Plan Melbourne – Initiative 4.6.1 Planning for ”distinctiveness”

Plan Melbourne includes Direction 4.6 – Create More Great Public Places Throughout Melbourne.

“Metropolitan Melbourne is a mosaic of diverse natural landscapes and urban places. This variety gives rise to a range of locally distinctive settings, which need to be  reflected in the design of new developments. The Victoria Planning Provisions contain clauses to protect aspects of distinctiveness, but they do not specify what Melbourne’s distinctive aspects are or how they should influence new development. More guidance is provided at the local level by individual planning schemes. While local variations are essential to Melbourne’s identity, a metropolitan-wide policy is needed to clearly identify Melbourne’s distinctive and iconic elements. This policy will encourage the creation of memorable, well-designed places that build on our city’s legacy of distinctiveness and liveability in the short term.”

Plan Melbourne talks about the city’s status as a ‘sporting and cultural capital’. The outcome of the Plan in the short term is to update the State Planning Policy Framework to include explicit policy on Melbourne’s ”distinctiveness”. The Plan suggests everywhere can be made ”distinctive” if there are overarching protections that put an emphasis on place-making and creating a high standard of design quality for public spaces.

We argue that Melbourne’s icons are well known, well understood, valued and protected. It is not so much the icons that make Melbourne distinctive, it is the spaces in-between. There has been a public anxiety that Melbourne lacks a Sydney Opera House. We have the Melbourne Exhibition Building, which is World Heritage listed just like the Opera House; we have the people’s ground, the MCG, and we have Flinders Street Station. But do those places – the big icons – really make Melbourne distinctive? No they do not. They help make Melbourne a bit different. What makes Melbourne distinctive is not the picture on the front of the postcard but rather what is written on the back. It is the acceptance, tolerance and encouragement of what is different, a counter-culture encouraged in our laneways, in the back-of-house spaces – the non-monumental public spaces, the ordinary and everyday, the opposite to grand but unimaginative statements, the opposite to open plazas (Fed Square), City Squares – which have a history of failure. The laneway culture contains threads of continuity to the past that is just as eloquent as the grand facades of Collins Street and the tree-lined boulevards.

Our acceptance of diversity and difference, of fine-scale and discovery of different experiences is distinctive to the stifling homogeneity of a planned city. Melbourne’s distinctiveness is the heterogeneity of its 19th and 20th century heritage buildings – not the homogeneity of an idealised 19th century city. The city must reinvent, reuse and recycle, with a thread to link it together. The distinctiveness of Melbourne is the flux that allows the old to integrate with the new, for the creativity of reuse, the requirement to retain cultural heritage and work with it but not be a slave to it. Important places – markers – have been the obsession for the heritage industry and the identification of heritage for three decades. We can now move beyond that to better celebrate the ordinary, which contributes in myriad ways, because the ordinary gives us the link to bits of the past – the small converted  warehouses that were part of the clothing workshops of Flinders Lane,

The strength of the municipal system is that local planning responds to protect locally distinctive places and experiences. Overarching policies cannot artificially create distinctiveness. A metropolitan policy to protect the distinctiveness of Melbourne runs the dangerous risk of becoming a misguided attempt that accidentally homogenises the diverse neighbourhood identities that drive the circulation of the city’s citizens and tourists.

We value the permeability of this city, which is underpinned by its accessible geography, and a willingness for Melburnians to travel to certain neighbourhoods for the distinctive quality of the experience to be had there.  It goes without saying that the streetscape experience of Melbourne’s distinctive neighbourhoods, is well-understood by Melburnians across the city.  The simple mention of Preston, Springvale, St. Kilda or Balwyn is enough to illustrate the distinctive nature of Melbourne’s neighbourhoods.

It is important to recognise that it is the sum of the constant reinvention of our places that has brought us to our current position of a connected and permeable city, however it the success of these reinventions has relied (and will continue to rely) on Melbourne’s municipalities hold on one or more of the threads that run through the built fabric or cultural use of these places.  For example,  the manufacturing ‘thread’ of Richmond has been steadfastly retained through adaptive reuse of building fabric, but by contrast, the industrial ‘thread’ of Docklands has been lost and subsequently fails to deliver the same valued distinctiveness.

The 2050 forecasts for Melbourne make it abundantly clear that the city will continue to undergo transformations and reinventions. The National Trust advocates for holding on to a constant thread in a tapestry of change. The perceived certainty required to stimulate development growth creates laziness in urban design, by removing all the contextual challenges. Constraints foster the urban design outcomes that in time, can become part of what makes Melbourne distinctive.

More on Laneways…

In 2012 Melbourne Heritage Action wrote to Robert Doyle restating that Melbourne’s laneway network is an integral part of the city’s identity:

“The laneways provide amenity for residents and historical continuity. They are increasingly becoming the arteries of Melbourne’s vibrant cultural network where social activities and a rich array of commerce can take place. Indeed their walls are a living canvas for street art, now recognised as one of Melbourne’s most important cultural offerings. What gives our laneways their special character is the surrounding buildings that form the physical envelope of the space. It is now time for the City of Melbourne to acknowledge that our lanescapes are as integral a part of our built heritage as the grand streetscapes. You mention that “all central City laneways have been graded with reference to their significance”. Only 9 have any actual protection under the planning scheme. Indeed a great number of laneways which form integral parts of Melbourne’s cultural and heritage universe such as Bennetts Lane, Croft Alley and AC/DC lane, have no actual protection at all.

The current laneway protection policy, clause 22.20 of the Melbourne Planning Scheme, is primarily concerned with the functional aspects of laneways and their role as linking elements or service access. The current planning scheme identifies a very small number of laneways as being significant, based on their connectivity, active frontages, elevation articulation and views. In this way, the policy fails to protect the unique character of many of Melbourne’s lanes exemplified in the fine details and heritage fabric of the adjoining buildings. Under the current policy 80% of Melbourne’s laneways (all those graded 3) have no protection at all. Only 9 lanes have been given class 1 protection. This represents an appalling failure of the City of Melbourne and the current council to provide one of our most vital cultural resources with adequate protection.”

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