Q&A with Rob Adams

Professor Rob Adams, director of city design and projects at the City of Melbourne, took time out of Hong Kong’s Business of Design Week to share with Design Anthology his experiences and insights about Melbourne’s transformation and regeneration since the 1980s 

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The 2018 edition of Business of Design Week saw Hong Kong partner with the city of Melbourne under the theme Think · Collaborate · Create. The Australian city has undergone considerable transformation since the 1980s, and is an intriguing and inspiring model of urban regeneration. 

During the week-long conference we had the chance to speak with Professor Adams, who is also a member of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization. With more than four decades of experience as an architect and urban designer including 35 with the City of Melbourne, Professor Adams’s contribution to the city’s regeneration is significant.

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Design Anthology: Placemaking is at the heart of everything you do. What are the key factors that shape your approach to designing a space for people?

Rob Adams: I think the most important thing about any public space is that people need to feel comfortable there. That's an easy thing to say, but what does it actually mean? Often the spaces that work well are the ones that have activity around their edges. As architects and designers we'd love to think that it’s what we put inside the space that matters, but that’s not always true. If you look at some of the best public spaces, they might have very little going on in the centre — it’s what happens around the edges that provides activity. If you've got the right things around the edge of a public space, it’ll work on its own. You don't have to programme activities in it — of course it's always nice to do that — but if a space is totally reliant on programmed activity it'll fail, because there isn’t enough time or money to maintain a permanent programme. So, the first thing is to look at the activity around a space and consider how it works and if it enriches the activity within. If you get that right, you’ve gone seventy-five per cent of the way to creating a good public space.

Scale is also important. Sometimes we think spaces must be big, but the bigger space the more people you need to make it feel active. Often smaller public spaces work better than the big ones. And it’s important to consider the elements; a space needs to be comfortable, so it should factor in the things that people need to be comfortable, whether that’s shade or shelter. And then there are some smaller subtleties. In a public space without benches or chairs, people usually gravitate towards the edges as opposed to the centre, so you’ve got to ensure that the edges of public spaces aren’t always commercialised or require people to buy a meal or a drink in order to use it. There are many of these small balances. Public drinking water is important if it’s a hot country, there are trees, arts and culture — joy. You want to legitimise loitering.

What about legitimising certain spaces, like Melbourne’s reclaimed laneways or the regeneration of Docklands as a residential area? How do you change perceptions of certain areas in a city, and where people are prepared to go and not prepared to go?

I think we're all urban designers. I think urban designers would like to think it's a profession, but when any person moves to a city their senses are usually attuned to how they navigate that place. We tend to take in information very quickly when we walk past a place: is it interesting? Do I feel safe? Is there something that I’d like to do there? Or it a dead end, or a dark corner? We consider all the factors I spoke about earlier. We don’t realise we’re making these judgements, but we do them instantly whenever we walk around a city. And as we walk, we make snap decisions about which way we want to go and why. In Melbourne, the service laneways looked just like that — there were rubbish bins and so on. We just removed the rubbish bins and allowed people to externalise their trade into the laneways. In some we allowed public and street art. And suddenly these laneways became trendy places that people wanted to visit. You really don't have to change much. The mystery of my life is why we find it so hard to design a good street.

Today I think the problem that is that unlike someone who goes to medical school, for example, where you’re taught to be a general practitioner before you’re taught to be a brain surgeon, we as architects and designers are taught to be brain surgeons before we’re general practitioners. Nobody teaches us about how cities work. They teach us how to design beautiful buildings. We’ve got it the wrong way around. We tend to overcomplicate the design of cities and make it sound as though it's some strange process when it's actually not. It's the general practice. We know streets are the biggest public space in the city, and people are the most important ingredients of a city. So how do you make that place feel comfortable for those people?

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In terms of the proposed regeneration strategies, what kind of support did you get from the government and developers in the beginning?

We were lucky that when we started in the 1980s we were aligned with the State Government. The State has far greater power than us — it’s the planning authority, the road authority and it runs the public transport — and we were fortunate to have that support. When we decided we needed to bring back the residential population of the downtown area, it was driven out of a unit in my division but we actually seconded people from the state to work with us. The developers were less willing; we were talking about a different sort of city to the one they were designing. The one they were designing in the 1980s was one that relied heavily on cars and required ample parking spaces and all the rest of it. And we were saying that’s not the city we want. There was some opposition and in fact, when we started Postcode 3000, a programme to bring residential life back into the city, the developers told us that Australians don’t live in the central city and they were right — at that time there were only about six hundred residences in the central city.

We started the project by looking all the things that would encourage people to convert, say, an office building to a residential building. We found that the land tax, which was set by the State Government, had a threshold of 175,000 dollars. If you took a piece of land and you subdivided into 50 units, then each one of those owners owned a fiftieth of the land. If the threshold dropped below 175 you didn’t pay land tax. If you took an old building and you converted it, you’d pay stamp duty on the current value, not the end value. So people paid an up-front deposit for the land and avoided much of the stamp duty. We just put that all together and suddenly people began to see the value in it. They were saving themselves thousands of dollars on what would be the most expensive purchase of their life.

