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Melbourne: A Pedestrian Paradise

Finally cajoled into taking the long trip to Melbourne, I was told to expect a city where walking abounded, where the streets were flowing with energy, where the quality of public space would blow my mind. Little did I know my already high expectations would be pleasantly exceeded.

Melbourne is simply wonderful. You can get lost in the nooks and crannies that permeate the city. As you walk you feel like free-flowing air with no impediments to your enjoyment. For a city with nearly 4 million people, the streets feel much like the hustle and bustle of New York City but without omnipresent danger and stress cars cause.

There is an invaluable lesson here. In the early 90s, Melbourne was hardly a haven for pedestrian life until Jan Gehl was invited there to undertake a study and publish recommendations on street improvements and public space. Ten years after the survey's findings, Melbourne was a remarkably different place thanks to sidewalk widenings, copious tree plantings, a burgeoning cafe culture, and various types of car restrictions on some streets. Public space and art abound. And all of this is an economic boom for business.

This Streetfilm is vitally important in another way: Melbourne is a new world city, it has a modern grid much like a typical American metropolis. Naysayers who do not believe a city can be radically transformed say that the already narrow streets of many European cities make it easier to have good pedestrian environments there. Melbourne proves that isn't necessarily so.

Read up on Ethan Kent's 2007 Streetsblog report which helped spur this trip.

[intro music]
Kevin Luten: [0:23] Melbourne is frequently cited as one of the most livable cities in the world. There are a lot of reasons for why Melbourne is a livable place. Great focus on public places, public streets, transportation. We're seeing a lot of multimodal investment, increasingly, in the city. Folks have done a great job with improving the rail network. There's still lots more to do. Big focus on bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, some serious efforts on new bike lanes, separated bike lanes, throughout the city.
Anne Malloch: [0:47] It's just an amazing place to be able to walk around and feel very much a part of the streets and the shops and any sort of life that is happening.
Simon Goddard: [0:57] It's the details, the fine grain, the cultural activities, the outdoor cafes, and the little discoveries that make it a special place.
Robert Adams: [1:07] The interesting thing about Melbourne, and many cities, is that you look at the architects and the planners and you think, "How have they influenced the city?" In many cases, it's not the architects and planners that have influenced the city but the subdivision patterns that have occurred over time. Melbourne is laid out on a grid of 200 meters by 100 meter blocks. When it was subdivided in the 19th century, the 200 meters was too wide for people to walk around, so they started introducing lanes and arcades through which people could walk. [1:36] And to my left hand side here, you can noticeably see one of those arcades, the Royal Arcade. It's typical of one of the old arcades in the city. But there are other lanes that were service lanes that have now been converted to accommodate restaurants, cafes, bars, and they've really become the rich tapestry of Melbourne's pedestrian network.
Colleen Lazenby: [1:56] So in this very regular, rectangular grid, there are lots of opportunities for small spaces, for intimate spaces. The laneways offer art. They offer cafes. They offer little, special businesses, and the little, special businesses seem appropriate to the environment of a laneway.
Speaker: [2:17] When you start exploring the city, you actually find all these hidden treasures, like the laneways. You just don't know what you might discover when you come into the city, which is one of the attractions. And you also feel quite safe.
Gilbert Rochecouste: [2:29] In many respects, the laneways of Melbourne has now created what I call a living organism that's really activated place and space. We've created a real sense of community with the retailers. They've got a real sense of giving back and gifting to local artists. But more importantly, they give back to each other. And what's been created here is a little village, a village hub. [2:51] Back about 12 years ago, Flinders Lane was only so big in terms of its footpath here and only was a couple of meters wide. And as you can see, we've pushed it right out to the edge. Where there used to be two cars coming down here, now there's only one car up here. And we've got traffic hurdles and bumps. But importantly, we've reclaimed the street.
Elliot Fishman: [3:12] Over the last 10 or 15 years, in the inner city of Melbourne, there's been a reassessment of transport priorities and just livability priorities, and that's resulted in pedestrians and cyclists being given a higher level of priority than they have in the past. [music]
Robert Adams: [3:38] The interesting thing about cities is not always the big projects that are done, but the care and incremental projects. For instance, the flower store behind me was a conscious effort of getting a passive policeman in the street. So we're more interested in the fact that he's here until 10:30 at night than the rental he pays. [3:56] And on the other corner, we've got a little cafe, raised above the ground. So it's actually, people who are perched above the footpath, looking onto the street, feel comfortable. So there again, we have this passive surveillance. And we worked with an artist to actually hold the corner, so you get public art into it. So all those small things that actually make streets livable.

