Revitalising Melbourne’s City Centre from 1985

Great Policy Successes This case study corresponds to a chapter by Emma Blomkamp and Jenny M Lewis, entitled "‘Marvellous Melbourne’: making the world’s most liveable city", in the book Great Policy Successes, co-edited by Mallory Compton and Paul 't Hart. The book brings together fifteen cases of highly successful governance from around the world. For further information on this line of research, see: https://successfulpublicgovernance.com.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s Melbourne, the capital of the Australian state of Victoria, was at risk of becoming a ‘doughnut’ city, with an empty core surrounded by expanding suburban developments. The Victoria state government was increasingly concerned about the negative impact of suburban expansion and the expensive infrastructure it required. Also, inner city society mobilised to uphold the positives of the city centre forming urban activist groups. 

In the 1970’s the municipal government of Melbourne City Council (MCC) delivered a strategy plan for the future of the city but failed to carry it through. State-led reforms in the 1980’s combined with actions taken by the MCC created a favourable environment for the Melbourne’s 1985 Strategy Plan to emerge. This was a ten to fifteen year policy framework to revamp the social and economic activity and future development of the City. As a result of the combined municipal and state government actions, since 1990 Melbourne’s inner-city has been internationally acclaimed as one of the most ‘liveable’ cities in the world.

The challenge

Urban development of Melbourne’s city centre flourished during its prime years of the gold rush period in the late 19th century, when the city came to be known as ‘Marvellous Melbourne’.[1] However, after years of rapid growth, the banking system in Australia crashed in the 1890s leading to a period of economic depression with Melbourne at its epicentre.[6][7] The following decades Melbourne became a shadow of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ and almost half a century later the expansion of suburban development began to empty the city centre of its activity.[2]  

With the spread of private cars, in the 1960s and 1970s residents and local businesses began to move from Melbourne’s inner city to the suburbs.[8][21] Between 1961 and 1972 employment in the city centre dropped. Retail jobs reduced a 15.9 percent and manufacturing jobs fell a 34.7 percent. In the same period, the residential population decreased by more than 25% from 5,534 to 4,082. “Melbourne was well on the way to becoming a soulless business core surrounded by leafy suburbs, its inner city relegated to the poor and disenfranchised”, which is referred to as ‘doughnut’ syndrome [9]. Melbourne’s inner city residents reacted to the exodus of population with an urban activist movement in the late 1960s and 1970s in favour of dense and diverse inner city settlements providing the foundations for strong communities.[10] Despite the social movement, by the late 1980s only about 2,000 residents lived in the centre of the city.[9]

At a state level, the spread of suburban developments was raising concerns for the government of Victoria. The state government was responsible for the infrastructure costs associated with suburban areas, such as highways and arterial roads, water supply, drainage, sewerage treatment and waste management. With the expansion of suburban development public expenses on infrastructure increased. Also, expanding low-density suburban areas were driving overconsumption of resources such as land and energy at a time when fuel scarcity was of great concern.[10

To address these challenges the state government requested the municipal government, Melbourne City Council (MCC), to present a strategy plan to revitalise Melbourne’s city centre.[15] In response, MCC developed the Strategy Plan 1974 in partnership with designers and local bodies. For the design of this plan, expert urban designers relied on public consultations to determine specific goals that resonated with Melbourne citizens and Councillors. The plan was comprehensive, however, its success depended on the municipal government, the MCC, who was responsible for the implementation. At the time the MCC was dealing with weak finances and years of chaotic administration. The municipal government was therefore not up for the challenge and the implementation of the 1974 plan failed. However, this first attempt to revitalise Melbourne caused an “awakening of public awareness” of the need for urban reform, which led in the 1980s to the 1985 Strategy Plan.[10][13]

The greatest challenge both at a state and municipal level in the 1980s and 1990s was to revitalise and stimulate the city of Melbourne to transform the city centre into an attractive place for people to work, live and find entertainment. [25]

The initiative

In the early 1980’s newly elected state and MCC governments, urban design experts and local stakeholders reinvigorated the attempt of the 1970s to revitalise the city centre. As a result, in 1985 the MCC supported by a team of experts designed the Strategy Plan “as a major policy framework for the future development of the City”, incorporating results from community consultations and intensive research. This was a comprehensive document outlining a ten to fifteen year plan with a development framework, policies and implementation strategies, consideration of resources, and government responsibilities. The plan focused on revitalising three urban areas: the Central Business District (CBD); the municipal area of the City of Melbourne; and the municipalities within the inner City area that were generally referred to as “Central Melbourne”.[0]

