To say that urban design in Victoria is in crisis may sound a little alarmist but, at the start of 2018, we seem to be in unchartered waters. The Urban Design Unit within the Department of Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) has been disbanded, the current government is selling off public spaces to commercial entities, and the opposition plans to destroy many of our neighbourhood centres in the name of traffic "efficiency". What is going on?
Urban design, as a discipline, is concerned with the Public Realm or public environment. As the Victorian Urban Design Charter states, "urban design focuses on the public environment, which includes all places, regardless of ownership, that are open, available and inviting to public use".
The current state
Our current Planning Minister the Hon Richard Wynne is quoted as saying, "Our public space is what defines our city and what makes Melbourne the best place to live in the world". The Urban Design Unit was tasked with providing policy and advice about those public places. It designed the decision environment within which development actors operate. Importantly the subtext was always to do this with the citizen in mind rather than the consumer. Design guidance was generated by the Unit and this included the Design Guidelines for Higher Density Residential Development, the Safer Design Guidelines for Victoria, the Activity Centre Design Guidelines and the Interim Guidelines for Larger Format Retail. The Unit managed the Pride of Place program delivering urban quality to many Victorian communities. For a brief period, it was given authority to undertake design projects, including Queensbridge Square, Sandridge Bridge, (in partnership with the City of Melbourne) and the removal of the Flinders Street overpass and restoration of the streetscape in Flinders Street. The strategic justification for the Willian Barak bridge was generated from within the Urban Design Unit. More recently the Unit led the highly successful process to reduce excessive floorspace ratios in the central city.
Given the political statements about the importance of urban design in our city, why then has the Urban Design Unit been disbanded on this Minister's watch, and on the watch of the current DELWP management? If the Unit wasn't performing as desired, then management should have had the courage to change the personnel rather than give up on a primary body generating policy to maintain urban quality in our city and state. The argument that the Office of the Victorian Government Architect and the Victoria Planning Authority will pick up the slack is simply not convincing.
Apple at Fed Square
The well-documented saga of the proposal to demolish part of Fed Square to construct an Apple store underpins the paucity of good urban design thinking amongst our decisionmakers. It provides clear evidence that there is increasingly limited attention being paid to broader community needs. In an elegant piece (published in The Age, 31 December, 2017) Dimity Read described the Fed Square predicament as one of morality. She wrote, "Fed Square is not just a nickname but a representation of who we are. And we destroy that at our peril". Too true. Paul Carter, designer of Nearamnew, the artwork on the surface of the square itself, points to the small value placed on public culture when part ofFederation Square is able to be demolished to accommodate a shopfront for a multinational corporation. Kirsten Bauer, Adjunct Professor at RMIT points out that the Apple proposal fails to recognise the role of the community values in the production of meaningful public realm, and makes a mockery of the notion of Melbourne as one of the world's most liveable cities.
Federation Square is in many ways our urban living room. Selling it off to commercial interests is not in the Victorian community's interest. If increasing income for Fed Square is the issue, then by all means incorporate Apple or any other commercial outfit into the built form, but do not destroy part of our living room which so clearly expresses our nation's history. The uniformity and consistency of the architecture is a clear reference to the act of Federation itself where States came together equally to establish an egalitarian Australia. If we destroy this, we are all diminished.
One step too far...
Well, enough is enough. Victorians, urbanists, urban designers, planners, engineers and architects who value the public places in our city are outraged. The demolition of part of Federation Square is one step too far, and it is incumbent on us to be vocal about this so that decisionmakers become aware of the consternation this is causing. Appealing to government through the Urban Design Unit is no longer possible. We therefore need to find new avenues for expressing our discontent.
As the expression goes, one bad apple can destroy the whole barrel. This may well be that bad apple. If, like me, you value our public places and are growing alarmed by the attack on community and cultural value inherent in those places, the diminishing value placed on urban design in public places and our governance structures, the reduction of urban design thinking, and you wish to voice your disapproval of the Fed Square proposal, we need to get active.
Thank you to Steve Thorne for permission to publish this article.