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Monday Melbourne: CXXXIII, July 2006
Russell Degnan

Almost sunrise, the Exhibition Building and the Museum, early morning. Taken June 2006

Melbourne 31st July, 2006 11:36:41   [#] [3 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CXXXII, July 2006
Russell Degnan

Exhibition Building, early morning. Taken June 2006

Melbourne 24th July, 2006 22:35:36   [#] [3 comments] 

The Train Carriage as Public Space
Russell Degnan

"He seemed to remember, or he retrospectively imagined, or he reconstructed, from films and books with the aid of a nostalgia as runny as old Camembert, a time when travellers crossing Europe by train would become acquaintances for the length of the journey. [...] Nowadays... yes, nowadays, the journey was too swift across this new European zollverein, the food was brought to you at your seats and no one smoked. The Death of the Compartment Train and its Effect Upon the Social Interaction of Travel."
Cross Channel - Julian Barnes

I had occasion to take a v-line service during the week, and was perhaps especially fortunate in that I got to travel on three different types of trains while doing so. Anybody who thinks I care exactly what type of train it was is sadly mistaken -- as are those of you who want to know how I got three trains on a return trip, who shall have to speculate. For what I want to talk about is the seating arrangements, which were, unfortunately, mostly the same.

The decline in compartment trains is pretty much a universal phenomenon, in that while a few rickety Italian trains still have them, I've not been on one in this state since the late 1990s. The decline in social interaction the quote alludes to is equally universal. I've not come close to experience the sort of shenanigans that accompanied a trip to Warnambool in a compartment train in any of the years since. Nowadays you are lucky to speak. Lucky even to look at another passenger.

And it has everything to do with the tendency of modern trains to face the vast majority of seats to the front.

It is not for this post to find out why, though I may return. I suspect it is related to a general wish many people have to travel facing forward, perhaps safety or economic reasons, and possibly, a designer fetish with air travel, where seats seemingly must face forward for landings and take-off.

However, I also think it is because designers are obsessed with individual comfort in a way that is naming them neglect a fundamental aspect of travel: a train is a public space.

It gets neglected because it is not obvious. A train, tram, or bus is primarily a device for moving people. And like our neglected streetscapes, which are perceived primarily as places for movement, and not interaction, the train suffers from a lack of public interaction to the extent that many people consider them unpleasant and unfriendly. And there is absolutely no reason why any piece of public space, be it a public park, a street, or a train carriage should be unpleasant, if some of the lessons of urban space use are absorbed.

Given quite a few urban designers don't seem to know anything about how people use public space, it should be no surprise that carriage designers don't either. However, there are two relative basic principles that tend to run through the work of both William H. Whyte and Jan Gehl, both encapsulated in the edge effect.

1. People want protection from their sides, so they feel comfortable. The first seats to fill up on a train will be at the window, and the more seats available at the edge of a space the better. Although they were principally done to increase standing room, and they never seem to be quite the right height, I like the rail seat-rests on trams because they let you stand/sit on the edge.

2. People want to be able to see other people. Seats that face each other, so you can talk to a friend are vastly superior to seats facing the same direction, and not just for tall freaks like me whose legs cramp up pressed against the back of another seat. People also sit at the ends of carriages, or in the door area so they can look out. Noone either sits, or stands in the aisle, exposed to others, and unable to look around.

I don't expect people to start conversations on trams and trains, any more than I expect people to start conversations with strangers in a public square. These principles run deeper, as they affect your general sense of enjoyment while retaining your personal space. Nor is this a call for a return to compartment carriages, which are, perhaps a little too intimate, but the train is a public space and should be designed with how people use (and should use) a public space in mind, by arranging the seats appropriately, and for preference, flexibly.

Many years ago I was asked to sit on several train seats to assess their comfort levels. It seemed pointless then, and it seems more pointless now, under travel conditions of great comfort but tedious boredom. Comfort on a train has no more relative importance than the comfort of your lounge room is to the enjoyment of that. I have yet to see a lounge room with a bunch of very comfortable couches facing a blank wall.

Urban Design 22nd July, 2006 21:17:37   [#] [1 comment] 

Monday Melbourne: CXXXI, July 2006
Russell Degnan

Parliament House and St. Patrick's Cathedral, early morning. Taken June 2006

Melbourne 17th July, 2006 13:08:01   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CXXX, July 2006
Russell Degnan

Federation Square, early morning. Taken June 2006

Melbourne 11th July, 2006 12:15:59   [#] [1 comment] 

Monday Melbourne: CXXIX, July 2006
Russell Degnan

Little Lonsdale Street, early morning. Taken June 2006

Melbourne 3rd July, 2006 20:58:39   [#] [1 comment] 

Docklands and the Imagination
Russell Degnan

Imagination was never in short supply when it came to the Docklands. Or rather, ideas were never in short supply: huge towers, stadiums, ferris wheels, movie studios, technology parks and even a multi-function polis. Yet, a few weeks ago, when the 10 year anniversary of the Docklands approached, and assessments were made, almost everyone derided it as stale, mono-cultural, and a disappointment.

