2012 Melbourne Design Awards

Invigorating the Public Realm


Having just flown back from a very brief trip to Paris and Copenhagen, I am reminded by how important good design is to the enjoyment and well being of our lives.

These cities, like all good cities, are a product of their high quality public realm, those spaces outside of their fine buildings in which the public act out their civic life. In the main, the public realm of cities is made up of its streets, and as such the realization that if you design good streets you will end up designing good cities.

Regrettably the last 60 years has seen us lose the art of city design through an over concentration on three limiting factors. Firstly, the design of our streets has been dominated by the demands of cars rather than people. Wide sweeping curves, buildings set back and often turning their backs to the road have created in many of our cities hostile pedestrian environments. Secondly, the over-reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the resultant Garden City Movement, where we were promised that we could live in the country and work in the city, the suburban model, has resulted in a sprawling city devoid of the energy and social richness of the more compact cities. The final nail in the coffin of city design was the modernists’ concentration on the building as a stand-alone item to be admired in the round. The very idea of a continuous street wall framing a public space called the street became an undesirable design solution.

So as I walked the streets of these two great cities, I mused at how simple the design principles were that created these places. Boulevards aside the streets are usually framed by buildings of a similar height to the width of the roads they front on to. Continuous streets walls with active frontages that allow the activities within the buildings inform the energy of the street. A range of architectural treatments providing variety within the context of the street wall. Quality street furniture, footpaths but possibly not enough trees for a heating climate. These simple principles punctuated every now and again by buildings of civic importance provided endless hours of walking pleasure and active engagement in the city.

Why is it then that we find it so difficult to design new places with the same qualities? For both these cities have in recent times created their own poorly-designed areas, La Defense in Paris with it's over-scaled spaces and stand-alone buildings surrounded on the back by a freeway, and Orestad in Copenhagen with its elevated rail dotted with architectural icons but no semblance of public realm.

In part, the blame must rest on the shoulders of the modern movement with it's simplification of an already simple set of city design principles, further complicated by our love affair of the car.

Another more subtle reason I would argue maybe the value we place on design. On becoming a teenager many of us were faced with a simple choice at school. In choosing subjects to complete our schooling the choice in my case was between Art or Biology, Woodwork and Metalwork having fallen off the year before and not being offered at the later years in my school. An easy choice for me I thought as I always enjoyed my art classes. When consulting my parents their view of the world was simple. If you want a good job then you have a better chance with biology. Disappointed, but taking parental advice, I along with the majority of my peers dropped Art.

What does this say of the value we put on design in our education and ultimately our lives? Our modern society has formed a view that art and design are inferior to maths, languages and the sciences and embedded this in our institutions. In the main Governments have got rid of the creatives and replaced them with risk managers. The levels of Government that implemented policy have been contracted out and with it the corporate knowledge of how to move from policy to getting things on the ground has been lost. Governments now choose to transfer risk to the private sector and in doing so are prepared to give away control of the detailed design decisions that have enriched our cities and lives - the big simplistic projects favoured over the small and complex projects that more often than not provide the rich unique experience.

So as I sat on the plane, knees around my ears, I decided over the next few months to engage you in this important debate. As our cities rapidly expand over the next 5 decades and the urban population of the world doubles, the design decisions we take today will determine the social, environmental and financial success of our cities. In looking at this challenge we will need to adopt a new paradigm that looks to get more out of our existing infrastructure and moves away from the current fascination with big infrastructure. Too big to fail? Maybe taking more personal responsibility and a mantra of too small to fail may be a better route to our future?'

Rob Adams is the director of City Design at the City of Melbourne with a background in architecture, industrial design, landscape design and urban design.

Photo Credit: All images by Rob Adams

A typical unexceptional street in Copenhagen exhibitions all the characteristics of a successful street. Active frontages, balanced traffic priorities, good proportions. Mixed use and high density.

A typical Parisian street which like its Copenhagen equivalent has all the qualities of a successful street.

New development in Copenhagen with low quality street experiences.

The new development in Copenhagen with its 'architectural' showpieces stand alongside but not informing or invigorating the public realm.

Back to news


Best of the best

Winners list