Fishermans Bend: how to avoid another Docklands

It seems that nobody is happy about Fishermans Bend.

My first impression was that the design guidelines were quite good, but the public response has been scathing since the Strategic Framework Plan was released in late July. The usual old chestnuts of building height and transport provision dominate mainstream coverage of Australia’s biggest urban renewal project, just like they do whenever somebody tries to build above two storeys in suburbia. Occasionally a spectacular oversight breaks the monotony, in the worst way possible.

Still, the most interesting criticism I've heard so far is that this 'might be another Docklands'.

I suspect that the reason the response has been so generic and negative is that there isn't much to set Fishermans Bend apart in people's minds. Without anything distinct to latch on to, discussion naturally turns to standard worries about urban canyons and traffic jams.

This is a concern, because place identity matters. Rapid development without a clear identity is part of the reason Docklands sometimes still feels like a collection of towers, rather than a place.

I believe that the urban design standards advocated in the Strategic Framework Plan should give us a better built form than than in Docklands, if they're adhered to. But in terms of making Fishermans Bend unique and memorable, I think there's a big opportunity that is yet to be taken.

Instead of being remembered as Australia's biggest urban renewal project, Fishermans bend could become Australia's leafiest, lushest, and most sustainable suburb.

On an average year, 1.6 billion litres of rain will fall on Fishermans Bend. The drain at the end of every shower, and every tap, is a pretty steady source of water too. With 80,000 future residents taking showers each day, this greywater is a huge resource stream. It could be cleaned, and recycled, using natural systems of filtration through plants – while greening up the plants in buildings and open spaces.

Water Sensitive Urban Design isn’t a new idea, but this is a chance to do it at a vast scale, and reap accordingly vast benefits. Next time you're in Singapore, set aside a few hours to visit the Gardens by the Bay precinct to see how good this can look - if you can make your way through the crowds.

The greening driven by all this available water could be vertical, too. With good design, many of the new, tall buildings in Fishermans Bend could be covered in plants – like they’ve done at One Central Sydney, an apartment development blanketed in vertical gardens that not only looks fantastic, but also sold hundreds of apartments prior to construction. This aesthetic could be a nice counterpoint to the stark glass and steel of Docklands.

Rooftop greening doesn’t need to just be about beauty: it can also mean local production of food. Rooftop greenhouses, like they’ve got in Montreal and Brooklyn, operate at commercial scale and produce large quantities of food. These greenhouses could serve to cool and purify air for the residents of the buildings below them, too.

Going by current trends, the future 80,000 residents of Fishermans bend will produce around two tonnes of waste each, and around half of this will be organic. That’s 80,000 tonnes of organic waste, each year, going to landfill. Anything organic – whether it’s from the garbage bin or the toilet – can be used to produce natural gas (biogas). Biogas can be burnt in small, neighbourhood-scale gas systems to produce cheap heat and electricity (this is called ‘cogeneration’). Biogas use for cogeneration already happens in Denmark, and plans are in place for Sydney to go down the same path.

Even solar energy benefits from precinct-scale planning; locations best suited for large-scale solar generation (like they’ve got on the roof of the University of Queensland) could be identified, and height controls could ensure that these areas aren’t overshadowed. With 250 hectares to work with, the potential for panels is vast.

If we put all these ideas together, it becomes clear that, with the right combination of creativity and advanced technology, new suburbs can approach self-sufficiency, and in some cases become a source of resources instead of a sink. The devil is often in the detail with these things, but the potential is there – The thing is, planning for sustainability at the precinct scale requires serious government leadership; the current design guidelines for individual developments won't be enough.

Fortunately, tools to measure precinct-scale sustainability are already emerging globally, with the GBCA having recently released the ‘Green Star Communities’ tool, which takes the idea of star ratings beyond the usual focus of individual buildings. It also goes beyond environmental issues, with key parts of the tool focused on issues like liveability, governance, urban design and economic prosperity. It strikes me that these criteria could be helpful in guiding us away from the dire prediction of ‘another Docklands’.

It’s hard to create place from scratch, as the Docklands experience has shown, especially when it’s instantly compared to a CBD that’s over 150 years old. A true sense of place (or a ‘soul’ if you like) comes with age, but here at Fishermans Bend we have the opportunity to make a good start with memorable sustainability and aesthetic initiatives.

To its credit, the Strategic Framework Plan admits that it isn’t complete, and is clear there is plenty of scope for future review. With tower approvals already commencing in this area, I hope we see proactive, precinct-scale sustainability plans to seize the huge opportunities that the current plan isn't pursuing.

After all, the chance to develop a new suburb with a clear identity as Australia’s greenest, right in the heart of Melbourne, really is ‘once in a lifetime’ – as the pollies like to say.

