“Age of the City” – by the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, The Rt. Hon. Robert Doyle AC
(Edited transcript of the 2015 Redmond Barry Lecture)
Bringing a pragmatic, common-sense approach to running a bustling, thriving international city and has brought overwhelming popularity to a former English teacher turned high-octane politician. Just recently, Cr. Doyle was awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia – an award which properly recognizes his extraordinarily dynamic leadership and force for good towards those who live, work and play in Melbourne but more particularly his enormous influence in areas of social welfare, medical research and youth issues.
For those who know Cr. Doyle through his quick-witted repoistes on local radio and television broadcasts, less would be aware of his studious approach to his work and myriad passions. Cr. Doyle’s address below is an edited version of a public speech delivered by Cr. Doyle in 2015 which clearly shows a deeply sensitive person who understands the historical context of what became before and the legacy he strives to leave to ensure that future generations will not only flourish but in doing so to appreciate the foundations of our antipodean renaissance city.
Our city is a very young one, founded only in 1835. I think that we should be proud and acknowledge that our first peoples are the oldest traditional culture in the world. I believe we have entered the era of the city. 200 years ago was the era of empires. 100 years ago it was the era of nations, but this is the city’s century.
With the honour of being Lord Mayor of Melbourne goes a very rare opportunity.
In coming decades across the world more and more of us will make our lives in cities. We’ll shape and be shaped by them. We will imagine them as we’ve never imagined cities before and our imaginations will be stretched as never before by the shapes our cities take. In cities, human beings will conceive their future and in cities they will find it. When we talk about cities, we tend to talk about work and leisure, entertainment, amenity, prices, affordability and livability, a word that the great historian of the city Lewis Mumford like to use as much as we like to use it here in Melbourne.
Knowledge and invention were never at the heart of the city in the way they are now and intellectual and creative effort was never so vital to our city’s existence. The flag of the City of Melbourne tells the first part of our story. In the four quadrants of the cross of St. George, a fleece, a whale, a bull and a ship, to pick the city’s early sources of wealth. Had we progressively redesigned the flag, a lump of gold and the Victorian architecture that it paid for in a briquette with manufactured goods from the Holden car to the Gloweave shirt would have been needed. If you were designing it today, now the quadrants would be filled by knowledge, education, information, technology and its uses, research.
Much as it may offend our lingering bush mythologies, cities are not only the places where the vast majority of Australians live and work. They are also the country’s economic dynamos. Melbourne’s CBD is Victoria’s economic powerhouse. What is good for the city is essential for the state. The future of both depends on the success of the knowledge economy, on the knowledge worker. Everything depends on what we do with our brains. This will be the test for Melbourne in the coming decades. Will we be clever enough to hold our own not only with Sydney and Brisbane, but with Singapore and Hong Kong and Shanghai and Boston, London, Frankfurt and Silicon Valley?
Will we have what it takes to keep our best brains and attract others from abroad or will we lose them as we have for so long and at inestimable cost? Is it conceivable that in say 20 or 30 years the depth of our scientific knowledge, our skills, research and creative industries will compare with the best in the world? Will this, our reserves of human capital, be sufficient to maintain our prosperity and our reputation as a livable city? We have elements of a first rate education system in this state and elements of something less than that as we do in our city. The only guarantee of a first rate state and a first rate city is an education system that is first rate through and through. Hold that thought, but let me turn back to the city for a moment.
Bear in mind that in the last 30 years 50% of the CBD has been rebuilt. We can change. We can reinvent and renew and we can make progress. There will be missteps and even a disaster or two, but we know we can become a better city. Take this library. It’s a sporadically reinvented public institution and the precinct in which it now sits. Today’s daily sense of life around here were unimaginable 30 years ago. It was a rather bedraggled and tired outpost of the city centre. Now the cultural mix, the shops, the cafes, the transport, the general buzz, a sort of human hive has sprouted.
While it is not quite the continuous knowledge precinct that some people once rosily envisaged, the strip of Swanston Street running from this library to the University of Melbourne now encompasses among other fine education establishment, the highest ranking university in the country, the best design school, the biggest tertiary institution and one of the world’s 10 best medical research establishments. In one postcode, Parkville 3052, there are more scientists, doctors, nurses, health practitioners and researchers working than any other postcode in Australia. A precinct does not an education or a city make of course, but it does create favourable conditions for cross fertilization and other creative manoeuvres.
As we all know Redmond Barry founded both the University of Melbourne and the State Library of Victoria, but the Mechanics’ Institutes, the Philosophical Institute, the Philharmonic Society, the Royal Society, the art gallery, he had a hand in all of these civilising enterprises as well. That’s what he was, Victoria’s great civilizer and that’s before we get to his philanthropy and his service to the Supreme Court and the law in general. No other 19th century Victorian left such a stamp on the character of Melbourne. This briefest of history sketches points up two big contemporary lessons about cities. First, how much can be done by inspired public spirits and second, how smart cities build on the advantages bequeath them.
Consider a couple of early Melbourne visionaries. That humane and far sighted first governor Charles Joseph La Trobe gave us the parklands that still define Melbourne’s temperament and grand its livability. He is to Melbourne what the founder of Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted, is to New York. The man who fixed nature in the city, gave it a defining ambience and lungs with which to breath. Robert Hoddle gave us the broad streets set out on our grid. Nothing lent as much to Melbourne’s character except perhaps our weather. The grid decided not only the look, but the rhythms of the city as if anticipating the coming of millions of exhausts, Hoddle’s wide streets were made to deal with fumes and noise. The wind whips it away.
