Postcode 3000 and beyond

June 23, 2020

Esther Anatolitis, Executive Director, NAVA. Deputy Chair, Contemporary Arts Precincts. Honorary Associate Professor, RMIT School of Art.

It’s been almost thirty years since Postcode 3000 transformed this city into a place that people could call home. Marvellous Melbourne, a place of diverse cultural sophistication, had become the world’s richest city by the 1890s, but it wasn’t looking so marvellous by the 1990s. Nor was this the first time the city had been hollowed out by economic decline. This time, however, a bold approach took advantage of collapsed property prices to create a city of confident, creative neighbourhoods – the heart of the state and the envy of the nation.

This is exactly the type of bold thinking that is needed right now – because this time, it’s our health as well as our prosperity that’s at stake. With Melbourne set to become Australia’s most populous city within this decade, we need to invest ourselves ambitiously in a future that’s welcoming and accessible. In doing so, we need to ensure that our seven-time “world’s most liveable city” becomes a hospitable place for people with and without homes, with and without jobs.

I am profoundly invested in the future of Melbourne. I am a CBD resident, ratepayer, worker, creator and adventurer. Melbourne is my home: my retreat, my backyard and my horizon. This is where I live, work and dream. It’s where I launch into the world – and where I always return.

Let’s look at some ways Melbourne can prepare itself for a future of radical uncertainty: some obvious steps we can action immediately; some more strategic approaches; and then, some ideas that are a bit more of a stretch.

Firstly, the obvious. If we’re all moving around the city doing the same things at the same times, we’re never going to overcome this pandemic – nor halt the ones to come. We need to redistribute our impacts on Melbourne across both space and time – to benefit our environment, our communities and our health.

Our bodies weren’t designed for nine to five; that’s an industrial convenience of a different era, a different culture. While the City of Melbourne can’t retire the conventional office model, it can motivate change. Ratepayer and other regulatory incentives might target changes in commute and work patterns, for example. We’ve been moving towards a 24h city for some years now, and more can be done.

Beyond simply time-shifting what we already do, however, we need to envision the workplaces of the future – and the future of work itself. With global studies showing that creative skills are the ones most needed to build that future, we need to make sure we’re embedding creative practice and business more comprehensively across Melbourne.

Which leads us to our second set of approaches: the strategic. Let’s fundamentally rethink the role of the CBD. The CBD shouldn’t centralise us; it should redistribute us across the city, inviting us to keep exploring and keep making new discoveries.

Like Postcode 3000, the City of Melbourne’s Laneways Commissions are one of their most prudent strategies for extending artistic curiosity into spatial, cultural and business transformation. By letting art lead the way, we’ve opened overlooked areas to alternative land use – from cafés and bars to artisanal and boutique retail, services and offices. Lots of these new additions are, at a small scale, leading to a well-distributed density.

This isn’t just about the arts, however: as any corporate change specialist will tell you, behavioural change can only be achieved via cultural change. Physical distancing is especially important when you’re living, working and playing in a city known for experiences at all scales – especially when that means plenty of experiences at the smaller scale.

One of the greatest risks currently facing the City of Melbourne is independent creatives passing the tipping point for being priced out of the city and leaving permanently. If, in addition to the high cost of living, it’s all of a sudden too hard and too restrictive, artists and innovators will leave. So we need to look closely at the city’s spaces: their locations, costs and other barriers to entry. What can we rethink? What can we repurpose? What can we shift in both space and time?

What if independent galleries were open late into the evening, inviting quiet contemplation alongside the city’s live performance offerings? What if all those empty floors above Bourke St Mall were occupied? What if rooftop bars became rooftop farms? What if we closed more laneways at lunchtime, sprawling thousands of urban picnics across our city’s streets? What if the boardrooms of the city’s power brokers were opened up after hours for community meetings and creative events? What if those boardrooms always benefited from creative input?

Thirdly, that stretch. If we’re to understand our use of urban infrastructure more dynamically, we’ll need a dynamic approach.

To take us there, let’s test what’s possible by offering the city as a playground to teams of creative experimenters. Let’s commission them to design spatial explorations, scenarios, games, scavenger hunts… activities premised on small groups moving confidently across a city for work and play. Let’s scatter and redistribute one another. Let’s test and explore.

1985’s Greening of Swanston Street remains part of Melbourne’s culture, as clear memory for some or urban legend for others. That landmark creative event inspired us to close the city’s main axis to cars, transforming our culture. Let’s think equally ambitiously today.

This is not a campaign proposal; it’s an urban development strategy. More than ever, we need planning models that invite unintended consequences – that actively generate what we can’t yet imagine.

At the same time, we need to remain vigilant, ensuring Melbourne remains democratic and welcoming. Let’s retain the ways that the pandemic has made the city’s spaces more accessible to people with disability. And let’s consider what we almost lost to Apple. The cultural institutions of the future are not monumental structures at Fed Square or Southbank; they exist at varying scales, both online and off, across a city of people physically present, distant and absent. Melbourne is more than the sum of its postcodes.

Let’s be bold. Because that’s the expectation our city has long set for us. For a Melbourne that’s truly Marvellous, let’s welcome the leadership of the people who create our future.

This opinion paper is part of the City of the Future event 1, exploring focus area 3: Urban Land Use & Transport.

Problem statement: How might we support changing urban land use, infrastructure and space needs?