Shaping our city

How an architect with big ideas helped shape Melbourne: and went from doughnuts to cake 

15 September 2023

Few people have had a greater impact on Melbourne than City Architect Rob Adams AM, who’s retiring after 40 years.

Since the 1980s, Rob and the City of Melbourne’s urban design team have led the nation in successful city-shaping projects.

 Their dedication to an attractive public realm and a lively city centre transformed Melbourne into one of the world’s most liveable cities – and set a high watermark for urban design internationally.​​

Forty years ago Melbourne was described as a “doughnut” city that hollowed out at 6pm when office workers returned to their homes in the suburbs.

Melbourne’s city design team and councillors encouraged a residential population, bringing life to the inner city. A city with dynamic streetlife, mixed use neighbourhoods and expansive green spaces.

Laneways buzzed with bespoke designers, cafes brimmed over with convivial chat. Rob says this took political will and small, incremental changes.

Melbourne boomed as people were attracted to living, working and enjoying leisure time in the city centre and its distinctive neighbourhoods.​

Read on to discover Rob’s reflections about shaping Melbourne into a global success story, or listen on SoundCloud.

Listen to a version of this story from our print magazine, recorded by Vision Australia

What was your first job title at the City of Melbourne?

I saw an an advert for an urban designer to work on the Strategy Plan of 1985, in a small team of consultants. We’d arrived in Australia in May 1983, with two children and $2000 and no job. So I worked as a draughtsperson in Sydney for a few months and then the work started to run out.

I went home on a Friday night and said to my wife Rosie, I need to get a job. I opened the paper and there was this advert for an urban designer to come and work at the City of Melbourne.

So I got interviewed and 40 years later, I’m finishing an 18-month contract.

Rob Adams (left) and former Zimbabwe president Canaan Banana (centre)

What did you think of Melbourne and what did you think you could contribute?

I was daunted by the job because I’d only been seven months out of Zimbabwe, and never in my wildest dreams did I think I was going to end up working on a city the size of Melbourne.

I love the city because there’s a lot that’s familiar to me, and particularly as I lived in Harare which grew up in much the same timescale as Melbourne. Some of the architecture was recognisable, it was Victorian and we had wide streets.

Quite frankly, I didn’t know what needed to be done.

There had been some very good community plans done in the late ’70s, by people like Maurie and Ruth Crow in North Melbourne.

The community was calling for change and councillors came into office to implement change. And there were certain realities. The city was broke, so you immediately ruled out any big projects.

What I think the people and the councillors of the day wanted to do was:

Take those things that are special about Melbourne and just make them a little better. So things like having our own suite of furniture and bluestone paving.

I was helped on that journey by someone whose praises have not been sung enough, and that’s (former colleague) Ron Jones.

Ron taught me that sometimes it’s better to simplify than to add things in. It’s strange to say one of your mentors is someone who works under you, but he’s such a talent. He wrote the 1987 Grids and Greenery study about the city’s physical environment.

You often speak about incremental change, but Postcode 3000 was a major change. How did it come about?

We set a target for 8000 people in 15 years in the 1985 Strategy Plan. We had no idea how that was going to happen.

You could change the planning scheme and give incentives, but we did that and people didn’t take it up. But then the property market crashed in the late ‘80s and we had what we have today. A whole lot of office buildings were empty.

We decided we could convert those to residential. Right across from the town hall, there was a little place and we leased the top three floors of that and turned it into six apartments. And then we took people through and said, well, this is what living in the city could be.

We got lucky when Macquarie Bank worked with us to convert a building into 35 apartments, all of which sold off the plan in three months. That opened the floodgates.

Were you also preparing the city for population growth?

We were doing that, unwittingly.

We didn’t know that what we were doing from 1985 onwards was not only transforming the city, but building it in a way that would be more resilient.

By taking space away from cars and giving it to pedestrians, by planting trees, by designing furniture that lasts 100 years. All of that and bringing back a residential population has made the city more resilient.