The original footpath would have been around about this position here. We've widened the footpath about three and a half meters. We've planted 100 trees. And we've taken all the cars out. The traffic that's allowed here is either service vehicles, trams, bicycles, buses, and taxis. Cars can come in in the evening, after 7: [4:16] 00, but have to be out again before 7:00 in the morning.

[4:40] What's happened? We've doubled the number of pedestrians in the street, simply by widening the footpath and planting a few trees. Any city can do this.

Gilbert Rochecouste: [4:48] Come over here, and I'll show you what street reclaiming is all about. This used to be a street that the city of Melbourne helped close. And as you can see here, now this has become a whole village life. [5:03] So what you see here is something that really has evolved over the last 10 years. You probably see a vertical village here, where there's a lot of activation at the top end, with different cafes. But importantly, people have reclaimed these little pocket corners. So what we call here is all the micro-detailing and the micro-experiences. And this is pretty much 18 hours a day [laughs] where everybody just embraces the street.
Kevin Luten: [5:27] Melbourne's cafe culture permeates the whole year. You get people sitting outside eating on cafes. On a day like this, it's going to be all over town. But even on winter days, they've done great jobs with protected spaces.
Simon Goddard: [5:37] Lygon Street was the place where all the Italian immigrants came when they first came to Melbourne. The city of Melbourne has spent some time widening the footpaths so as there's enough space for the outdoor seating. If you go, Lygon Street, you can see that there are the outdoor heaters as well, which are also there to extend the seasons. Speaker: [5:55] I like the chance to have the fresh air and a little bit of sunshine, and sit quietly. But you've got the hubbub of all these people, so you can watch the world go by. It's a lovely feeling.
Speaker: [6:07] Even at 10:00, 11:00 at night, there's lots of people still there eating. Therefore, there's more people walking, more people cycling. It all kind of works around in a nice little cycle. [bell rings]

Gilbert Rochecouste: [6:18] Cafe culture in Melbourne really is about the cultural glue. It really brings people together. Melbourne has come way beyond what we ever dreamed of, creating what we call tribes of cafe cultures.

[6:30] And one of them is Victoria Market. This used to be a dumping ground for rubbish. As you can see, what we did here was create some awnings, put out some seats--very simple things--closed it down to traffic, and voil� , the back ends of the shops became a cafe little precinct. And if you come into the front end of the shop, if you're coming this way, we'll start to show you what the front ends look like. So, again, you saw the back ends. Let's show the front ends.

[music]

Gilbert Rochecouste: [7:04] What Village Well did here over the last 17 years was start to really activate the edges, to instigate activities like this new cafe, which is an organic cafe, and through to creating a night market, which is now the largest night market in the southern hemisphere, with up to about 300 operators.

[7:26] So we started to create the experiences and pleasure that really activate a place. So, in a sense, it's about great product. But also, it's about the people and the spirit of the people and celebration of place.

[music]

Jan Gehl: [7:43] The overriding lesson from Melbourne is that even if you're a city in the new world, with wide streets, with a car culture, the whole thing geared for rushing from A to B, if you are willing to give people the space they need, give the bicyclists the space they need, then you can have a complete change of behavior.

Robert Adams: [8:07] In the last 20 years, we've now got Federation Square, which is a world-leading public space. We've got places like the Queen Victoria Market, which is now seen more as a recreational space, where we have opera in the evening. We've got the city square, and we've got a whole host of smaller spaces. The river has been regained, the footpaths widened, cars taken out of it, and the river now is part of the central part of the city rather than the drain that it was for many years.

