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 their 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, Myers Place. Allchin works with cities around the world, including ours, on urban renewal projects. In an article that ran on Broadsheet Melbourne this week, architect and writer Timothy Moore spoke with Allchin about Melbourne's recent history, and why we we haven't applied the same small-bars-in-laneways formula to Sydney's metropolis.

Below is an excerpt from the discussion which explains why Sydney abandoned the idea.

Broadsheet: 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?

Craig Allchin, Six Degrees: 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.

Read the rest of this piece on Broadsheet Melbourne.

A version of this article appeared in Volume #38: The Shape of Law.