Thami Croeser is a Town Planner at Tract Consultants and a Master of Urban Planning student at the University of Melbourne. Follow Thami on Twitter.

Lead image courtesy


Bilby's picture

"It’s hard to create place from scratch, as the Docklands experience has shown". No, it's not. The Hoddle Grid was "designed" and sold in a few days and Melbourne developed a character and personality within the first year of land sales. If we can't do better than 19th century planning by now, we have a real problem. Using simple zoning rules, a diverse, fine grain approach to streets, some public open space with decent seating, shade and sheltered areas, and voila - you have the beginnings of a decent sense of 'place'.

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Laurence Dragomir's picture

The CBD has evolved to become what it currently is over the course of 150+ years. Docklands is about 15 years old. If you think it's as simple as simply applying 19th century ideologies then you really don't have a firm grasp on the reality of developing buildings and precincts in Australia in the 21st century. The land values and rent of today simply make what you're suggesting unfeasible.

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Bilby's picture

Land values have little to do with good planning, though. No one is 'entitled' to have their land rezoned for a particular urban typology. The government is in control of the regulations that would shape Fisherman's Bend - and hence, they are able to influence the built form of a new suburb - be it tower and podium, or a dense New York or Tokyo style street wall with lower, more open areas towards the centre of the blocks.

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Laurence Dragomir's picture

Ultimately it's the market which dictates what is built and when, regulations can only go so far.There is clear evidence of this at play in the Hoddle Grid.

I've said before that the Fishermans Bend Urban Renewal Precinct should not be compared to Docklands which was a tabula rasa approach due to the fact that beyond Goods Shed no.2 and a few other structures there was relatively little built form and infrastructure to service it or context for new development to respond to.

Fishermans Bend at present is more like Southbank circa late 1980's. The road network and fine grain currently exist as does a collection of heritage structures of various scales and styles. As such there exists an opportunity to develop a neighbourhood character that doesn't resemble Central Equity territory but rather the strongest points of the CBD, Southbank and even Docklands.

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Bilby's picture

Agreed, Laurence. Let's hope good sense prevails with this one, then!

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Damian Holmes's picture

The issue with Docklands is that it ignored several successful design elements of the existing city including laneways, human scale, small squares/spaces (green & hard), a variety of architectural scale and smaller lots. The large scale waterfronts are more successful is they create a continuous promeade (Boston, Vancouver, etc) along the waters edge with varying widths and heights and create a more dynamic edge. Vancouver's Coal Harbor is one example of a fast paced development that creates varying sized spaces, active edges and an integrated shared paths.

Docklands would have been more successful if the piers were smaller scale development (soho, retail, markets) with sqaures and parks at the ends and the residential towers running north south along a narrower Harbour Esplanade that included private & public spaces and squares. Also if large scale highrise was placed along the rail lines this would have created a stepping architectural skyline to the waters edge.

There is still the oppourtunity to make Docklands successful it will take time to add a smaller scale layer to enhance the large scale of the residential and commerical developments.

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Riccardo's picture

I laugh as usual because it is so obvious what Docklands problems were or are.

First, and i know this hurts the brains of architects and planners but it is a transport problem. Practically all of the rail infrastructure shouldnt be there, it is not needed and it impedes sensible urban growth.

And it is not a planning decision, but a failure to have a transport plan, that caused it. Hectare upon hectare that could have been reused sits there being wasteful.

Second, once the rail was gone, you would extend the Hoddle Grid three blocks west, and the final street would run along the waterfront. And would become the local Circular Quay, and then, think about it, a very suitable place for developing an admittedly smaller network of ferries out of. To solve a transport problem, but also generating a little bit of activity and flow.

Third, these fifteen new Hoddle Grid Blocks would have the same street level activation principles as the existing. The council would build the Littles and the lanes, and if a developer bought enough land to negate a lane, they would need to provide equivalent ped access through their site similar to QV.

Fourth, you would sell the land from the east end first. This would enable you to respond to market demands, avoid building the infrastructure at the west end too soon, and avoid any pioneering developments becoming orphaned for years.

Finally, and back to the transport problem, you would obviously extend the tramways along the grid but the western end of the development, down where the proposed tram bridge across to
Fishermans bend is, needs a metro station. The combination, for PT users, of train and tram to the extremities is too slow. But too much money is being wasted on the existing rail system, and too many interests to placate, that money and political capital is not available for this.

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Robin Mellon's picture

The GBCA would love to work WITH the Victorian Government, local councils and project development teams to look at how we can add value to Fishermans Bend: financial value, since better developments sell for more and keep their attraction; social value, since communities need to realise goals such as good transport, good schools, affordability and governance yet these things cannot be left to chance; and environmental value, since energy-, water- and materials-efficient communities will be much more resilient and less environmentally damaging for generations to come.

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