Kevin Luten: [8:36] One thing that Melbourne has done a great job with is the CBD continues to revitalize itself, continues to reinvent itself. It truly is the heart of the city. It's where people meet, where people gather. There's always something on.

Speaker: [8:46] I don't know if you can see behind us here, but there's one of those open-air chess matches, with giant pieces. And this isn't the only one. There are a number of these throughout the city. That's a normal occurrence, to see something as interesting, as fun, as engaging, as visually dynamic as that on the streets of Melbourne, all the time. It's part of what Melbourne life is like.

Gilbert Rouchouste: [9:11] People have really embraced people spaces, carless, where people have got no cars, where they feel safe, they feel connected to place, and they feel intimate. And it creates a better business environment.

Simon Goddard : [9:23] I think that you can have a much more personal experience of Melbourne than you can in many other cities. And it has been designed to help you do that by encouraging walking, by encouraging you to spend time outside, and by improving the general quality of the city so as it's a great place to be, 24 hours a day.

[music]

[9:40]



Clarence Eckerson, Jr. has been making fantastical transportation media in NYC since the late 1990s. He's never had a driver's license and never will.

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  • Goblin

    So how long do we have to wait for NYC to become more like Melbourne?

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  • bikebaby

    Melbourne is a beautiful city I wish I could experience for myself. Sadly, I may have to settle for living vicariously through Clarence. First it was Bogota, then Melbourne. Where is my next virtual vacation to Streetfilms?

    And one more thing:

    Goblin(Comment #1) - Fortunately New York is moving in the right direction. NYC's biking infrastructure is improving in the five boroughs and more space is being taken back from cars to create public spaces. NYC already has a good walking culture and as the streets become more pedestrian friendly more people will walk and enjoy all the city has to offer on foot. It took a long time for Melbourne to become the Melbourne portrayed in this video. I for one and going to stick around and see just how fabulous NYC can become.

    The DOT's current efforts and Jan Gehl's words "if you are willing to give people the space they need, then you can have a complete change of behavior" give me hope that NYC will live up to its potential.

  • Chris

    This small part of Melbourne (The CBD) is fantastic (although there are problems creeping in, 24hr binge drinking violent crime etc) it's important to remember that Melbourne is a city of 3.5mil ish people and most of it is rubbish.

    Not trying to be the wowser I just think that we need to make the whole city good, because at the moment Melbourne really is a tale of two cities.

  • http://ozlocaljobs.com.au/ Jobs in Melbourne

    i heard that melbourne is a beautiful and good place in australia. actually now i am looking for jobs in melbourne if anybody knows pls reply me.

  • http://www.danwalmsley.com Daniel Walmsley

    I have to agree with both Chris (above) AND the film. I'm from Melbourne and have lived there all my life, and there is a lot to love about the city, but only if you live in a handful of very well-known areas.

    Melbourne's CBD is mostly really good, though not uniformly good - some large areas are still very NYC-ish or even LA-ish and alienating, particularly the western side of the city and the APPALLING new docklands development. 

    The docklands is just the worst kind of architect-driven, sweeping, modern nonsense with zero sense of intimacy and seemingly designed just to get people to buy expensive apartments there before it was built. Filling an artists' rendering with happy couples pushing prams is easy; actually bringing people to that space is really hard, particularly with a huge stadium on one side, faceless ultra-modern buildings on the other and empty, sweeping grass mounds and sidewalks with a very low density of small business opportunities that are needed to bring a place to life.

    The best urban renewal in Melbourne right now (in my opinion) is happening in mid-tier villages, Brunswick, Collingwood and Northcote. These formerly derelict shopping strips have been reclaimed by urban hipsters and turned into thriving communities full of really interesting galleries, cafes, performance spaces etc. We've seen this phenomenon before, about 10 years ago, in Fitzroy - a former unkempt urban wasteland that now has colossal land value thanks to the efforts of thousands of individual urban revivalists who made a conscious effort in the legitimisation and professionalisation of graffiti (resulting in beautiful world-class murals), introduction of innovative businesses, and extending the opening hours of bars and clubs. The influx of young people on the weekends funded a lot of investment in the suburb itself, though now most of the innovation has moved on as land prices shot up.