Not that it is a complete disaster. And it is largely unfinished. Merely, that an area roughly the size of the CBD has been developed with barely a hundredth the diversity or spirit of its adjoining area. How is it, that an area so well connected, so primed for interesting development, became, essentially, several long row of multi-storey apartment blocks for singles, couples without children and gays, interspersed with over-priced restaurants and cafes for suburban tourists.

The easiest excuse is to say Docklands needs more time:

"[Mark Birrell] says the Hoddle Grid, parceled up and sold off in large chunks like Docklands, was "patchy" for 70 years. "If you'd measured the success of the CBD 30 years into its development, you would have said: 'What's this, a railway station up one end grand as hell and the Treasury Building down the other end looking like something out of Paris. Then you've got tents and dirt paths in between?' ""

It might seem, in light of previous articles and what I am about to say, that I am harping on the historical inaccuracies of ill-informed politicians for no reason. But different elements of this statement are symptomatic of why Docklands is not at all what it could be.

"Large lots" is probably the Docklands most obvious weakness. The CBD had largish lots, its true (quarter acre), but the Docklands has huge lots, having split a similarly large areas into just seven precincts and 64 lots. And whereas the CBD quickly realised when the lots were too big and split them into dozens (sometimes far too many) allotments where every conceivable business or residence could find a place, the Docklands lots are controlled from above, each ending up one next to the other.

The problem with this is neatly summarised by William Blaze:

"The whole is more than the sum of itís parts because the whole includes the relations between the parts."

The interactions between the different elements of the CBD are numerous and difficult to trace, as they are throughout much of the (mostly unplanned) inner suburbs. The interactions between the elements of the Docklands are simple and boring; the Docklands, despite the art, the occasionally interesting modern architecture, and the well laid out streets, is simple and boring. And no developer has ever shown that they are capable of designing complexity, no matter how feted they are.

This is also why "Patchy" is a ridiculous way to describe a city. The CBD is patchy now; all cities are. An imaginative city, like any imaginative enterprise will be marked by failure, by poor buildings and streets as well as good. This is because they grow in fits and starts, as the commentators well know, but it is also because they are designed to grow. It remains to be seen whether the Docklands is designed to grow. The land is owned by big companies, and body corporates. Changing things in the Docklands will be very difficult. The planning legislation and ownership pattern will mitigate against changing anything in the Docklands.

If it can be changed at all. History might suggest otherwise.

Mark Birrell's ignorance of early Melbourne history, and more importantly, how the community of Melbourne and its urban form interact are perhaps his greatest sins, and moreover, the sins of so many in planning.

His assessment of Melbourne 30 years after settlement is palpably false: the Old Treasury building existed alright, but no "grand" railway station existed at "one end" until 2006, or even somewhere towards the centre until 1905. Nor were there any tents in 1865. Partly because early land sales had a building requirement on them, partly because the Melbourne Building Act of 1849 saw a rapid increase in quality buildings built, and partly because a free market in land during the population boom of the gold rush wouldn't allow such a gross waste of land (unlike today's heavily controlled and under-built efforts). I looked at dozens of pictures to check this, and there is no sign of a tent anywhere, nor, for that matter dirt streets (although the quality was middling); they having been macadamised in the mid-1850s.

Nor should tents be a problem. A tent next to a dirt path is a perfectly acceptable temporary use of the land, because it puts people onto it, creates links to surrounding uses, and provides for further growth. The newly incorporated City of Melbourne didn't concern itself with grand plans and visions of the future. It focused (often badly, but well enough) on the things it could change, the streets, the basic quality of the buildings, and their ability to interact. As Miles Lewis noted in his history of Melbourne, by the early 1840s (within 10 years of founding you'll note), the basic patterns of CBD usage were in place:

"mercantile and warehousing activity areas near the Pool and the wharves, banking in central Collins Street, the retailing heart between Swanston and Elizabeth Streets, the medical precinct in the vicinity of Dr. Richard Howitt's House in Collins Street East and so on."

Docklands may never recover from its own patterns of activity, because changing them is so extraordinary difficult. And it is the fault, not of developers, but entirely of governments who rescinded their responsibility towards the basic elements of city form in favour of grandiose visions.

The first, and most vital aspect of the Docklands should have been cleaning the land for residential and commercial use. The government should have taken on the risk here, unless they believed the land to be irrevocably doomed, in which case why are they bothering? A levy could easily have been applied on future users to pay for it. Instead the risk and the cleaning was left to developers with the inevitable small target approach.

The second should have been the staged development of Docklands, connecting small lots to the CBD, including, as far as possible, the disappearance of the railway tracks that have, for so long, prevented growth in that direction. Instead, they released the land in a big batch, and built a stadium, a grand station, and a couple of unappealing bridges. Given the efort put into it, the connection between the two areas is suprisingly good.

The planners who imagined the replacement of derelict docks and warehouses by a socially inclusive, diverse and vibrant area were well intentioned, but where and when has that ever been designed?. Jane Jacobs once claimed that cities "are natural generators of diversity and prolific incubators of new enterprises and ideas of all kinds". They are, and the failure of Docklands to inspire is the fault of planners who removed any chance for people to do the inspiring.

Planning 3rd July, 2006 20:57:09   [#] [5 comments] 


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