Melbourne’s urban renewal can be seen through two lenses. First is the young locals who took advantage of cheap rents during a mid-1990s recession, moving to the CBD and bringing with them their associated cultural capital – bars, studios, galleries and shops. Then there’s the survey plan of the city laid out in 1837, which, through its service laneways, provided a space for activity that avoided main-street rents. This story of gentrification is typical of many modern cities, but Melbourne’s story has unique context.

Few people are better placed to discuss this than architect and urban designer Craig Allchin. As director of Six Degrees Architecture, the practice which opened one of Melbourne’s defining laneway bars, Allchin works with cities around the world on urban renewal projects. Melbourne-based architect, Broadsheet and Volume contributor Timothy Moore spoke with Allchin about our city’s recent history and the combination of law, planning, and activism that created the Melbourne we experience today.

Broadsheet: As part of Six Degrees, you designed a city bar that became a symbol for Melbourne’s regeneration process. What were the circumstances that led to Meyers Place?

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Craig Allchin: Six Degrees had six partners, who all graduated from architecture school during the recession. Some of us moved into an empty office building in the city and there was nowhere to have a quiet drink. The only options were big hotels or smaller nightclubs. We decided to set up a small bar along a lane called Meyers Place. We put some money together with friends and completed a fit-out with a budget of $25,000. It was coincidence we set up this bar exactly when the liquor laws changed.

BS: How did the change in the liquor laws come about?

CA: The reason was quite particular. The Victorian state premier at the time, Jeff Kennett, was amending the laws to coincide with the opening of Melbourne’s first casino, which was designed to have a range of bars and restaurants along its river frontage. The casino’s owners didn’t want to take the risk of operating under a single liquor license, which could have been revoked if there was an incident of bad behavior. They wanted to spread the risk. The state government created a new “small bar” license that suited the casino’s needs, providing it with several small-bar licenses. The unintentional result of the reform, however, was that it allowed lots of other small bars to set up all over the city.

Before this, bars had to serve food in order to serve alcohol. Small establishments needed kitchens, which increased the fit-out and operating costs, and priced out many small-scale entrepreneurs. It would have easily doubled the budget of Meyers Place. The emerging bar culture, tucked down Melbourne’s laneways as a result of these laws, brought people back into the city centre.

BS: But strong planning laws also contributed. What were they?

CA: In the mid-1980s, Melbourne’s city centre was basically empty outside of business hours. Suburban malls had lured a lot of retail out of the city, and there were very few people living in the core. State government strategists reasoned that specialist, one-off stores servicing the whole metropolitan population were important for the life of the city, and also its comparative advantage. The real strength in the policy was that the state government took a long-term view, setting requirements for a 30 per cent active frontage on all new-build or major renovation projects in the retail core of the city. This was a game changer for the city centre: the active street frontage policy encouraged relatively small tenancies. The City of Melbourne worked with this state requirement and included another regulation: to maintain a street edge in order to avoid large paved plazas that would disconnect the building from the pedestrians on the street. The constraints on street frontages also tended to limit the size of stores, keeping them relatively small. With growing success, the city council increased active frontage requirements first to 50 per cent, then to 80 per cent. Over the 30-year timeframe this has increased the supply of small-scale retail spaces, ensuring rents have remained reasonably low, and the streets – and therefore the city – have come alive with a diversity of businesses.

BS: Having less than 100 square metres of retail space means you wont get mid- to large-scale retailers interested in moving in. They can’t turn a profit off this floor area. The attraction of independent businesses, which saw a cultural and economic revival of Melbourne’s city centre, has made it the envy of other Australian capitals. You delivered reports for Adelaide and Sydney on how to establish this culture. Perth and Brisbane have also commissioned programs to renew their city centres through looking at Melbourne’s “laneway” activity. Can a unique set of circumstances – liquor and planning laws, a city grid, and local entrepreneurs – be transplanted to other Australian cities?

CA: Every city is different, and you need to consider how all the elements come together to create a successful strategy. You can transfer some tactics from one city to another to instigate change, but there will always be differences. For example, the City of Sydney understood from the beginning that it needed to change the liquor laws to allow smaller-scale, cafe-style bars. There were powerful lobby groups, however, working for the hotel barons arguing against any changes. Most pubs in New South Wales have a lot of pokies attached to their liquor license, so they were very cashed up and able to lobby politicians and run campaigns in the media against small bars.

