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City Planning

The basic elements of the morphology of metropolitan Melbourne - low-density sprawl, the skew towards the east, and a predominant grid street pattern - were in place early in the 20th century. Colonial planning was little more than the two-dimensional survey of streets and the reservation of strategic allotments for public uses. Robert Hoddle's 1837 layout for what became the CBD adapted Governor Darling's regulations from the 1820s. The rectilinear template was extended to suburban land, oriented to cardinal points rather than the Yarra River, and broken only by topographic constraints and the physical expression of social exclusiveness through innovative crescent-shaped subdivisions like Brighton (1840s), St Vincent's Place (1850s) and Grace Park (1880s). The quest for identity-defining urban forms and spaces was also a theme of early central city development. An anonymous 1850 essay entitled Melbourne as it is, and as it ought to be defined a seminal vision of a 'model city', with wide boulevards, noble axes linking public buildings, and a grand city square. Such aspirations, particularly the search for the ennobling civic square, have had remarkably long life-spans.

By the end of the 19th century, city and suburban improvement was assuming more diverse and sophisticated guises as development accelerated. Calls to prevent alienation of parks and gardens, deal with the pollution problems of noxious trades, and address the juxtaposition of incompatible land uses entered the public arena. Architectural controls on city building were mooted. The boulevardisation of St Kilda Road as the royal route for the Federation celebrations suggested possibilities of more extensive street beautification. In the 19th century, perception of the slum problem was confined to the worst lanes and little streets of Central Melbourne. By the 1910s whole precincts across the inner suburbs were problematical. Some organisations, such as the Coburg Baptist Debating Society, sought proactive solutions in minimum allotment size regulations. The social dimensions of the problem were canvassed in major public inquiries by the Joint Select Committee on the Housing of the People in the Metropolis (1913-14) and subsequent Royal Commission (1915).

All these threads came together in the town planning movement in the years before World War I, a process which reflected a rising international consciousness about the health, beauty, efficiency and equity of modern industrial cities. The Melbourne movement integrated professional expertise in architecture, surveying and engineering, patrician fears about labour productivity, social unrest and 'national efficiency', and popular worries like provision of open space and tree-planting. The main mouthpiece was the Victorian Town Planning and Parks Association. Formed in 1914, its ambitious objectives were to give 'the town a bit of the country and the country a bit of the town; to secure better housing; to protect existing parks; to safeguard native animals and plants; and to erect memorials to explorers'. The first president was prominent ophthalmologist and indefatigable reformer James Barrett.

The outcomes from the early rounds of reform were inevitably piecemeal. Amendments to the Local Government Act in 1921 let councils implement zoning by-laws to create residential districts. Passage of the Housing and Reclamation Act 1920 implicated the State in housing production through the State Savings Bank. At Garden City in Fishermans Bend, the bank developed a planned estate of British municipal-style housing. Private house-builders and land subdividers initiated their own speculative garden suburbs. A 1916 by-law limiting building heights in the city centre was prompted variously by congestion fears, fire risks, and a regularising aesthetic. The 1934 dedication of the Shrine of Remembrance (climaxing a tortuous process initiated in 1919) provided a major piece of formal civic art.

The cause of comprehensive town planning was first served by the Metropolitan Town Planning Commission created in 1922 to 'report upon the present conditions and tendencies of urban development' and to 'set out general plans and recommendations with respect to the better guidance and control of such development'. Chairman was architect and City Councillor Frank Stapley, whose embrace of American-style functionalist planning contrasted with the rival British garden city leanings of Barrett and his volunteers. The climactic Plan of general development (1929) was a triumph of data collection and pragmatic, trend-style planning. It recommended a regional open space system and set out the first comprehensive zoning scheme for an Australian metropolis. A portfolio of desired public works, many related to road improvements, would be partly realised through subsequent decades, but conservative political opposition, the financial stringencies of the great depression, and failure to secure enabling legislation torpedoed the overall package.

The Commission virtually ignored housing problems, but the rise of a second, more politically influential slum abolition movement through the 1930s under the leadership of Oswald Barnett rekindled the nexus with the planning cause. Barnett collaborated with solicitor W.O. Burt and town planner Frank Heath in We must go on: A study in planned reconstruction and housing (1944). A shared belief in comprehensive redevelopment and master planning was evident, and for years after its formation in 1937 the extensive operations of the Housing Commission of Victoria made it virtually a de facto metropolitan planning agency. What public housing estates lacked in community facilities, they tried to make up for in the technical excellence of their site plans. Over time the scale rose to match demand and realise the economies of mass production; Broad-meadows was conceived as a virtual satellite town in the 1950s. The private sector was unable to undertake such ambitious ventures until the 1960s.

