The secret is in our streets

The most exciting element of any city is people. So says Professor Rob Adams, who has spent the last thirty years transforming Melbourne’s CBD from a series of windswept streets into the vibrant, cosmopolitan city we see today.

“Design the street and you design the city”, Professor Adams said at last week’s Green Cities sustainable building conference in Melbourne.

When Adams set out, Melbournians had left what The Age called an “empty, useless city centre” for the suburbs. Outside the nine to five work week, the streets were silent. The city had just two sidewalk cafes. Today there are more than 500.

Adams ‘stole away’ asphalt and introduced bluestone paving throughout the city. This provides a consistent and attractive walking surface, and a pleasant place for cafes to spread out their tables and chairs, and for people to watch the world go by.

Laneways have been brought to life, trees have been planted, there’s more public space on streets and in squares, and a flood of students lounge along the steps of the state library or sit chatting in coffee shops.

Street-level building facades are now thoughtfully designed – no concrete cubes on corners anymore. In fact, 75 per cent of street frontage must be ‘active’, encouraging not just vibrant and diverse retail, but sculpture and murals, water features, flower stalls as well as convenient seating and shade.

More than 65,000 pedestrians now walk along Swanston Street between ten and six each day. Night-time pedestrian traffic throughout the city has increased exponentially, reflecting the growth of bars and cafés and a safer, more welcoming environment. And the city is buzzing 24/7.

People want to live in Melbourne’s CBD, which saw a 830 per cent increase in residents in just a decade.

In Canberra, we need to look at what other cities are doing to make great places for people, but we also need to start asking ourselves: what do we need to do to make our city better?

Adams argues that “none of this is a mystery, none of this is difficult” – we just need to get on with it.

Catherine Carter is ACT Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia.