Southbank, Melbourne a couple of years ago. The table shows missing Victorians killed in road crashes
Southbank, Melbourne, December 2012, showing a 60-metre long table with 257 place settings prepared by Victoria’s Transport Accident Commission. It represents the number of people who wouldn’t be at Christmas lunch because they died on Victorian roads that year

Here’s The Age yesterday reporting on the first day of hearings by the Planning Panel considering the Victorian Government’s proposed changes to planning controls in the city centre:

The influential planner responsible for the revitalisation of Melbourne’s CBD has warned the city will soon be “beyond reasonable repair” if new laws are not urgently introduced to rein in poor skyscraper development.

The warning comes from Professor Rob Adams, Director of City Design at the City of Melbourne. My interest, though, isn’t in the forecast of imminent disaster; it’s  in The Age’s characterisation of Professor Adams as the “planner responsible for the revitalisation of Melbourne’s CBD”.

Let me make it clear I think Professor Adams and the City of Melbourne made a valuable and significant contribution to the vitality of Melbourne’s city centre as we know it today; but they weren’t “responsible” for the revitalisation of the city centre. They didn’t make it.

They didn’t use the magic of land use regulation and urban design to knowingly create the forces that drove revitalisation in central Melbourne. Their most important contribution was to recognise the benefits that would flow if they facilitated rather than “stopped” – the customary role of planners – the set of underlying forces that were generating change.

The Age’s take sounds a lot like the Great Man theory of history. It’s the 19th-century idea that key historical steps are due to the astuteness, brainpower, magnetism and acumen of key individuals. We should be thankful, the theory goes, for the life of individuals like Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Francis Crick.

The counter-view – which is widely accepted today – is that accumulated knowledge and social conditions set the timing for discoveries and change. It doesn’t matter who goes public first with an important new insight; because if there wasn’t a Charles Darwin there would’ve been someone else about the same time e.g. Alfred Russell Wallace.

In my view, the explanation for the “revitalisation” of central Melbourne isn’t down to one or even to a handful of inspired individuals. It’s mostly due to a happy coincidence of underlying – or structural – forces set loose by circumstances that had little to do with personnel at the City of Melbourne.

An account should start with the shift towards a knowledge-based economy; that placed a higher value on the agglomeration economies provided by the centre. It should include the effects of globalisation, like the huge growth in the “export” of education services, the associated relaxation of visa residency requirements, and growing international tourism.

The impact of low rents relative to similarly-sized Sydney helped too. They’re the result of a number of factors, including the loss of much of the finance sector in the 1990s; the 175-year-old legacy of small lots along laneways; few natural barriers to expansion; and a generous endowment of brownfield sites close to the CBD.

More recently, the relatively “relaxed” rules around things like minimum apartment standards – that so trouble the City of Melbourne today – very likely have a role in maintaining diversity too.

The Cain Government’s decision to implement the recommendations of the Nieuwenhuysen report on the Liquor Control Act in the 1980s was another key factor. I’ve talked about Nieuwenhuysen before in a related context and it’s worth revisiting the key points I made then.

The liquor reforms were intended to facilitate a clearly evident demand for the sort of urbane and civilised way of life long enjoyed in European cities, although of course they did’t create the demand. 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. 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.

The reforms were spectacularly successful. 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.

So, today’s version of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ is the outcome of a unique combination of mainly structural forces that other cities, despite the best intentions of their planners, find difficult to copy. The politicians and planners at the City of Melbourne and those in the State government deserve credit for recognising the favourable winds and facilitating them but they didn’t create them.

The possibilities open to planners and politicians are largely defined by matters way beyond their control; they need to “work with the grain” and the limits it ordains. All too often though we see them pursuing objectives that “poll well” but make little practical sense given the nature of their city; that ultimately disadvantages everyone.