There was an article published in The Age this morning about a radical proposal from Gilbert Rochecouste, founder and managing director of Village Well, a place making consultancy business. The proposal is to tear up the asphalt of Elizabeth Street within the Melbourne CBD, and expose the hidden waterway that runs underneath, and flank the watercourse with a variety of amenity spaces.
While the proposal is purely conceptual and far from fleshed out, it certainly raises many issues regarding the appearance, function and symbology of public space within the city. The different perspectives and opinions raised in a public debate of the concept can inform the scope and direction the direction of public policy, if the government is listening.
Putting aside the physical challenges of reinstating a below ground waterway, there is no doubt that a linear waterbody can be the skeleton that frames an array of functions. People are naturally drawn to open space near water for aesthetic, aural and symbolic qualities it provides. Public open space within the CBD is rare, with spaces such as City Square and the State Library forecourt well used throughout much of the day and evening. Well developed public amenity areas can be found flanking waterways in many cities of the world, and contribute greatly to the culture of a place.
On a more practical level, Elizabeth Street functions as a corridor for pedestrians, tram and vehicle travellers; funnelling them from Flinders Street at the southern end through to the university and medical precincts at the north. How these two disparate functions be reconciled, while also providing practically for the adjacent retail tenants?
I would argue that while vehicles could be removed from the street with relative ease, the retention of public transport is crucial to populating the space and should be an integral part of the proposal. This portion of the street could also be used for delivery vehicle access after hours.
One aspect of the illustrative drawings concerns me greatly, and it is indicative of some simplistic reponses to activating public spaces. Cafe style tables, chairs and vendors are shown adjacent to the river, indicating the dominant type of space within the street is privatised. I believe that any public space that is ‘licensed’ out for commercial purposes from a public space (including kerbside dining), must contribute to the overall objectives for a space without negatively impacting the quality of the public space for other users.
Local governments sometimes seem to rely on this commercial activity as their primary strategy for activation of a public space. While it is an important component, it can lead to places of exclusion for other users, discontinuity in appearance and lack of permeability in the public space. When these commercial businesses are closed, the public spaces can seem desolate and unsafe. It is disappointing in a public space to find little amenity for people who may not wish to purchase a coffee or meal, and certainly does not encourage the kind of casual, sociable and free experience one finds at the State Library forecourt.
Local governments should be managing and programming their open spaces on behalf of their constituents to develop flexible, comfortable and safe open spaces that provide a forum for the community to gather and be entertained or recreate.