Basically, you need a reasonable density, so you’ve got enough critical mass to make a city work. You need to have mixed uses and make your city walkable.

The lesson out of that is you can put 65,000 dwellings into existing infrastructure, you can do that within the metropolitan city.

The study I did in 2010 called Transforming Australian Cities was basically saying, if we don’t keep expanding and if we put people close to the existing infrastructure, trams, activity centres, brownfield sites, what does that look like?

Does it bring you some disappointment to see how much urban sprawl has occurred?

I think disappointment would be one way of putting it. Frustration is another, because I always thought it important to try and have a narrative that people understand.

And when the narrative says that your land and house on the fringe is cheaper than in the city, then people are going to go and seek to live in the fringe.

If the narrative was one that says it’s actually more expensive to live on the fringe from a cost of living point of view, then people would actually start to ask the question, so what are the alternatives?

If you’re running a car and you’re living in the fringe suburbs, it’s costing you a lot to run. You see health problems exacerbated on the fringe. When you get mortgage stress, it happens more frequently on the fringe.

In Victoria we’re still saying it’s cheaper to build on the fringe than it is in the centre; and I’m just pulling my hair out saying, wrong question.

Closing Swanston Street to cars must have felt quite an achievement.

It was a really good thing to do because we had 60,000 cars going down Swanston Street and very few of them were stopping in the city. They were going from the eastern suburbs through to the airport or somewhere else, and Swanston Street was actually not looking that great.

Places like Chadstone were picking up the retail trade. Our traffic engineers reassured councillors and VicRoads that we could close Swanston Street as a through route for private cars without disrupting the city.

The street was closed in 1992. On that morning I went into the VicRoads operations room and I had a journalist sitting next to me and the traffic just flowed perfectly.

At 8.30am she got up and said ‘this is a disaster’. I said, ‘no it’s not, traffic’s flowing’. She said, ‘no, we’ve printed the midday headline. It says “traffic chaos”.’

She ran out of the room, got hold of the editor and said, ‘we can’t run that headline’. She came back and said, ‘you’re going to love the headline’. It was ‘Cakewalk’.

It was all about partnerships. I think I’ve got more credit than I ever deserve and my team has also got a lot of credit. But it was everybody else working with us. The traffic engineers, the people from Parks and Rec, Arts and Culture, the events people, everybody was on the same page.

And that was the success of the 1985 Strategy Plan, everybody was playing by the plan.

And 1992 was important because Postcode 3000 started, Swanston Street closed and the south bank of the river opened up that year.

So suddenly, after seven years of a plan that we had talked a lot about, people started to realise that the city was changing.

People don’t always know what’s happening when it is a lot of small stuff. It’s like warming up a bath. I thought, who do we get to help us measure? And that’s where the collaboration with Jan Gehl started.

He came out here from Copenhagen in 1993 and we worked on a report called Places for People.

He came back 10 years later and the stats were so dramatically different because we now had a residential population, you had seats, paving. And he wrote it up and he went around the world and sold Melbourne.

I mean, if Melbourne’s on the map, it’s because Jan Gehl said, ‘if you want to see how it’s done, you go to Melbourne.’

How would you encapsulate that success? It used to be described as Copenhagen-style living, but appropriate to Melbourne.

You need a high-quality public realm. That’s the space between buildings, everything outside the doors and the buildings. The thing that I realised is 80 per cent of that is made up of streets.

So if you design a good street, you design a good city and we just set about doing that.

We wanted the best paving, best furniture, trees, activity, cafes, flower stalls, all those things on the street.

I think Postcode 3000 changed the nature of the city dramatically. The streets became much more friendly, much more people-oriented.

Has it been important to you to have a role in embedding good urban design thinking?

The reason it’s important to me stems from my fourth year at architecture school, which goes back to 1969. I travelled over to Europe. My study topic was town planning in Scandinavia and the hilltowns of Italy, a comparative study.

The satellite towns around Stockholm and outside Copenhagen were shocking.

