The Changing Face of Swanston St. - Part I
Russell Degnan

Slightly less than ten years ago, when I first moved to Melbourne, the entire length of Swanston St. was relatively squalid. Full of empty lots, ugly service stations, or run-down businesses. It is now around halfway through the most rapid change of almost any street you could name in Melbourne. More interestingly however is that it is rarely commented on; despite it being the best example of the potential streetscape that the wailing objectors to high-rise apartment buildings are trying to prevent.

This post - and the followup - are an attempt to address that problem. In particular I want to assess three points: whether the buildings built are sympathetic to the area; whether the street is better for pedestrians as a result of the developments; and what this says about land-use planning (if anything). I will start by looking at the changes north of Victoria St.

Almost every change in the past decade has been on eastern side of the street. On the west the brewery site remains undeveloped, although the Sidney Myer Centre has been built at Melbourne University (bottom photo). What has been built are apartments, modern in style, set against the street, very square, and austere but for the splashes of colour, with small balconies. Almost all of them are 10 storeys high, but - particularly interestingly - no higher.

The height is very important in making the apartments sympathetic to the street. They don't dominate the remaining few buildings of interest - particularly the Canada Hotel and the old fire station. They are tall, and making good use of the land but don't overwhelm you as a pedestrian. In this way it is a similar sensation to that given by the buildings built under the 40 metre height restrictions in Melbourne, or to buildings in Europe that by-and-large conform to similar standards.

Aesthetically I am less convinced. When they were going up I thought the street was being over-run with the worst kind of cheap, drab concrete-box architecture (second picture). While the finished product is better, I fear for their condition in ten or twenty years time. They are certainly not inspiring, and in many cases they are downright dull. But that is an argument that could be made against most housing.

For pedestrians nothing much has changed. Well, almost. In years gone by you just wouldn't walk down that side of the street. It was not pleasant at all. Now, it is still not pleasant - none of Swanston St. is although Melbourne University is improving - but it is walkable. What hasn't improved is the amount of cover, the amount of greenery is very sparse, particularly in winter; the footpaths are still narrow, and the buildings don't address the street very well, producing a dull experience.

More generally, the urban design elements seem to be checked off a list of minimum requirements rather than actually trying to improve the space. To some extent it is council responsibility, but it is in the best interests of the owners to improve these spaces. The lack of attention to these elements says to me that neither the developers or the approving planners actually addressed the underlying goals of good urban design when they did these projects.

I think both of the questions I addressed above go to the heart of the system of land use and development controls we have in place. In almost no way could you point to these developments and say they are markedly inferior. Their height is well controlled, and they don't reduce the amenity of pedestrians, or other buildings, they are reasonable aesthetically, and produce a reasonable street frontage. But in no way do they exceed what you could expect from the controls either. The spirit is not there, the urban spaces are still drab and meaningless, they are just meaningless in a new and slightly less obnoxious way.

Swanston St. has changed a lot, but it doesn't inspire at all. Not in the way the Parisien end of Collins St. does, or in an entirely different way: nearby Lygon St. or even Drummond St. In a way that might not matter, because a street doesn't have to have character, and it may grow it over time. But I also think we need to better address what gives them character so we can maintain it when it exists, and find it when it doesn't.

Passing Fancy 20th September, 2004 01:36:46   [#] 


Blame the customers...
I think the problem is that the customers for these places ((mainly) overseas students who rent, the investors who buy for students who rent, and the parents of overseas students who buy), don't give a whit about design. It's the same reason why Caroline Springs, as you've described it, only pays lip service to the needs of pedestrians.

Much and all as I hate to admit defeat at the hands of the market, it's hard to see how you can legislate against stupid property buyers...

Rob  23rd September, 2004 13:15:14