    But the untold story of Melbourne that people don't really hear is the urban sprawl. There are people commuting up to 2 or 3 hours from outer suburbs into Melbourne - lots of them - living in gated communities with no real life to them. Houses without backyards or nearby sporting grounds, very little investment in things for young people to do locally (hence the huge influx of frustrated youngsters into the CBD at night looking for fights), and a culture that values bigger cars over community cooperation. There are serious social problems developing in these communities due to a lack of balance and access to facilities or public transport. 

    So what has driven people to the outer suburbs? I think two things.

    First, rent and land prices are IN-SANE. Most investment in Australia is in land rather than small businesses (for complicated reasons) which has pushed land and hour prices up by 7 - 17% p/a for decades, way beyond the CPI and increasingly beyond the wallets of young people trying to live out of home for the first time, and particularly young families. So they move way out to the fringe of the city, and therefore that's where the investment is, rather than in renewing these interior urban spaces that really need it.

    Secondly, the "Australian Dream" is to have a huge home all to yourself, not a modest apartment in a high-density area. Most people aren't satisfied unless they end up owning a double-story home with a whole floor dedicated to the kids' toys and playthings - not a lifestyle conducive to an efficient, satisfying and tightly integrated urban environment. 

    So, sorry for all the negativity, but I did want to provide a kind of sober counterpoint to the excellent video above. Everything they pointed out is true - those urban spaces have been reclaimed. But they are pockets of renewal, rather than overall renewal, and most of Melbourne still has big challenges in terms of equitable access to housing, transport, and activities - more like LA than San Francisco in many ways.

  • http://www.nomadicnotes.com James Clark

    I always like to read visitors perspective of my city.

    As some of the comments have mentioned, Melbourne has a big urban sprawl. At least in the last few years there is housing density being built in the inner city, particularly in Southbank (the other side of the river from the CBD).

  • http://situp-cycle.com Michael Rubbo

    I come back to this film very often. It's just a delightful capture of Melbourne street life. But it also contains a hidden truth if you know where to look . Check the bike traffic. Note firstly that the shots devoted to city cycling are few and short. The camera seems to love the pedestrians and avoid cyclists.

    Secondly, note that the cyclists exhibit none of the relaxed smiling style of the pedestrians which might be why they fell to the cutting room floor. .The bike riders who are in the shot, generally have their heads down, are in a hurry, look as stressed as any car driver.

    Indeed, they seem to have been somehow denied Melbourne's transformative energy which the film discovers and celebrates. Why this this? Because, whilst being a pedestrian is just as dangerous statistically as being a cyclist, the bikers have, by law, to wear helmets and these unnecessary lids keeps them apart and out of the the good vibe.

    If the film was to be remade today, it would be worse. You'd see forlorn stands of virtually unused blue share bikes. The same as in London or Montreal but here, ignored. They are even more penalized by the compulsory helmet law.

    The solution is an experimental exemption for these blue bikes. Surely this is possible, given the innovative, change friendly spirit which pervades the film and which is clearly very Melbourne. Mike Rubbo http://situp-cycle.com

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  • Julian Wearne

    As a Melbournian I can definitely appreciate what this video is saying, with one exception.

    As Michael Rubbo has pointed out, Melbourne is not a bike friendly city. Apart from the exception of a few good bike paths, and a pair of 'Copenhagen' style bike lanes (that have been met with mostly criticism), bike riders are usually forced to either deal with very narrow bike paths that often only exist during clearway times and are almost always flanked with parked cars ready to open drivers side doors in your path at any given moment.

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  • Joe Gao

    I just wanted to comment that the Melbournian model is specific to its climate conditions. This would be really hard to replicate for some cities. West coast North America for example.

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