A Scot in Melbourne

This is the story of my first impressions of Melbourne, I am a Landscape Architect originally from Glasgow, Scotland and now living and working in Melbourne.

 As I walked around the streets of Melbourne’s CBD as a new arrival I was struck with a sense of familiarity, the grid street pattern and the bearded hipsters in their skinny rolled up jeans but this wasn’t Glasgow, it couldn’t be – the sun was shining!

The city that I was brought up in had a lot to do, a reputation to change – the marketing campaign of ‘Glasgow Smiles Better’ only went so far to invert people’s perception of decades of depravation, soot covered overcrowded tenement buildings, ice cream wars and football religion. In Glasgow we were mending, regenerating, and branding this great industrial city as a place of art and culture. It was a hard won fight, perceptions of place are ingrained – I recently asked a pub landlady in Melbourne for vegetables instead of chips, she replied “a lass from Glasgow! Didn’t realise you lot knew what vegetables were!”And now to Melbourne, the fight for art and culture seems so natural here. Is that a result of a good design? There is a sense of optimism, the streets are alive, the food is excellent. Never before I have so much valued the power to trees to bring comfort to a city. Melbourne seems casually confident, has it always been this way?

Street life and art

 “...a lot of things that urban designers try to make happen seem to be utterly natural in Melbourne.

 The streets of Melbourne are alive with colour and texture.  Music seeps from open doors, cafes spill out onto streets, art emblazons every corner.  In fact, a lot of things that we, as urban designers, try to make happen in our northern UK towns seem to be utterly natural in Melbourne.

 What makes the streets so lively?  The plethora of street art lends a sense of public ownership to the city.  The streets, at nearly 30m, are wide enough to embrace pavement activity.  The sun shines (sometimes).  As Jane Jacobs famously stated, good things happen in low rent spaces.  Maybe the streets provide these spaces in the CBD context?

 The City has more events than I ever thought possible.  Every culture is celebrated with a day of dancing and feasting in Federation Square.  Sporting events, film screenings, art installations, food festivals - you name it and Federation Square supplies it.  Does this reliance on events make light of the power of informal public spaces?  Places where people just meet, chat and relax under the shade of a tree?  What I do know is how much I love cycling down to Federation Square and coming across a moustached Mexican teaching the crowd how to shake to the La Bikina.

  ‘...a sense of energy, anarchy and freedom in the streets”’

 There is art everywhere.  Incidental installations are constantly surprising: cycle racks have their own knitted jackets, stencilled images appear in alleys, backlit graffiti, painted wheelie bins, projections, chalk art and milk crate furniture, all give a sense of energy, anarchy and freedom to the streets.  Even the highways are decorated with sandstone strata, great cartoon-like birds, and a miniature hotel which messes with your perspective as you drive by.

  Street life and food

 Melbourne’s fantastic food scene enlivens the streets.  Watching people promenading past cafes, deciding where to brunch, and wandering through the intimate laneways passes many a weekend hour.

 Cycling to Victoria Street to savour pho and hot pork rolls, sampling the cheap sushi joints in the city, and dropping in to the milk bars of the suburbs.  Making the 3.45pm dash to Victoria Market to stock up on dollar bags of vegetables and munch on borek have become my Melbourne habits.

 There are a multitude of small independent restaurants that produce excellent cuisine at reasonable prices, tables spilling out onto the streets.  We now laugh when the waiter asks if they can ‘explain the menu, we suggest a sharing concept’.


Trees, glorious trees

 ‘..the sound of eucalyptus rustling in the wind is such a delight.’

 I now appreciate the significant power of trees to humanise the urban environment when the sun is blazing down: I spend summer days dodging between these patches of shade.  I remember clearly seeing, for the first time, the majestic avenues of Elms which are now so rare in Europe.  I love the mix of native and exotic trees, the European varieties giving dense shade and harking back to colonial times, the smell of the lemon scented gums and the sound of eucalypts rustling in the wind is such a delight.  The large palm trees and tropical ferns make me remember that, for all its European charm, Melbourne is in fact a long, long way away.

 The abundance of Mediterranean fruits such as lemons, figs and olives growing side by side with apples and cherries, is a lovely visual reminder of the multiple cultures that make up this city.

 The parks which circle the CBD are so full of life.  Groups of hipsters in Edinburgh Gardens gather to play frisbee and eat take-away from the Moroccan Soup Bar.  Joggers circulate the circumference of the Botanical Gardens with the city omnipresent on the horizon.

 Street life and the city

 ‘...consistent paving contributes a lot towards its visual coherence.’

