Ruminating on locked out cities

A couple of weeks ago an article I wrote with Professor Andrew May on urban regulation and specifically the lockout laws appeared in The Conversation. It provoked a strong reaction across social media and also in private correspondence.

Lockout laws
King’s Cross, Sydney. (SBS Comedy)

Our critics accused us of being libertarians due to our questioning of regulation and indifferent to the public health of the community. Others have appreciated the historical perspective that we offered.

We treated the lockout laws as a lens through which to consider some of the nuances of how regulation actually operates in cities, suggesting that it invariably impacts urban life—whether for better or worse.

The broader point was that the idea of locking out the city is not a new one. And that regulations such as the lockout laws are an exercise in (bio) power, which impact some people’s right to the(ir) city. The ramble that follows cuts the cloth in a slightly different way, responding in part to the comments, and written exclusively by me:

In ninteenth-century Australia, some people sought to impose stronger liquor regulations in our cities on the basis of their moral or religious convictions. Temperance campaigners and other regulationists perceived the consumption of alcohol as sinful and degenerate. Alcohol consumption was said to lead to the degradation of society, particularly when it was working class people, or women drinking.

The strongest of the criticism was reserved for those drinking in public, at public houses and bars. If a person had a drawing room where they might drink in private, these issues were less pronounced, and any changes to liquor regulations would have had less of an impact on them. So though this regulation was targeting a particular issue, the impacts were felt in the streets and public spaces, where ordinary people went.

In Australia, our relationship to our cities has changed over time. Prior to the clearances of the so-called slums from the 1930s onwards, the population density in our inner-cities was very high. Homes were cramped. Before we were lured to the suburbs with large private homes, white picket fences and suburban bliss, the dominant place for recreation and leisure was therefore the city itself.

So when those campaigners sought to eliminate alcohol consumption, they had to provide alternative places in the city for people to spend their time. Across Australia, immaculate buildings were built. I’m thinking of the Federal Coffee Palace in Melbourne, the Sydney Coffee Palace in Woolloomooloo, the People’s Palace in Brisbane and many others.

In Australia our relationship to our cities is changing again. While our suburbs are growing, so are the numbers of people living in our inner cities. With increased density, there are more people around on the streets, seeking places to go for a coffee or a drink, for a movie or a walk. Think of the rejuvenation of many shopping strips where apartments are being built, serving the increasing numbers of residents.

Today, when increased restrictions are introduced for bars and clubs, via say the lockout laws or noise curbing efforts for music venues, those alternative places, like the coffee palaces, rarely exist. This literally locks out the city for particular groups of people. And what happens then is that streets are becoming quieter, people have fewer places to spend their evenings. The city in a sense becomes less safe or at least feels less alive—for some groups in the community.

Deserted King’s Cross. (The Australian)

This may have less of an impact on say families or older people who may be less interested in late nights out, but for younger people, millennials particularly, this is a real issue. The street and the city are places where people might discover who they are. For example, King’s Cross, Sydney and South Yarra, Melbourne have been liberatory places for LGBTQ communities for many decades. Or what about people that are knocking off from work at midnight and don’t want to head straight home on a Saturday night?

Ultimately: Are the lockout law really the best policy prescription to what is an extremely complex urban issue? If the past tells us anything, it’s that there is rarely a right answer, just many possibilities. And that there will inevitably be unintended consequences for the life, safety and diversity of our cities.

I do not have a view on what the right or best policy prescription is. And (of course) violence in all its forms must be condemned. However, we must also be asking ourselves at moments like this what sort of city we want, and to make sure our cities offer something for everybody. That’s a basic right.


Lockout laws repeat centuries-old mistake of denying value of cities as messy places

This article was originally published on The Conversation on 7 June 2016. Read the original article.

By Andrew J. May, University of Melbourne and James Lesh, University of Melbourne

Sydney’s lockout laws, as well as current and proposed restrictions in other Australian cities including Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Newcastle, are perhaps more about regulating people’s behaviours in cities than about liquor licensing.

Such knee-jerk responses to tidy up the mess of complex issues belie society’s need for diversity. They also neglect culture’s debt to the manifold possibilities of social behaviour in urban space.

Viewed as part of a broader historical pattern, such episodes of regulatory crackdown remind us that a seemingly purified city is not necessarily a healthy or diverse one. (more…)


555 Collins Street, Melbourne

Every few months tensions flare at Collins Street, Melbourne as the latest development proposal is floated. Once again, the Victorian Planning Minister has intervened at Collins Street. This time to prevent the construction of an 82-storey skyscraper opposite the Rialto Towers at King and Collins Street. As journalist Clay Lucas relays, this is a story of political intrigue, a web involving developers, financiers, and both major political parties–quite typical for Collins Street.