The 1985 Strategy Plan was greatly influenced by the previous 1974 Strategy Plan (as described in ‘the Challenge’ section) and incorporated the work of technical assessments from late 1970s and early 1980s. These earlier plans had been developed with the support of local communities and showed the preferred future for each neighbourhood as well as the location of streetscapes and heritage buildings. Thanks to the information from previous plans it was possible to start conservation controls to protect buildings and areas of special significance, and gardens and parks were declared heritage areas.[9][0]

The approach of the 1985 Strategy Plan was to reinforce the positive aspects of the city, while working to remove the negatives.[8] In 2015 Rob Adams, MCC’s Director of City Design, stated “Over the next 30 years [since 1985] it [Melbourne] has incrementally built on its existing strengths and character to provide a mixed use, dense, well connected city with high quality people spaces and street. Thousands of small projects and programs that have interconnected to enhance the distinct character of the City.”[3]

To support the success of the initiative the state implemented  reforms to reduce the powers of the MCC. In the years leading to the formulation of the strategy plan the state took over MCC’s planning powers to quicken the administrative process needed for an urban reform. The state also reformed the election law to make the MCC more accountable and connected with its community. As a result, the MCC designed Melbourne’s 1985 Strategy Plan and relied on this and other  initiatives to make the city more liveable.Two examples of this are ‘Postcode 3000’, which aimed to repopulate the city centre; and closing Swanson Street, a major artery of traffic through the city to cars, to improve walkability. As these strategies developed, a shared understanding emerged of the boundaries and responsibilities of the MCC to protect and develop public spaces ensuring the high standards of urban design.[10

The public impact

Between the 1960s and late 1980s the resident population in the city centre had dropped from over 5,500 to about 2,000 people, and retail and manufacturing activity had been decreasing as well.[9] As of November 2014 however, the Central Business District (CBD) counted 116,431 residents spread across 28,099 residences and 100,000 pedestrians using central Swanson Street on a Saturday night. With regards to these figures MCC city planning and infrastructure director Geoff Lawler stated "That's one in six Victorians in this small space, every day."[4] In 2017 Rob Adams, involved in the design of the 1985 Strategy Plan, said “Not in our wildest dreams did we think we would get to the population that we’ve got downtown today, which is pushing up to 30,000 units [residences].” Schools in the inner city that had been closed in the mid-1980s for a lack of population will have to be re-provided. The Minister of Education announced in 2016 the construction of four new schools to supply the growing demand by inner city families.[12] Moreover, according to The Urbanist, a North American NGO examining and influencing urban policies, “In 1994, only 300 meters of laneways in central Melbourne were considered to be activated and accessible. But within 10 years this had increased 10 fold to approximately 3km.”[8]

The new appeal of Melbourne as a city to work, live and find entertainment has been acclaimed over the years in international publications. Between 2011 and 2017 Melbourne’s city centre has ranked the most liveable urban centre in the world according to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). Since 2011 EIU publishes a yearly study known as The Global Liveability Report where 140 cities globally are surveyed to assess “which locations around the world provide the best or the worst living conditions.” In 2017 Melbourne’s average score was 97.5 out of 100, receiving perfect scores for education, infrastructure, and health care.[4][11]

The relevance of the 1985 Strategy Plan to local communities transcended the use of the plan as a policy instrument guiding decisions and design in the MCC. Combining the input of urban design professionals and local community activists, the Strategy Plan also became a manifesto in municipal election campaigns and was used as a framework for the collaboration between political actors at municipal and state level, and other stakeholders.[22]

However, distribution of costs and benefits of this revitalisation have been unequal. A significant number of people are concerned that city population is growing too quickly for infrastructure to cope and that planning regulation is allowing the development of too many high-rise buildings. Rob Adams also acknowledged this in stating that the success of the plan had led to a relaxation of planning codes. “As those setbacks got compromised, every single site in town became a development site. That was not something we wanted or anticipated.”[5] Another effect of this revitalisation is that, housing prices have increased and lower income groups struggle to afford to live in the world’s ‘most liveable city’. [20]

This case study was written by Cristina Figaredo.

What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.

