Laneways have become synonymous with Melbourne’s CBD layout, offering hideaways from the busy streets and boasting eclectic shopping and dining options. The success of this distinctly Melbourne feature has begun to bleed into other cities though, so we ask: why are other cities getting the Melbourne treatment?
We look first to the city that started Australia’s trend toward developing laneways. Melbourne’s laneways began as rear access to properties with frontage on the main streets, with many later being roofed as ‘arcades’ to provide refuge from inclement weather and crowds.
Melbourne laneways are well-known for a rich art culture, one-off boutiques, unique galleries, tiny cafés and hidden bars. Many of the lanes date to the Victorian era, and in some parts of the city, particularly the Little Lonsdale area, they were associated with the city’s gold rush era slums.
Melbourne’s shopping arcades reached peak popularity in the Victorian era and the interwar years. It has only really been since the 1990’s though that the laneways have become gentrified and attracted considerable interest from around Australia and the world. The laneways have particularly found popularity as a result of notable works of urban art.
Arguably one of the best-known laneways is Degraves Street, which in the 1850s was the home of William Degraves’ steam flourmill. Today it is a mecca for Melbourne’s burgeoning coffee culture and is a hive of activity during lunch hour.
Degraves Street feeds into Centre Place which hosts a number of cafés sitting on top of one another and niche clothing stores, the size of shoeboxes. Adding to the vibrancy of the laneway is colourful street art with a distinctly Melbourne feel.
The epitome of Melbourne’s laneway culture is Hardware Lane, which features cobbled stones and café umbrellas that complement the alfresco dining spaces. Adding the to atmosphere is classic architecture, including Dynon’s Building. Hardware Lane was built in the 1920s on land formerly occupied by Kirk’s Horse Bazaar.
The laneways have enjoyed such popularity because they have formed with the evolution of the city and have well and truly become engrained. This has been recognised, with the recent announcement by Victoria’s Planning Minister Matthew Guy announcing that the city has 18 new laneways in the pipeline.
“The new laneways as well as existing laneways are going to be unique tourist attractions to Melbourne – new bars, restaurants, cafés but also just the experience of coming down them,” Mr Guy said.
The laneway boom in Melbourne really took flight in the mid-1990s recession, with young entrepreneurs taking advantage of cheap rentals and bringing with them a mix of cultures. The shift towards laneway culture owes considerably to a change in liquor laws by then-Premier Jeff Kennett. With the construction of Crown Casino, came a need to spread the risk of operating under a single liquor licence, so a new “small bar” licence was created.
Prior to the changes, it was necessary for a bar to serve food in order to serve alcohol, which drove up overhead costs, pricing out a number of smaller independent entrepreneurs.
Architect Craig Allchin of Six Degrees Architects told Broadsheet Melbourne that during the mid-1980s, Melbourne’s city centre was basically empty outside of business hours, with suburban malls luring retail out of the city and few people living in the central urban areas. It was put forward by state government strategists that specialist one-off stores servicing the while metropolitan population were important for the life of the city.
“The real strength in the policy was that the state government took a long-term view, setting requirements for a 30 per cent active frontage on all new-build or major renovation projects in the retail core of the city,” said Mr Allchin.
“The City of Melbourne worked with this state requirement and included another regulation: to maintain a street edge in order to avoid large paved plazas that would disconnect the building from pedestrians on the street.
“The constraints on street frontages also tended to limit the size of stores, keeping them relatively small. With growing success, the city council increased active frontage requirements first to 50 per cent, then to 80 per cent.
“Over the 30-year timeframe this has increased the supply of small-scale retail spaces, ensuring rents have remained reasonably low, and the streets have come alive with a diversity of businesses.”
Melbourne’s major urban renewal in the late 20th century has presented excellent opportunities for development and urban growth. Small businesses have become the lifeblood of Melbourne as they give the city the unique character that it’s renowned for.
The small-scale retail spaces have provided unique opportunities to develop, and have encouraged the growth of independent stores that benefit from the energy of Melbourne’s laneways. The reinvigoration via this strategy has made inner-city Melbourne a retail paradise as well as a dining and bar mecca.
Sydney launched a laneway revitalisation program in 2008, with an initial $10 million cash injection in order to give the city an inner-Melbourne feel while simultaneously catering for the expected population increase.