In this case, we Melburnians might stop for a moment to reflect on the past in order to look forward. After all, the skyscraper proposal–which echoes the Rialto Towers–is for Enterprise House at 555 Collins Street: an important address for Melbourne.



A historical rumination on heritage advocacy

‘Defend Collins Street’, Architect, September 1976.

A few days ago, tumultuous events played out at the National Trust of Victoria, as reported in the Age. Whilst the Trust often appears in print over its activism, rarely does the internal discontents of the organisation spill onto the pages of the city’s newspapers. Over the past few weeks, absent from this blog, I have been exploring how the Trust and various other advocacy and professional organisations campaigned federal, state and local governments for heritage legislation in the 1970s. What interests me particularly about the ‘showdown’ at the National Trust last week is how there has been much reference to the legacy of the Trust: its advocacy activities way back then.



Past Liberal ‘Ministers for Cities’

Last Sunday the new Turnbull Liberal Government made Jamie Briggs Minister for Cities. This marks the Liberal Party’s first positive intervention into the Australian city in almost five decades. In excellent articles Liam Hogan and Alan Davies as well as Malcolm Farr and Michael Bleby have many aspects of this appointment covered.

Turnbull & Briggs (Andrew Meares / AFR)
Turnbull & Briggs (Andrew Meares / AFR)

After spending the last few months in the urban archives, it feels similar to when Tom Uren became ‘Minister for Cities’ under Gough Whitlam. The mood amongst urbanists and the wider community is hopeful yet cautious. Particularly because the Federal Liberal Party are often perceived as urban agnostics. So Turnbull’s appointment of Briggs seemingly takes on an added level of importance: the Liberal Party, Welcome to the City.

Yet the Liberal Party has a long tradition of urban policy, particularly in roads and housing. (more…)


The 25,000 Square Metre Rule: An Obituary

ICI House, Wolfgang Sievers, 1958. (SLV)
ICI House, 1958. (Courtesy SLV)

Without warning last Friday at midnight the Victorian Government did away with the ‘25,000 square metre rule’ as it has been for the past 20 years. Especially undemocratic, this rule empowered the planning minister to approve any building with over 25,000 square metres of floor space without recourse to the local council or the community. It has had dramatic irreversible long-term impacts for Melbourne. This blog reflects on its history. (more…)


Innovation and Reaction: What Would a Minister for Cities Be Good For?

Whitlam & Uren (News Corp Collection, 1972)

Calls for an Australian Minister for Cities are becoming louder. Groups such as the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council, the Australian Institute of Architects, Planning Institute of Australia, Property Council, Engineers Australia, Green Building Council of Australia, Council of Capital City Lord Mayors and a cross-party parliamentary friendship group for better cities have endorsed the proposal. Various commentators agree, some of whom are members of those groups. A consensus appears to be emerging that the Australian city requires federal intervention.



Australia’s greatest urbanist: Hugh Stretton

A portrait of Stretton by Robert Hannaford, which won the Peoples Choice Award in the 1991 Archibald Prize.
A portrait of Stretton by Robert Hannaford, which won the Peoples Choice Award in the 1991 Archibald Prize.

The Australian City in History has yet to be written. If it were, there is one person that would loom large: Hugh Stretton. He died on 15 July 2015 after a long battle with illness, three days past his ninety-first birthday. There was a short obituary in the Adelaide Advertiser and his personal friend economist Geoff Harcourt wrote a touching tribute: ‘I doubt that we shall see his like again.’



Torch the House! Gough Whitlam’s Ngara.

Whitlam's Ngara (Age)
Whitlam’s Ngara (Age)

No Australian Federal Government did more for urban heritage than Gough Whitlam’s. Yet his childhood home, called Ngara, faces demolition any day now, at the tail end of an urban heritage conflict. A few weeks ago the Heritage Council of Victoria decided that Ngara was not of state heritage significance. Located in the inner eastern suburb of Kew, the house was built by Whitlam’s grandfather. Whitlam was born there and lived there for 18 months. For the heritage council, this was an insufficient basis to require preservation. The saga over Ngara is not entirely over. The local Boroondara Council might intervene this month with a heritage overlay. (more…)


Regenerating heritage at Melbourne’s Rialto

Wraparound building
New Rialto wraparound building

The Rialto precinct in Melbourne is undergoing another facelift in the coming months. The Age reported last week that at the corner of Collins and King streets a new wraparound 5-story glass and steel office block would soon be built, adjoining the Rialto Towers. As this part of the Melbourne CBD has been a research interest of mine for a while, I’ve been following this development with interest. The commentary was accepting of the proposal. Fronting more of the Rialto Towers onto King Street is part of the renewal of the area.