Lured by the prospect of federal housing finance, with the proviso that planning legislation was in place, the Town and Country Planning Act 1944 at last established a basic statutory framework of centrally co-ordinated local planning responsibility. Metropolitan planning proper commenced in the late 1940s and the guiding philosophy through to the 1980s was a metropolitan blueprint dependent on public investment and the regulation of land use. Through this period, the model of the organic metropolis which inspired early planning advocates was restated as a search for balanced development: weighting inner versus outer residential development, central city versus decentralised economic activity, and amenity and social cleavages separating the eastern and western suburbs.

Amending legislation in 1949 first gave responsibility for devising a metropolitan planning scheme to the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works. Former sewerage engineer E.F. Borrie was made chief planner. The two-volume Melbourne Metropolitan Planning Scheme (1954) was a cautious, practical response to problems of low-density sprawl, the need to decentralise industrial employment, traffic congestion, use zoning, and Cold War concern about 'protection of the population from the effects of aerial warfare'. It included several development proposals for Central Melbourne in the spirit of the Town Planning Commission in the 1920s.

The 1954 plan guided development for more than a decade, but strains showed. The rise of the free-standing shopping mall was not anticipated and the extent of postwar population growth was seriously underestimated. Underlain by traditional assumptions about the preference for low-density living and the availability of cheap energy, predictions of sustained growth - indicating a metropolitan population of 5 million by 2000 - prompted a morphological rethink from the mid-1960s. The new direction was steering development down linear transportation corridors, leaving interstitial wedges of agricultural land and open space. This urban form was endorsed in the two major planning reports of 1967: the Board of Works' The Future Growth of Melbourne and Organisation for Strategic Planning by the Town and Country Planning Board. The Board's Planning Policies for the Metropolitan Region (1971) basically synthesised these plans into a corridor scheme combined with two satellite towns at Melton and Sunbury.

The end of the 'long boom' in the mid-1970s necessitated new directions. While the rhetoric was still of development in an 'orderly and proper manner', a slate of new objectives was codified: optimising the use of existing infrastructure, emphasising medium-density housing, building up mixed-use suburban activity centres as transport interchanges and focuses for suburban office development, and heritage conservation. This transition towards more sustainable city forms was evident in the Board's Metropolitan Strategy Implementation (1981) and, two years after metropolitan planning functions were shifted to a new Ministry for Planning and Environment, Shaping Melbourne's future (1987). Living suburbs: A policy for metropolitan Melbourne into the 21st Century (1995) continued to recognise fundamental planning goals of environment, liveability and functionality (but without the geographic detail typical of earlier strategies). A new order linked to globalisation and economic restructuring was evident in two primary aims: providing 'a business environment conducive to sustainable long term economic growth' and enhancing Melbourne's strengths 'as an international transport, production and communications hub'.

The evolution of State, metropolitan and local planning objectives and practices has been neither benign nor seamless. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a particularly controversial era, with the rise of community opposition to unpopular redevelopment proposals: high-rise public housing, freeways, and a succession of anonymous modernist redevelopment plans for the heart of Melbourne involving ring roads, car-parks and skyscrapers. Leonie Sandercock describes a number of Melbourne planning problems in her book Cities for sale (1975), identifying the culprit in the chapter title 'Capitalism, Crude and Uncivilised'. The main battlegrounds in counter-moves towards more participatory, socially responsible and environmentally sensitive planning have been the central Golden Mile - the locus of establishment corporate power - and the gentrifying, amenity-rich inner suburbs. The first historic buildings legislation in 1974 was a product of this era (subsequently amended by the Victorian Heritage Act 1995). While State-sanctioned discourse dominates planning history, Melbourne, through long-standing independent organisations like the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), ephemeral environmental and resident action group campaigns, and lay activist legends like Ruth and Maurie Crow, arguably boasts more informed community critique of planning issues than any other State capital city. Challenging the powerful business-oriented Committee for Melbourne and contributing to public debate on planning issues through the 1990s was a People's Committee for Melbourne.

