arch-peace editorials

18 August 2011

The death and possible life of a street

A couple of hundred years back, in The Enlightenment, main roads were arteries and veins, vital to the healthy functioning of the city body. They alleviated the unhealthy and congested state of cities at the time. Thoroughfares were inlaid to create airy, healthy swathes through un-sewered slums permeated by dysentery and pollution. With the advent of the motor car and suburban living, things have flipped somewhat. Inner city arteries have become unhealthy conduits for internal combustion-driven private transportation, serving the detached driver rather than the residents and businesses along them. The slums between them have been gentrified and reticulated, but arterial roads are now commonly referred to as “traffic sewers”, and this sewerage is casting its scum onto the immediate environs. Because we all use these roads, most of us are blind to alternatives – it is just the necessary price of progress and convenience.

“City gentlemen, driving home in the evening, scarcely glimpsed the squeeze and squalor of working class life behind the prosperous shop fronts of Johnston Street and Bridge Road.” (1)

Johnston Street forum, 13th August 2011. Photo: I. Woodcock

On the weekend a forum was held in a shopfront of Melbourne's Johnston Street. This street is one of inner Melbourne's ugly ducklings, a pleasant enough street sacrificed in the 1960s to traffic flow to and from the Eastern suburbs. The forum focused on imminent multi-residential development along Johnston Street, and how it might best be handled. Residents, councillors, academics, architecture graduates, and the local federal MP were present, resulting in some robust and fascinating discussion. The contentious points were heritage, height, and traffic. I'd like to concentrate on traffic, which dominates the street. The graduates presented images of their designs for sustainable residential buildings that were heavy on greenery, bicycles, and reinstated trams – in stark contrast to the view of the street through the large windows. Their work was based on the hopeful-for-some, disastrous-for-others assumption that petrol will increase to $8 a litre within ten years and magically “strangle” the traffic problem. Petrol consumption statistics don't seem to support this - demand was unaffected by a 76% increase in the price of petrol between 2004 and 2008 (2). Despite the reduction in use of cars per capita (3), the number of passenger kilometres travelled in Melbourne remained stationery at a staggering 44 billion kilometres per annum for private vehicles (4). Possibly this discrepancy has something to do with the population's current growth rate of 1.7% per annum.(5) The designs would have not looked remotely as appealing as they did if current traffic flows were to continue unabated. Most likely traffic levels will stay constant for the foreseeable, and the apartment buildings will be built and won't be good places to live.

Once upon a time, up until the Seventies, this stretch of street was served by the sort of independent shops that make up any functioning village – a butchery, bank, fruiterer, and so on. Nowadays the quality of the street has eroded, suffering not just the economic difficulties of many high streets, but also increased traffic flows, council amalgamation, and the excision of the northern part of the suburb for a freeway. Vacant shopfronts are starting to fill again with galleries, studios, and discount shops attracted to the lower than average rents, but the street is still dominated by dead shopfronts waiting for some loving. It is a street that is a poor cousin to others in the same municipality, and for what reason?

Johnston Street, Abbotsford, c.1910.

Off peak Johnston Street, Abbotsford, c.2006 (Google maps).

100 years ago, working class Johnston Street looked better and functioned better. It has been the victim of a seventy year long well-meaning botch-up by traffic engineers and authorities. In 1939 the cable cars went, in 1960 the street was declared a main arterial road, resulting in a road-widening to five lanes. This has reduced footpaths and shorn Victorian shopfronts of their original integrated canopies. It's become less hospitable in order to funnel traffic along Route 34 from the city to Kew and beyond. Johnston Street has become less important than where it is going.
"Johnston Street does not have an inviting public realm and suffers from a poor quality street environment in most parts of the study area due to narrow, low quality footpaths, heavy traffic, inadequate street lighting and generally poor pedestrian connections throughout the area and around key activity nodes, such as the train station." Local Area Plan August 2011 (6)
Adam Bandt, federal MP for Melbourne, said at the forum that the physical size of the Melbourne electorate is to be reduced due to its projected population growth of 15,000 within the next several years. Each electorate is meant to have 100,000 inhabitants, give or take ten percent. There seem to be two main avenues to achieving this scale of growth. It can be scattered along public transportation routes, as advocated by Rob Adams at the City of Melbourne, and Kim Dovey and Ian Woodcock at the University of Melbourne, and it can be consolidated in vacant industrial land, as the current state government would prefer.

The recent abolition of proposed amendments to the planning scheme by the previous state government, which were in line with the Adams approach, appeases the Save Our Suburbs residents groups, who will fight further densification of the inner suburbs. So we will see brown fields sites with no public transport being heavily developed. This isn't stopping developers eyeing up sites on downtrodden transport corridors like Johnston Street, which are going at bargain prices relatively speaking. These sites are ripe for development as attempting to build anywhere else (in residential streets for example) results in far too much trouble with residents and the low-rise planning scheme. Developing along high streets is hard enough.

Some of the 15,000 plus new residents are going to end on arterial streets like Johnston Street. Many towers already dot similar streets around the city, and this is a problem. While good for transport connections, the state of the streets does not support residential accommodation due to traffic, pollution, noise, and in some cases lack of amenity as all the neighbourhood shops are long gone. Hopeful balconies cantilever out from these blocks, but in reality people have to keep their sooty doors closed and their air-conditioners on.

Johnston Street, Abbotsford, c.2006 (Google maps).

The problem in inhabiting these streets seems to be that all these “arterial” roads are under the control of the state road authority, whose main interest is in cross-city movement. This requires road-widening, and traffic-speeding measures such as clear ways. While Vicroads' mission statement includes provision for pedestrians and cyclists, they are typically given token appreciation. Johnston Street's narrow treeless footpaths, lack of crossing points, and dangerous two-way centre lane are proof enough of this. A few new trees and an attempt to slow traffic to 40 kph are the only noticeable attempts to provide a better environment to nearby residents. If the number of residents is to balloon in the next few decades, and many of these new residents will reside on these streets, something has to change. These resident will have a voice too. At some point, drivers will have to allow extra time to enter the city, or seek alternative means of transport. Only once that hurdle has been dealt with politically may these streets be able to heal. Then, perhaps, we will see the footpaths widened, trees planted, median strips and open spaces added, and streets worth living on. The city needs its lungs as much as its blood.

Road Diets – a fix for Johnston Street?

There has been experimentation recently into “Road Diets” in the U.S. Roads on a diet have one or two lanes removed from them, typically with a centre lane dedicated to turning. “Traffic-calming expert” Dan Burden says, “It seems counterintuitive, but taking away lanes can actually help traffic flow smoother while improving safety for everyone.” (7) The results look promising and relevant to Johnston Street. We should be experimenting too.
  1. The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne, Graeme Davison, MUP 2004 2nd ed. p179
  2. Johnston Street Local Area Plan May 2011
  3. “MBA: Road Diet” April 12, 2011


Post a Comment