Melbourne, Australia After a Decade of Focus on Public Spaces

With apologies for my carbon footprint, I recently returned from a working tour of eight cities Down Under. The trip included an invitation to Melbourne to work with the staff of the city's successful new public space development, Federation Square, and to help lead a Placemaking training course that included many city staff, local developers and "place managers." In the process, I had the opportunity to learn a few things relevant to my hometown, New York City.

Melbourne's central business district is as dense and urban as any U.S. city other than New York. Like New York City, Melbourne—the fastest growing city in Australia, with a population of nearly 4 million—has a lively public life. But it hasn't always been so. A “New World” city, designed on a grid, Melbourne went as far, or further, than its U.S. counterparts in planning itself around the automobile.

In 1993, Jan Gehl, who happens to be in New York City this week to start work with Department of Transportation, ran one of his “public spaces, public life” surveys in Melbourne. During that first Melbourne study Gehl collected baseline data on how public spaces were being used and made recommendations for improvements. He worked with the city to implement some of these improvements and in 2004 Gehl's team was invited back to do a second study. They found that dramatic changes had taken place during the decade between the studies.


Street space in Melbourne's central business district has been taken away from private automobiles and reallocated to transit riders and pedestrians.

Gehl’s studies makes Melbourne one of the few cities in the world where accurate data on public life has been collected over such a period of time. Between 1993 and 2004, these were some of the changes that Gehl's team observed:

  • 71% more space for people and activities on streets and squares
  • 177% more café seats
  • 39% increase in pedestrian activity during the day on weekdays
  • 98% increase in pedestrian activity in the evenings on weekdays
  • Large increases in stationary activity that came with the newly created space


A page from Gehl's report shows a grading of the degree to which ground floor uses support public life during the two study periods.

In addition to documenting the increase in sidewalk space and decrease in cars, Gehl’s studies tracked the steady improvements of ground floor retail spaces in central Melbourne. These improvements contributed significantly to the city's increasing pedestrian friendliness and the revitalization of downtown.


Reallocation of street space away from private automobiles and public investment in transit has provided direct benefits to retail businesses in central Melbourne.

Efforts to reduce the cost of traveling by transit from the suburbs to the city center combined with the rising cost of gasoline has led to a rise in transit ridership that has greatly surpassed expectations.


As in Jan Gehl's Copenhagen, Melbourne has steadily eliminated on-street parking space.Today, there is very little on-street parking and virtually zero free parking in the central business district.

In the beginning of 2006, Melbourne instituted a new parking levy on all long-stay private/commercial parking spaces in the central business district, starting at $400/space and moving to $800/space. The revenue generated from this levy, estimated at $38.5 million in fiscal year 2006-07, is being reinvested in transportation improvements including a free shuttle in the central business district.

Completed in 2002, Federation Square is Melbourne’s most prominent public realm improvement and the greatest testament to the city's commitment to fostering public life. Built over a rail yard, Federation Square is the city’s living room, cultural center and nighttime destination. It took a huge public investment of around AU$473 million (just under US$400 Million) to do the project. For comparison, Chicago’s Millennium Park, which is a similar size new public space and also built over rail yards, was built for $475 million around the same time. Despite initial community resistance, the Square has been embraced by the city and is generating significant returns on many fronts.

My work with Federation Square included facilitating a public space audit to help them look at how to continue to improve and manage the space, engage new partners and audiences, and create a broader sense of public ownership and participation. In many of the newly reclaimed areas in Melbourne these same issues were very relevant.

Bourke Street Mall was transformed into a pedestrian street in the late 70s and then reconfigured recently as a transit mall. It is also one of the Melbourne's defining public space destinations. However, participants in my Placemaking training course gave the new streetscape poor marks. Just as the street was once dominated by automobiles, many now feel that the new transit-oriented design is still oriented too much around transportation and not enough around shopping, cultural creativity and social life.


In the middle of one of the busiest sidewalks in Melbourne, people take time to stop and play chess, watch chess or just watch people.

As the title of Gehl’s report suggests, it is the "places for people" that are making Melbourne work and are bringing about its dramatic shift. It is these destinations that, despite greater difficulty in accessing via the private automobile, are bringing people downtown, getting them to stay longer and driving further investment.

At first glance, one might assume that the successful revitalization of Melbourne's downtown was the result of the city's efforts to drive automobiles out of the central business district. But traffic reduction was only one piece of the puzzle. Melbourne's renaissance was accomplished by focusing on the improvement, democratization and vitality of the city's public spaces.