Legitimacy

Public Confidence Strong

Melbourne citizens mobilised in the 1960’s and 1970’s to uphold the benefits of a lively community at the heart of the city, forming urban activist groups. These groups argued that dense and diverse inner city settlements laid the foundations for strong communities, which at the time conflicted with development business interests. This urban activist movement at the time was part of an informal global network that emerged mostly in cities across Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. In Melbourne, urban activist groups were mostly formed by people who had visited, lived or studied overseas and were well connected in these networks. Their work around local urban planning through this period was later incorporated into the 1985 Strategy Plan and their efforts showed clear support for a revitalisation of the city.[17][10] Some of these activists moved into politics and were active in party politics at the Victorian state level after the 1983 election. Similarly, when that same year the recently elected state government called the first MCC elections after the election regulation reform, former activists  were elected to join the MCC. Having reached government positions both at the state and municipal levels, urban activists played an important role in the success of the initiative.[9][18

The 1983 MCC election reforms did not just enable more activists to become active in local politics; they also limited the voting power of business and property owners, levelling their vote with the one of the local population. This change ensured a more balanced political representation of Melbourne’s inner-city residents and consequently much stronger public support for MCC-led policies.[2][20

The public was also involved in the design of the 1985 Strategy Plan which boosted support for it. The Study Team followed the approach taken a decade earlier in the 1974 Strategy Plan to involve the public in the design. Through the Committee and Sub-Committee meetings to review the programme, MCC’s study team created a space for all relevant stakeholders to voice opinions and concerns including not only local community members, but also parties affected in the broader context of the project such as bordering municipalities and state government departments.[0]

Stakeholder Engagement Strong

The involvement of different levels of government, as well as non-government actors strengthened stakeholder support for the implementation of the 1985 Strategy Plan. It was the state government who requested a strategy plan for Melbourne’s city centre and played a key role in engaging the municipal government, the MCC, in the initiative. Once engaged, the MCC led and implemented reforms to revitalise the capital with the support of urban design experts and local stakeholders.

The engagement of the MCC to deliver the initiative was strongly encouraged by the state government. The MCC, following years of chaotic administration and failing to deliver a solution to the urban challenges Melbourne was facing, was dismissed by the state government in 1980. In its place, a temporary commission was established while the state started working on reforming the boundaries of the MCC’s powers and responsibilities. In 1983 the state government took over MCC’s planning powers to expedite the urban transformation process. The state government also reformed the regulation for municipal elections causing land owners and businesses to lose their historically privileged voting powers. Following these reforms, the state government called for council elections that same year.[15][2] The MCC that emerged in 1983 was strongly engaged with revitalising Melbourne and quickly initiated the process that 18 months later resulted in the 1985 Strategy Plan. 

Experts were also greatly engaged in the production of the 1985 Strategy Plan and supportive of its objectives. Urban activists with an academic background in urban design won the 1983 MCC elections and set up an ‘in-house’ study team of technical experts to design the Strategy Plan. The team was formed by a combination of permanent officers and contracted professionals, including Rob Adams as Senior Urban Design consultant. Picking up the baton of the 1974 strategy plan, in 18 months the MCC, supported by the study team, delivered the 1985 Strategy Plan.[9][0] It is important to note that Rob Adams continued to work for the MCC in similar leading urban design roles and has supported the objectives of 1985 Strategy Plan and later strategy plans for over 30 years up to today. Therefore, the strong commitment of experts at the time and over the years has contributed greatly to the urban reform objectives set out by the MCC.[2]

The engagement of the public, as key stakeholders, also contributed to the success of the 1985 Strategy Plan. The 1985 plan involved a Steering Committee mainly comprised of political actors, and two advisory sub-committees that represented a broader spectrum of public opinions. The Community Consultative Sub-Committee brought together community members through consultations; and the Government Coordination Sub-Committee, connected the community with state government representatives.[0]

Political Commitment Strong

When the MCC started to work on the plan in the early 1980’s it allocated dedicated resources to support the project. The Study Team was created within the MCC bringing together up to ten people combining permanent officers and contracted experts. The support of a dedicated team for decades after the first strategy plan reflects the long-term political commitment of the Council to this policy.[0][9]

In the early 1980s, mayoral terms in the MCC lasted one year (until it was extended to three in the 1990s). The 1985 Strategy Plan was designed over a period of 18 months, and thus, spanned across two mayoral terms. Despite the change in Council leadership, the strategy plan was successfully implemented in the following years,  evidencing the ongoing commitment from the MCC. Moreover, the plan has been updated in following decades extending its relevance until today, which shows that successive municipal Councillors have been committed to the strategy and supportive of its continuance. Additional MCC programmes and initiatives that followed the 1985 Strategy Plan further highlight the willingness of political actors to invest in similar policies and continue the innovative and risk-taking spirit of the Strategy Plan. Some of these initiatives include ‘Postcode 3000’, to repopulate Melbourne’s inner-city; closing Swanson Street, the main artery of traffic through the city; the promotion of culture and arts, and the creation of an investment fund of $200 million to support strategic projects that could be economically viable for the city.[9] With the implementation of such initiatives the MCC has proven over the years its strong, long-term commitment to the objectives set out in the 1985 Strategy Plan.

