Development of the docklands and the artistic and cultural experience of Melbourne

Development of the docklands and the artistic and cultural experience of Melbourne

In the 1970s and 1980s, the city of Melbourne entered a period of decline. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the city center. City living became virtually non-existent as residents relocated to the surrounding suburbs, commuting in to work but leaving the streets empty and lifeless at night. Since then Melbourne has experienced a remarkable urban renaissance. Melbourne’s success story has been made possible by an integrated, systematic, and comprehensive planning process. Its transformation into a ‘city that never sleeps’ has been the result of three decades of creative urban strategies that have respected the fabric of the city, emphasized economic growth, involved citizens and celebrated culture(Liu & Urban Redevelopment Authority of Singapore, 2012, pp. 86-87). Strategies have been articulated in a series of long-term overarching plans, the implementation of which was overseen by the city of Melbourne, the administrative arm of the elected Melbourne city council.


The Docklands were created in the early 1850 to meet the demands of the mass migration that was occurring as a result of the gold rush that was taking place around this period. Growth continued until the 1930s but it was not until the 1960s that containers replaced bales and crates as means for transporting goods. However, the containers could not be accommodated by the Docklands sheds and wharves and this resulted to their closure as Melbourne’s hub of economic and maritime activity. However, this was not for long, in 1991, the Docklands authority was established to consummate docklands untapped potential. The authority was responsible for transforming the disused port and rail stretch into a modern urban waterfront.

This resulted to a renewed Docklands, which was a compelling addition to Melbourne, providing a world-class water front metropolitan, where the city met water, and acted as a vital asset to Melbourne and Victoria, serving vast economic, social and environmental interests.Presently docklands is one of the biggest projects and changes, the city of Melbourne has ever experienced. It has changed and transformed the structure and identity of Melbourne in significant ways (City of Melbourne, 2013).Melbourne docklands has become one of the country’s best examples of applying water sensitive urban design principles to connect the community with their environment in a sustainable way.The dockland precinct is still under development, upon its completion in 2020, it will equal the Melbourne central business district in terms of size and population, and will attract thousands of workers and visitors.

Cultural and Artistic Identity

In the 1880s Melbourne was known as ‘Marvelous Melbourne’. It was a time of great economic prosperity and optimism and perhaps some kind of accepted and tolerated decadence. It was a time of boom, the city sparkled and buildings were born which made Melbourne the envy of many. It was larger than many European capitals and the architecture rivaled that of New York. This extravagance of the 1880s set the stage for the present pomp and splendor that characterizes Melbourne. As one walks in Melbourne, domes, spires and turrets lay testimony to the bullet proof feelings of the time (VT, 2014). In terms of art, Melbourne provides a good array of ornate, architectural style of many of the older buildings, especially along Collins StreetApart from the architecture,Melbourne has much more to offer. There are theaters and no matter where one visits, there is always a host of world class shows going concurrently. There are theatrical productions in classic, old wordly style venues such as The Regent Theater.

Geographically situated in south eastern Australia, Melbourne is one of Australia’s’ most populated city with more than 4 million residents and only second in size to Sidney. Melbournians are a multi-cultural mix of people from around the world that help make Melbourne tourism one of the largest businesses in the city. Attracting visitors from all over the world, tourism in Melbourne has everything to offer ranging from restaurants, transport to entertainment(Allison & Peters, 2010, p. 228).  Melbourne has a lot of foreign settlers, people who migrated from all over the world. This mix of inhabitants gives the city it’sdiverse, lively and eclectic culture.Well known as the sporting and cultural capital of Australia, Melbourne is home to events such as the Australian Open Tennis (January), Formula One Grand Plix (March), AFL grand final (September), the Boxing Day cricket test (December), museums, art galleries and many fine restaurants. The arts has the comedy festival (April), MIFF (July/ august), the Melbourne writers festival (august/ September) and the Melbourne arts festival (October).Melbourne was also home to Australia’s impressionist art origins at the Heidelberg school and is also the home of contemporary dance including such styles as the new vogue and Melbourne shuffle styles (VT, 2014). Recently, UNESCO had classified Melbourne as City of literature.

The development of Melbourne identity as a cultural and sporting event capital was enabled by huge injections over the past three decades. This was to a large extent initiated by John Cane who was the first Victorian labor premier in twenty seven years in 1982, in response to the deindustrialization and decay of the 1970s. It was considered an effective way of creating employment and attracting tourism. It has transformed the city into an energetic place to live, with key sporting events.

Melbourne city built its reputation as a place where more independent, less corporatized forms of culture thrive. There are independent bookshops staffed by people who know their stock and have read the books they sell, pubs that have live music rather than being full of pokies, live theater operating out of old buildings at the end of bluestone lanes, eccentric cinemas operating outdoors on rooftops and old buildings with all kinds of eclectic businesses operating within their 140-year-old walls. Parochialism has kept relentless and destructive change at bay in Melbourne.Some of the attractions of Melbourneare the Melbourne unique market place, theGog and magog at royal arcade, the paintings and street art

Urban Planning and Art in Melbourne

Over the past two decades city economies have restructured in response to the decline of older establishments. This has necessitated new practices of planning and urban economic development, a return to traditional concerns of city building and a focus on urban design(Hawkes, 2001, pp. 7-8). During this time, there has also been a marked rise in the understanding of cultural development and its role in the design, economy and life of cities.