 The City is smart.  Consistent paving contributes a lot towards its visual coherence, simplicity of streetscape reinforcing the grid classical style.  The colourful trams with their tangle of overhead wires inject a jaunty character into the city grandeur.  Where Glasgow’s grid seeps into the surrounding street pattern, Melbourne’s grid is perfectly delineated, its streets magnificently wide.  Public spaces within the City do exist, but there is no traditional city block public square.  I wonder why?  Were the block widths simply too large?  Were the streets considered wide enough for public amenity?  Did Hoddle simply forget?

 When I picture Melbourne in my head, I see that perfectly delineated compact grid encircled by the groovy inner suburbs, with spidery-like arms reaching out towards ‘Neighbours’ land, the fabled sprawling suburbs of my TV youth.

 Melbourne’s split personality: the city and the suburbs.  I shall never forget my first drive into the outer suburbs and the fact that two hours later you could still be driving through the great flat plains with row after row of pale brick bungalows on quarter acre plots.

 Everybody needs good suburbs

 ‘...I can’t think of any other metropolis where this would be possible.’ 

 Melbourne is consistently voted the most liveable city in the world.  I live in a detached house a 10 minute walk from the city centre.  I can’t think of any other metropolis where this would be possible.  Apartment living, urbanising suburbia and densification are all hot topics, but how much does this spacious comfort of suburbia impact onto the liveability of Melbourne?  The Economist bases its liveability survey on Greater Melbourne, which includes the great sprawling suburbs, home to four million residents.  The places of big box development and 24 hour K-Marts.  The places where people can afford to live.  Only 100,000 people call the City of Melbourne home.

 Throughout the city and the suburbs, Melbourne’s sense of places shouts out, louder, of course, in some places.  This, I think, is partly to do with the lack of chain retailers.  Over recent years, UK high streets have become homogenous – Tesco Metro, Superdrug, Boots, Marks & Spencers, Topshop.  Every high street from Sheffield to Swindon looks the same.  There is a great joy in exploring the inner suburban neighbourhoods of Melbourne, each one unique at least in terms of retail.

 This sense of place dissipates as you move further out, independent shops replaced with Target, Bunnings, Woolworths and Coles.  The outer suburbs seem to me like a distant land, the land that public transport forgot.  The outer suburban dwellers are totally reliant on the car, commuting for long distances to reach basic public services.  Unless you are lucky enough to live next to one of Melbourne’s green wedges, whose fingers reach towards the city, providing a green lung and gorgeous cycle paths.

 The architecture, like the accent, is hard to place geographically.  Building styles don’t seem to match climate, with California-style condominiums interrupted with Victorian cottages within the inner suburbs, giving way to the endless ocean of brick detached houses further out.  These exotic yet familiar homes provide a shelter that is too often cold in winter and hot in summer.  In some suburbs, the ubiquitous front porches invite residents to sit streetside, creating a social atmosphere on balmy summer evenings.  In others, tall walls and gates create fortresses - and the sense of community and street life is lost.

  Volcanoes and waves

 The wider Victorian landscape which I first found so flat and empty has found a special place in my heart.  One of my first jobs here in Melbourne was to survey the landscape of South West Victoria - and what an introduction that was!  The one-street rural towns have a feel of the Wild West, with great empty hotels propped up by men in plaid shirts, shorts and Blundstones.  Victoria’s gems of volcanicity are constantly surprising, rocky lava flows and dormant volcanoes dot the vast flat plain which is, in places, dissected by dramatic gorges and rolling valleys.  

While the suburbs sprawl, they also eventually peter out, revealing rugged national parks, surfing beaches and wineries - all within a few hours’ drive of the CBD.  The ravaged coastline and gently undulating paddocks now compete in my mind with my mountainous, gorgeous Scotland.

 And now?

 Before arriving in Melbourne I really hadn’t heard much about what had been happening in terms of Urban Design, I knew that there it was consistently ranked as one of the most liveable cities in the world. Little did I realise that the liveability of Melbourne would suck me in and hold me captive well beyond my planned stay of two months. A year and a half later I am still here, in a job that I love and calling Melbourne home. 

 Now I think I am destined to live with a foot on either side of the globe, with my heart in two places. Glasgow has left me with a fighting spirit and a belief in the power of economic regeneration through making great places. In Glasgow we were mending, in Melbourne we are making. Melbourne has optimism and opportunity, irony, sadness and beauty. It’s a fascinating place and I look forward to the next 25 years.

 All Photos Credited to Gema Hughes

Posted on April 24, 2015 .