Future cities: What can Bristol learn from Melbourne?

Melbourne is often described as one of the world's most liveable cities, and is currently running Australia's largest sustainability festival. Gary Topp, former Melbourne resident and Development Manager of the Bristol Green Capital Partnership, discusses the importance of nature in the city’s development.

Australia still retains a very direct engagement with its native faura and fauna. Its unique natural habitat, whilst significantly under threat from colonialism and the introduction of invasive species, is increasingly respected and there are many initiatives and programmes in place to restore and protect it.

Surprisingly, for example, one of the most pernicious invasive species is the blackberry and there is a wide spread campaign to eradicate it.  

It is wealthy, diverse, has a magnificent river running through it, beaches and harbour side, global events and, if you adopt its offer, a quality of life that is post European in its wealth and comfort. 

The Eastlink freeway, one of several major roads that define the city, provides a glimpse into the challenges and structures of the city as it expands.

The Eastlink freeway runs away from the centre of Melbourne passing through the suburbs of each successive decade of city boundary expansion.

Melbourne’s European heart, with its trams and laneways, is undone by its American suburban hinterland.

You can drive for a long way on this freeway and still be in Melbourne. I once heard that Melbourne has the same population as greater Paris but is spread out over twice the amount of land. Density is not yet a cornerstone of the Australian psyche.

I have witnessed public protests declaring that two storey developments (i.e. houses!) will ‘block out the sun’. 

Eucalypt trees are firmly part of the psyche, however. Often referred to as ‘widow makers’ as they will drop branches at the slightest environmental provocation.  

The trees stitch the city together in pocket parks and large open spaces, on streets and in towering garden trees. Fast growing and resilient they form the dominant public enquiry for most of Australia’s local government.

Eastlink stops in the morning and evening. The suburbs too big for its channels and the economy too centralised to cope.

Melbourne is often cited with Vancouver and Copenhagen as one of the world’s most liveable cities.

Tram Bar cafe in the Arts Centre forecourt of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV).
It is wealthy, diverse, has a magnificent river running through it, beaches and harbour side, global events and, if you adopt its offer, a quality of life that is post European in its wealth and comfort.

Jan Gehl is the Copenhagen connection. He has advised Melbourne City Council over two decades and pedestrianized its city centre creating a European café culture of extraordinary depth. Consequently Melbourne has reinvented breakfast and coffee. This is why it wins global awards.

Eastlink has a parallel shared path. A three metre wide path for walkers and cyclists often set in parkland.

In the morning and evenings it is busy, but not as busy as the roads, and it certainly never stops except at the two underpasses that regularly flood. Melbourne has too many hard services and not enough surface permeability.

Decades of colonial engineering has never quite tamed the weather and cars need hard surfaces.  

At one magical point, each morning, I would catch my breath and enter the extraordinary world of Mullen Mullen creek.  

A substantial remnant of native bush land saved from the building of Eastlink by a long tunnel and now a highlight of the shared pathway.  

It marked the midway point of my thirty six kilometre ride to work and offered a perfect distraction of trees, mid storey bush and the endless flicker of brightly coloured birds. It smelt like nature and not the city.

It towered above me and the branches of fallen trees often littered the path. In the winter it was pitch black and cold encouraging a quickened pace and heightened sensitivity. Water gushed through the creek when it rained.  

In this small piece of the city nature remained very much in the ascendency.