A book of essays released late last year as a tribute to a planning and transport scholar, the late Melbourne-based Dr Paul Mees, could not have been better timed, according to Matt Novacevski.

What kind of city do we want? It’s a question almost every resident in every city around the world will have an answer to. By dint of this, everyone has an interest in town planning, something to say about it and the capacity to learn more about it. What if we could channel these insights and views to help build better cities?

In a democratic society, this question should be constantly at the forefront of civic life everywhere. For many reasons, it is particularly prominent now in Melbourne.

Melburnians more than many might speak endearingly of “their” city and yet, as Shane Green wrote in The Age in December 2013, there is a “disconnect between those who are seeking to shape the city and the people to which it belongs”.

Late in 2014, a book of essays was released on Melbourne University Press in tribute to the late (Melburnian and world-renowned) planning and transport scholar Dr Paul Mees OAM entitled The Public City: Essays in Honour of Paul Mees. It is hard to think of a more topical theme for a book at this time.

We might understand the idea of the “public city” intuitively because we live in cities, spend lots of time in shared spaces and live in a democratic society. Melburnians think of it when walking with fellow footy fans to the “G” (Melbourne Cricket Ground) or meeting friends for coffee, sharing a crowded train carriage or dropping the kids to school. It also follows that the public city is one where citizens have a say in its future.

This is where things get tricky. Over the last 18 months, there has been lots of evidence for Melburnians to doubt how public their city actually is. The well-documented secrecy around the East-West Link project, urban renewal and rezoning in Fisherman’s Bend, the saga around the future of heritage buildings like the Palace Theatre and the memories they hold, or commentary on the towers sprouting around Melbourne’s CBD all raise questions on public involvement in shaping our city.

The main attempt of government to ask what city we might want has been city-wide planning strategies, like the previous government’s Plan Melbourne. The idea of an overarching plan for a city is a noble one, but recent local attempts have proven problematic.

Plan Melbourne started with enthusiasm. A consultation process yielded hundreds of submissions through various forums as the public engaged in the question of its city’s future, before the chair of the Ministerial Advisory Committee resigned and concerns were raised as to how, if at all, the public engagement process shaped the document. This will no doubt be familiar to anyone who has taken a passing interest in Victorian politics and is explored at length in The Public City.

The danger of these events is they discourage people from putting in the effort to get involved in planning processes. What’s the point of talking about the kind of city we want if there’s no action, or we are not listened to? Why put in the effort to have my say when they (a term with wide application) will just do what they want anyway? When these questions become the norm, the erosion of the public city becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

People rightly get wary of invitations to be involved in “conversations” if big decisions are seen to be made elsewhere. And yet, to remain relevant to its citizens, a city must inherently be public – with public places, services, movement networks and yes, public conversations that influence a city’s future.

So, what to do? The challenge of the public city is one for planners, governments and the governed. There are examples of how this can be taken up. Essays in The Public City explore processes such as those used in Vancouver, where Mees himself found the public deliberation in planning required policymakers to do more to justify policies. Public deliberation is cast not as the practice of a populist city, but a public city based on deliberation and evidence-based policymaking.

Of course, the broad question on the city we want to be in the future feeds into lots of smaller questions at different scales – from design guidelines that will shape what the shopping centre down the road looks like, to the route of a rail line, to the questions of where and how our city will grow in future. These questions at smaller scales are many and, together, take on great importance in shaping our future cities.

This further illustrates the complexity of deliberation that fosters a true public city for governments and communities. There are significant investments of time, money and intellectual capital on all sides. A public city needs imaginative and talented planners, an open government and an informed and interested public that are all willing and able to engage in deliberation. This underlines the links between urban planning and politics, and in Melbourne many eyes are on how the recently elected Andrews government approaches this portfolio.

Matt Novacevski
Matt Novacevski

They and other governments would do well to keep in mind that while working towards a public city demands big investments upfront, it can mean even bigger dividends down the track. It’s ambitious, but what are the alternatives if we want to be talking about Melbourne as “the world’s most liveable city” in the future?

The Public City says much about how this might be achieved. In its closing pages, the book’s editors remind us that a truly public city is based on “unambiguous (albeit diverse) public interest acting as the foundation to a decent and sustainable city”.

Perhaps Melbourne’s first step is in reframing our urban debates. Perhaps when we see our city as starting with people – rather than tunnels, towers, jobs, traffic or problems that need to be fixed – our city might be a little more public.

Matt Novacevski is a writer and communications professional who is completing a master in planning at Deakin University.

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