As we wander around the world looking for cities that can teach us Rochesterians a thing or two about good urbanism, we occasionally stumble across places that are sufficiently astonishing that they must be shared. And so, herewith is a peek at Melbourne, Australia.
Melbourne, looking north from Port Phillip Bay and the Tasmanian Ferry Terminal.
Melbourne is a big city, with a population of just over 4 million. And it has lots of things wrong with it – expressways that are traffic nightmares, new road construction, a fair amount of sprawl at the edges – although most but not all of this is industrial rather than the more conventional kinds of sprawl we’re used to – perhaps a few too many big sports stadia (though soccer, cricket, rugby, and tennis are all a stone’s throw from one another), a downtown shopping mall: most of the usual crud that affects almost all cities (if you want to see a real mess in the making, go spend a bit of time in and around Bangkok….). So at the very outset, let me be completely clear: Melbourne is not Arcadia. We have not discovered the Beulah Land. But….
We have been thinking quite a lot of late about what a city should look like and how it should be arranged in order to be better prepared for the changes ahead. What changes, you ask? Well here are a few: very soon there will be lots more people, fewer resources and some scarcities, less wealth, our mobility will be different (less actual movement, more movement via technology), there will be fewer cars, energy will be more expensive, the weather will be different, food will be more expensive, local will make more sense (cost, availability) than trans-national or global. When you ask? Oh, any time now.
But back to Melbourne, mostly ready for its future. During our recent visit we had the great good fortune to be guided and toured about the city by friends who have lived there for many, many years. Not architects or urban designers – phew – but smart people who are quite tuned in to their home place. So we saw a lot, and a lot that most tourists would never see: traffic jams, city edges, many of Melbourne’s beautiful and huge parks, the close-in suburbs, neighborhood nodes and their shopping zones, and more. Not to say our visit was comprehensive by any means, but we did manage to get to most corners of the city. And – wow.
Afoot on downtown Melbourne’s Swanston Street.
Before we reached the gridded and bustling downtown of Melbourne, we took a look around at some of the edges. In a southeastern suburb (though if felt a part of the urban fabric and was only 6 or 7 miles from downtown, and near the city’s edge) of Brighton, we visited the famed Dendy Street Beach, with its amazing and iconic bathing boxes – 82 of them.
These cabanas – colorful shacks, really – are now selling for $250,000 each – 10 years ago you could get one for $12,000.
As we had a bit of breakfast, our guides (unprompted from us Rochesterians, honest) animatedly told us about their neighborhood in Brighton, and excitedly about their 20 minute commute to downtown. (20 MINUTE COMMUTE – SOUND FAMILIAR, NEIGHBORS?!?). They often grab their grandkids and travel about the city for 20 minutes in one direction or another to a park (the Melbourne parks are an amazing asset) or a museum or downtown to Federation Square (more about that place shortly) on the streetcar. Yup – in Melbourne the 20 minute commute is on a streetcar. Take a look at the Melbourne train and tram map – it’s truly awe-inspiring!
And now let’s take a trip down St. Kilda Road and head downtown. The street is wonderfully subdivided into a three part boulevard section: part one is for the streetcars; part two is for through traffic and is adjacent to the trams; part three are the service drives for local access and turning movements. Brilliant.
Variations on this theme are visible in various parts of the city on major routes, while the trams simply share the rights-of-way in the more dense neighborhoods. Truly, a transit geek’s paradise.
And as the map above illustrates, mobility in Melbourne is more than just trams. The system is a coordinated network of various modes – trains, trams, buses, and more. A network – that’s how it’s supposed to work, right? And thus, a 20 minute commute. But onward.
Arriving downtown, perhaps by tram or train, we find ourselves at the astonishing and beautiful Flinders Street Station.
And across the street from the station is the city’s main public space, the very odd but entirely tractable, crowded, bustling, and beloved Federation Square. Federation Square is actually a large mixed-use development housing many public and some private functions, museums, retail and restaurants, all built on air rights over the railroads. The buildings are weird, but they frame an amazing and wonderful space that is the living room of Melbourne, and a great jumping off place for a downtown stroll.
Flinders Street Station and downtown Melbourne from Fed Square.
St. Paul’s in the background, Fed Square bustling all round, and the weird architecture visible at the right.
After a Fed Square lunch, it’s time to have a walk.
Yes, the mobility network includes bike sharing.
As if the streets are not wonderful enough in what is called the Hoddle Grid, because downtown was laid out in 1837 by Robert Hoddle in the form of a rotated grid, there are a whole host of fabulous arcades.
And bunches of snickets – mid-block narrow walks lined with food and shops.
We enjoyed everything about downtown, and we were completely taken as well by Melbourne’s equally amazing neighborhoods. Cities can be terrific places.
But then it was time to visit yet another Melbourne astonishment: the Queen Victoria Market, the Vic. This unbelievable place, with its roots in 1850, is now the largest public market in the Southern Hemisphere. The market is huge, has more stuff in it than one can comprehend, and it has 2,000 square meters of solar panels on its roofs (about 22,000 square feet), generating more than 250,000 kilowatt hours of power (enough to fully power 25 homes for a year). Here we go:
The doughnuts are a much prized Vic foodstuff.
Miles and miles of the real stuff of markets – fruit, veg, cheese, meats.
Yes, that does say “Kangaroo Fillets.”
We were energized and instructed in Melbourne. It is a wonderful place, and has much to teach about what makes good urbanism, in any hemisphere. I wish we could take our local leaders there for a visit – they might see a few things of value, and learn a few things. Perhaps like this:
The 20 minute commute is not about cars
Mobility is a network
The public realm of blocks and streets and parks fundamentally defines a place
Walkability trumps everything, whether downtown or in neighborhoods
Density is good, whether downtown or in neighborhoods
Even weird architecture can make a great urban place, especially if it is surrounded with fantastic historic urban fabric
Go to Melbourne and see for yourself – it’s worth the trip.