Kickstarting the city: How to revive Melbourne’s CBD

People sitting outside at tables talking and dining.

Peter Barrett

Posted October 13, 2020

How can we bring life back to the heart of Australia’s most liveable city?

Remember what Melbourne’s vibrant CBD used to be like? The bustling pavement cafes and laneway bars, the quirky boutiques and busy arcades? While COVID-19 and associated restrictions have emptied the streets and office towers, and silenced the buzz, many of the city’s most innovative thinkers are looking beyond the current lockdowns and thinking hard about how to bring life back to the heart of Australia’s most liveable city. 

Among them is NGV director Tony Ellwood, who is “extremely excited” about the gallery’s upcoming Triennial 2020, set to open in December with more than 100 artists and designers from more than 30 countries.

So too Hannah Fox, co-artistic director of Rising, a 12-day arts festival scheduled for May that combines the Melbourne International Arts Festival and White Night and will take over the parks, river and other outdoor areas. “Music, food, art, culture are the lifeblood of Melbourne (beyond football, that’s the other major pillar),” says Hannah, “and it’s so important that we as a community are able to connect to that again. Otherwise, what is the point of living in this city? That’s what it’s about.” 

But what else can be done to get Melbourne’s famously liveable streets humming again, seven days a week? We asked leading thinkers in the fields of urban design, hospitality, retail and entertainment for ideas on how to kickstart the city.

A colourful allyway in the centre of Melbourne.

We asked leading thinkers in the fields of urban design, hospitality, retail and entertainment for ideas on how to kickstart the city. Photo: Getty Images


How to revive Melbourne’s struggling CBD

The idea: Parklets 

The expert: Quentin Stevens, Associate Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at RMIT

Boost space for outdoor dining by building people-friendly temporary structures

It began in San Francisco in 2005 with someone feeding a parking meter, rolling out some turf on the road and hanging out with friends for a couple of hours. Since then the concept has evolved and parklets – portable temporary structures that can be installed on streets to allow green space or extra seating – are popping up in cities such as London to promote COVID-safe alfresco dining. 

Quentin Stevens, Associate Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at RMIT, has been researching parklets around the world including in Perth (Australia), where they have become popular. “It’s an in-between kind of space where we can experiment and see what works and, if we decide there’s problems or needs, we can make adjustments because it’s not expensive to do – it’s not about concrete or steel set into the ground.” 

He says Melbourne’s speed-restricted, wide, two-way streets provide ample opportunities for installing temporary parklets, which could help restaurants and cafes create outdoor dining space to entice diners back to the city.   

The idea: Pay to play  

The experts: Lord Mayor Sally Capp, restaurateur Chris Lucas

Offer subsidies on transport, parking, food and drink to bring people back to the city’s restaurants and bars 

The Poms could hardly believe their luck when Boris Johnson’s government announced back in August that, in a bid to encourage diners back into the nation’s cafes and restaurants after the first lockdown, it would pick up half the tab. The plan involved diners paying half price (up to the value of £10 – about A$18) when eating at one of 76,000 participating restaurants, with the government reimbursing the business for the difference. 

Could such a plan work here to help fill city restaurants once restrictions ease? Lord Mayor Sally Capp has thrown her support behind a proposal by online publisher Broadsheet whereby diners would pay 80 cents in the dollar to buy ‘Melbourne Dollars’, to be spent at bars and restaurants across the City of Melbourne. The scheme, which would give diners an effective 20 per cent discount on food and drinks, would cost the council $5 million, with diners injecting $20 million into the city’s bars and restaurants. 

Restaurateur Chris Lucas, the brains behind Flinders Lane dining hotspot Chin Chin, supports the initiative but wants to see more immediate stimulus measures too. He backs a $650 million proposal, spearheaded by the Restaurant and Catering Association, to give Melburnians government-funded $100 vouchers to spend in the city’s restaurants. He also urges the government to make it easier to get into the city. 

“There should be a period of three to six months where there’s either free or subsidised public transport,” he says, adding that it will be important to bring shoppers back to the city with incentives such as subsidised parking.  

A restaurant allyway with no one around.

Chris Lucas suggests there should be a period of three to six months where there’s either free or subsidised public transport. Photo: Matt Harvey


The idea: Garden city 

The expert: Nick Williams, associate professor at University of Melbourne’s School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences

Transform the CBD with plants, trees and parks

Singapore began its journey to become one of the world’s greenest cities in the mid-2000s. Faced with climate change, more extreme weather and increased urbanisation, planners wanted to build a better quality of living environment for the next generation. So, why not in Melbourne? 

Nick Williams, associate professor at University of Melbourne’s School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences says a mass rollout of green roofs, walls and facades would not only deliver significant environmental benefits, it could also attract more people back to the city and make it a healthier, more attractive and vibrant space.  

He says the podium (or base) level of tall buildings offer prime real estate for retrofitting with rooftop gardens. “If you turned those podiums into mini parks they could act as outdoor meeting areas, outdoor food courts, passive recreation spaces [and] for people to go and work out there on a laptop. Sky Park in Docklands is a good example.” Other structures, such as the upper decks of city car parks, could be planted out with trees, allowing for workers from nearby office towers to meander over connecting skybridges at lunchtimes.

The idea: Rock ’n’ roll cabaret

The expert: James Young, owner of Cherry Bar in AC/DC Lane

Provide premium table service in live music venues alongside a budget live-streamed offering outdoors

Melbourne lives and breathes live music and that sector has been one of the worst-hit by the pandemic. Owner of Cherry Bar in AC/DC Lane, James Young, has joined Sally Capp’s election ticket in the upcoming council elections and, if successful, will become Melbourne’s first ‘night mayor’, a role some cities in the US and Europe have embraced to ensure the night-time economy is better represented in local government decisions. 

Like many in hospitality, James has adapted to the COVID era by delivering cocktails and dabbling in online merchandise. But once restrictions begin to ease he hopes to experiment with “rock ’n’ roll cabaret”, where 20 people would pay a premium (say $100 each) to sit in his 260-capacity venue for dinner and a show (one band only; support acts are a COVID no-no). The performance would be streamed on the internet at a price (say, $10) and about 50 punters could pay a lower entry fee to be in the laneway outside and watch the gig on big screens. 

“In the past, the City of Melbourne and liquor licensing have always been about compliance, red tape and bureaucracy and it’s been very difficult to get a takeaway licence or have your red line (the area where you can serve alcohol) extended into a street, or get streets closed. That’s completely changed,” he says. “Now the attitude has been, ‘how can we help?’ ”.


Empty allyway with graffiti on the side walls.

Melbourne's famously graffitied Hosier Lane usually draws big crowds. Photo: Matt Harvey


The idea: Bespoke shopping

The expert: Tiffany Treloar, fashion designer and retailer

Encourage shoppers to support independent and local retailers by promoting safe business practices and a premium experience

This same kind of premium offering could work for some retail businesses too. Melbourne designer Tiffany Treloar, who has been making high-end women’s clothes since 1999 and usually employs six staff at her Flinders Lane store, plans to introduce COVID-compliant private showings as the city emerges from lockdown.

“This was a concept popular in the post-war years when women wanted to shop more privately and have help with fittings. We could do this, one on one (socially distanced and masked up) with our customers,” she says, adding that it’s a trend returning to smaller European cities, too. 

“Melbourne is going to come back amazingly,” she says, citing the city’s reinvention after the recession of the early 1990s with Federation Square, art galleries, theatres and restaurants. But she says making the city more enticing with more accessible and cheaper parking and cleaner streets will help spur things along. 

“As a city, we really need to think about that customer experience in the CBD. I love grungy but not grotty. We need our streets and our lanes to be cleaner. Better garbage collection, better street sweeping.”  

The idea: Bring back the artists 

The experts: Wendy Lasica, urban planner and cultural producer, and Dr Kate Shaw, urban geographer at the University of Melbourne

Landlords provide cheap rent so creative producers can occupy vacant buildings 

Going back to the 1980s, Melbourne’s CBD wasn’t always a vibrant hub of buzzing street cafes and cool laneways. Many factors contributed to the renaissance of the late ’80s and early ’90s, including liquor-licensing reforms, an explosion in small bars and great dining, an influx of students and other residents. But another significant factor were the many creatives – artists, designers, makers, event organisers and social entrepreneurs – who found spaces to live or work in the city thanks to cheap rent.  

Now with occupancy rates in the city’s office towers at 10 per cent, according to the Property Council of Australia, urban planner and cultural producer Wendy Lasica together with a group of cultural entrepreneurs has devised a plan to entice creative minds back into the city’s heart. Their Turning Circle Collective is focused on kickstarting a creative precinct in the block bounded by Collins, William, Flinders and Queen Streets.  

The block, which is home to the new Collins Arch development, including a park that extends out onto Market Street and a public amphitheatre, is surrounded by historical buildings such as the Immigration Museum (formerly Customs House). But there are also a number of ’60s and ’70s buildings that some might classify as ‘B-grade’. As more people work from home there is a chance these ‘B-grade’ buildings may fall vacant, reasons Wendy, who wants to engage with landlords and local and state governments to ease the way for recent art and design graduates and other creatives to move in.  

Wendy, who has an office in Chinatown but lives in South Yarra, says she’s been motivated by a sense of dismay walking through the empty CBD on her daily exercise. “Melbourne’s DNA, its sense of identity, is totally based on its cultural heritage. This is an opportunity to bring back cultural production into the city as opposed to just cultural consumption.”  

Dr Kate Shaw, an urban geographer at the University of Melbourne, says although the current tax system tends to discourage landlords from reducing rents, there are incentives the government could adopt, such as supplementary rates for vacant properties or charges on dilapidated buildings to allow for cheaper or even peppercorn rent arrangements. “It’s all doable,” she says. “It’s just a question of political will. But maybe, in a time of crisis, that political will will be unleashed.”