The crunch came when James Keeran from Macquarie Bank walked into our office. This was after the recession in the late 1980s when the property market collapsed and people who owned now-empty office properties were told they’d have to wait for the next commercial boom. We told them that they could turn those properties into residential spaces, and Kerin was willing to try it with one building. He commissioned an architect to design 35 units and he put them on the market, and he sold all 35 units in two months. He was amazed at the response, and he did five more such buildings. Once we had a bank doing it, we just sat back. 

A lot of developers are followers rather than leaders. They do what they think will work, or copy what someone else has made work. But here was a leader, someone who was prepared to try something new. And then the developers came in behind it. 

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Until recently, Melbourne was ranked the world’s most liveable city for seven years running. What do you think were some of the key factors that made it so? 

The Economist Intelligence Unit rating system is designed for executives who may be transferring to other cities. What the rating system looks at is safety, weather, clean water and clean air, accessibility, schooling, and so on.  Melbourne’s lucky because it has many of those things. What I'd like to think has helped is that back in the 1980s when the city was fading and people were moving away, we realised that Melbourne wasn’t a bad city, but that we just weren’t loving the good things. We started looking at the characteristics and features of the city to make the most of them. We took all the elements that made up this funny city and made sure that every action we took reinforced them. So rather than having one large icon, like the Guggenheim in Bilbao, that that would change the city, we said that if we love every one of those characteristics enough for long enough, our city is going to get better. And that’s what we’ve done.

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Was there ever competition with cities like Sydney and Brisbane to attract and keep the inhabitants, the skills and the diversity of Melbourne’s population?

There are always those tensions. Melbourne is a second city; it’s more like a Chicago than a New York. There’s always the question of what’s special about Melbourne and how we keep people here. We have an eye on the premier cities, and in the 1980s, though we were competing with them, we didn’t want to copy them.

We actually looked at Melbourne and said ‘What do we need to do to make Melbourne better?’ We thought that if we make Melbourne better, than maybe people would come here rather than Sydney. And after 30 years Melbourne has achieved that. People are actually leaving Sydney to come to Melbourne, and in fact it’s likely that in the next ten years Melbourne will surpass Sydney as the largest city in Australia. Melbourne doesn’t have the sunshine and beaches to match Sydney or Brisbane, but it’s more of a cerebral city. Melburnians are participants — they love to turn up and attend, be it a football match or an exhibition. So it has plenty of good qualities that we just nurtured. 

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Speaking of the fact that Melbourne is looking to surpass Sydney in populations, can we talk about population growth and urban density as opposed to urban sprawl? What are some of the benefits of urban density and how do you sell it to people who are accustomed to ground-floor homes and gardens?

It’s funny you ask that question, given that we spoke about Cape Town earlier. When I studied at the University of Cape Town in the 1960s, the baby boomers had hit the system and every university around the world was expanding. I travelled in my fourth year and witnessed it in every city I visited. I returned to Cape Town and they had set up the Planning Unit. Zambian architect Julian Elliott was running it, and I knew him well. He said that to respond to the expansion, we needed to ask a different question. We needed to ask how we could use what was already there, already available. They undertook a detailed analysis of how the spaces were being used, and discovered that the lecture theatres were only used for seventeen per cent of the day. So instead of rebuilding, they decided to re-timetable. 

I went back to Cape Town again about thirty-five years after I left and they had trebled the student population on that campus, yet they’d hardly built any new structures. What really stood out was how busy, exciting and vibrant the campus was. It was never like that in my day. I thought to myself that if a university could just re-programme itself and become so vital, why couldn’t the same be done to a city? So nine years ago we conducted a study in Melbourne called Transforming Australian Cities and we did exactly that. We looked at the metropolitan area of Melbourne with its four million people and explored how we could build new developments on the existing infrastructure without expanding the city’s boundaries. We eventually worked out that we could accommodate the next four million people in Melbourne on only seven and a half percent of the land. We wouldn’t build any higher than five to eight storeys, and the project would save 440 billion dollars in infrastructure. That showed me it could be done, but we also had to ask ourselves if the resulting city would be a good one. 

I think good cities require five things:  density, mixed-use structures, connectivity and ease of movement, a high-quality public realm, and lastly, a character that is reinforced to give a unique sense of place. And if you've got these five things, there are three outcomes. Because there’s less infrastructure and people are closer to it, it becomes sustainable. If the city is working better, it becomes financially viable, and when people come close together you recreate the village and it leads to social cohesion and a sense of connection. 

As told to / Simone Schultz 
Images / Courtesy of City of Melbourne

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