Public art receives significant attention and is given great importance in many Australian cities, notably in Melbourne. Melbourne has made substantial financial and public as well as private commitments to art and artistic expressions in the public realm, yielding a major positive impact on the distinctiveness of the city. A comprehensive arts policy and program entailed many other things, including support for young artists, programs to nurture art in the schools, and festivals and arts-based celebrations.The city of Melbourne operates under an arts strategy, adopted in 2004, guiding its arts commitments. The strategy presents a vision of the city as a “crucible for the arts” and makes specific commitments around seven themes (Beatley & Newman, 2008, pp. 125-126).  Substantial investment in public art can be seen throughout Melbourne. The artworks have made a real and lasting contribution to creating a sense of the city and are a positive part of the experience of living or visiting in the city. One of the most visually distinctive pieces of art in the docklands is by john Kelly, “Cow Up a Tree”. It is an unusual sight which is much of the idea behind the public initiatives One of the roles of public art in sustainability is to tell stories about the past that can help the public to see Melbourne’s way into the future.

Sustainability and livability are defining characteristics of Melbourne urban planning (Allison & Peters, 2010, pp. 227-228). The city of Melbourne in its city plan identifies the role that culture play. The plan states that culture is a celebration and definition of what a community is where it has come from and where it is headed.The city’s all-inclusive goal is that: “Melbourne is to be a thriving and sustainable city that simultaneously pursues economic prosperity, social equity and environmental quality”(City of Melbourne, 2013).Historical conservation has been ancentral part of the effort to achieve the city’s goal. For example, the comprehensive plan for the central area of Melbourne states:

“The heritage of the capital city zone area, comprising individual buildings, precincts, significant trees, and aboriginal archaeological sites, is a significant part of Melbourne’s attraction as a place in which to live, visit, do business and invest. It is also important for cultural and sociological reasons, providing a distinctive historical character and a sense of continuity. Much of Melbourne’s charm is provided by its older buildings, which, while not always of high individual significance, together provide cultural significance or interest, and should be retained in their three dimensional form, not as two dimensional facades as has sometimes occurred. The identification, assessment, and citation of heritage places have been undertaken over decades, as part of an ongoing heritage conservation safeguard and their recognition and protection have been a crucial component of planning in Melbourne since 1982”

(City of Melbourne, 2013)

The Melbourne planning scheme for areas outside the capital city zone is more detailed and specific. The purpose of the plan is; to conserve all parts of buildings that are considered as having historic, social, or architectural interest which add to the substance, character, and guise of the building, or street scape.The other purpose of Melbourne’s plan is to also promote the recognition, safeguarding and management of cultural heritage values of the aboriginal, and finally, to make certain that new developments, and the construction of extensions or any alteration made to the buildings result to a positive contribution to the structure and amenity of the area and are reverential to the architectural, social, and historic character of the streetscape (Allison & Peters, 2010, p. 230).

Space and Politics

ForMelbourne rhetoric, initially advanced by the docklands authority, was that the redevelopment would not only transform an abandoned port site but also re-orient the entire Melbourne city through high-density residences and new economic activities. At present, the waterfront hosts high rise residential apartments, multistoried offices, film studios, public spaces lined with urban art, a piazza that is used for hosting events as well as two permanent screens set up to allow more than 10000 people to congregate and watch live sport. A mix of retail, cafes, restaurants, contemporary art, boutique shops and a shopping complex accommodating specialty and factory direct brand stores are located within the site.

The docklandsprecinct has been christened as lacking charm and character, lack of greenery, increased traffic congestion and the ever present wind tunnel effect. It has been christened a ghastly prefab ghetto waiting to happen. Beatley & Newman (2008), stated that the docklands will in the years to come be used as a case study for poor urban design. He adds that the dockland has become a soulless concrete jungle conceived by the mentality of “let us build it, they will come”.However, it worth noting that the docklands have brought with them some positives to the Melbourne area. It has brought with it a culture and identity in the area. However, the docklands is still finding its feet.Melbourne stripped of its small enterprises, its eccentricities, its hidden places full of unexpected people and their eccentric enterprise, that Melbourne really would be a bleak city.


Historic preservation is not the answer to all urban problems. Neither, though, is it an obstacle to economic development or rational planning. Rather, it is a very useful tool for extending and promoting the cultural side of a city: for saving places with special character, rich or poor; and for making or keeping a city livable. Planners often talk about the need for comprehensive planning and sometimes get to practice it. The essence of comprehensive planning is to take all factors into consideration before deciding what interventions need to be made to achieve a city’s goals. But even when the best planners think they are doing comprehensive planning, the plans often leave out many things. Planning is a balancing act. Sometimes something must be sacrificed in order to better a city as a whole. But the balancing act becomes skewed if too many factors are left out.



Allison, E. W. & Peters, L., 2010. Historic Preservation and the Livable City. Illustrated ed. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Beatley, T. & Newman, P., 2008. Green Urbanism Down Under: Learning from Sustainable Communities in Australia. Washington DC: Island Press.

City of Melbourne, 2013. Docklands history and transition. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 7 June 2014].

Hawkes, J., 2001. The Fourth Pillar of Sustainability: Culture’s Essential Role in Public Planning. Reprint ed. Australia: Common Ground.

Liu, G. & Urban Redevelopment Authority of Singapore, 2012. Cities in Transformation. illustrated ed. New York: Editions Didier Millet.

VT, 2014. Beauty of Melbourne Australia. Melbourne: VT.

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