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Q&A with Rob Adams, Director City Design, City of Melbourne

By ASSET e-news posted 16-06-2014 10:28


Rob Adams, Director City Design at City of Melbourne, has been investigating how to accommodate four million extra people in the coming decades – without contributing to urban sprawl, and with a focus on liveability and sustainability. 

You’re currently working on how to accommodate four million extra people in the City of Melbourne in the next few decades. What are the main roadblocks you’re facing in that endeavour?

One of the biggest roadblocks always is the inability of markets, developers and governments to perceive that there is already change taking place. In Melbourne’s case, we get some of the leading economists still saying that the best place to provide extra housing is at the perimeter of the city, yet every indicator is showing that approach is failing – properties out there decrease in value almost the moment you move in. People have to drive and travel and spend a high amount of time and money just getting to where they want to go to, and there are recent reports saying people who live in those areas suffer greater propensity to heart disease because they’re sitting in cars most of the time rather than walking. 

Our biggest challenge is to get people to understand that there’s already a shift happening, and the shift is apparent in both Melbourne and Sydney, where more than 50 per cent of the housing starts in the past few years have not been in the suburbs, but in central city apartments. Younger people and retirees are saying I don’t want to be isolated on the fringe of the city; I want to be a part of it. 

You grew up in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and studied in England before moving to Australia. How did that aspect of your background affect your approach to urban design and where you've ended up today?

I grew up in Zimbabwe and then moved down to South Africa to study at the University of Cape Town because, while there was a university in Zimbabwe, there wasn’t an architectural faculty. 

In my fourth year at university I got the opportunity to either work or travel at the end of my undergraduate degree before going on to postgraduate for architecture. I travelled to Europe to study ‘Town planning in Scandinavia and the Hill Towns of Italy – a comparative study’ – pretty blatantly a ruse to travel the length of Europe.

When I arrived in Scandinavia in 1969, they were building a number of the satellite towns outside Stockholm and Copenhagen and places like that. When I visited them I thought, actually, I wouldn’t like to live here – they were sort of soulless with a lot of off-shutter concrete being used and not very welcoming. Then when I got to Italy, suddenly I found myself sketching and taking more photographs and sitting out in squares and drinking coffee and talking to people – so I suppose the question I had as a 21 year old was, why aren’t we designing cities that have this feel about them? That started me towards a greater discovery of what urban design was about, rather than just architecture. 

Having qualified as an architect and practiced for a few years, I went to the UK and found a Masters in Urban Design course, so I thought I’d better go and do that. That really was the thing that changed my whole career, because after that my interest wasn’t only architecture and landscape architecture, but how do you put those things together? How do you make sense of the components of the city, so they actually work well?

How did you end up moving to Melbourne?

After England, I returned to Zimbabwe for a few years and set up a course in Urban Design that ran out of the geography department at the University of Zimbabwe. I ran my own practice, did some projects for the new independent government, then my wife and I had children and decided to try Australia. I was just lucky enough to get the job at the City of Melbourne – that was in 1983, so I’ve now been here 31 years. 

How much is your work at City of Melbourne influenced by other cities around the world?

We are continually keeping an eye on what other cities are doing, but I think since the 1980s we stopped looking so much at other people and started looking at ourselves and asking, what do we need to make our city better? 

So rather than saying we’ll have one of those and those from this and that city, we looked at our own strengths and needs and said, if incrementally we could work on and improve those over time, ours will be a better city. That doesn’t mean we don’t benchmark ourselves and look at what other cities are doing – we have just tried to come up with Melbourne-specific solutions, because it just seems more sensible than trying to fit someone else’s solution into your city. 

Can you provide examples of other cities Melbourne would benchmark itself against?

Cities are different in terms of their origins and the reasons they exist. So, I would be looking at cities that grew up in the 19th/20th centuries – as the Australian cities did. In many cases those cities have sprawled as a result of the garden-city movement, the dream that somehow we can live in the country and work in the city, resulting in what we call suburbia. I would be looking at those cities and saying, how do we turn that phenomenon around? 

There are not many cities of that kind that have started to do that. Vancouver, Canada, would be the only rapidly growing city at the moment that has actually decreased rather than increased its growth boundaries. It has made a conscious effort to say we’re going to have to come back in on ourselves; we’re going to need to put people in and around our existing public transport, etc. We can’t carry on taking up good agricultural land to expand the city. 

So, I think there are good examples of cities that have gone from being poor examples of how cities should be built to good examples – and I’d argue Melbourne is also one of those. 

You will be delivering a keynote address at the IPWEA 2014 Sustainability in Public Works Conference. What will you be presenting about? 

The presentation is under the title ‘Transforming Australian Cities’, with the subheading ‘Direct Action Strategy’. I thought that, with the debate going on at the moment around direct action and sustainability, a lot of the work we’ve been doing here in Melbourne would be relevant as it could be defined as direct action.

I want to get a discussion going about some of the more tangible aspects of a direct action approach to sustainability, rather than the theoretical things that have dominated the conversation. Using the city as a catchment, for example, which is something we’ve been doing for years here, and I’ll illustrate the projects we’ve used for that. Another example would be our urban forest strategy. We’re looking to double our canopy from 22 to 40 per cent in order to keep the temperatures down and for a whole lot of reasons, including for the health of people living and working in the city.

If there was one key message you would want delegates to take from your keynote address, what would it be?

All levels of government need to start thinking more seriously about cities. Cities not only emit a high proportion of our green house gases, they drive our GDP, and they are where most of us live. If we can solve problems in a city, then we have half a chance of solving them globally.

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