I then went to the hill towns with their squares and sat there and suddenly said to myself, why does this feel so right? Why do I enjoy sitting here? Why am I having a cup of coffee? Why am I sketching?

It made me realise that the course that I was studying, architecture, didn’t teach you urban design.

Urban design is the general practice of cities, and I am pleased to bring a bit more consciousness about training our young professionals to be good urban designers before they become architects or landscape architects or planners or developers.

Through the 1990s, were the Victorian premiers by and large supportive?

Yes, John Cain and Joan Kirner were supportive. It was under Jeff Kennett that City of Melbourne became a partner in Federation Square. I think it was an incredible addition to Melbourne. I don’t think it’s the city square we need, and I don’t think the city square we’ve got – as much as I love it – is big enough for the events we need to have.

Our biggest opportunity is Market Square (the multi-use open space planned for Queen Victoria Market).

The city is moving north, the population’s up there, the market’s up there, the education facilities are up there. So how do you design Market Square so it serves the people?

I think most good squares in the world are filled with people and activity… That’s the challenge for Market Square.

It should be our biggest public space and should be able to absorb big crowds, but it should also have some intimate areas.

Artist’s impression of Market Square

Do you feel optimistic about the Queen Victoria Market precinct renewal and Munro development?

I look back on the market renewal and Munro as a lovely way to end a career.

What people are maybe not familiar with is that we’ve been doing public private partnerships since Cafe L’Incontro next to Town Hall, which was 1996. And also State Government partnerships.

Behind Jimmy Watson’s at Elgin Street, we put the car park below and reestablished the lanes. Then we reduced the size of City Square for the Westin Hotel and we reinvested the money in the Regent Theatre with the State Government.

Then we bought the QV block where the women’s hospital was and redeveloped it. And then there’s Munro, the southern site near the market and Boyd.

A key to this is that since 1986 the city has built up an in-house team of professional designers and project managers.

So I leave the city saying we’ve learned how to work with partnerships at every level. The developer always got a reasonable return out of what we were doing, but we also got a good return.

What do you do when you feel stymied by someone who doesn’t accept your professional advice?

You try and find a way of telling the story in a different way.

Sometimes you realise you’re not going to win that argument and you don’t throw it out. You put it on the shelf. And then you wait four years until you’ve got a new set of politicians. They appreciate professional unbiased advice.

If you do this consistently they will trust your advice.

At what point was sustainable urban design something you began to know more about and then champion?

In many ways, it was built into me. I was born in 1948, and it was only a few years after the war. My father was a carpenter and my mum was a seamstress. So you never threw away anything.

When I got to Melbourne, I realised that certain things were valuable. For example:

Water is the new gold in Australia, so it was about conserving water, planting trees, trying to make your footpaths easy to maintain, and knowing you can always get the material.

(Former mayor) John So came to me one day and said we’ve been planting trees, we’ve been using bicycles, we’re getting better public transport, we’re doing all that. What’s the next big thing?

And I said somehow we need someone to build the new commercial office building, and it would be great if we did it. And that was Council House 2 (Australia’s first building to receive a six star green star design rating).

Rob Adams and Council House 2

During the millennial drought we were starting to see the problem. And then 2009 happened with the bushfires and we stood to lose all our trees. That was when I thought we’re going to lose this battle if we don’t start doing stuff like looking after our trees, capturing water.

So that’s when we started building water tanks in the Fitzroy Gardens, the urban forest strategy, all of those things that are easy to do, but so important in a country like this.

The Melbourne Renewable Energy Project was a fantastic initiative too. So I leave feeling in many ways the city is in a good place. If we concentrate on the things we do well, we can succeed.

The city became unrecognisable during the pandemic, office workers have not returned full-time and affordable housing is scarce. What are your thoughts on Melbourne’s challenges?

In many ways, (the pandemic) taught us you can operate in a different way. Those living on the fringe found they didn’t have to drive in an hour and a half each way, five days a week.

