The landscape architecture of Melbourne’s Docklands suburb contains some serious flaws. The seaside suburb holds immense geographical potential but remains largely a ghost town. Is it too late to salvage what should be a bustling waterfront community?

In his book Making Landscape Architecture in Australia, Dr Andrew Saniga says much work remains to be done in the Docklands area. He says now is the time to make the changes, but also suggests patience.

“It takes time for places to evolve and take on a life of their own,” he says.

Where Docklands Went Wrong

There were great plans to reinvent Docklands to coincide with Melbourne’s bid to host the 1996 Olympic Games. Even after a disappointing unsuccessful bid, planing was set to go ahead.

Nearly 20 years on, however, the suburb remains a quiet, soulless expanse of high-rise residences blocking much of the waterfront views.

The original plan intended to drum up public interest across the entire 150 hectares.

The authors of the plan would be shocked to see side-by-side towering residential buildings in lieu of what had been planned, namely buildings of moderate height that would not dominate the landscape. The grid pattern of low to medium height buildings with mixed uses and an emphasis on getting rid of traffic never eventuated.

One of the creators of Melbourne’s laneway culture, Danish urban designer Jan Gehl, recently offered a dismal opinion of the area.

“My interest is ‘cities for people’ and not ‘cities that make traffic happy,’” he said. “The residential tower is the lazy architect’s answer to density.”

Docklands Residential Towers

Docklands Residential Towers

RMIT professor Michael Buxton says the area has fundamental structural problems.

“They threw out any role for government and made it wide open for business,” he says. “The developers have done what they like until now. We hope that will be reined in a bit.”

Buxton feels the opportunity to create what could have been one of Australia’s best suburbs has been wasted.

Melbourne University chair of architecture and urban design Kim Dovey says with the previous developments there was a lot of free market ideology and things were “not done in the public interest.”

Future Potential

Not everyone views Docklands as a permanent failure, however.

Buxton himself sees the possibility of a much brighter future.

“Cities everywhere are replete with places that have had monumental stuff-ups at their genesis and yet urban life somehow finds a way and adapts,” he says.

Places Victoria CEO Peter Seamer defends the precinct, saying it is “a work in progress and is only at the halfway mark of development.”

That future potential can be seen in Dockland Spaces’ initiative to revitalise the area through short-term, rent-free leases in the empty retail space of Docklands’ Waterfront Piazza.

Run by Renew Australia, six participants have accepted the offer of free rental space and have moved into Docklands.

The initiative plans to bring some culture into the area, providing stimulating things to see and do below and in between the towering residential buildings.

Ghost Town Of Docklands

The quiet ghost town of Docklands

“Between those spaces is where cities happen,” says Lord Mayor Robert Doyle.

Destination Docklands says public art in the area has contributed to a strong sense of identity for Docklands. The area has 36 artworks by established and emerging Australian artists built into the landscape architecture.

Director of planning Rob Adams says central Melbourne faced many of the same criticisms 30 years ago that currently plague the Docklands area. This was solved through art and culture by creating Melbourne’s famous laneways.

Adams says this decade is the time to restore Docklands’ lost waterfront by thinking about uses for the area, such as a fish market or sailing ships that pick up and drop off in Docklands.

“One of the options would be to unpack and rebuild some of the city’s heritage freight sheds, now in storage, and place them at strategic points along the Esplanade, where they could create openings for markets and spontaneous activities,” he adds.

Successful Landscape Architecture of a Suburb

Saniga says besides design, landscapes are a product of community, politics, planning and idiosyncratic forces.

“They satisfy needs for a sense of beauty, for contact with nature, and other requirements intrinsic to social and cultural life,” he notes.

In a growing city such as Melbourne, Saniga says challenges arise around providing good living environments, careful planning of water use, quality open space, flexible spaces, and rooftop gardens.

“Landscape architecture is not only about green spaces, but includes all kinds of landscapes,” he says.

A testament to the challenges that lie ahead for Docklands, Saniga says one of the great challenges lies in preserving landscape without turning Docklands into a sterile environment.

Melbourne City Council and the urban renewal authority Places Victoria share responsibility for Docklands. The authority manages the project while the council supplies municipal services and will likely take over the suburb eventually.

As architects and urban planners aim to add some culture to an area that once was seen as holding such great potential, one can only hope the days when the region was home to nothing but soaring residential towers is over and that public interest takes its rightful place at the top of the list.