Interview: Rob Adams, Urban Designer
“The city is its own fragile eco system and, like all eco systems, is damaged – or dies – usually because of a lack of understanding about what nurtures it.”
- Rob Adams
When Rob Adams relates the city of Melbourne to “a fragile eco-system”, be clear in the understanding that this is a well-thought sentence owing nothing to hyperbole. As our city’s chief urban designer for the past 30 years (and counting), Rob is well acquainted with the intricate interplays of space, design, utilities and movement that turn a collection of concrete and asphalt in to an environment capable of sustaining creative life.
It’s not too much to say that he, along with his team, has nurtured Melbourne back to life with such success that – for most of the city’s current inhabitants – it appears there has never not been a time when ours was the epicentre of food, fashion and festivals.
Rob: "Most people think laneways have always had coffee shops in them, but if you’re looking at side walk cafes there were probably only two in the central city in 1985 compared to about 450 in 2014. It’s the cumulative effect over 30 years of just slowly improving what are signatures of Melbourne. A lot of the works that we do are tiny interventions – we’ve taken out 30 hectares of asphalt in the city by building bigger side walks, turned roundabouts in to green space and widened median strips to make playgrounds – people don’t notice, but we do them hundreds of times a year and then, in time, you get the result.”
But like any paternal figure, Rob knows the truth of his charge’s history: the growing pains resulting in challenges that – almost paradoxically – have led Melbourne to becoming the lauded landscape it is today.
It started in the ‘80s, when a groundswell of opposition rose against the destruction of ‘Marvellous Melbourne.’ Combine this with an exodus of retail from the CBD as everyone moved to suburban shopping centres, and a council that was too broke to enact grand schemes – underground trams, and big structures built atop the historic Queen Vic Market – and the stage was set for a man of particular vision to restore the landscape much as a trained art conservateur might restore a Da Vinci: with a sure and subtle touch.
Rob: “It starts with a political movement more than anything, so I was fortunate enough to arrive here at a time when the politicians had come in to change Melbourne. Their vision was very simple – they wanted the centre of Melbourne to become a 24-hour city, but they wanted it to look and feel like Melbourne. Nobody wanted Dallas.”
Without the cash to splash, moderations had to make the most of the landscape that was already there. Sure, the reinvigoration of the famed laneways were a large part of it, but so, too, was the reconnection of the city to the Yarra, the expansion of green space and – key to it all – the bringing back of human life in to the frame of the city’s daily function.
It’s a sure fire equation for success when enacted sympathetically: much of the difference between central London and central Paris – Haussmanian planning aside – is the presence of living residents in every street of the French capital city. That kind of pedestrian interaction that brings normality and continual movement.
Rob: “On the back of the collapse of the economy in the late ‘80s we came up with a project to turn commercial buildings in to residential – it succeeded in taking a whole lot of existing buildings and putting them in to multiple ownership. Ironically, the one thing that will now save the city from over development are these same small scale buildings – the Hero and the Majorca buildings – that will be difficult to develop because of the fact of having to get all these different owners to agree to sale at the same moment.”
The last is a comment forthcoming, not as a result of paranoia, but in response to recent planning decisions that Rob (and others in the know) fear are already on the way to upsetting Melbourne’s fragile balance.
Because despite their concrete spines, cities are fluid. As such, both changes and challenges are continual. Rob talks of the damage that is being wreaked by the current allowance permitting developers to build to up to 56 times the site area, something he says no other city in the world permits.
(Translated, this means a structure with full site coverage can rise up to 56 storeys, or with half site coverage, On a double site, a tower could reach 112 floors high.)
In some ways it could be said that the very success of Rob’s work has turned against him: so accustomed have we all become to the beauty and usability of our city, that it appears we may have forgotten how delicate a balance it is to maintain. That a city we feel has always been thus took no less than 30 years of thoughtful planning to construct.
Rob: “The city is its own fragile eco system, and like all eco systems it will die usually because of a lack of understanding about what nurtures it: too much fish out of the ocean, too many trees taken down. Right now I have never seen the take out of the city as huge as it is without having anything being put back.”
It is difficult not to feel panicked by Rob’s point of view. Certainly he himself feels deeply the change of focus, knowing Melbourne as well as he does.
And perhaps this, in the end, is what makes an audience with Rob so revelatory. While as residents we love to talk up the city’s creative heart, its Euro vibe and thinking-person’s tag, Rob is capable of pinpointing the programs and decisions that contribute to what goes in to creating what is essentially an ephemeral feeling.
The arts and events strategies that serves to broaden our cultural horizons while contributing financially to the city’s needs (“the return for the dollar is $1 given to $11 back for the arts; for road projects you are lucky to get $1 back”), the secret, “funny” spaces, carefully planned for, that make Melbourne a city for exploration in the model of its European cousins.
Rob: “Look at the difference between our newer areas Southbank and Docklands and the CBD: people like to walk through Melbourne, go inside and find a bar, and then someone directs them down a dog leg lane with rubbish bins in it to the next stopping point. They feel they are discovering a place for the first time. Kill all the opportunities for secrets and turn them in to a single product, and you kill the dream.”
For Rob, the death of that dream – his dream – would be a tragedy.
Rob: “I think Melbourne’s a cerebral city. This is a city where people get pleasure out of coming together, having conversations, talking about creative ideas and developing those creative ideas. And the future is in asking the question – how do we hang on to these things?”