it began losing residents and retail to the appeal of the suburbs — offering convenient access by car. A homogenous business center, empty beyond the working day, the vibrancy of the center was threatened. The city’s celebrated Victorian streetscape character was undermined by encroaching freeways serving commuters, the demolition of heritage buildings, and new developments in breach of height restrictions. Contemporary buildings dominated city blocks, eroding the laneways, which had become neglected spaces used for little more than garbage disposal.
In 1978, architect Norman Day reflected the growing community concern about the loss of Melbourne’s character, writing in an article for the Age newspaper, “Our planners should be reaffirming the notion of Melbourne as an arcaded city instead of allowing architects to allocate useless, wind-swept forecourts ‘for the public use’.”
By the 1980s, the population of the central city had decreased to just 2000 residents. The decline in light manufacturing and warehousing activity in inner Melbourne, and an oversupply of office space in the center, left many parts of the city vacant. New ways of thinking about the form and function of the core began to evolve. City and state leaders, designers, developers, and businesses started to recognize the importance of re-activating the central city to attract residents and business back. Melbourne’s laneways benefited from strategies to restore the public perception of the center and offer a more comfortable experience for people.
Public realm strategies
The City of Melbourne developed strategies to manage the changes affecting the city and mitigate the exodus of people and businesses. With a goal to reactivate the inner city, the Strategy Plan (1985) sought to reinforce Melbourne’s positive characteristics, while addressing the negatives. Streetscapes were graded according to quality, and heritage buildings identified, supporting the conservation process for significant places. The City established a goal to increase the central city population by 8000 residents over 15 years. To achieve this, the city directed attention and investment to the quality of the public realm.
The City’s Grids and Greenery strategy (1987) identified natural and constructed patterns of Melbourne, informing the development of urban design principles to reinforce these characteristics. The City focused on improving the pedestrian experience, establishing a program for widening sidewalks, planting more street trees, replacing unnecessary asphalt with green spaces, and installing additional street lighting. These efforts helped to reverse the downward trend in people living in and visiting the central city.
The City required new buildings to be built to site boundaries, discouraging large paved plazas, to maintain the street edge, and ensure a strong connection between buildings and the pedestrian on the street. A percentage of the street facade of new buildings were required to have active frontages, such as shops or businesses, to provide a visual or physical interaction between the ground floor and public space. This policy arguably supported small tenancies and continually increased retail spaces, ensuring a steady supply which played a role in maintaining competitive rents, offering opportunity for experimentation by diverse and independent businesses. The historic bluestone paving of Melbourne was preserved, or reinstated in sidewalks, most notably in the laneways. Across the City, these detailed design qualities reflect the the mantra of the City’s Director of City Design, Professor Rob Adams, “If you can design a good street, you have a good city". With more inviting and interesting streets, laneways and public spaces for pedestrians to enjoy, people spent more time in them.
In the mid-1980s, state liquor laws were relaxed, with the cost of obtaining a liquor license reduced significantly. Venues serving alcohol were no longer required to offer food. This minimized overheads including kitchen fit-outs and operational costs which had previously priced out smaller independent businesses. The changes enabled a greater variety of premises to serve alcohol such as small cafes, bars and restaurants. Unique spaces in laneways and on rooftops offered lower rents for entrepreneurs seeking to offer patrons a point of difference. Coupled with the permitting of street side dining, the changes had a transformative impact on the function of streets and lanes as spaces for socializing and dining. In the 1980s, there were just 2 outdoor cafes in central Melbourne, which has risen above 500 today. There are hundreds of little bars, and street-side cafes, hidden in Melbourne’s maze of laneways, creating a sense of intrigue and surprise.
As part of the broader initiative to regenerate the central city, a mix of uses and variety of development were promoted to activate streets and lanes. The City introduced the 'Postcode 3000' initiative in the 1990s, which sought to transform the stagnant business district into a 24-hour city by encouraging people to live in the center. The City provided a range of financial incentives, technical guidance, promotion, policy change and street level support to encourage residential development. A focus of these efforts was re-purposing and re-designing the oversupply of offices and vacant heritage buildings and warehouses for residential use.
The number of residential units increased by 830% in a decade from approximately 1,000 in 1992 to almost 10,000 — today about 20,000 people live in the Central Business District. The growing residential community had a significant impact on the demand for retail, services, public space, and increased foot traffic in the inner city. Active street frontage policies contributed to a vertical mix of cafes or retail on street level, with apartments or offices above, improving the pedestrian experience. Many underutilized buildings were located on laneways contributing to their transformation.
Supporting art and culture
Public art projects were promoted to beautify the laneways. Today many of the laneways are world renowned for their street art, functioning as galleries as well as stages for performances. Art on the walls lining many laneways are treated as temporary, often layered over, providing an interesting and constantly changing experience for pedestrians and generating exposure for artists. The City has a unique policy regarding street art. Graffiti is not encouraged, however, the City provides permits for what is constituted as “legal” street art, where building owners have granted permission to the artist. Street art applied without permission of the building owner is removed.
In 2001, the City introduced a Laneway Commissions Program, in which artists are encouraged to develop a work for a specific lane. Each year several artists are selected to create temporary pieces. The laneways also provide spaces for music events. The largest examples include the St Jerome's Laneway Festival, which transformed several laneways into stages for a one-day music event each summer from 2005 to 2009 and White Night, an all-night free music and arts event which takes over the city's lanes and streets for people's enjoyment, which commenced in 2013. Art and cultural features support the laneways as a significant tourist attraction.
Public life research
Melbourne is one of the only cities in the world with a formal and longitudinal research program for collecting data on public life and pedestrian activity. In 1994, the City engaged Danish architect and urban designer, Jan Gehl, to conduct a groundbreaking study of the quality of public space and human activity in the central city. The study 'Places for People' repeated in 2004 and 2014 (the latter is due to be released), provides a database documenting pedestrian counts and behavior in relationship to features of the urban environment, including the location and type of public spaces, street and laneway connections, building form, business types, residential buildings, and street furniture. The research assists the City to understand the condition of the public realm, the impact of changes to the built environment on pedestrian activity, and prioritize work programs. Gehl’s reports have documented the impact of laneway revitalization on the way people use the city as well as identifying opportunities for their ongoing improvement.
The Melbourne Planning Scheme provides guidance for development on laneways to support their diverse servicing, social, cultural, and economic functions. It classifies the quality of laneways, identifying many that would benefit from upgrades to enhance the pedestrian experience. New development on laneways is encouraged to support the human scale nature and pedestrian connections through articulated frontages, overlooking windows and balconies, and small tenancies integrated at ground level. Several recent developments in the city are separated by new passages, referencing Melbourne’s laneways. Developers recognize the laneways are a sought after location, offering appeal to businesses, and in many cases have integrated new public laneways and arcades through developments. Examples include major retail stores QV, Melbourne Central and GPO; and public buildings at Southern Cross Tower, Southern Cross Station, Federation Square and the base of the City of Melbourne’s green headquarters, CH2.
With an estimated 844,000 people (the equivalent to one-fifth of the population of metropolitan Melbourne) visiting the central city everyday, laneways are an important public space asset. The revitalization of laneways has helped to repair missing links in the pedestrian network, providing unique routes to support increased walking activity. Mebourne's approach suggests incremental and cumulative policy, urban design and programming efforts are the key to making laneway revitalization successful in other cities.