Making Melbourne liveable

Awarded the 2010 Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize Special Mention for its remarkable transformation, Robert Doyle, Lord Mayor of Melbourne (2008 - 2018) delves into its winning formulas and shows why Melbourne continues to be one of the world’s most liveable cities.

City of Melbourne

The 1985 “City of Melbourne Urban Design Program” was a success. Melbourne has been voted the world's most liveable city three times in the last decade by the Economist Intelligence Group in UK. What worked? What's next?

Robert Doyle (RD): Melbourne in the late 1980’s was described as a ‘donut city’. At the close of business every day people would flee the city centre for the comfort of their suburban homes. The city offered no entertainment, no restaurants or cafés - there was no reason to stay. At the same time we were experiencing a recession. We faced a simple challenge – prosper or perish.

The change began with a series of plans and public improvements in 1985 and by the early 1990’s Melbourne’s renaissance had begun in earnest.

The transformation was a purposeful vision and commitment and was shared by the State Government, the corporate sector and professional bodies such as Planning Institute of Australia. A combination of strategies sparked new life into the city, including investing in the renovation of heritage buildings, gardens and streetscapes, and the development of precincts guided by heritage controls and plans that cater to the changing needs of the city.

We partnered with others to deliver improvements in civic infrastructure including the AUD$6 billion waterfront redevelopment of Docklands; a new Convention Centre; Federation Square and the first new park in the CBD in 100 years – Birrarung Marr. In short, we leveraged our capital expenditure to transform the city centre.

Importantly, we listened to experts who told us to plan our city for people and that the priorities should be life, space and buildings - in that order.

The essence of city life lies in the vitality of its streets and public places and I think you can measure the health of a city by the dance of its streets, plazas and parks - the buildings are secondary. We applied this lesson to Melbourne and spent hundreds of millions in streetscape improvements, widening sidewalks, storefront improvements to bring retail to the street, planting more than 3000 trees, building civic spaces and encouraging new street art. We also redeveloped network of small streets into atmospheric laneways filled with art, restaurants and created a pedestrian network to make it easy to get in, through and around the city.

Our main focus is Melbourne’s competitive advantage through a substantial investment in capital works with a record AUD$346.55 million for programs and services and AUD$107.3 million to improve and build new infrastructure. This means that the Council is on track to deliver a record investment of $1.3 billion in programs and services and AUD$250 million in infrastructure by the end of this Council’s term.

As for the future, we have begun with the major redevelopment of Swanston Street. We are also planning for new community hubs, libraries and health services and artist studios; we are putting in place measures to protect our city from extreme weather events and we continue to expand our events program to keep visitor numbers high and our city safer at night. Retail floor space has expanded, and demand for office space is high. Melbourne’s central city has the lowest vacancy rate of all major city centres in Australia.

At the core of City of Melbourne’s planning is leveraging our assets to underpin our competitive advantage, sustainability, quality of life and good governance.Today Melbourne is dynamic and exponentially improving – but it is still a work in progress.

One of Melbourne’s goals as an eco-city is to achieve zero net emissions by 2020. How is the progress so far?

RD: We face real challenges ahead of us: population increase, understanding the impact of urban sprawl, vulnerabilities of our infrastructure and extreme weather events.

In 2010-2011, the City of Melbourne was one of the first councils to be recognised as a Climate Adaptation Champion by the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, which acknowledges leadership and innovation in adapting to and preparing for the impacts of climate change. Innovative adaptive tools have been developed, including visual and scenario planning around increased sea levels.

We have invested AUD$30 million in 2010 and 2011 in climate change policy and initiatives including a Greenhouse Action Plan and a commitment to zero net emissions by 2020. Major actions carried out so far are funding urban forest projects, improving water efficiency in parks and gardens, promoting energy efficiency and developing a City of Melbourne Water Sensitive Urban Design policy.

A significant initiative is the 1200 Buildings program, which encourages building owners and managers to improve water and energy efficiency of commercial buildings within the City of Melbourne. For example, 530 Collins Street received an energy retrofit designed to reduce its annual greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent compared to the industry average.

Melbourne is also leading cities in the UK, USA and Australia in developing programs to finance large scale energy efficiency retrofitting in commercial buildings by linking local government charging powers to the lending capacities of financial institutions.

More than 50 per cent of the municipality’s greenhouse gas emissions are generated by the commercial sector and we have an ambitious plan to catalyse the retrofitting of 1,200 city buildings - two thirds of the city’s commercial buildings.

The green economy/green growth is the greatest economic opportunity we have and can create prosperous, sustainable, vibrant cities. If done right, right it can produce income gains and job gains and social benefits greater than those produced in the past.

What lessons can Melbourne share?

RD: Cities and city leaders are at the core of a global transformation. The ability of nations to compete in today’s global economy now rests on the health, vitality and prosperity of cities.

City leaders understand the role of our cities as engines of economic growth and national productivity. We share an interest in what gives urban places vitality? How do you attract innovation and creativity into a city? How do we make our cities sustainable in all its applications? How do we leverage all of this to drive prosperity in our cities?

City leaders are in the frontline, meeting these challenges head-on and, importantly, willing to share the practical examples of initiatives they have implemented to secure prosperous, sustainable and vibrant cities.

In my experience, city leaders can be more ambitious, courageous and imaginative than some of their national governments. By coming together at world mayors meetings such as the World Cities Summit, much can be achieved to help ensure our cities’ future health. This is precisely how city Mayors work together.

How would you describe Melbourne today?

RD: Melbourne is sophisticated, cool, urbane, cultured, intimate, clever and forward thinking - a city of substance. O

This article was first published in February 2012. All images contained within this page are used with license and shall not be copied, modified, or reproduced.

Robert Doyle

Robert Doyle

Robert Doyle was the Lord Mayor of Melbourne from 2008 - 2018. He is also the Principal at The Nous Group, a management consultancy business based in Melbourne, and, since 2007, has been Chairman of Melbourne Health (The Royal Melbourne Hospital).