Melbourne’s Dockland’s and lessons for planning the East End of Fremantle

Thinking about good urban design and what works and what doesn’t this article from the Age was especially interesting.  It has some good lessons for planning the East End of Fremantle

Can Docklands be put back together again?

Ian Munro March 3, 2012

IT WAS to be that rare opportunity most cities never have – and it was Melbourne’s. It was the chance ”many cities can only dream about”, declared the Docklands strategic planning framework, ”to change its shape and character dramatically … creating a new urban area on the city’s western edge”.

This was 1989 and most of Melbourne was thinking less about urban renewal than about hosting the 1996 Olympic Games, but the two were supposed to be linked. While Melbourne’s unsuccessful Olympic bid was to have been the catalyst for reinventing its docklands, it was always intended that the project would go ahead regardless of which city ultimately staged the Games. This first real strategic plan imagined a co-ordinated approach to the entire 150 hectares, and emphasised the public’s interest in it – after all, most of the land was government-owned. Today, however, it stands as a blueprint for what did not happen.

Whoever among the strategy’s authors imagined the buildings fronting the street to be ”of a moderate height, not dominating the landscape” did not anticipate the look-at-me style that eventuated.

And while the plan suggested some office towers rising behind these moderate street-front buildings, it also proposed that, ”as one gets near the waterfront, the height of these towers decreases”. Another miss.

At key locations, ”the waterfront promenade opens up into spaces, some small, sheltered and intimate, others grander”. Not yet, anyway.

At the water’s edge, buildings were to be ”of a human scale” with a rich and varied architecture designed not to overshadow the waterfront promenade, something like two to six storeys, with the occasional 10-storey tower. Heights were to be limited to preserve ”appropriate scales and relationships as the city steps down to the water”. And so on.

This was supposed to be an image of what Docklands would be like, 20 years on. But two decades later not only had Docklands failed to fulfil that dream, the yet-to-be completed precinct had been ruled a soulless, dispiriting, windswept failure, its waterfront dominated by soaring towers.

Today, however, the focus has shifted to how – or whether – the project may be redeemed over its second decade of development.

”It’s very difficult for anything to be redeemed,” says community association president Roger Gardner, a self-declared lover of the place but one not blind to its faults since building began in earnest more than 10 years ago. ”The buildings are already up. The problems that we have – and I don’t want to list too many of them, but I include wind tunnels, which everybody knows about, traffic congestion, exterior building design – there’s no control over that. There’s no control over the distance between buildings, there’s no control over a lot of things. The developers have done what they like until now. We hope that will be reined in a bit.”

Expressed more formally, in the words of RMIT professor Michael Buxton, the redemption of Docklands is handicapped by ”fundamental structural problems”.

”You can do your best to make the development that isn’t yet completed better,” Buxton says. ”In the last couple of years they have tried to introduce a semblance of the main street, trying to create a business activity centre focus. They have belatedly begun to recognise they need to bring in a few services that weren’t there. You can try to retrofit for better social services and retail provision.

”They are three things they have tried to do, but the other thing that’s handicapped them is the separation of uses. You have high-rise residential separated by wide, high-volume roads and then the big box retailing model completely separate from the rest of the area. It’s a killer. How do you fix that?

”Full marks for trying, but they are handicapped in a major way.”

Buxton welcomes the introduction of lower scale, medium-rise residential developments but regrets the missed opportunity to create what ”would have been one of the best suburbs to live in in Australia”. Bluntly, developers were given too much latitude. The actions of then premier Jeff Kennett and his planning minister, Robert Maclellan, were, says Buxton, ”internationally scandalous”.

”The original plan was a low to medium-rise European-type integrated development based on a grid pattern, integrated mixed uses based on getting rid of traffic.” Instead, he says, ”they threw out any role for government and made it wide open for business. It just reinforces [that] as soon as you get government out of the equation on all these sort of planning issues, then the community pays for it down the track. A classic example of failure of government leads to future problems.”

Finally, belatedly, government is back, and the buzz word – or term – for what is needed to begin the rehabilitation of Docklands is ”fine grain”. This encompasses all the small things that make a city: buildings on a human scale housing the widest possible variety of uses.

Docklands has remarkable vertical development, lord mayor Robert Doyle says, but ”between those spaces is where cities happen”.

Responsibility for Docklands is shared between Melbourne City Council and the urban renewal authority Places Victoria, which has supplanted VicUrban. The project remains the authority’s to manage while the council supplies municipal services and ultimately will take over Docklands.

