Vibrant city or drunk city?

With Adelaide’s festival season looming, it seems timely to contemplate the ‘vibrant city’ agenda currently being foisted on us by our political leaders and policy makers.

 

What makes a city vibrant and what is likely to give Adelaide that indefinable edge, or pulse we seem to hanker after? Will it be increased cultural activity, creative enterprise and relaxed licensing laws? Or is it more likely to be great urban spaces, quality design, good public transport and a strong sense of community?

We know that successful cities seek to create their own unique identity and to build and develop the experiences on offer. “Today’s cities make a virtue of their atmosphere, their heritage and their nightlife,” according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. “But more than this, they develop an intangible quality of creativity and innovation.”

So goes the theory. But what steps can Adelaide take, and what interventions can we make to create the kind of cultural milieu the global experts are telling us is necessary for our future prosperity?

One quick-fix solution came out of a whirlwind visit by New York-based placemaking expert Ethan Kent, who proposed a ‘Power of 10 Plan’ that would give the city square mile 10 precincts, each with 10 locations, or 10 activities or reasons to visit. 

In contrast, in the same week, Henriette Vamberg from Copenhagen’s Gehl architects came to town. She delivered a comprehensive 160-page report based on a 10-year period of study, full of deeply considered and beautifully illustrated recommendations on how to breathe life into our streets and spaces. Simultaneously Wakefield Press released City Streets, Lance Campbell and Mick Bradley’s extraordinary chronicling of two very distinct eras in Adelaide’s urban evolution.

Anticipating the cynics who like to point out how good Adelaide is at creating plans that collect dust, Lord Mayor Stephen Yarwood challenged those present at the Gehl study launch to use the document as a tool to get a broad range of people involved and engaged in city planning. “This document is already being implemented in the city of Adelaide,” he said, citing recent three-fold increases in pedestrian traffic in Chinatown, Gouger Street, Rundle Street and North Terrace. “It will be the bible by which we can engage people in an exciting innovative paradigm shift that is all about involving people with cities.”

Vamberg agreed that completing the study and its recommendations represents only a half of the task at hand. “The other half is more about engaging with people and with government,” she told The Adelaide Review. The real change takes place in people’s minds. “So we need to ask what are some of the little things we can do now, what are the long-term strategies that can gradually be implemented, and what are the special catalyst projects that can create change.” 

Urbanist Jane Jacobs referred to such interventions as ‘urban chess-pieces’. These place a new element in the built fabric in a particular time and space in order to make other things happen around it. 

John Montgomery, a fan of Jacobs who has spent some time in Adelaide gained global planning notoriety for his role in the successful revitalisation of an area of Dublin known as Temple Bar. Like Melbourne’s laneways rejuvenation, Temple Bar is often cited internationally as an exemplary case study in the creation of a vibrant cultural precinct from a historic docks district headed for dereliction.

In his own analysis of the Temple Bar success story, Montgomery lists a number of concepts that might help Adelaide find our way to vibrancy nirvana. These include the cultivation of the creative industries, the development of a public realm that enhances, rather than hinders, connectivity and commercial activity, and the insertion of Jacobs-style chess pieces into that process. 

Plans to demolish the Temple Bar district’s empty old buildings were replaced with short term low rent offers to small restaurants, art galleries and clothes shops. These attracted ‘arty’ types, then people working in popular music, followed by people working in design ­– and suddenly the area found itself dubbed Dublin’s ‘Left Bank’. Establishment of the Temple Bar Development Council followed, along with a system of tax incentives for private investors that stimulated refurbishment of the historic buildings. An urban regeneration proposal based on these concepts hooked £4million to the cause, and a state-owned development company was formed. A development framework was then established involving the following ideas:

• new and refurbished venues

• a cultural animation program of events and activities 

•  ‘what’s on’ information and marketing to the public 

•  street life and café culture

•  conservation of the old and modernity in new building

•  preservation and enhancement of historical streetscapes and patterns of streets in terms of frontages, storey heights and doorways 

•  vertical zoning for diversity allowing (for example) cafés, restaurants and shops on the ground floor, artist studios on the first floor and apartments above.

The other important element championed by Montgomery is the notion of the evening economy, or 24-hour city. A concept developed in the UK in the late 1980s, this was essentially about opening up the possibilities for people to meet, trade, buy and sell ­– a meal, a drink, a newspaper, a hotel room or a musical performance – across extended hours. According to Montgomery the theory applied not just to traditional places like pubs, bars, restaurants and nightclubs, but also to shops, gyms, cinemas, music venues, art galleries, theatres and pool halls, as well as to a range of cultural and recreational activities such as evening classes, clubs and societies. 

“But even as the first 24-hour city conference was held in Manchester in 1993, it was becoming evident that 18 hours is about enough,” says Montgomery. “In Dublin especially, where the policy was to bring people back to live in the city centre, it was clear that there would be a conflict between new residents and noise and rowdy behaviour associated with certain late-night activities.”

Like Melbourne and a number of other Australian cities, Dublin however eventually pursued deregulation policies that favoured a plethora of new drinking places and extensions of their opening hours. The Temple Bar district eventually became better known for its stag parties and hens nights out than its ‘Left Bank’ culture, developing such a fearsome reputation that by 2005 the BBC avoided filming there during the making of a holiday program about Dublin and its attractions. 

During the decade following deregulation in Victoria, the number of people hospitalised for alcohol-related injuries and diseases jumped 77 percent, as the number of licensed premises rose from 2000 to 24,000. Escalating alcohol-related disturbances, ranging from vandalism, offensive behaviour and disruption, to serious assaults, glassings and stabbings, led to a police and media backlash, which saw the NSW and Victorian governments take drastic action. Lockouts and bans on new licences were introduced and freezes and restrictions were placed on existing licences. In Sydney, small bars were heralded as the solution, and laws were overhauled to remove onerous and expensive licensing processes in order to foster a more sophisticated ‘European-style’ drinking culture ­– only to be overturned within a year. 

Recognisng that all bars – big and small – can cause problems, Victoria has since come up with a rating system and licensing fee structure that rewards bars and clubs with early closing hours and strong compliance records, while penalising non-complying serial offenders.

As our own lawmakers finalise a new late night code of practice for Adelaide’s larger venues, and loosen up laws to support a proliferation of smaller venues, they can anticipate that the aim to encourage more city centre living is inevitably going to clash with the desire to develop a more vibrant evening economy. 

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