BS: The “small-bars” legislation in the state of New South Wales was passed in 2008 so it has the laws to establish this new type of consumer culture and fine-grain typology. Does it have the laneways that would allow it to replicate Melbourne’s small-bar culture?

CA: Sydney never had a large laneway system because it has a different urban morphology to Melbourne. Many of the laneways it did have were sold off to developers in the 1960s. The council originally wanted to establish bars in lanes, just like Melbourne. We [Six Degrees] advised against this because there weren’t many lanes, and those that were there didn’t have many empty shops. Sydney is a very different city to Melbourne economically – there are very few empty spaces, and therefore rents are high, making it harder to find a cheap location. You can’t cut and paste a solution from one city to another because all cities have different morphologies and politics. In Sydney, we shifted the thinking from laneways because there were very few. These included small, out of the way spaces such as basements and first-floor areas, regardless of whether they were in a laneway or not. The key to Melbourne’s small bars was that they were in cheap spaces so people could afford to experiment. That was the key to Sydney too, although not in the lanes as such. Sydney has an extraordinary underground pedestrian network connected to the underground train stations around the city, which is Sydney’s equivalent in terms of a movement system to Melbourne’s lanes.

BS: Setting up the parameters, or rules, for urban renewal is something your office, Six Degrees Urban, is involved with, working for major developers in Australia. What have developers learnt from Melbourne?

CA: Many developers understand the attraction of the Melbourne laneways and would like to recreate it. The problem is they often think they can just make it happen in places that are completely different. They travel the world and say, “We like the plaza in Copenhagen so we’ll take some of that; we like the pier in San Francisco and the pedestrian mall in Vienna and we’ll take some of those too; and we like the Melbourne laneways.” They throw it all together on a master plan, hoping to create a quirky, hip, and high-rent retail and pedestrian area. But the result doesn’t perform like any of the examples, and tends to feel like a regular mall, because it’s all under one ownership. The truth is, there is no absolute formula. Cultivating civic space is part art, part science, but it certainly does not come through collage. There are too many complex forces to model and reproduce any particular, idiosyncratic city.

BS: When modelling and making a city there is often a rupture between the vision of city councils or developers, and bottom-up agents such as community action groups or even just people who want to start a business. In a way, you are finding a way to bridge this gap. You are teaching councils how to respond to and cultivate the crowd.?

CA: Six Degrees has worked across scales, from small bars to metropolitan plans and urban renewal strategies in Australia, Asia, and the Middle East, so I think that helps us to see things from the bottom-up and the top-down. One of the biggest challenges we see in bridging the gap is that developments are getting a lot bigger, so the capital that funds them is getting lumpier. By that I mean it’s harder to get more nuanced, fine-grain results. Big developments have become more about economics and politics than design. Design often becomes one of the tradable commodities along with public plazas and community buildings that are thrown in to justify larger buildings. The more capital at risk, the more pressure exists for the developer to build mall-style retail and hand it over to a manager to fill with tenants and pay off the investment. This doesn’t deliver the complexity and diversity of Melbourne’s laneways. And what is clear from examples across the world is that you can’t deliver that level of financial return from small-scale retail.

Creating a high-quality, interesting ground plane also pays dividends in the long term. Even though the rents might initially be higher, the amenity and profits of a mall-style retail project tend to diminish over time, as fashions change. Ten or 15 years after construction, a mall needs a major upgrade, often costing 50 or 100 million dollars. By contrast, a smaller-scale retail model with diverse ownership that is not trying to attract huge rents tends to adapt to changes over time, with each owner exerting their subtle forces on the uses and mix, according to fashion, taste and demand. These places more often get better over time, and at no stage require the big capital input.

BS: The experimentation of bottom-up tactics and top-down strategies must come together. How do we find this middle ground?

CA: The city is the middle ground and we need to think of it like a Darwinian ecosystem. No single entity designs the city, but the various forces acting upon it – from the top-down, bottom-up and in from the side – all need to be in balance, working towards a common goal.

Melbourne is a good example of this: the state government set a strategic direction, which the City of Melbourne supported. They watched what was emerging when the lanes started to come to life with small bars and shops. And although that wasn’t necessarily what they expected to happen, they engaged with it, understood it in detail, supported it with money and advice, and then let it flourish through regulations that gave it space. Identifying the important elements of each city, and then adjusting the forces acting upon them is the complex part of that equation, and we have to get that right for the city, like a healthy ecosystem, to continue to adjust and remake itself.