For one day in March, Melbourne was in a bit of a tizz thanks to a proposal to dig up Elizabeth Street and put a canal through it.

As the discussion progressed, people got more caught up in the specifics of the thing – how it would affect the traders, what if drunk people fell in, “Oh, won’t somebody think of the children?” kind of stuff. They seemed to forget, it was just an idea.

So who is this guy who got the whole city caught up in this grand fantasy – if only for a day? His name is Gilbert Rochecouste and, in a way, he’s part of the reason you’re reading Broadsheet right now.

He’s the founder of Village Well, which calls itself a “place-making” consultancy. Put simply, Rochecouste and his team advocate for looking at things such as urban design, community engagement, or even the social fabric of an area, at a planning stage of a new development or redevelopment.

Rochecouste wrote the precinct plan for Flinders Lane and Degraves Street in the late ’90s, one of many ideas which catalysed laneway renewal. But, a by-product of this led others to believe he was responsible for Melbourne’s laneway renaissance, which he’s quick to point out is not the case.

“You get The Age saying I’m behind the renewal of the laneway, which isn’t true. Rob Adams [Melbourne City Council’s Director of City Design] was really the visionary and champion behind that,” he says.

“He created the context for renewal. He had a team of people literally taking streets apart each night every night. They plugged in the hardware – like improving the quality of space for pedestrians – to allow people like us to show the community a taste of what our streets could be.”

It’s safe to say that in the mid ‘80s we had a drab CBD. Melbourne was a “doughnut” city, where activity was left to shopping centres in the suburbs (keep in mind that small-to-medium-size bars in the CBD were a rarity). Architect Norman Day once described Melbourne as, “An empty, useless city centre”.

The Melbourne City Council and subsequent state governments recognised Day’s point, implementing policies to bring activity back to city streets. The Cain and Kennett state governments drove this change. The latter brought in changes to liquor licensing laws, allowing small bars to pop-up, which changed Melbourne’s hospo landscape forever.

By the early ’90s, creative locals were making the most of these changes, Village Well being just one example. Its creation in 1992 coincided with the Kennett government’s launch of Postcode 3000, a policy designed to grow residential density within the CBD.

This provided Rochecouste with an unprecedented opportunity.

“When the conversation begun about laneways, and even when we [Village Well] proposed the idea for the [Queen Vic] night market in ’98 and ’99 – they thought we were all crazy. But now it’s a fixture,” he says.

“In the ‘90s the work we did shifted Melbourne laneway culture very clearly,” Rochecouste continues. “As soon as you took out cars, or slowed cars down to a walking pace, people started to change their behaviour. People started to connect. Because a new layer of intimacy has been created.”

Since Rochecouste’s precinct plan, Melbourne has grown and benefited from many of the initiatives Postcode 3000 and its tributary ideas put into place. The CBD has increased residential density, and its residents benefit from versatile laneways. But that has come with a new suite of problems for the Melbourne of the 21st century.

“Melbourne’s the world’s most liveable city, and I can guarantee it won’t stay that way over the next decade. Hundreds of thousands of people are going to move into the city over the next decade, and they’re going to need green spaces and public spaces,” Rochecouste says.

The Melbourne City Council (encompassing Kensington, Docklands, the CBD, Southbank, East Melbourne and South Yarra) is one of Australia’s fastest-growing areas . By 2056, we’re going to overtake Sydney as the nation’s largest city based on current modelling. Undoubtedly, this will put unprecedented pressure on the city’s existing green and urban spaces.

“Our existing ring of parks were last set aside by Governor LaTrobe, so it’s time we started thinking about where the next big patches of open space are going to come from,” says Melbourne City councillor, Aaron Wood.

“Open space is going to be critical because we’re going to have a much more dense, fast-growing city,” he says.

Right now, the council is countering this rapid urbanisation via a multi-pronged attack. The council’s Urban Forest Strategy, Open Space Strategy and Climate Adaptation Strategy are but small parts of this.

“We are going to grab car parks that aren’t needed anymore and make those pocket parks. We are going to plant 3000 trees a year to increase the urban forest, and drought-proof our parks and gardens,” he says.

So what about Rochecouste’s canal? It’s unlikely you’ll be paddling to work anytime soon. The historic Williams Creek – which did run underneath Elizabeth Street – is now just a pipe that runs out to the Yarra. And considering we still don’t have a rail link to the airport, and the Flinders Street Station development is on the backburner, the canal was always bound to be a hard sell.

Even so, Rochecouste is just asking us to suspend reality to see a bigger picture – just like he did before.

“Obviously the Lord Mayor thought this was a bad idea, but you need the bold vision to catalyse renewal, in order to push Melbourne to its next evolution,” Rochecouste says.

As Melbourne continues to evolve, grand narratives such as Rochecouste’s might not seem that far-fetched at all.

villagewell.org