by Jack Lewis
“In the early 1970s Melbourne’s inner suburbs were being strangled by unchecked growth. Roads were clogged by vehicles, pollution was increasing, historic areas were being destroyed, and the poorer residents were being displaced.”
This was the opening paragraph of an invitation by the Hotham History Project and the North and West Melbourne Association (NWMA) to a talk given last year by Jack Lewis on the Citizens’ Action Plan for North and West Melbourne, widely known as the CAN Plan or the CAN Report.
The background to the planning problem
The CAN Report was written in response to an invitation by the state government to all interested parties to participate in the development of a long-term Strategy Plan for Melbourne in early 1973.
This was unusual because up until then resident associations, including the North Melbourne Association (NMA), the Carlton Association and the Kensington Social Action Group, had been fighting the Housing Commission of Victoria (HCV) over its planning policies.
These involved compulsory acquisition of private property and bulldozing of historic buildings, which the HCV described as ‘slum clearance’, in order to replace them with ‘modern estates’ with multistorey towers and walk-up flats made of a far stronger but visually dull material — reinforced concrete — to house Melbourne’s growing population.
In doing this they were also destroying local communities and creating ugly monuments that still dominate the skylines of North Melbourne, Flemington, Carlton, Collingwood, Fitzroy, Richmond, Prahran and South Melbourne. Displaced residents were forced to live high above the ground away from their private gardens and look down on concrete car parks.
At the same time the older building stock was being reassessed by the general public. This included academics who preferred to live close to institutions and migrants who were accustomed to small allotments within close-knit communities. They found the terrace houses and cottages could be easily improved to suit their needs.
The City of Melbourne Strategy Plan
The Strategy Plan was the brainchild of Rupert ‘Dick’ Hamer, the new premier of the Victorian state government, who had replaced the abrasive and despotic Henry Bolte on his retirement in late 1972. Hamer was a ‘small-L’ Liberal who wisely sought to avoid the confrontation that had occurred whenever building renewal was mentioned.
He pressured the Melbourne City Council into agreeing to employ a town planning consortium called Interplan Pty Ltd led by an astute Melbourne architect/planner named Peter McIntyre. Peter’s architectural firm had already designed two multistorey tower blocks in Nicholson Street, Carlton, and had worked well with Hamer when he was minister for local government.
Most associations were cautious about the Interplan invitation, but the NMA, led by Maurie Crow, attended the first meeting and decided to galvanise local support with the help of Maurie’s dynamic wife, Ruth, to produce a report that would show the government how to work with the community for the benefit of all.
Interplan had produced a clever double-sided poster titled Tentative Goals, Objectives and Policies inviting a response to ‘four possible futures’ for Melbourne: maximum centralised growth; proportional growth; specialised growth; and maximum decentralised growth. The policies for each option were explained under six headings: work and employment; transport; entertainment, recreation and culture; housing; public services; and environment.
The respondents were required to choose which option they preferred and the answers would determine the design of the plan.
The CAN Plan team
Maurie Crow, a tall, quiet, unassuming, bespectacled lawyer in his late 50s who worked for the Clerks’ Union, and Ruth, an extremely effective organiser, lived in a unit in the Hotham Gardens Estate. They were socialists and members of the Communist Party and thus acutely aware of the misuse of power by the privileged. They co-opted young professionals, artists, workers, students and anyone interested in the local community to become involved in any way they could.
Participants included Jack Lewis, a self-employed architect and university tutor, who helped Maurie develop the concepts of the report on his kitchen table several times a week and produced graphs, maps and sketches; and Dr Peter Milner, a mechanical and electrical engineer and lecturer at Melbourne University, who undertook traffic surveys and devised the staged transport plan in his Curzon Street unit.
Others produced ink drawings and the attractive green graphic on the report’s cover, distributed documents and acted as helpers. Meanwhile Ruth typed the ever-changing drafts until the final 105-page document was ready for printing in August. It was issued in October. The report was an instant success, with copies being ordered by action groups, academics and local councils all over Australia.
To the surprise of the CAN Plan team and the NMA, Interplan responded positively to the report. It invited Maurie Crow to attend further meetings and indicated it would adopt some of the suggestions, integrating them with its own ideas.
Ruth and Marie Crow, the drivers of the CAN Report
The CAN concept
The basic philosophy behind the CAN Plan was simple. Human values were the most important. All members of the community had to be treated equally irrespective of age, gender, nationality, ability, religion and race.
Neighbourhood activity areas had to be protected and easily accessible to all by foot and by public transport without undue disruption by vehicular traffic. Vehicles that were not directly involved with activities within the area were to be directed around the perimeter on major roads. Roads within the area were to be made discontinuous to discourage through traffic.
