Urban speculations focusing on the future of Melbourne’s inner west – e-Gate, the existing docks, Fishermans Bend and the areas immediately to the west of the Yarra, could be regarded as something of a litmus test of the capacity for Melbourne’s political, economic and planning culture to imagine real urban innovation appropriate to the twenty-first century.
To date, proposals for future urban growth in these areas appear at best reactive, if not expedient.
Ideas seem limited to responses to, and extrapolation of, existing trends and pressures often originating from narrowly focussed vested interest stakeholders singularly pre-occupied with one-dimensional concerns and biased towards transport logistics and speculative development.
Urban design is perceived as incremental, interstitial and pragmatic, if not simply remedial, and reactionary.
It is an urbanism that is object-fixated and seldom explores any concerns for truly urban, much less, sustainable systems.
Proposals are devoid of any ‘visionary’ intentions or aspirations and make little or no claim to place a future Melbourne in anything like a global context demonstrably informed by the wealth of contemporary thinking on future urban possibilities.
The projects presented here are the outcomes of design studios in the first semester of urban design in Masters of Urban Design at Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne and Lower Pool Design studios in the undergraduate program at the RMIT School of Architecture and Design at RMIT University, undertaken over several semesters since 2011.
The ideas are often formative, yet informed by often well-intentioned research (for the level of experience and time constraints) into the processes of urban and ecological systems thought appropriate by students to what they consider viable solutions for twenty-first century urbanism.
The digital skills are emergent and experimental, often testing recent digital software to explore its relevance to urban speculation.
They exhibit all the strengths and weaknesses of ‘big picture plans’, but embedded within them is a well resolved set of urban systems with a clearly expressed intention and desire to see future urbanism as positive, achievable and most importantly sustainable
Some observations as to the character of Melbourne’s inner west are essential to understand the background and impetus of these studios.
Melbourne’s inner west is dominated by the presence of Melbourne’s docks areas – Webb Dock to the south of Yarra River and Swanston, and Appleton docks to the north.
Ecologically the area is much altered from the original tidal land and water-scape that existed prior to western occupation 150 years ago.
Yarra River is completely re-aligned and evidence of original landscapes and ecologies almost non-existent.
Fishermans Bend is largely in private ownership, with a majority of the area significantly in the ownership of a minority of stakeholders.
Public land is limited, save for the possibilities of the freeing up of significant ‘public’ land and water by relocating the existing dock infrastructure either to the western side of Port Phillip Bay or to Westernport be adopted, an idea with some political and economic currency. This theme was quickly adopted by students as a studio pre-condition.
Access to Fishermans Bend is severely limited from the east and south with little public transport and under-developed vehicular access.
Westgate Freeway dissects the area and, apart from docks access, largely caters for non-local transport movement, isolated from the site.
To a similar extent, CityLink and the Bolte Bridge operate in equivalent isolation.
Development is largely industrial and densities are low.
Along the three kilometres of its southern edge, Melbourne’s CBD has six river crossings linking across the Yarra, all carrying vehicular and public transport (trams) enhancing permeability, connectivity and mobility between north and south.
Four pedestrian bridges offer small-scale local pedestrian connectivity.
To the west of Grimes Bridge, apart from Westgate and CityLink, there are no cross connections in the six kilometres to the mouth of the Yarra.
Docks areas and Fishermans Bend are isolated and disconnected from the north and west; the area is an urban-scaled cul-de-sac.
Fishermans Bend offers limited and minimal (bus only) public transport.
River transport is minimal and tourist orientated, not localised as a means of connection to the CBD or along the Yarra.
Bay traffic is effectively non-existent.
Without real and sustainable mobility infrastructure, the areas make little sense urbanistically in any future speculations.
Water frontage and its potential is unique and under-utilised and seldom forms part of urban discourse about urban futures.
The Yarra River offers six kilometres of potential river frontage along its northern and southern banks, enhanced by the configuration of Victoria and Appleton Docks.
Webb Dock offers another potential six kilometres of water edge exposure.
The configuration of the Yarra and docks offers enormous potential for iconic sites for both formal and informal urban-scale, architectural and landscape opportunities.
The overall sites are not small.
Two simple overlays of the existing CBD grid fits comfortably over both Webb Dock and Victoria Atherton Docks.
Historically, several proposals for connecting Melbourne to Hobson’s Bay are truly visionary.
An early proposal by engineer John Millar in 1860 resonates with visionary potential even today
Design studios, speculating on urban futures, require, if not demand, some level of critique of contemporary urban ‘culture’ and indeed urban politics and practice, if not suspension of any acceptance of what passes as the ‘existing order of things’.
The existing conditions noted above are the ‘found’ conditions which students were invited to interrogate and respond to.
Students were encouraged to consider these areas with, or without, the existence of the docks infrastructure.
Some assumed complete respect for existing infrastructure and ownership while others explored the possibilities of ‘tabla rasa’ and ‘terrain vague’.
The most successful identified the strengths of hybrid responses, maximising change where most achievable.
New Melbourne emerges as three distinct and sustainable CBD’s.
New Melbourne becomes Australia’s equivalent of China’s recently announced plan for Shanghai’s Pilot Free Trade Zone.
International developers, e.g. China’s Vanke, are invited to participate in future planning and financing, bringing years of experience at large scale development.
In 1914 no-one could predict the urbanism of the twentieth century.
Lindsay Holland is an architect in Melbourne with an interest in urbanism, with occasional projects in China.
He currently undertakes architecture and urban design studios and thesis supervision at RMIT University’s School of Architecture and Design, and urban design studios at the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne School of Design.
Together with Yingtong Peng, Lindsay was recently selected as an exhibitor in 2014 Shenzhen Biennale of Architecture + Urbanism being held in Shekou, Guangdong.
The exhibition, Vanishing Borders, explores the history of, and future relationship between, Hong Kong and Shenzhen along its border, a border that will disappear in 2047.
The exhibition is being held at Shenzhen University School of Architecture and Urban Planning and is on display from December 2013 to end of February 2014.