Hannah Fox knows all too well the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Melbourne.
The RISING festival, which she co-curates, was postponed in 2020 and then only managed an opening night before being cancelled by last year’s lockdown.
However like the artists who have picked themselves up to reschedule cancelled shows, Fox believes the city’s resilience is shining through in what she says is Melbourne’s moment.
“Every city has its moment artistically, and I feel like Melbourne is in one right now,” she says. “The artists who are coming out of here, in visual arts, performing arts and music, are just incredible.”
Fox isn’t entirely sure how Melbourne’s moment has come about, but she says we need to seize it.
“I don’t think anyone knows why 1970s New York or 1980s London was a thing, they just have their moment and I absolutely feel like we’re in one,” she says.
Finding the opportunity in crisis is the question Melbourne author Andrew Wear grapples with in his book Recovery: How we can create a better, brighter future after a crisis.
Wear says an exploration of past recoveries shows that over the longer term, a crisis is less relevant than the steps cities and nations take afterwards.
He points to the phrase ‘build back better’, coined by former US president Bill Clinton as part of the mission to rebuild Aceh in Indonesia following the Boxing Day Tsunami.
“Assessing these recoveries from afar, it’s easy to see that years on, recovery can result in even greater prosperity and success than might otherwise have been possible,” Wear says.
The question is, just how should Melbourne seize the moment?
1. ‘Split’ the city
Looking out over bustling ‘parklets’ in Fitzroy where restaurants and cafes have taken over car parks, Planning Minister Richard Wynne says Melbourne’s CBD can learn from the popularity of the city’s suburbs during the pandemic.
“We really need to think about disassembling the city … where you can build upon the unique specialisation of particular precincts,” he says.
Wynne points to the legal district, the Queen Victoria Market, Federation Square and Flinders Lane as examples of well-established precincts.
“Those sorts of places that have been around for a very long time that have built their own organic identity, and I think that’s part of the secret of how we build it back,” he says. “I’m incredibly optimistic for our city and our state.”
2. Embrace the big shift
The shift to more employees working from home which occurred during the pandemic should be embraced rather than seen as a battle between employers and employees, according to Seek co-founder and venture capitalist Paul Bassat.
He says it’s a change set to stay at least in part and rather than being a death knell for the city centre, provides opportunities for it to evolve to being more than merely a place to work.
“If I go to a city like Copenhagen or a city like Amsterdam, you don’t have this distinction between a rush hour when the roads are clogged and the trains are packed and the footpaths are full and then other times when it’s just deserted of people and there’s no one there,” he says. “I think what success for Melbourne looks like is a city that lives and breathes and functions seven days a week, 24 hours a day, that has this vibe and energy at all times.”
Bassat says encouraging a 24-hour city with a cultural focus also requires infrastructure and an entrepreneurial spirit.
“It needs creative Victorians or Melburnians doing interesting things that in turn attract people to their galleries or to the restaurants or to their retail spaces,” he says.
3. End homelessness … for good this time
Ending homelessness may sound like a bold ambition, but Launch Housing chief executive Bevan Warner says Melbourne effectively managed this during the coronavirus pandemic and should be able to do it again.
“Because the public health risk of COVID was a priority for everyone, we solved rough sleeping for a period,” he says. “When ending homelessness was seen as a community priority, previously unthinkable things happened quickly.”
Warner wants to see the same urgency applied to homelessness after the pandemic, with enough emergency housing and long-term housing to catch people who experience an episode of homelessness.
He says the state government’s $5 billion big build is just getting Victoria back to the national averages of provision in social housing.
“The international best practice is for that to be a one-off occurrence, so people do not get entrenched in a cycle of homelessness,” he says. “Melbourne should be using its progressive pride as an international city to aim high and attempt to be a world-leading city in ending homelessness.”
4. Count on culture
Melbourne’s planned new $1.7 billion NGV Contemporary Art gallery is exactly the sort of cultural injection Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp thinks will set the course for Melbourne’s future.
“That really builds on the big idea of culture as our main driver of reactivation and recovery, and they’ve always been a key part of our identity as a city,” she says. “We want to really supercharge that.”
In her view, the way art and culture is experienced in a city like Melbourne is different to anywhere else. “Particularly at scale, to see a lot of it, you can really immerse yourself in it … there’s so much of it, and it’s different and diverse,” she says.
Capp wants to see support for art and culture in Melbourne across the spectrum, from blockbuster shows at the NGV to the city’s street buskers and the Flash Forward laneways art project.
“It’s challenging when you’re looking at how you invest in this, the very nature of it is almost untameable, it’s fractured,” she says. “We try to nurture it and almost fertilise it, but we can’t be programmed or structured either because that kills it.”
5. Race for space
RISING co-curator Fox has some concrete ideas for the City of Melbourne and the Victorian government to encourage art and culture in Melbourne.
She says studio space in places like the Nicholas Building, which is listed for sale, and Curtin House are fundamental to the city and need to be preserved and championed.
“Melbourne has always been built on this idea of kind of discovery and laneways and vertical laneways,” she says. “These spaces are really important breeding grounds for artists.”
Fox points to Somerset House in London, which has been transformed into a tenured studio space with artists practicing out of there through events, exhibitions and open studios.
It’s a model she’d love to see applied to the warren of rooms, including an abandoned ballroom, above Flinders Street Station, which are being used by RISING for Patricia Piccinini’s A Miracle Constantly Repeated exhibition.
“We’d love to see that become a tenured studio space or something similar,” Fox says. “There’s a bit of work that needs to be done to get a lot of people through there, but it’s not insurmountable at all, and it’s just such an incredible space, an incredible icon of Melbourne.”
6. Make housing affordable
Alongside studio and work spaces, Fox is concerned about the lack of affordable housing in the city.
“If you look at any city with a thriving art scene, a lot of it comes down to a kind of critical mass of artists and a lot of that centres around being able to afford to live there,” she says. “I think that is something that could be a problem for Melbourne as it just keeps creeping up.”
Housing is also a key issue for Melbourne University associate professor of architecture Rory Hyde.
“The housing crisis is a big one and that underpins every other aspect of having an enjoyable city to live in,” the former adviser to London’s Lord Mayor says. “If you’re spending all your money on rent, you can’t do anything else and therefore there’s no joy left.”
Hyde says the social housing big build which the state government is undertaking is critical to the future of Melbourne.
7. Goodbye cars, hello public transport and bikes
For Hyde, the big story in Melbourne is the triumph of the car – and it’s one he wants to change.
“We need to change course,” he says. “Too many people are dependent on it every day, and we can see the pressure a spike in petrol prices puts on people.”
Hyde wants to see more investment in public transport, slower speeds, congestion charging and more separated bike lanes which involve digging up the road rather than just painting lines.
“That’s a decades-long project which is about how much are we spending on roads and how much we spend on other things,” he says.
Looking at Melbourne’s slated population increase to 8.5 million by 2050, Hyde says it’s clear cars cannot transport this many people.
“It can’t be based on roads, actually, it’s not scientifically possible,” he says. “I think if we’re being honest with ourselves about where we are, what we need to do, that’s the answer.”
8. Work with First Nations
Georgia Birks’ vision for Melbourne’s future is one that recognises First Nations people, with collaborative design processes for Melbourne’s architecture from start to finish and beyond with First Nations communities, designers and consultants.
As the associate editor of Architecture Media and a Kamilaroi and Dunghutti descendant, she wants to see Melbourne made up of spaces that are culturally safe and reflect the true history of Australia.
Birks says this can be achieved through a more collaborative approach with both First Nations people and experts in sustainability and accessibility.
“Knowledge of technology can help filter into how we work with country because buildings really connect quite physically and have a direct impact on country and that then feeds into sustainability approaches as well,” she says.
Birks points to Victoria’s Family Violence Memorial, being built in St Andrews Place Reserve in East Melbourne, as an example of this inclusive approach to design, where architects Muir and Openwork collaborated with First Nations communities and credited them for their contribution and work.
“The more that we work with First Nations, communities, consultants, elders and designers, we will see a future that is proud of who we are and also culturally safe but also more sustainable.”