Frozen out of decision-making in the project’s first decade, the city has gradually found a voice to the extent that its director of planning, Rob Adams, says it is intimately involved in the next stage of development.

Docklands, and similar big-scale projects, are disadvantaged in a way cities are not, he says. Cities grow up incrementally over decades, which results in different types of development. Now, in order to minimise risk, governments tend to hand over large sites to developers, as happened with Docklands. And since developers do big-scale best, something like the current Docklands results. Plenty of big things, but not much ”fine grain”, the atmospheric, sometimes grungy stuff, such as Melbourne’s lanes.

But, he says, rescue is possible.

The same criticisms now levelled at Docklands were made about Melbourne 30 years ago.

”The challenge is to say … how do we move to get an overlay of that fine grain back to the city?” says Adams.

”What’s happening now – and it comes out of a much better relationship with Places Victoria – is a realisation that we can go back and we can start to look at an overlay of the finer grain and different types of uses starting to come into Docklands. There are a lot of spaces left between buildings and along waterfronts that could be rebuilt.”

Complaints of a lack of open space, he suggests, are misplaced. Docklands is now 60 per cent open space. What it lacks is quality open space. But calls for the expansive Harbour Esplanade to be turned to parkland do not impress him. It is a common response, he says, but one unlikely to generate the character – the varied, sometimes gritty, surprising urban environment – that critics complain the area lacks.

”If you were to leave [Harbour Esplanade] just as open space I believe that will always be windy and slightly intimidating to people because there’s no real reason to be in it, and it’s a long walk to any other location. If you come out of the stadium precinct and you look towards Victoria Harbour, which really is a fine body of water, if you’ve got nothing in front of you other than a park, well you might on a fine day wander down there. But after a football match on a winter’s evening … you’d turn around and go back to the city.

”How do you put something there that people want to experience … to engage with Melbourne’s past? I think the response of saying, if you put grass there it will be fine, is a very conservative one, and I hope it doesn’t go that way.” Instead, he argues, the next decade is the time to restore some of the lost waterfront ”fabric”.

One of the options would be to unpack and rebuild some of the city’s heritage freight sheds, now in storage, and place them at strategic points along the Esplanade, where they could create openings for markets and more spontaneous activities, he says.

”If we were to put back some of that fabric and start to think about uses, like possibly a fish market, or bring back things like the [sailing ships] Enterprise and the Alma Doepel, when it’s repaired, and actually get them to stop off there and pick up people.”

He notes that the area already sits within easy reach of visitors on the city circle tram route. The idea would be to ”embed within those spaces much smaller activities – galleries, maybe artist studios, maybe even some student and uni accommodation, as well as the normal bars, cafes and restaurants. ”You start to see a waterfront growing up along Harbour Esplanade that would rival other waterfronts around Australia.”

Adams would like to see the area made accessible to some of the many artists forced out of the city by soaring property values. He points to the public art fund to which developers are required to contribute, and suggests that, as well as buying art, the fund could be used to sponsor new artists and art activity, in turn enlivening the precinct.

”We feel Melbourne has a waterfront other than the Yarra. I think there’s a huge opportunity with Harbour Esplanade, making it a vibrant place people want to visit.”

There are some promising signs.

A milestone in the ”retrofit” Professor Buxton talks about will come with the creation nearby of a $12.7 million library and community centre with a new public square – a joint MCC and Projects Victoria exercise with developer Lend Lease. There is also a new community garden imminent.

Another different sort of retrofit will be the reconfiguration of the failing Docklands Co-ordination Committee into a community forum. Its precise shape is to be discussed later this month, but it will for the first time give a voice to local representatives. It has been a long time coming. Docklands already houses 6500 residents in 3400 dwellings, and is a workplace for 22,500 people.

Oddly, the global financial crisis is partly to thank for the current soul searching. Doyle says the crisis caused a slowing of activity, bringing the first decade of development to a natural conclusion.

Adams acknowledges, however, that the reshaping of Docklands will not proceed without some pain. The earliest casualty is likely to be the film studios in the north-west corner. The studios occupy a site on Moonee Ponds Creek that Adams says is better suited to a university campus. One lesson from the central city is that students, like artists, invigorate urban areas.

Melbourne University’s chair of architecture and urban design, Kim Dovey, says one of the difficulties with righting the area’s wrongs is the extent of private control. It will get better, he says, but leaves the impression that the Docklands precinct will only ever be a shadow of what might have been. ”Cities everywhere are replete with places that have had monumental stuff-ups at their genesis and yet urban life somehow finds a way and adapts,” he says. ”[But] I don’t think it was done in the public interest. There was a lot of free market ideology.”

