Melbourne Shows That Livable Streets Make a Lively City

By Ryan McGreal
Published December 07, 2010

Oh, how I wish the Hamilton Spectator had a columnist like the Toronto Star's Christopher Hume. An RTH reader just sent me Hume's latest column, in which he explains how Melbourne, Australia revitalized itself by focusing on streets as the place where city living takes place. See if you notice any parallels with Hamilton:

Once a Victorian industrial powerhouse, Melbourne entered a period of decline at the end of the 19th century. By the 1960s, it had become Australia's designated Doughnut City, a Rust Belt metropolis with a big hole in the middle where people used to live and work.

Things went from bad to worse until a new generation of civic leaders took office in the 1980s and decided to do thing differently. For starters, they hired Rob Adams. His approach, radical though it might have seemed, was to focus on small stuff, everything from trees and benches to sidewalks and street vendors. Enshrining urban design concepts such as "active frontage" and shared streets, Adams transformed the city building by building, block by block, bylaw by bylaw.

Rejecting the post-war planning orthodoxies of single-use zoning and vehicular paramountcy, he insisted the streets be shared with pedestrians and cyclists. Despite the backlash, it worked. Last year, The Economist magazine named Melbourne, and Toronto, among the five most livable cities on Earth.

One of the things that jumped out at me was this: "as Adams makes clear, the Melbourne supremacy is not a matter of opinion or ideology; the results can be measured and the effects catalogued." If city revitalization is to work, it needs to be driven by reasoning from empirical evidence, not reflexive dogmatism.

Unfortunately, much of our public discourse about the role of street design in urban revitalization comes down to ideology and naive assumptions - particularly the assumptions about what downtown Hamilton needs shared freely in letters to the editor by suburban residents who haven't set foot downtown in ten years.

Melbourne demonstrates:

Sidewalks have been widened, streets closed to traffic and zoning loosened. The population has doubled in recent years. Unemployment in Melbourne is five per cent; in Toronto, 9.5 per cent.

"The theory is that people should be on the street," Adams explains. "The street is the key to the city. If you design good streets, you design a good city."

Now where have we heard that before?

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By arienc (registered) | Posted December 07, 2010 at 21:11:40

"as Adams makes clear, the Melbourne supremacy is not a matter of opinion or ideology; the results can be measured and the effects catalogued." If city revitalization is to work, it needs to be driven by reasoning from empirical evidence, not reflexive dogmatism.

Of course in Ontario, we get commentators who consider cyclists "pinkos". I fear a wave of dogmatic and regressive sentiment has swept across a once great city and region, and is becoming increasingly powerful, knowledge and evidence be damned.

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By Tnt (registered) | Posted December 09, 2010 at 08:26:59

Melbourne is a city similar to Toronto with a slightly smaller population. The biggest lesson we can learn from Melbourne is to not fear. They have a huge heroin problem. They could have said, "we can't open 24 shops cause they will just fill up with junkies" They didn't get rid of junkies and bums and yet somehow the city improved.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted December 09, 2010 at 21:52:26

I asked an old friend who lives in Melbourne to comment.

"I don't know what Melbourne was like before all the urban design happened so can't really give an informed opinion. It's by no means perfect and the 'livable city' tag brings with it many other debates but I find Melbourne a great place to live. The centre is a very attractive and user friendly environment and we are streets ahead (sorry about the pun) of other similar sized cities. I can ride to work along beautiful bike tracks and public transport is comparably good. However, we have major problems with affordability, housing stock shortage and urban fringe infrastructure."

He also sent along this link:

(Check out 'Benefits of Urban Corridors' on page 28)

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By bobinnes (registered) - website | Posted December 14, 2010 at 20:43:24

It took awhile but this article got me thinking that the approach described could be a big deal for Hamilton. Solves a lot of problems.

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