The elected state government’s willingness to redefine powers of the MCC with unpopular measures is another indicator of strong political commitment to this initiative. The public was seriously disgruntled when the state administration took over MCC’s planning powers in the 1980’s. However, this tough measure allowed large development projects with positive local impact to succeed including, among others, the tennis centre and the Southbank. Once the revitalising impact became more visible the state’s reshaping of MCC powers was seen as beneficial.[24] The state's, and later on MCC's willingness to take risks with this initiative by making high-risk decisions that had the potential to upset voters, highlights the collective willingness to spend political capital in support of this initiative.

Policy

Clear Objectives Strong

The 1985 Strategy Plan identified seven topic areas of urban transformation, with each topic area forming a separate chapter of the plan. Under each topic, the plan included a list of key issues that required the Council’s response. There were more than 30 key issues across all areas of the plan. For each key issue there was a list of recommended policies, each having specific policy objectives and a specific set of recommended actions.

The seven topic areas identified for urban reform in Melbourne were:

  • The City’s economy
  • Commercial and industrial development
  • Population and housing
  • Community services
  • Movement systems
  • Recreation, tourism and leisure
  • Physical environment

Taking as an example ‘Movement systems’, specific key issues listed under this title include ‘The Road System’, ‘Pedestrian Movement’ and ‘Cycling’, among others. When looking into the key issue of ‘Pedestrian Movement’, as an illustration, the plan outlines several policies, one of them being MS25-Streets for people, which has three specific policy objectives:

  1. To reduce delays to pedestrians
  2. To improve pedestrian amenity
  3. To improve pedestrian safety

For every list of policy objectives across the different urban topics there is a list of ‘Actions’ indicating the arrangement recommended for the success of the objectives.

Combined with the great level of detail of the policies defined in the strategy plan, the document also included broader recommendations for each of the six topic areas. As an example of this, in the chapter for ‘Population and Housing’ the plan outlines “The Council considers that a minimum of some 8,000 dwellings could be added to the city’s housing stock over the next ten to fifteen years” and continues with a list of recommendations on how to achieve this goal. [0

Evidence Good

Evidence for the impact of the Strategy Plan was mainly led by the study team, formed of civil servants and independent specialist consultants. 

Though there is no evidence of pilot projects for the 1985 Strategy Plan, a review of successes and failures of the 1974 Strategy Plan preceded the creation of the new plan. The MCC identified the positives of the previous plan initiated by the Victorian state government to build the new strategy but strongly emphasised how the context had changed between 1974 and 1985. “The simple passage of time has created a different political, economic and social environment within which planning decisions must be taken.”[0] Using the 1974 plan as the foundation, the MCC sought close cooperation with the state government and involved key community groups to collect up to date evidence relevant to the context of the City of Melbourne in the 1980s.

Melbourne was also influenced by Sydney’s 1971 Strategic Plan which became an example of a “new wave of progressive strategic city plans … experimenting with innovative methodologies and new-look emphases on urban design and environmental management.” A number of principles laid out in Melbourne’s new approach to urban planning was later adopted by state legislation requiring municipal authorities to be more accountable and more responsive to community preferences.[22]

There was limited consideration of international evidence and according to Rob Adams, MCC’s director of city design, the essence of the plan was to build on “Melbourne’s strengths rather than looking to other cities for solutions.”[20] To assess Melbourne’s strengths the study team looked into the City’s economy, physical and social assets as well as the aspirations of the community. In terms of the City’s assets, the team relied on a number of sources including empirical data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. For information on community aspirations, the team consulted with residents, workers, investors, business community and visitors.[0]

Feasibility Strong

The Victorian state government’s legislation and funding commitment to the plan increased feasibility significantly. The state government introduced public works regulation before the plan, requiring all major planning applications for projects in MCC territory to be authorised by the state planning minister. This was a measure to streamline planning approvals and attract developers, resulting in a significant reduction of waiting times on development applications. Making Melbourne more attractive for developers was a key driver of success for the 1985 Strategy Plan. The state government also created a favourable legal environment to implement the Strategy Plan. For example, in 1988 liquor licensing was liberalised allowing new cafes and restaurants in the CBD to offer al fresco dining. The state government’s increased infrastructure budgets from 1982 onwards and the promotion of public-private partnerships (PPP) were also beneficial for the financial feasibility of the Strategy Plan ensuring easy access to funding for the initiative.[22]

However, it was the municipal Melbourne City Council who designed the 1985 Strategy Plan and provided the human resources needed. When setting up the study team, the MCC combined experienced civil service staff and deliberately recruited independent urban design experts. The team was originally formed by five members and has grown over the years to nearly 60 in 2006 which now fall under the title ‘Design and Culture’. “The design component of this division has over the last 20 years, been responsible for the design and delivery of most of the city’s key projects. There projects, both large and small, have been delivered in accordance with the vision set out in 1985.”[9] This high capacity team increased the feasibility of the Plan getting off the ground.

Action

Management Strong

Melbourne City Council prepared and planned the 1985 Strategy Plan. The management structure, as mentioned above in the section ‘Stakeholder Engagement’, was set around a Steering Committee appointed by the Council. The Committee reported directly the MCC and consisted of Council officers and members of the state government, namely six Councillors; senior Council officers; representatives of the Premier’s Department, the Department of Management and Budget, the Ministry for Planning and Environment; and the study consultant. The Steering Committee met 45 times in the period of 18 months during the review of the programme. 

The Steering Committee received advice from the following two advisory sub-committees that represented a broader spectrum of opinions in the review.

  • The Community Consultative Sub-Committee included representatives from a wide variety of community groups such as residential, business, industrial, social service, conservation and professional interests. In its regular meetings key policy issues were thoroughly debated providing valuable suggestions and insights. Through the review of the programme this Committee met 15 times.
  • The Government Coordination Sub-Committee consisted of members of state government departments and local government representatives from municipalities bordering the City of Melbourne. Regular meetings were held where the broader context of the planning efforts was studied. It met 12 times during the review of the programme. [0]

The MCC also set up the study team within the administration that reported to the steering committee. For this team, high-level urban designers were appointed to undertake the extensive technical and detailed work required for the plan.[0] This team had the mandate “to override the more traditional engineering solution and work with the planners to deliver on a new statutory planning approach.”[9] The size of the specialised team grew in following years forming a team of almost 60 people under the title ‘Design and Culture’ within the MCC.

Following an 18month period of preparation, the MCC adopted the Strategy Plan in 1985 and quickly moved into the implementation phase,  balancing capital works and maintenance programmes to safeguard the continuous improvement of public spaces.[9]

Measurement Strong

The Melbourne City Council regularly reviewed progress of the initiative against its objectives. In the 1990 review, the MCC concluded that two thirds of the policies had been fully implemented or were ongoing. An update followed in 1992 encouraging to slow the pace of development, and refine it, to ensure a creative inclusive culture rather than a business-centric one. These internal review mechanisms continued over the years, ensuring that the plan was modified when and if necessary.

In 1993, Rob Adams, MCC’s Urban Design Manager at the time, invited Danish architect Jan Gehl to conduct a large-scale planning and social study of Melbourne. Gehl had visited Melbourne in the late 1970’s finding that “The city was indeed boring and suffered quite a bit from the double impact of Modernist planning and automobile invasion.”[23] In 1994, Gehl published the ‘Places for People’ report, offering insight into Melburnians and their use of the city’s public spaces. The impact of the ‘Places for People’ report was very significant in Australia. It became a framework at a municipal level for Melbourne City, and also at a national level for the rest of the country. When returning in 2004 to document the changes ten years after his first survey, Gehl observed improvements across several policy areas and programmes.[23]

Alignment Strong

The alignment of state and city government as well as non-government actors was fundamental for the development and implementation of the 1985 Strategy Plan. 

Between 1974 and 1985 city and state authorities became aware of the social and economic problems Melbourne was facing, but initially failed to cooperate in delivering a response. It wasn’t until the state began to reform the municipal administration in the early 1980’s and 1990’s that political actors managed to cooperate effectively. State-led reforms of the early 1980’s redefined the responsibilities of the MCC, increasing accountability of municipal authorities. These reforms improved the alignment of politicians across government levels just before starting to work on the Strategy Plan.[20

Another important factor that strengthened alignment of state and municipal authorities in the early 1980’s was their shared urban reform agenda. Politicians across different levels of government had been involved in the urban activist movement sharing similar concerns and views on how urban reform could be addressed.[9][18] Consequently, when the state government called for a Melbourne City strategy plan in 1983, the shared urban activist experience favoured a united political approach from the state and city governments to solve Melbourne’s inner-city ‘liveability’ problems.

Within the MCC the task of delivering a strategy plan was trusted to the in-house team of design experts. Combining the experience of MCC civil servants and independent consultants, the study team delivered a powerful and comprehensive instrument based on substantial evidence. The approach taken by the team of experts to consult with all actors involved in or affected by the implementation of a strategy plan was fundamental to ensure the strong alignment in the delivery of the initiative.[0]