Making Public Space Great Again

We asked three urban design experts about their favourite Melbourne places (and what they’d do differently)

For centuries, community issues have been overcome by building cracking public spaces that everyone can enjoy. But coming together in shared places hasn’t always been a picnic, and that’s where placemaking comes in. From unappreciated laneways to poorly designed hubs, we quizzed some of the pros on their favourite Melbourne places that weren’t always so popular, and how urban planning made them great again.

It’s these types of big thinkers — from fields of urban design, public art, placemaking, and community building — that pave the way for so many other creative solutions that promote sustainability, livability, and wellbeing. At The O Initiative, we’re taking on the challenge of bottled water and plastic pollution through some clever placemaking of our own; by collaborating with businesses and communities to create beautiful water fountains that provide sustainable water choice, so that we can begin to end bottled water for good.

Today is the first in our series of expert interviews, where we chat to three top guns about creating exceptional public spaces to support local communities. In this panel, we spoke to:

  • Gilbert Rochecouste — the founder of Australia’s leading creative placemaking consultancy, Village Well, and internationally recognised trailblazer in creating vibrant, resilient, and integrated public spaces (above, left)
  • Jean Darling — the founder of social enterprise placemaking consultancy, Commune + Co, with a focus on socially inclusive community developments and valuable engineering (above, centre)
  • Jeanette Lambert — strategy director at Brickfields Consulting, the world’s first property innovation consultancy, specialising in insights which enable the most dynamic and innovative solutions for owners and operators of place (above, right)

Q: So, tell us about your all-time favourite public space in Melbourne

Gilbert: Ooh, there are a couple of standouts that come to mind; the Queen Vic night markets, High St Northcote, Melbourne Central piazza and laneway, the revitalising of central Dandenong. But, I’d have to say my overall favourite is the Flinders Lane / Degraves St precinct.

Jean: For me, I’m much more comfortable with small-scale, grassroots renewal; think “naturally occurring” urban renewal that seems to ‘just happen’. My favourite is my backyard in Collingwood, which has undergone waves of both urban renewal and gentrification since the 1950s. I’d loosely describe it as more of a bottom-up (rather than top-down) textural urban transformation, especially in the 1990s, when warehouses built primarily by 19th-century rag traders started being reoccupied and reused.

Jeanette: That would be the Yarraville Pop Up Park. It was initially intended as a temporary intervention, but it was so loved by the local community that it has become a permanent fixture. However, if I was to think bigger, in terms of city making and renewal, I’d have to say City Square, despite its recent demolition to make way for the Melbourne Metro Works. Luckily, plans are in place to rebuild this important space to its former glory, inclusive of a new train station entry.

Q: And what was it about these public spaces that made them ripe for development?

Gilbert: The Flinders/Degraves laneways were a result of the original Hoddle Grid, but weren’t viewed as actual ‘destinations’. Melbourne, at the time, was struggling — with empty buildings, high vacancy rates, dead laneways and no outdoor eating. The laneways were just undervalued areas where you put your bins out, and otherwise avoided at all costs.

This created a lot of room for experimentation. The grid system had given us laneways that could promote walkability, connection and at Village Well, we saw the potential to unlock this underutilised area.

Looking back, there was a unique set of circumstances that fuelled the urban renewal in the Degraves precinct: an influx of artists and experimental business owners moving into the city, capitalising on cheap rent, and liquor licensing laws shifted to allow for outdoor eating environments. When our activation took on Degraves Street, it represented everything we believed in at the time; we were walking our talk and creating the world we wanted to inhabit.

Jean: Funnily enough, Smith Street in Collingwood was once the top pick for the main street of Melbourne’s CBD, before it was relocated to what we now know as Swanston Street, and I think that just shows the appeal of the neighbourhood even back then. Now, Collingwood is the quintessential 20-minute walkable neighbourhood.

Jeanette: The often underestimated City Square was heavily criticised in its first iteration, but looking back, in many ways it was ahead of its time. The 1970s design approach brought with it retail and food offers, impressive water features, and a giant video screen (which itself was highly controversial) — all of which would now often be considered key inclusions for successful public realm activation.

The core problem was the design also actively discouraged large public gatherings, a reaction to the many protests occurring at the time, and it eventually became a no-go zone after the retail failed. In the 1990s, half the square was sold, and the remainder redeveloped to become an important platform for public life in Melbourne.

Q: Can you tell us why these spaces stand out to you?

Gilbert: I love the fact that Degraves street is a melting pot of creativity, culture and commerce. Sanctioned and non-sanctioned ephemeral street art has flourished.

Our first laneway festival in 1996 and laneway closure in 1997 helped the city get a glimpse of what it could be; we activated the area with trees, bands, salsa, food and of course public art. It’s turned into this raw, real, welcoming place, and people felt a sense of connection and intimacy that made them want to linger.

Degraves street has now become part of the city fabric — a cultural icon — due to its vitality, its quirkiness and its vibrant economy supported by our famous coffee culture and outdoor eating options. After all these years it’s still my favourite place in Melbourne.

Jean: As a long time resident and migrant to Melbourne who has always lived in inner north neighbourhoods like Collingwood, I absolutely love the vast creative, cultural and socio-economic diversity of the people who live in this area. In response to past planning practices, much of the suburb is now a historic preservation precinct, with many individual buildings and streetscapes covered by Heritage Overlays.

Jeanette: City Square stood out to me as a place that reinvented itself by responding to the goings on of Melbourne city and its community. It has become an important part of Melbourne’s activation calendar, regularly playing host to seasonal installations, performances and protests alike. It really got back on its feet by introducing a destinational retailer and Melbourne icon in Brunetti’s, as well as integrating water features and public art that encourage playful interaction.

Q: If you had the chance, what would you change or improve about these spaces?

Gilbert: Unfortunately, the Degraves area has now it has become a victim of its own success. Who would have thought? Rent has gone up, the artists have moved out, and gentrification has crept in.

I would love to see rent capping as they do in New York and London to increase the level of diversity among tenants. Or the Melbourne City Council could purchase buildings to allow the artists back in, which would inject more creativity and edginess back into the area.

Jean: I’d really love to see more family-friendly infrastructure and initiatives for young families in the Collingwood area (even hipsters have babies, right?) as well as more inclusive green spaces, community gardens and amenity diversity on Smith Street beyond the standard food and drink. How about a cinema, a bowling alley, perhaps more variety of affordable housing choices?

There’s always room for improvement; for example, local artists who can no longer afford to live in this neighbourhood are being pushed further out. This could still be a good thing as they’re part of a new generation spurring the next wave of grassroots renewal of future exciting activity centres (think Brunswick, Northcote, Thornbury, Preston). That being said, it would be great to create subsidised studios and office spaces for all types of creative talent, from entrepreneurs to emerging artists to members of disadvantaged communities.

Jeanette: It will be really interesting to see whether the addition of the Town Hall Station entrance will shift the dynamic of the space. I think the ground floor activation at the base of the City Square’s Westin Hotel has been steadily improving over time, and there’s probably more potential for it to contribute to the activation of the square, beyond the events and /installations that the square currently plays host to.

Concluding the interview, Gilbert fittingly added:

“Melbourne is at the tipping point, ready for a new story. New progressive thinking about how to evolve power back to the community is being tested in different models. Small, resilient place-based economies, where consumers become citizens and drive sustainable progress forward, will lead the way.”

Keep updated on all things urban renewal & creative thinking with The O Initiative. This is the first of many exceptional interviews you’ll soon find on our page.

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