Sydney saw legislative changes that allowed the operation of “small-bars” in order to establish the new type of consumer culture and fine-grain typology already seen in Melbourne.
Mr Allchin told Broadsheet Melbourne that Sydney historically has not has a large laneway system, due to its different urban morphology to Melbourne.
“Many of the laneways it did have were sold off to developers in the 1960s. The council originally wanted to establish bars in lanes, just like Melbourne,” said Mr Allchin.
“We advised against this because there weren’t many lanes, and those that were there didn’t have many empty shops. Sydney is a very different city to Melbourne economically – there are very few empty spaces, and therefore rents are high, making it harder to find a cheap location.
“Sydney has an extraordinary underground pedestrian network connected to the underground train stations around the city, which is Sydney’s equivalent in terms of a movement system to Melbourne’s lanes.
Over the past 6 years, there has been major infrastructure in 9 of Sydney’s laneways, with another 4 to be completed by early 2015.
The laneway regeneration program utilises public art displays to recast the once dark, dirty and underused thoroughfares into welcoming public spaces.
Footpaths are being widened and LED lights installed in Tank Stream Way, Abercrombie Lane and Bridge Lane to ensure the busy thoroughfares are an enjoyable place for pedestrians to explore.
Lord Mayor Clover Moore said the upgrades were part of an ongoing program to improve laneways across the city centre.
“We want to ensure that the laneways of Sydney’s heart are interesting and engaging places,” said the Lord Mayor.
“Great public spaces, including our laneways, encourage Sydneysiders to get out and explore their city. They also sustain businesses that rely on passing trade.”
These three laneways already form a lively quarter of busy cafes, restaurants among other businesses. There is more than meets the eye though; visitors and local workers may be unaware of the interesting past of this part of the city.
The Tank Stream Way covers Australia’s first significant water source and as the colony developed the surrounding laneways, became part of a busy commercial district.
“These laneways are cradles of our city’s history – both the Gadigal people’s traditional lands and the colony’s source of survival in its earliest days. Improvement to these laneways will include features that highlight their past so that people will be able to soak up that heritage,” said the Lord Mayor.
The laneway’s footpaths are to be embedded with patterns evoking the stream along with bronze artefacts of early street trade recalling old illustrations, advertisements and posters. An archway sign above Abercrombie Lane is to mark the flow of the stream below.
Some of the laneways boast art installations that were intended to be semi-permanent, however have become permanent due to their considerable popularity. Most notably, Angel Place plays host to the award-winning ‘Forgotten Songs’.
Today, an average of 4,316 visitors pass through Angel Place everyday, doubling the number from 2007. Along with the birdcage artwork, the City introduced morning-only vehicle access, as well as extensive new paving and lighting.
The revitalisation program has also enabled major infrastructure works to be undertaken in Ash Street, Angel Place, Bulletin Place and Albion Lane, including new paving, lighting and art installations. New footpath edging supports outdoor dining in York Lane, and a section of Market Row was closed to traffic, improving pedestrian amenities and supporting outdoor dining.
“The city’s laneway revitalisation program is an important and integral part of the city, encouraging new small businesses to be established and introducing more people to the city. It has taken the undesirable and made it highly desirable, and that is a terrific success,” said the Lord Mayor.
Due to the differences in the cities, the Sydney approach isn’t the same as Melbourne’s. As opposed to encouraging narrow laneways with cobbled stones, spilling cafés and tiny stores, Sydney has widened its laneways and increased pedestrian-friendly strategies. In addition, major public artworks were commissioned to add life.
The Sydney approach is appropriate to the city though and adopts the city’s unabashed opulence and grandeur in order to deliver Sydneysiders with something that they can truly embrace. It goes to show that a city should play to its strengths.
Brisbane launched its Vibrant Laneways as part of its City Centre Master Plan 2006, which is continued as an initiative of the City Centre Master Plan 2014.
The program was launched as a response to increasing numbers of residents and visitors in Brisbane, creating a complementary increase in the city’s public spaces, business opportunities and pedestrian routes. The program does this by identifying and rejuvenating ‘forgotten spaces’ and reintroducing them to the community in a way that is imaginative, fun and engaging.