The climate for, and administrative machinery of, the planning system has changed significantly since the 1940s. A timeline of major events, legislation, committee reports and administrative restructurings shows a rapid acceleration from the mid-1960s in response to urban and regional development problems. New environmental planning legislation, special-purpose statutes, changed appeals procedures, and the primacy of new development agencies (such as the Office of Major Projects) came to provide a quite different institutional framework at the State level. The primary aim of the key legislation, the Planning and Environment Act 1987, was 'the fair, orderly, economic and sustainable development of land'. This established a legal framework for the preparation and administration of local planning schemes which, mindful of general State policies, specified when planning permits were required for particular developments and uses. The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal heard disputes over the issue of permits, with significant amendments to planning schemes attracting public submissions referred to independent 'panels' for advice.

Since the 1980s, the thrust of the planning system has been towards the facilitation rather than frustration of development. The market has 'ruled'. Australian Labor Party governments in the 1980s were the first to seriously comprehend the role of urban development in promoting economic growth. The rationale of further planning 'reforms' initiated by the radical-conservative Kennett governments (1992-99) was unambiguously linked to economic prosperity and job creation. Streamlining, simplifying, integrating and even privatising approvals processes allied to flexible 'performance-based' planning were the order of the day. Allied to a major reorganisation and amalgamation of local governments in 1994-97, amendments to the Planning and Environment Act in 1996 introduced a standard and smaller menu of planning zones and provisions for local authorities to use in their local instruments. In this and other ways, the discretionary plan-making powers of local councils were constrained. The co-ordination of planning functions now occurred at State Cabinet level rather than through committees of bureaucratic heads, the preferred approach from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. State and metropolitan planning policy is now determined at this level. As well as enjoying the right to amend or suspend local planning schemes, ministerial power is further augmented by the right to 'call in' and determine any planning permit application or planning appeal. The inexorable trend has been towards the centralisation and corporatisation of decision-making powers. The neo-liberal agenda was also accompanied by an unprecedented loss of planners and planning expertise from local government, with morale problems and shortages continuing into the early 2000s.

The contemporary planning landscape is a city of projects. Complementing a competitive commitment to staging big sporting and cultural events, the Kennett Government and subsequently the Bracks Labor Government pursued the physical reconfiguration of the central city to extraordinary lengths. New road connections, most notably the CityLink electronic tollway project which inter-connected three existing freeways, improvements along the Yarra (including the new parkland of Birrarung Marr), adaptive reuse of showcase old buildings, and the residential revitalisation of the CBD, all unified by a greater urban design emphasis, are all manifestations of the new Melbourne. The long-standing search for distinctive landmarks moved to a more spectacular plane with three major showpieces sanctioned by the State Government-City Council joint 'Capital City Policy' (1994). The jewel in the Southbank mixed-use redevelopment was the Crown Entertainment Complex (1997) with casino, cinemas, shops and restaurants. Federation Square, on a prominent site opposite Flinders Street Railway Station envisioned as a gateway space back at least to the 1920s, belatedly commemorated the centenary of Federation with a new cultural and entertainment precinct celebrating visual art, sport and the 'moving image'. The 200-ha Docklands project is a state-facilitated private-sector redevelopment directly tapping new economic growth sectors: media, producer services, film and television, sport, and prestige high-rise residential development. Importantly, local planning authorities have had little say in these outcomes, which have been directed by the State Government.

Few of Melbourne's big projects have escaped controversy. They have been easy targets for critics variously protesting the privileging of big business, the privatisation of public space, poor architectural manners, and denial of community and local planning input. The suburbs have also been battlegrounds with numerous causes célèbres surrounding overdevelopment and inappropriately sited and scaled multi-unit projects that devalued local amenity. Incredibly, James Barrett's TCPA endures as an environmental pressure group, but more prominent has been the aggressive 'Save Our Suburbs' (formed 1997), committed to changing planning laws to 'accord proper respect to neighbourhood character and responsible development'. Three years in the making and boasting wide community consultation, a new metropolitan strategy, Melbourne 2030: Planning for Sustainable Growth, strives for consensus around a broad strategic vision, but the planning system remains too complex, fractured, contradictory and territorial for any singular normative solution.

Like all Australian cities, Melbourne is a laboratory of modern planning ideas, successful, stillborn and disastrous. Not quite textbook-perfect, its fragments testify to a shifting ideology of planning visions from the city beautiful at the end of the 19th century through mid-century garden metropolis and modernist blueprints to the entrepreneurial city at the beginning of the 21st century. The many different expressions today of city planning's historic goal of balancing development and environment - enabling, regulating, advocacy and adversarial - confirm its inherently political nature.

Robert Freestone