So I think COVID will start the repositioning of metro Melbourne and start making people realise that they were living too far away.

The city has come back to life in the evenings and over the weekends. And COVID has left us with empty buildings that I think could be converted into, if not residential, creative spaces.

I think we need to find more space for creatives. They provide energy in the city. So something like the Nicholas building is an absolute gem.

I also think we need to work at a higher level: to think not just of our patch, the City of Melbourne, but also our role in metro Melbourne.

And our role is to help the others be successful. Because it’s no use just having a healthy heart if the rest of the body is decaying. Mortgages and petrol prices are crippling huge parts of our population.

It gets back to medium density, five to eight storeys, located not in all the suburbs, but in the seven and a half percent of the land that is around stations, tram lines, bus routes and brownfield sites.

Then you can say to 92 and a half percent of the population, we’re not going to change your environment, but you’ve got a responsibility as well. And your responsibility is we want more trees, you’ve got to collect water, and you’ve got to put solar panels on your roof.

So we can achieve more density without sacrificing amenity?

Yes and the thing that I’ve loved about local government is it has an understanding at the coalface of what you need to do to make things better. So we know how you build good development.

The State Government could, for instance, encourage development in the activity centres along tram corridors, and say you’ll get that on a couple of conditions.

Your development has to be good development. It has to be a high level of sustainability. You have to have activity at the ground level, and it has to be mixed use. And there has to be at least 20 per cent affordable housing.

In close to 40 years your team has won 179 design awards. What do they mean to you?

A lot of people had to do a lot of really good work to improve this city. To me, the awards represent the partnerships over the years. It has been one huge collaboration.

You’ve said your proudest moment as head of city design is ‘Cakes’. Please explain.

When I became a manager they said you have to have management meetings. Now, I’ve never studied management, and I didn’t want to have a stuffy meeting.

So I said to my little team of five, every Wednesday at 10.30am we will stop for half an hour and we’ll have some cake, and a coffee. We will discuss what we’ve done in the week, and we’ll celebrate your birthdays, and we’ll celebrate our successes.

I kept that absolutely faithfully right up until I left the division. In the end, we were having 85 people at Cakes. I would walk out of the Executive Leadership Team meetings if they ran late. And they used to mock the hell out of me.

But it was the most important time for me, because it was a time when the team came together and in casual conversation recognised what other people were doing.

You plan to work with your daughter in future, but what will you miss about being part of a large team?

There are many times when I’ve put an idea forward and the idea that comes back from my team is so much better. I’ll miss that team dynamic. But I am looking forward to having a bit more reflective time.

At 75, to be able to reflect on what you’ve done and why you’ve done it, and to pass that on to a younger person, in this case my daughter and anybody else who wants to listen. I think it’s a lovely way to end a career.

Lighting the way: the vase in the street lights

How the elegant street lighting on Swanston Street came to resemble an art nouveau vase from Rob’s childhood.

When we were doing Swanston Street, I said the one thing I always wanted to do is have this row of lights that goes down the whole street.

(Principal industrial designer) Ian Dryden and I have had a very close relationship and he would quite often come in when we were designing a piece of furniture and we’d talk about it, and I’d suggest modifications.

I just drew something simple and said to Ian it needs to be tall and maybe at the top it slopes out a bit. And he went away and came back with a prototype. It was just like my mum’s vase. This was a vase I broke.

We didn’t have much, and she had these two art nouveau vases. I kicked a ball and knocked one off the mantelpiece and broke it. And she came into the room, cleaned it up, didn’t say anything. So we now had one. You can imagine what I thought every time I walked into the room.

Ian came up with a shape and I said, you know what? That’s just like mum’s vase. So I said, I’ll call those Pamela Adams’ lights, a homage to Pam.

I think she gave me my creativity. She was a seamstress and she arranged flowers and she iced the cakes and did all the creative things in our family. So I really do thank her for that. I think my creative genes came from her.

Street lights on Swanston Street

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