Planning ideologies are slowly changing. The recently released Metropolitan Planning Strategy, Plan Melbourne, advocates densified residential and commercial buildings at increased heights, particularly within the CBD and urban renewal areas – both of which are strategically located near jobs, transport and existing infrastructure. Despite these positive steps, the Minister for Planning, Matthew Guy, has been widely criticised for what many view as his tall tower ‘approvals binge’, leading to him being dubbed “Mr Skyscraper”.
There are currently approximately 30,000 apartments within Melbourne City Council's boundaries, with over 100+ tall towers approved for construction in Central Melbourne. An estimated 15,000 more apartments housed within tall buildings are planned over the next five years.
In August 2013, Professor Rob Adams, Melbourne City Council's Director of City Design, questioned this growing trend towards tall buildings and higher plot ratios and warned that the city centre could become '”Hong Kong but without the spectacular setting” if planning rules were left unchecked.
Melburnians’ earnest engagement over the future of their city skyline exemplifies a community pride that has grown since the rejuvenation of the city centre in the 1980s, prior to which the Age newspaper’s architecture critic Norman Day described the bleak CBD in 1978 as “an empty, useless city centre”. Professor Adams’ comments thus embody a long-standing narrative of Melbourne’s developers and decision makers wrestling with community groups over the height of their projects. But are the claims that tall buildings are “soulless towers” destined to become “slums of the future” justified? What, if anything, is wrong with height and how do tall structures detract from Melbourne as the “world’s most liveable city”?
Apart from densification enhancing Melbourne’s prime “liveability” status by containing urban sprawl, tall buildings can elevate cities by redefining their local and regional environment, creating jobs and opportunities, and becoming the iconic structures of re-imagined city centres.
Melbourne’s flat topography allows appropriately positioned tall buildings to define and articulate the city structure, visually reinforcing areas of significance or noteworthy localities within the city area. The combination of appropriate site location and a considered architectural response enable tall buildings to become important city landmarks.
Tall buildings should therefore be appropriately located if they are to enhance and complement the city structure and protect the amenity of sensitive areas. A poorly located, poorly designed tall structure can physically and visually overwhelm adjacent streets and neighbourhoods, overshadow nearby open space, create unnecessary traffic congestion, and produce uncomfortable wind conditions.
Tall buildings thus have a responsibility to respect the surrounding environment. It is the opinion of this writer that Melbourne appropriately balances this obligation – take the Swanston Street city core as an example. The ‘heart’ of the CBD preserves its rich historic architecture and character by avoiding tall buildings and ensuring a thoughtfully blended contemporary design aesthetic. The majority of current tall building approvals are on the west and north-western edge of the Hoddle Grid, Southbank, or, more recently, Fishermans Bend.
Urban renewal precincts such as Fishermans Bend are strategically located near jobs, transport and existing infrastructure. By creating efficient and sustainable tall buildings within and near the central city, the need for transportation and land are economised, resulting in increased social equity, shared resources, energy savings, and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per person. Unfortunately, these powerful ecological, social and economic arguments appear to have become too passé for those Melburnians agitating against the aesthetic of their evolving city skyline.
Apart from the lifestyle benefits of proximity and connectivity to city amenity (not to mention the spectacular views), tall buildings are economically sound propositions. Taller buildings cost less per square metre to build. The rising land values in Melbourne’s central city have increased pressure to densify and achieve greater dividends for prime-location sites, which in turn allows high-risk investors the lure of recouping their outlays, thereby stimulating economic growth.
The increasing focus on developer contributions in the form of public open space is also encouraging. Not only do these areas enhance the sustainability of the city by securing land for public use and enjoyment, they also enhance the streetscape by ensuring a pleasant public realm and community asset. It is here, at the street interface and lower levels of tall buildings, where attention should be focussed – and this is where the concern surrounding some tall building approvals is justified.
The public domains of commercial buildings have generally been self-fulfilling because profits are maximised by creating generous retail space and public plazas that are as inviting as possible for business tenants. Residential buildings have caught up in recent years with an acknowledgement that the profit derived from the number of units needs to be balanced against an attractive public domain and activated retail frontage as investors have become increasingly ‘lifestyle’ savvy.
Melbourne does have poor examples of taller development (mainly approved in the 20 years between 1980 and 2000) with podium levels facing away from the street employing high, blank, unactivated walls, which force socioeconomic activities inside rather than out. Such internalisation of uses results in the isolation of retail and social activities from the collective city community and the ‘buzz’ of city life.
Simple landscaping elements such as tree canopies and streetscape designs incorporating awnings and retail frontages effectively mitigate internalisation of uses and solve the human-scale problem by creating a micro-environment for pedestrians.
To conclude, well-designed tall buildings do not detract from Melbourne as the “world’s most liveable city” because:
The article was produced by Tim Retrot as Senior Consultant at Meinhardt & Jon Brock, National Director - Land Development at Meinhardt. The latest Meinhardt magazine Shaping is available and features further articles and discussion on tall building trends.