Docklands and the Imagination
Russell Degnan

Imagination was never in short supply when it came to the Docklands. Or rather, ideas were never in short supply: huge towers, stadiums, ferris wheels, movie studios, technology parks and even a multi-function polis. Yet, a few weeks ago, when the 10 year anniversary of the Docklands approached, and assessments were made, almost everyone derided it as stale, mono-cultural, and a disappointment.

Not that it is a complete disaster. And it is largely unfinished. Merely, that an area roughly the size of the CBD has been developed with barely a hundredth the diversity or spirit of its adjoining area. How is it, that an area so well connected, so primed for interesting development, became, essentially, several long row of multi-storey apartment blocks for singles, couples without children and gays, interspersed with over-priced restaurants and cafes for suburban tourists.

The easiest excuse is to say Docklands needs more time:

"[Mark Birrell] says the Hoddle Grid, parceled up and sold off in large chunks like Docklands, was "patchy" for 70 years. "If you'd measured the success of the CBD 30 years into its development, you would have said: 'What's this, a railway station up one end grand as hell and the Treasury Building down the other end looking like something out of Paris. Then you've got tents and dirt paths in between?' ""

It might seem, in light of previous articles and what I am about to say, that I am harping on the historical inaccuracies of ill-informed politicians for no reason. But different elements of this statement are symptomatic of why Docklands is not at all what it could be.

"Large lots" is probably the Docklands most obvious weakness. The CBD had largish lots, its true (quarter acre), but the Docklands has huge lots, having split a similarly large areas into just seven precincts and 64 lots. And whereas the CBD quickly realised when the lots were too big and split them into dozens (sometimes far too many) allotments where every conceivable business or residence could find a place, the Docklands lots are controlled from above, each ending up one next to the other.

The problem with this is neatly summarised by William Blaze:

"The whole is more than the sum of itís parts because the whole includes the relations between the parts."

The interactions between the different elements of the CBD are numerous and difficult to trace, as they are throughout much of the (mostly unplanned) inner suburbs. The interactions between the elements of the Docklands are simple and boring; the Docklands, despite the art, the occasionally interesting modern architecture, and the well laid out streets, is simple and boring. And no developer has ever shown that they are capable of designing complexity, no matter how feted they are.

This is also why "Patchy" is a ridiculous way to describe a city. The CBD is patchy now; all cities are. An imaginative city, like any imaginative enterprise will be marked by failure, by poor buildings and streets as well as good. This is because they grow in fits and starts, as the commentators well know, but it is also because they are designed to grow. It remains to be seen whether the Docklands is designed to grow. The land is owned by big companies, and body corporates. Changing things in the Docklands will be very difficult. The planning legislation and ownership pattern will mitigate against changing anything in the Docklands.

If it can be changed at all. History might suggest otherwise.

Mark Birrell's ignorance of early Melbourne history, and more importantly, how the community of Melbourne and its urban form interact are perhaps his greatest sins, and moreover, the sins of so many in planning.

His assessment of Melbourne 30 years after settlement is palpably false: the Old Treasury building existed alright, but no "grand" railway station existed at "one end" until 2006, or even somewhere towards the centre until 1905. Nor were there any tents in 1865. Partly because early land sales had a building requirement on them, partly because the Melbourne Building Act of 1849 saw a rapid increase in quality buildings built, and partly because a free market in land during the population boom of the gold rush wouldn't allow such a gross waste of land (unlike today's heavily controlled and under-built efforts). I looked at dozens of pictures to check this, and there is no sign of a tent anywhere, nor, for that matter dirt streets (although the quality was middling); they having been macadamised in the mid-1850s.

Nor should tents be a problem. A tent next to a dirt path is a perfectly acceptable temporary use of the land, because it puts people onto it, creates links to surrounding uses, and provides for further growth. The newly incorporated City of Melbourne didn't concern itself with grand plans and visions of the future. It focused (often badly, but well enough) on the things it could change, the streets, the basic quality of the buildings, and their ability to interact. As Miles Lewis noted in his history of Melbourne, by the early 1840s (within 10 years of founding you'll note), the basic patterns of CBD usage were in place:

"mercantile and warehousing activity areas near the Pool and the wharves, banking in central Collins Street, the retailing heart between Swanston and Elizabeth Streets, the medical precinct in the vicinity of Dr. Richard Howitt's House in Collins Street East and so on."

Docklands may never recover from its own patterns of activity, because changing them is so extraordinary difficult. And it is the fault, not of developers, but entirely of governments who rescinded their responsibility towards the basic elements of city form in favour of grandiose visions.

The first, and most vital aspect of the Docklands should have been cleaning the land for residential and commercial use. The government should have taken on the risk here, unless they believed the land to be irrevocably doomed, in which case why are they bothering? A levy could easily have been applied on future users to pay for it. Instead the risk and the cleaning was left to developers with the inevitable small target approach.

The second should have been the staged development of Docklands, connecting small lots to the CBD, including, as far as possible, the disappearance of the railway tracks that have, for so long, prevented growth in that direction. Instead, they released the land in a big batch, and built a stadium, a grand station, and a couple of unappealing bridges. Given the efort put into it, the connection between the two areas is suprisingly good.

The planners who imagined the replacement of derelict docks and warehouses by a socially inclusive, diverse and vibrant area were well intentioned, but where and when has that ever been designed?. Jane Jacobs once claimed that cities "are natural generators of diversity and prolific incubators of new enterprises and ideas of all kinds". They are, and the failure of Docklands to inspire is the fault of planners who removed any chance for people to do the inspiring.

Sterner Matters 3rd July, 2006 20:57:09   [#] 


Missed that writing in The Age. But a pretty good piece of writing on your part. Thanks.
Andrew  4th July, 2006 01:30:46  

Docklands and the Imagination
You have a more educated approach. I just cycle through and go "oh, poo". And note the way it seems to have no integration, as one private bit whacks against another private bit as if some collision had occured between parallel dimensions.
david tiley  5th July, 2006 19:50:47  

Docklands and the Imagination
thanks Andrew and David. Despite the pessimistic aspects of this post, I do think these sort of problems can be fixed. We do need to aproach them differently though.
Russ  6th July, 2006 19:49:35  

Docklands and the Imagination
Peter Newman and Graeme Davison were debating suburbs vs inner-city last night at the Melbourne Museum.

Docklands was mentioned unfavourably by Davison. Newman's suggestion was to do as Vancouver does and require that a certain amount go to public spaces as a condition for development approval.

At work we were discussing it. I'd never been there (no reason to, though one day curiousity will get the better of me) but my colleague hated it - nothing for the kids - so they lasted there 10 min before going home.
Peter  7th July, 2006 20:26:45  

Docklands and the Imagination
Peter, thanks for that. I can't really comment because I didn't hear what they said, but there are already public space requirements on most developments, including Docklands which has heaps of it. Unfortunately they don't/can't specify how to put them in useful places that connect things, instead of being big empty blank things. I am not sure that is the problem.

I recommend having a look around Docklands, it is quite interesting. There are pockets that are reasonable as urban places (along some of the piers for instance), but boring because they are basically the same development. But they are pockets, if you try and walk between them there is this strange gap. and it is the quality of the public space (streets are public space remember) that is the issue, along with the scale and slow creation of the private bits.
Russ  8th July, 2006 01:15:10