Dovey says the lack of an existing local community, which could have been a great opportunity ”to do something dramatically different and exciting”, was in a sense used to disregard the public interest. ”It could have been this really progressive urbanism, getting serious about environmental issues.” Instead, he says, the opportunity was lost.

In the end, perhaps, it does not matter that the Docklands of that 1989 plan never materialised, nor that of its successor in 1991. As Adams points out, today’s Docklands is a natural extension of a different, and more intense, Melbourne than could have been imagined 23 years ago. What does matter, however, is that back then there were at least plans – a series of forethoughts. What eventuated in Docklands was hardly planned at all. The area, and all its potential, was simply broken into a series of discrete precincts to be filled by their respective developers with scant regard as to how they would interact. It was real estate ad hocery.

Today, even as planners and architects struggle to retrofit all that fine grain overlooked in Docklands’ first decade of growth, the state government has its sights set on a new grand scheme – Planning Minister Matthew Guy’s ”bold vision” to extend high-density living to nearby Fishermans Bend and E-Gate in the west.

Surely we wouldn’t make the same mistakes again. Would we?


About Mayor of Fremantle Brad Pettitt's blog
City of Fremantle Mayor

16 Responses to Melbourne’s Dockland’s and lessons for planning the East End of Fremantle

  1. Colin Nichol says:

    Little is new. Reminscent of the story of the development resulting in the Twin Towers of NYC.

  2. Roger Garwood says:

    Judging by the response from council, who are ignoring and reinterpreting the overwhelming anti high rise sentiments, the same mistakes are about to be made.
    It is clear that the vast majority of people who responded to the council do not want high rise yet, in the fashion of an anti democratic body, the results have been manipulated and ignored.
    Councilors should be reminded that they have been elected to fulfill the wishes of the people, not override them.

    • Roger, Roel and Paul. While I appreciate that all three of you didn’t support the Council’s scheme amendment, I still strongly believe that the majority of Fremantle people support Council vision of revitalizing this run down area with high quality, medium density buildings that includes sustainable buildings and affordable dwellings. This is what I ran my election campaign on and what I was elected to do.

      Despite your opposition to the heights,I hope you will make the most of the next few months where you and other interested community members have the opportunity for input into the design policy. The discretionary heights are quarantined until this design policy is in place. I look forward to a constructive engagement on what good design might mean for this degraded part of Fremantle.

      I have also edited Roger’s comments as it was sadly was straying too close being defamatory. I did ring Roger to say that he would need to back up such claims with evidence for me to approve them but he declined to do so. This is the first time I have had to edit or refuse a comment on this blog that was not just spam.

      • freoishome says:

        I have never been anti heights! So please don’t tar me with that brush.

        My concern has been about process and lack of vision. I have from the outset raised concerns about the likelihood of ‘real estate ad hokery’, although not with that phrase. My analogy was 17 jigsaw pieces that all fit but each is from a different puzzle!
        Also am bewildered that Council has faith that developers and retail owners have community at heart and hence will provide what the community needs.

      • Paul
        Good to hear you thought the heights were OK.
        The issues you talk about will be dealt with in the Kings Sq and A49 design policy that we be consulting on over the next few months. I look forward to your input on these and how this will link with the planning measures that will attract more people and jobs to the great built form and public spaces.
        cheers, Brad

  3. freoview says:

    But will Fremantle have learned the lessons, Brad? There is no grand plan or vision for the CBD, you have not done a traffic study because you refuse to acknowledge 4000 more inner city residents would create a problem there, you have not lowered height at Kings Square and the Target building, but instead increased height for a possible 8-9 ten storey buildings on the Woolstores site. The bits in between them will then be called public open spaces, I suppose, because you have not planned for them.

    PSA 49 is not about making Fremantle a better place to live in, but a better place for business. That is where you got it so wrong!

    The City of Fremantle has failed to think big and creative and has come up with a frustratingly mediocre scheme amendment, when we needed something grandiose and stunning that enhances and embraces our unique character. I had high hopes in this council, but you failed, and disappointed me deeply!

    Roel Loopers

  4. freoishome says:

    See what happens when you hand it over to developers!

    If you start the process without a Vision, what can you expect?

    Isn’t this what Freo has done, changed the planning codes, without a vision, ‘real estate ad hocery’ without a clear future need for community facility and function, for open space. Residential occupancy based on 90% being rich people.

    Still based on the same roads, designed for a time of horse and carts and lots of manual labour. Has anyone calculated the % of this space currently allocated to road reserve?

