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Jul 4, 2013

How did Melbourne’s ‘laneway culture’ come about?

Planners and urban designers made a major contribution to the internationally famous and widely admired 'buzz' of Melbourne's CBD. But they weren't the only ones - the seeds were sown earlier

One of Melbourne’s celebrated laneways

Reading this article, Cities for people: Jan Gehl, you might conclude Melbourne’s internationally famed laneway culture is all down to those talented, far-sighted and influential planners and urban designers.

The author, Mitra Anderson-Oliver, seems to think so. She gives much of the credit to Danish architect Jan Gehl, who was a visiting professor in Melbourne in the 1970s and subsequently worked with Melbourne City Council in the early 90s. Much of what Melburnians now take for granted, she says, like the laneway culture and outdoor dining is a

consequence of Gehl’s influence – and the perseverance of local collaborators Rob Adams (architect and director of City Design at the City of Melbourne) and Rob Moore.

Other cities seem to think so because quite a few are seeking to retrofit laneways or improve existing ones with the hope of emulating Melbourne’s success. But is it that easy? Can cities everywhere simply capture Melbourne’s buzz through design?

I think the planners and designers made a valuable and significant contribution to the culture of Melbourne’s city centre as we know it today but they didn’t “create” it. What they did was to facilitate powerful underlying, or structural, trends – a very valuable contribution in its own right – rather than single-handedly generate a new world.

That’s an important understanding because it explains why, even though other cities have been trying for decades, it’s very hard to replicate elsewhere the success of Silicon Valley or the magic of Paris.

Back in the late ‘80s I moved to Perth from Melbourne. Returning to Melbourne a few years later, it was like coming back to a completey different place. Something dramatic and exciting had happened in the inner city while I was away. It had been transformed. In my old stomping ground in Fitzroy, it seemed like new bars (in those days tapas was the big new thing) and restaurants had sprouted everywhere.

The change was due to implementation of the recommendations of the Nieuwenhuysen report on the Liquor Control Act commissioned by the Cain government. The reforms were intended to create an urbane and civilised way of life similar to that enjoyed in European cities. Importantly, the cost of liquor licences was reduced and conditions were relaxed, encouraging a culture of small bars rather than “beer barns”.

Bar operators no longer needed large premises to obtain the economies of scale required to pay high licensing fees. By fortuitous historical circumstances (e.g. Hoddle grid, decline of manufacturing) Melbourne’s laneways and inner city streets offered the sort of low cost premises of varied size that entrepreneurs were looking for. The proliferation of venues gave operators the scope to specialise and offer unusual and idiosyncratic experiences.

There were 571 on-premises (restaurant) licences in Victoria in 1986, but by 2004 there were 5,136. That’s a phenomenal nine-fold increase over the period.

Although arguably not as important as the Niewenhausen reforms, other structural changes have contributed to the distinctive city centre culture of today too. For example, changes in education and residency requirements encouraged investors to build new housing developments in the CBD, creating a pool of permanent residents. Structural changes in the economy turned around the long-standing decline in CBD jobs, providing another source of demand for hospitality services. Growing international tourism helped as well.

As is almost always the case, the planners didn’t intentionally create the underlying demand through land use decisions or design. Their most important contribution was to recognise the benefits of what the Niewenhausen reforms had started and work positively to facilitate them.

They deserve credit for using the tools at their disposal to improve both the commercial and the physical environment of central Melbourne in support of the reforms. But for all its value, good design isn’t the only force that lit and fuelled the city’s spark. Much of the credit should go to the (Cain) government of the day and to economist Professor John Niewenhuysen.

Importantly, the spark created by the liquor reforms was no accident – it was what they were consciously intended and expected to achieve. It’s disappointing that their key role in the creation of today’s version of ‘marvellous Melbourne’ isn’t given more recognition.

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10 thoughts on “How did Melbourne’s ‘laneway culture’ come about?

  1. Damian Hollooway

    Too bad melbourne is still so full of booze barns

  2. carlo zeccola

    The Niewenhausen reforms were certainly the foundation, but lets not forget the coming of age of 2nd generation migrants who grew up amongst a strong appreciation and knowledge of fine food and fashion.

  3. Nici

    You’re missing one of the key factors in the development of laneway culture. Cheap rents and short leases lead to a fast turnover in shops in the lanes.
    They also encouraged a really interesting and innovative range of tenants – people and businesses who could never have afforded to set up shop on the main streets.
    The novelty factor (as well as the thoroughfare factor) kept people coming back over and over again. Then the bars and cafes arrived.

  4. Dave Carswell

    Great article.
    The Niewenhausen reforms were key to changes within the hospitality industry from the early 90s, however the small bar licensing was spawned in the Kennet era under mounting pressure from Crown to offer a new license to operate a bar without food service.

  5. Thorn

    Funny that with all that celebrated “buzz” Melbourne is still somehow just a collection of shops and to me has none of the spark that Sydney has. I have always found Melbourne kind of boring.

  6. Tom the first and best

    Remember that the increase in on-premises (restaurant) licences does not count the fact that before the changes, a significantly higher proportion of restaurants had BYO-only licences.

  7. Dylan Nicholson

    I think you’re stretching to suggest that climate change has made the CBD climate noticeably more balmy since 1974 – but the UHI effect would possibly have helped. At any rate, we already enjoy a much milder climate than many European cities that have lively ‘laneway’ (similar to many narrow medieval streets) or street-dining cultures. Surely the key to the success of the laneways is that they are car-free zones. Another important factor would be building heights – are their any successful dining/shopping laneways wedged between skyscrapers?

  8. hk

    There was next to no on footpath activity in 1974.
    Contributing factors to the dramatic increase in open air activity include:
    1)Rob Adams with his incremental approach to physical planning changes leading to a far more friendly public street environment (cf. with private atriums)
    2)The top class MCC teams with Nathan, Helen Martin etc.
    3)The ban on smoking inside buildings
    4)And dare I say climate change toward many more days of mild weather in the CBD

    All that is now needed are more retractable sail cloth awnings to protect us from the scorching sun in summer and the ever rarer Melbourne shower.

  9. Nathan Alexander

    Thanks Alan for noting the influence of the liquor licensing laws. I was at the City of Melbourne from 1986 to 1995 and we were aware of those laws, although whether we fully realised the implications of the changes I can’t say. I ran the 1994 study of public life in central Melbourne using Jan Gehl’s methodology. Planners and designers at Melbourne were well aware of the special qualities and potential of the lanes before Jan, and the ‘laneway culture’ would have happened whether he mentioned them or not. Credit is certainly due to Rob Adams, and various strategic planners.
    Mitra Anderson-Oliver credits Jan Gehl with way too much. Although Jan’s methodology has been a great tool for the city to benchmark the use of public space, his recommendations were generally what the City was already intending, with a few exceptions, and the general thrust of a program to make the city’s public spaces more liveable was already well underway. Jan has been invaluable as a proselytizer for public space.
    In terms of changes in demand, the City did create the central city housing market in the early 1990’s through Postcode 3000. This market undoubtedly got a boost later on from increased international student demand, but was underway before that. I suspect that central city apartment living would have occurred sooner or later in Melbourne, but it wasn’t happening in 1992 when the City launched Postcode 3000.