Is Docklands really that bad?

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Introduction

After a decade away, I found Melbourne’s new but much maligned Docklands to be an alien in Melbourne. It still has challenges to adapt, and challenges in perception. It is an architectural ‘new Australian’ as I argued when this was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald here and also in The Age, both in March in 2010.

Is Docklands that bad?

When I left Melbourne some years ago Docklands was an idea not a reality. Back then urban living was a new idea being tested in Melbourne. Familiar in other higher density cities, apartment living in Melbourne was not the norm.
Back then I wondered how docklands would fit into ‘Melbourne the city of villages’. Would it work or would the elephant remain a glorious white?
Now that I have returned home to Melbourne I have set out to test Docklands by taking an apartment. I want to know if the apartment lifestyle fits in Melbourne’s city of villages and given our city of villages, would I want an apartment lifestyle.
So what is the verdict?
The first thing to note is the absence of children.
Most Melbournians do not bring families up in apartment blocks. There are some public housing exceptions, and exceptions in some inner urban areas in small art-deco style blocks like one I spent some of my school years in. However, generally, Melbournians aspire to a house with at least some garden when they think to have children.
Given the price range of apartments in docklands, starting from a minimum of $500,000 or more for a small two bedroom place, those that can afford Docklands as a destination would also have several suburban housing options within the same price bracket.
The result – an absence of children. Perhaps this is why there is no school in Docklands.
So who would live in Docklands given Melbourne’s culture?
The answer seems to be visitors and students, temporary contractors, some empty nesters and some committed Dual-Income-No-Kids (DINKIES). None that I have spoken to perceive Docklands to be their lifetime habitation. Docklands is no Hawthorn, Albert Park, Craigieburn or others.
Is this a bad thing? 
Expecting Docklands to be a ‘community’ or village like other areas of Melbourne seems to me to be unreasonable due to the demographics. Holding it to the standard of our village suburbs therefore is not fair. 
That docklands is not a village, in the Melbourne sense, is not necessarily a bad thing. As our city grows and global workforces become more mobile, and as jobs become more temporary, having an urban area designed for this fluid market is not a bad thing – it is just a different thing.
This leads me to the second issue of accessibility. Many people have told me that there is an accessibility problem with the docklands. I am struggling to see why they say this.
Where I live in docklands is five minutes walk from the Clarendon Street shops. There are CBD trams services in the heart of Docklands, and there is a direct tram link to the MCG. So why don’t people see it as accessible as it is?
Perhaps it is because we perceive Docklands in an east-west sense alone, not a north-south sense.
For me an after work walk and drink takes me south, over the footbridges and onto South Melbourne and up Clarendon Street. My view of Docklands is not just up into the CBD it is to the south as well.
Perhaps what Docklands has is a perception of access problem, not the reality of access problem. Perhaps many people see Flinders Street as a city loop connection, but forget Southern Cross Station.
Spencer Street seems to be a mental border, and potential integration into southern suburbs, and possibly one day into Footscray, has not been well enough made.
So while we may accept the demographics of Docklands as new, and can work on the accessibility issues, a third issue raises its head.
Surprisingly to me Docklands is windy – very windy. I don’t know why this is the case and one day I will button hole a weatherman in an elevator and ask. But the problem is not why it is windy, the problem is that it just IS.
How can we make a promenade area work, with outdoor cafes and pleasant walks, when the wind threatens to cool your coffee too fast, blow your napkin into your food and make conversation difficult? This will be an architectural challenge as, absent climate change, I don’t know how we can make the wind go away.
Docklands is no village, but that is not a bad thing. It is incredibly easy to live in, it makes access to a CBD workplace simple, it is but a short walk from many major attractions and it is one of the few places in Melbourne where you could live without owning a car.
It has accessibility issues and its windy nature is a challenge, yet, in a large city Docklands will service a segment of the population well.
In the end Docklands is different to the rest of Melbourne. However, rather than seeing it as a black sheep, or see it as the new kid in school we should pick on, let’s see it as the new comer to our culture for us to welcome and learn about. It is an architectural ‘new Australian’.
Let’s explore it’s difference and absorb what it has to offer. Like the new cultures and nationalities making a home in Melbourne, Docklands is like a new ethnic group that is now part of Melbourne. Explore it and embrace it, but don’t expect it to be something it can’t.

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