    Will the City sell of the land it owns to developers, hence losing what little control it has. ‘one of the difficulties of righting the wrongs, is the extent of private control’

  5. CathyHall says:

    Great………some specific lessons for Fremantle going forward from this retrospective Melbourne Docklands analysis.

    It would be refreshingly productive to shift the focus of our local conversation onto this and SIMILAR material instead of a lazy slip into “anti/pro debate style” divisive discussions prevelant in public “re-development” talk, its so depressingly repetive and time wasting!

    I’d like to see the Fremantle conversation focus on learnings from analysis such as the “fine grain” factor in this Docklands conversation.

    Two Questions for EM’s driving the future of PSA 49 into action.

    1) What kind of conversation/consultation do YOU really want now?
    2) How will YOU enable that to happen now?

    Kind regards Cathy

  6. Colin Nichol says:

    “Great………some specific lessons for Fremantle going forward from this retrospective Melbourne Docklands analysis.

    It would be refreshingly productive to shift the focus of our local conversation onto this and SIMILAR material instead of a lazy slip into “anti/pro debate style” divisive discussions prevalent in public “re-development” talk, its so depressingly repetive and time wasting!”

    – I feel compelled to state, since no-one else has (and I’d rather stay out of it any further): goodonya, Cathy.

    – You are advocating a new angle, a more positive and importantly, constructive focus, on the discussion. That should not go unnoticed. I needed that and there just might be others. I agree, with reservations, it is time to take a wider approach to the matter. The council is nervous about their decisions so far on this issue, some have been somewhat tortured about it and with reason, but I feel most believe they are doing the right thing, under the circumstances, so far. What remains to be revealed is, how other forces will perform.

    Another coffee in town?


  7. Roel Loopers says:

    Let’s move forward then, Brad, and really try to make the best out of PSA 49. Please DO listen when people like I try to help to get it right when it comes to the design and placement of the new buildings. 11 Queen Victoria Street plans worry me. If that is going to be the high standards talked about, we will fail. New development needs to be a lot more exciting and creative than that!

    I want to work in a very positive way with council, even the DAC if possible, on this. PSA 49 will go ahead, so let’s start working in an atmosphere of mutual respect!

    Roel Loopers

  8. Brad, I have only now lobbed in your blog and what a supprise !!!. I was in joy, if only for a moment on reading this artical. …I thought you had seen the light at last. But no it seems as you are intent on the biggest buildings being close to the water (harbour) and you are still againnst the ‘squarking few who according to one of your councilers could not be bothered to hang around and listen to the trotted out ‘Heart felt’ responces from your one minded councilers when we all knew where they were comming from and it was not the thinking electors.When there has been no qtr acceptable to any of them.
    11 Victorie I fear, is to be the classic example of were we are going .
    You have ‘sold’ for free, the view of the Harbour fron Barnett St, rise and my back yard. Pay off to residents in this little santury? Many more cars and hundreds of bins on the road side every week. Along with noisy Motorbikes,scooters and party students. And what is the Govt tenant. Were are going to love entertaining there clients!
    The squarking few are the heros . Most of the rest, as me, are too Busy trying to pay our way and at the same time not destroy our enviroment with over developement withmodern crap.
    Have yoy had a look Down Newcastle St Subiaco redecelopment Railway/Roberts road? East perth .
    Where are the people the excitement . They are Empty except maybe for a car slipping into a gated underground car park.
    Thanks for nothing!

    • Rob, glad you’ve found the blog and i hope you find it useful and informative. While I am sorry that you feel the way you do about the plans Council has for revitalizing Fremantle, this blog aims to be a space for constructive and respectful dialogue rather than just a space for people to vent. So I won’t respond to the details of your primarily negative spray other than to say that I would encourage you to get fully involved in the future workshops etc on the design policy for the area. While good city planning can’t simply be about protecting the views of a lucky few, the amenity and well being of the wider community needs to properly incorporated. cheers, Brad

      • Robert Bodkin says:

        Thank you Brad.
        I understand that in as far as views I value from my property. Though there is protection from overviews from near by property over personal space. However the View from Barnett St,which will become a FAR MORE pedestrian used access to Fremantle Park, have not been respected with any sort of dedicated View Line or should I dare to suggest Road or Lane way through to QV St.
        IN my Humble assessment this Is very much a Public amenity loss of great desirability and given away. for free.
        The connection to the harbour was very high on my list in choice of location and It gives me great deal of joy to walk, drive or ride my bike down the street to a daily ‘NEW View’. So how much is that worth! In privatised air space. Millions.
        There are at least 10 houses in this street that lose that and perhaps even value.

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