The past four decades have witnessed the biggest building boom central Melbourne has ever known. Planning regime changes introduced in 1999 enabled taller towers  to be constructed on ever smaller lots. At the time, the city’s planning regulations were not adjusted to keep up with the development pressure that came with a strong focus on residential construction in the central city. The intensity of this rapid rise in private development fuelled a disproportionate focus on short term returns by some developers; and while the skyline expanded, the design quality of many of Melbourne’s streets and public spaces below declined.

The prioritising of a ‘one-off’ short-term gain rather than seeking the larger and often more substantive economic benefits arising from a design led approach has left a legacy that still scars some parts of the city’s complexion similar to an impulsive, late-night tattoo.

While planners and regulators openly encourage developers and their applicants to consider the positive benefits of reaching beyond the prescriptive minima of planning schemes, architects, developers and their institutional investors should all be asking themselves the
same question that is posed by the late-night tattoo artist:

“In five or ten years from now, will you regret this?”

Melbourne’s design journey is not dissimilar to those experienced by other cities around the world with rapidly growing populations and a building boom that sometimes fails to consider the longer term financial and ‘in-use’ benefits of good design Almost 20 years ago this fact was highlighted by the Property Council of Australia in its 1999 study ‘Scorecard for Meeting Financial Performance’ which examined sixteen developments and assessed the value uplift brought about by what it described as a building’s overall ‘design dividend.’

Today, the principal learnings from this study still stand strong with good design providing an uplift in yield, greater investor confidence and higher, long term capital uplift.

The DNA of City Design 

Aesthetics and practicalities of the street and surrounding public spaces ultimately determine a city’s liveability, value creation and social prosperity. This means that in a global city like Melbourne, developing ‘just average’ buildings is no longer acceptable.

Towers are able to be built on more sites in the central  city. Blocks are smaller and towers are taller. With such development flexibility there is equally a rising responsibility for every building to be a good citizen and give back to the surrounding realm.

Design shortcomings have seen examples where above-ground parking has impacted on safety, quality and activation of our streets and spaces. Building services on small sites have gobbled up street frontages leaving blank facades and killing the opportunity for street activation.

Too often we have seen finishes which are cheap looking and have deteriorated over time along with street walls and podiums that present continuous monotonous façades - usually glass or concrete, without articulation or depth.

To enable a change of culture and to deliver great urban design through private development, cities need strong design advocacy and leadership that’s underpinned by an improved policy base that reflects best practice.

In turn, this change also needs to be supported by processes such as expert design reviews and potentially, competitive design processes.
The leadership task does not rest solely on the shoulders of the design professions.

Investors, particularly superannuation funds, are becoming more attuned to design expectations as the funds increasingly become more conscious that the public are their members and clients and their investments are

part of their marketing. Logos on construction hoardings and building images in communications are now carefully managed as part of the fund’s brand reputation. In a competitive market, no fund can afford to be associated with a poorly designed development.

These sensitivities are also putting pressure on councils and regulators to ensure that surrounding developments are of an appropriate standard that does not detract and devalue the surrounding realm.

In response, the City of Melbourne has taken a leadership position proposing major changes to the way future developments are undertaken.

Billed as the most comprehensive review of the city’s urban design policies since the 1990’s, the proposed Planning Scheme Amendment ‘C308,’ and builds upon the Victorian Government’s recently introduced Central City Amendment. It places a primary focus on how a
development contributes to the city, in terms of visual appeal, activation and amenity at street level.

The planning scheme amendment proposed by the City of Melbourne is intended to apply across the Southbank precinct and the city’s main CBD area, also known as the Hoddle Grid.

Covering around 33 square kilometres, the hallmarks of this central city area are the unique public spaces that strategically link together the sandstone grandeur of historic buildings with the sleek, more contemporary high-rise forms and classically detailed retail shop fronts. The successful blending of these differing forms through high-quality open spaces and a design focus on the experience at street level is essentially what has given Melbourne its unique attraction.

The supporting centrepiece of the proposed planning scheme amendment is the Central City Design Guide which brings together the commercial, social and experiential aspirations of designers, developers and the broader city population.

The Central City Design Guide is a pictorial version of the Melbourne Planning Scheme and challenges many design and heritage beliefs by introducing a level of practical sophistication to improve the experience of the building users and the public, while affording a greater
level of planning clarity and certainty for the industry.

The Guide illustrates a number of key changes to the planning scheme that ‘draws a line in the sand’ and seeks for every development to strive for something better.

Graphically prescriptive, the Planning Scheme Amendment and the Central City Design Guide rules out above ground parking, introduces new rules to limit services and utilities at the ground level as well as requiring applicants to lodge detailed 1:20 drawings specifying a building’s ‘street level pedigree.’

Feedback during the proposed amendment’s exhibition period has been positive with developers, designers and the public actively supporting the proposed planning change.

High Trust – Low Fear Design

Councils are acutely aware that lost time during the application processes ultimately costs developers and that every additional cost potentially impacts opportunities associated with other policy intentions, such as the creation of affordable housing. Resilient, articulate and timely consideration of planning applications is recognised as an important mutual obligation in order to encourage and foster high quality investment in good design.

The Central City Design Guide will help to facilitate this outcome by offering a visual presentation of the controls, within a catalogue of undesired features and sought-after forms.

It expresses and defines those aspects normally only achieved through prolonged and complex planning approval negotiations while also promoting a greater level of confidence in public consultation.

Genuine engagement and consultation is about creating a high-trust, low-fear relationship with the community that is factual and less prone to subjective or uninformed debate. The Central City Design Guide will greatly assist developers and designers to accurately communicate
their proposals.

While there may have been some initial concern that design rules could stifle creativity and innovation, these concerns have given way to support and agreement that the parameters being set by the proposed planning scheme amendment will set a higher benchmark while continuing to support and enable a diversity of design approaches.

To help deliver high quality buildings and spaces the City of Melbourne is also investing in design professionals to support expert design review processes, and is investigating the benefits design awards programs and competitive design processes to incentivise design excellence.

A new building should give back to the city more than it takes. Melbourne is famous for its beautiful shop fronts, especially along Collins and Bourke Streets. We want to extend that experience to other quarters of the City. But more than anything, there is a desire to change the building culture in Melbourne.

Average is no longer good enough when it comes to architecture, design and urban amenity. Average does not ‘cut it’ in the world’s most liveable city.

As an organisation that seeks to champion good design, The City of Melbourne wants to inspire and encourage investment in architecture and design.

With the central city of Melbourne hosting almost one  million people a day, it makes more economic sense than ever to create a great city at the eye level. The global knowledge economy is driven by cities filled with footloose workers who demand high quality urban design
and liveability. Fortunately for Melbourne, we have a unique and distinctive combination of both.

Now, the challenge is to take it to the next level and the Central City Design Guide will herald a cultural change in Melbourne’s heart that emphasises that ‘average or ugly’ is no longer good enough for our city!