That’s why if someone said, “Life in the city never lets you go,” and you don’t want it to. What are the Lord Mayor and a city council to do? It’s not their work of art or their antique. The people make the city and the city makes them in turn. If we want the city to be a city, we have to let both the artists and the mackerel run. Cities are expressions of all that men and women can be for better and for worst. “The city is a natural territory for a psychopath with histrionic gift,” Jonathan Raban once wrote. It’s a claim thoroughly corroborated by history and by Hollywood. Cities provide the drama of our lives. The veteran American commentator Lewis Lapham describes the city as the progenitor of his country’s energy and the locust of its desire.
It changed the place to a degree that no one could have predicted at the time and everyone now takes for granted. With this little kiss of radical inspiration, like the princess in the fairy story, the CBD woke. Now the streets buzzed at night. The footpaths are crowded with café tables, the laneways thrive. It’s a city again or rather a city that has grown into the potential its designer bequeathed which is to say into itself. Melbourne has no great harbour like Sydney’s and its setting is relatively featureless. We have no Opera House or Empire State Building. No Frank Gehry Art Museum. No unique and mighty icon, but as any good stoic will tell you and Melbourne is a stoic kind of city, the wise always welcome adversity and disadvantage.
Melbourne is a three dimensional woven tapestry, not an open air zoo. The essence of this city is on the street at human scale, in places that protect, entertain and enliven.” Vision didn’t stop however with Hoddle. For Postcode 3000, we have the vision of our own professor Rob Adams to thank. The list of related projects that Rob has conceived, instigated and overseen over the last 30 years is remarkable by any standards. Remaking outworn city building as apartments. The new mark parked by the era Boronia, Queen’s Bridge, the remaking of city square, the turning basins, Swanston Street, the CH2 Building, the reopened and now emblematic laneways, countless art programmes, new lighting, new pedestrian, bridges and who knows how many trees.
The Melbourne CBD is already a walking precinct. The population of greater Melbourne is expected to almost double in the next 40 years to become Australia’s biggest city. Long before that the CBD will need to accommodate a million people every day. In the face of this, it will be a mighty achievement if the city can keep its character and remain a walking precinct. If we’re going to be a big Melbourne, how are we going to make the city work? I would say by working to the same precepts that have governed Postcode 3000, not by following the example of any other city that thinks building ever taller towers is a mark of success and sophistication. All that matters of place, taste and tradition are inconsequential.
Here’s the frightening thing of the great challenge. There are 757 hectares waiting to be developed in immediate proximity to Hoddle’s grid. Development of South Bank, Docklands, eGate, Arden-Macaulay and Fishermans Bend will swell the CBD to six times its present size. How do we make such a city walkable? How do we keep it livable? How do we plan for its growth? The only choice is to accommodate the new population towards the centre of Melbourne, rather than continuing to expand at the fringes, but the planning task is immense. The imaginative task is immense. When I consider what the councils I’ve worked with have done over nearly seven years, it’s actually not so much the towers and the buildings that have been approved or refused that strike me as the important city making decisions.
The important decisions are things like closing Swanston Street to traffic, planting 3,000 trees every year for 10 years, building three libraries in the heart of the city and planning for the renewal of a fourth, creating green spaces where asphalt ruled previously, thinking about making the centre of our city a place to linger rather than rush through by having more street furniture in the centre of the city than any other city in the world, bringing life back to the city of Melbourne festivals that bring people together whether that’s New Year’s Eve or Christmas or Australia Day, Melbourne Music Festival, Melbourne Spring Fashion Festival, The Indigenous Arts Festival, even our own beloved and very daggy member.
It’s working in partnerships with governments, individuals and organisations like the police, The Salvation Army and the Melbourne City Mission in what I call the conversation of Melbourne. The great conversation of Melbourne seeks to imagine a better city and then works towards creating it everyday. I’m so proud that although we come from 200 different nations, we speak 240 different languages and dialects, we practise 105 different faiths, we’re still one Melbourne. Back in the days when Melbourne was a quiet post-colonial city hosting an Olympic Games that was opened by a youth carrying a real torch and wearing his singleton footy shorts, we imagined the city of the future would come with flying cars and moving sidewalks for the poorer souls who could not afford invidivuals jet packs.
How will we get people from South Bank to Parkville, from Fishermans Bend to Flagstaff Gardens? A city planned around people has to be planned around moving them. There’s a very odd thing about the Melbourne grid. The two great boulevards don’t meet. Catch a tram down Rural Parade and you’ll end up at a dead end at Flinders Street. Catch one down St. Kilda Road and you’ll end with the university you and Royal Parade. It would make a world of difference if Elizabeth Street trams could swing East into Flinders Street and some Swanston Street trams could turn west down Flinders and north up Elizabeth. In other words, connect those great boulevards across the city. An even bigger difference will be felt when Melbourne has a 21st century metro rail network
We can have a planned city without having a dead city. We can have a city build for twice as many humans, but built on a human scale. After all what other scale makes any sense? In doing this, we are doing something that the best city builders have always done, build idea upon idea, mind upon mind, invention upon tradition, new forms upon old ones and end heap it maybe, but one who’s future rests upon the whole record of our present here. Which brings us finally back to Redmond Barry, a man who made this city and was made by it. When he gave us a library and a university, he gave us the keys to Melbourne. Value, knowledge and civilised behaviour.