City Living

Rob Adams on choreographing urban space

Professor Rob Adams, Director of Urban Design at the City of Melbourne, has an eye for detail. As we go to take a seat at the office board table, I can’t help but remark on the abnormally high chair backs. Rob answers that he had them specially selected as the new CH2 building was being designed. He wanted to preserve the open plan of the office, but give a meeting a sense of privacy. It works. We settle into the chairs and the office buzz is distanced, and our conversation more important for the sense of enclosure.

Rob thinks of his office like a city in miniature. His championing of the open office is part of a concerted strategy to maximise the transfer of ideas, and allow for accidental – and intentional – meetings across the disciplines. It is an urban agglomeration, writ small. Rob is the only director at the City of Melbourne who sits on the floor rather than in an office. “You have to be in the workforce,” he says, encouraging ideas to be challenged and debated, fostering innovation and collegiality across the hierarchy.

For over 30 years, Rob has been bringing this close attention to detail to our city streets. He has been an instrumental player in the gradual transformation of the Melbourne CBD from “a dead and lifeless place” (so said influential architect and urbanist Norman Day), to the 24-hour “most liveable” city we have today. Melbourne CBD is now somewhere we occasionally worry about being too busy. A recent study on pedestrian capacity showed that key footpaths in the city were already overcrowded, ‘discouraging people from walking, creating delays which waste time and money and undermining Melbourne’s international reputation’.

Back in 1983, Rob and four others were employed by the Council of the day to write what became the City of Melbourne Strategy Plan 1985. The Plan set out principles and practices of good city design to reinforce the good parts of the look and feel of Melbourne, and phase out the not so good (aka the “Doughnut City” phenomenon). Amongst other things, the strategy locked in design guidelines to avoid the style of Melbourne being reinvented every time, Rob says, “someone wanted to do something”. The size and placement of the now iconic bluestone paving, details for how to manage crossovers and curbs, a bespoke street furniture range, as well as identification of areas of heritage and cultural significance to be protected were key elements of the guidelines, and remain in force today.

Perhaps more transformative still was the move away from seeing the CBD as solely a place for business, to a place for people. The Plan set goals for Melbourne to become a ‘24-hour city’, which meant allowing for and encouraging a program of activities stretching beyond, and before, the 9 to 5. Support for this vision was found in the 1987 changes in liquor licensing laws, spurred by the Cain Government’s Nieuwenhuysen Report into the Liquor Control Act – “the most sweeping and sensible reform of liquor licensing law since the abolition of the six o’clock swill”, according to then-Age reporter Claude Forell. Nieuwenhuysen recommended amending licensing laws to release the stranglehold that hotels had on the supply of alcohol, spurred by his vision of Melbourne enjoying European-style urbanity, with al-fresco dining, and the freedom implicit in multiple small venues serving drinks without the need for a full restaurant service. The impact of these reforms cannot by overstated: in 1986, there were 571 on-premises (restaurant) licences in this state; in 2004 there were 5136.

Being able to measure and track the changes in city life has been an important part of the success story in Melbourne. The political will to see change, so evident in the early 80s, has been maintained not least because Rob’s directorate has been able to show, through the material they have collected, that there has been real improvement. “We had the data”, Rob says, collected methodically and consistently since the 1990s as a result of the work of Professor Jan Gehl, invited to Melbourne to implement his framework for the study of urban life: “Once you can show people that you are going in a positive direction, it’s much easier to keep going”.

When asked about his favourite “space between”, Rob doesn’t hesitate: “the street”. The one-liner for Rob’s career has been: “If you can design a good street, you have a good city”. Over 80% of the public realm is made up of streets, he says, and all the things that his team have been worrying about for the past 30 years – a uniform and well designed urban aesthetic, ensuring active frontages in a mixed use, high density living environment, and more recently, increasing the canopy cover of Melbourne’s urban forest, have been toward the goal of ensuring that our streets both became and remain some of the best streets of any city in the world.

Bringing together the elements of the city – from the fine detail to the grand scheme – has been Rob’s life’s work. He is of the belief that if we can find solutions that work at the urban scale, then we will go a long way towards solving the larger, seemingly intractable problems we are facing. The ever-increasing dominance of the city gives rise to the opportunity to test ideas and new approaches in relative safety of the metropolitan political environment. Rob labels this skill of being able to move from the detail to the wider frame, working with the great variety of people and disciplines that create and maintain the life of a city “urban choreography”. “People say I over simplify”, says Rob, “but I think in some way, what we don’t do in the planning and design disciplines is allow people to visualise what a solution looks like. If we can reduce people’s sphere of where they are looking for answers to the scale of the street, then people begin to observe more closely, pay attention to the small details that make up the whole”.

Professor Rob Adams is currently the Director of City Design at the City of Melbourne, he’s also a regular lecturer at RMIT and the University of Melbourne. He’s responsible for some of the things we identify most iconically as the Melbourne CBD including extensive bluestone paving, vibrant laneway culture, tree-lined streets, Yarra river pathways, pedestrian-friendly Swanston Street and more recently, Birrarung Marr. His projects include Postcode 3000, dedicated to urban renewal of disused spaces, the CH2 building, the QV development and the Queensbridge Precinct. It comes as no surprise then in 2007 he received an Order of Australia for contributions to urban design, town planning and architecture. Accompanying images by Dianna Snape and City of Melbourne. 

Check out more of Mitra’s work in the 2013 Assemble article: ‘Cities For People: Jan Gehl’