The program kicked off with the refurbishment of Burnett Lane, Market Street and Jacob’s Ladder. Burnett Lane has been met with great success, with Brisbane City Councillor Amanda Cooper saying that pedestrian numbers have already doubled in Burnett Lane.
“We think this laneway is a wonderful place to get pedestrians moving through the space, we want to allow opportunities for businesses and for cultural events to happen in the laneway,” Cr. Cooper said.
“The initiative is taking a space that was a really unsafe, unpleasant environment – filled with rubbish bins and taking it to a whole new level.”
One of the earlier adapters of the Council’s Vibrant Laneways and Hidden Spaces project was Brett Roland, the owner of Brew on Burnett Lane, who believes that the initial investment has paid off. He says that the $10.65 million invested into the laneways project in 2009 is largely responsible for creating an environment that is conducive to flourishing business.
Another factor that has assisted in the success of the program are the cuts to licence fees for small bars by the Queensland State government. Although, Mr Roland commented that the cap of 60 patrons should be pushed to 80 to really ensure the success of the laneway rejuvenation.
“I’d say laneway culture is alive and well and growing, but there is a long way to go if you make that invariable comparison to Melbourne, for example,” said Mr Roland.
“Look at Burnett Lane alone; you’ve got us, Super Whatnot, Survey Co bistro opening soon, the German Sausage Hut. And then there’s the [Fortitude] Valley laneways; Flamingo and QMusic are making great use of space on Winn Street.
“And while most of our business comes from the corporate city crowd who know we’re here and seek us out during the week, we’re now open on Saturdays because there’s been growing demand – shoppers are more inclined to venture down our line and discover what we do.”
Brisbane has found the foray into laneway culture to be a bit of an uphill battle, with rental costs being a particular issue in addition to being tucked away out of site.
Russell Mole runs Bagel Nook, which is tucked into Gresham Lane, a laneway that was created as part of a redevelopment of the NAB building on Creek Street. The location has meant considerably less foot traffic than what main street frontage would draw, while rent is still a considerable $1,000 per week.
“Laneway business is still challenging in Brisbane and it will be until people get used to seeking out destinations,” Mr Mole says.
“If we did it all over again, I’m not sure we’d pick a laneway spot. It’ll probably grow in time, but at the moment, it’s pretty 50/50.”
Mr Moles also expressed concern about Brisbane’s weather, which can be a hindrance for laneway businesses that are often focused outside. Brisbane’s dichotomous weather of either very wet or very bright sun can discourage corporates from venturing outside spacious air-conditioned main street bars and cafés.
Mr Roland says though that sipping coffee in what he describes as “grimy, authentically Melbourne-style” backstreets isn’t for everybody, and thanks to a unique characteristic of Brisbane’s laneway development, there is a shift away from this style of laneway culture.
Similarly to Sydney’s laneways, Brisbane has had a considerable amount of third party input, particularly from Brisbane City Council. This raises the question of whether laneway development should be a natural or assisted process. Melbourne’s laneway labyrinth developed over a number of years, while Brisbane’s have been a far more conscious re-purposing of old service streets.
Lord Mayor Graham Quirk refutes that a slightly more artificial approach is a hindrance to the growth and prosperity of laneway culture. The Lord Mayor points to the notion that such a change in attitude was in fact the core goal of the project, which seeks to unlock the potential tucked away in restrictive town plans.
“The Burnett Lane transformation is an example of the success of such a project, having seen thousands of visitors and workers in the CBD take in what is a unique cultural and social experience in Brisbane,” the Lord Mayor said.
Naturally, this was met with disagreement from the would-be ALP lord mayor Ray Smith who thinks that local government should be “less dictator, more facilitator”, with too much third party involvement stymieing the creativity needed for a “truly vibrant laneway culture”.
“I’m strongly in favour of developing our laneways but it should be a process that occurs naturally, without the prescriptive influence of council,” Mr Smith says.
“I’d like to leave the growth of the character of our laneways up to the small businesses themselves – they should be able to set the terms; it’s our role to support them.”
Mr Roland says that the success of Brisbane’s laneway culture lies in the hands of the city’s residents.
“It’s not easy, and it does take people with a vision to follow through with the activation of these spaces, and they need people with the right attitude to support them,” Mr Roland says.
“What does get on people’s nerves are the constant comparisons to Melbourne – we don’t want to be Melbourne, we want to have our own thing going on up here.”