The general building stock was to be kept intact while new development was allowed only in Melbourne’s CBD, or close to public transport stations, or on undeveloped or underutilised land. Mixed uses were permitted where the uses were compatible. All buildings of historic significance were to be protected. Renovation and sensitive redevelopment of existing buildings of all types (houses, shops, factories etcetera) was favoured over their demolition and replacement.
Height limits were to be established to ensure the scale of development was in keeping with surrounding buildings. The natural environment was also to be protected and enhanced.
These principles were then applied to North and West Melbourne. Three main neighbourhood activity areas were identified: the town hall centre in Errol Street, the Melrose Street ‘village’ and the Huntingfield centre at the corner of Abbotsford and O’Shanassy streets. Each was to have upgraded communal facilities. Schools and kindergartens were to be located away from roads with heavy traffic.
Underutilised land was identified where more intensive development could occur. On larger tracts, high-density multistoreyed residential units could be built. Heavier industrial uses could be located in certain areas near roads but away from residential areas. Plans showed the proposed road network.
The same was done with areas and infrastructure that adjoined the North and West Melbourne area and influenced it. These included the Melbourne CBD, the transport system with its railyards, nearby suburbs such as Parkville and Carlton containing educational, health and research institutions, the Moonee Ponds Creek, Royal Park and sporting facilities.
When the second Interplan City of Melbourne Strategy Plan double-sided brochure appeared under the title Concept for Final Goals and Action Plans, Maurie Crow was disturbed because it misunderstood some of the basic CAN concepts. He rapidly produced a 20-page document titled CAN’s Counter-Proposal to Interplan.
This spelt out: “Proposals which CAN endorse”, “Proposals which CAN reject”, “A more human solution to problems posed by Interplan” and “CAN’s proposal summarised”. It offered specific solutions concerning the ‘compact CBD’, mixed-use area, housing and preservation, and neighbourhood activity centres and traffic, to achieve a more sensitive plan.
Despite the perceived flaws in the Interplan brochure, at the end of this document Maurie generously wrote:
“Finally, despite the differences between CAN and Interplan, one significant contribution that the Interplan team has made to planning in general, has been the persistent way in which they have encouraged participation in planning by the public at different levels … a somewhat novel experience in Melbourne …
“Thanks are extended to officers of Interplan for their courtesy and for unfailingly making themselves available for meetings and discussions whenever requested.”
It took a year for the massive 356-page final MCC Strategy Plan Report to be completed and published.
In the following decade most of the policies the Strategy Plan recommended were implemented by the state government and Melbourne City Council. These included: continuing the process of consolidating major development in the CBD; permitting lower levels of development in areas where public transport was excellent; the creation of a city square; the creation of the Bourke Street Mall; and the eventual covering of part of the railway yards, allowing for the construction of Federation Square.
Other projects that augmented the strategy were the completion of the underground railway loop and the construction of the Ring Road, which encouraged industries to move away from the inner area. Vacant shells of industrial buildings thus became available for apartment development in the mixed-use areas
The relevance today
Some of the policies of the Strategy Plan are still relevant but its intentions have been seriously compromised. This change began with the Kennett-led Liberal state government in the early 1990s and the creation of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) to resolve disputes between developers and those affected.
The State Government and the Melbourne City Council have lost the will to provide and enforce adequate planning controls in terms of both quantity and quality. Enormous projects with substandard accommodation are being erected without consideration of those directly affected (potential occupants or adjoining owners) or the general good of the community (inadequate parking, increased traffic, insufficient public open space and so on).
Developers lodge ambitious proposals in the expectation that they will be pruned. This particularly applies to building heights, where set limits are commonly grossly exceeded where they exist. Greedy developers are represented by barristers at VCAT, which individuals and community groups like the NWMA cannot afford. This is unfair and undemocratic.
As for community participation, it barely exists. Government departments are secretive despite laws that require freedom of information. Unaware citizens attending any VCAT session, council planning meeting or NWMA meeting will be shocked and depressed to learn what is occurring.
On the local community level the scene is more optimistic. There is hope that the Errol Street shopping precinct will eventually be improved. The recent NWMA survey clearly indicated that residents, shopkeepers, workers and visitors wanted trees in the street, safer tram stops for the disabled, a public toilet catering for both sexes, and traffic signs and other measures to control speeding vehicles.
These are relatively easy to implement compared to the planning issues that require more urgent and meaningful attention. The fact is that our government representatives at all levels have let us down. If the situation could be improved in the 1970s, surely it can be tackled now.
- The history of community participation in Melbourne planning is described in Trendyville: the battle for Australia’s inner cities (2014), by Renate Howe, David Nichols and Graeme Davison.
- The CAN Report and other documents written by Maurie and Ruth Crow are available in the Crow Collection at Victoria University in Footscray.
- A memorial plaque dedicated to the work of Maurie (1915–1988) and Ruth Crow (1916–1999) was unveiled in the Royal Park Australian Native Garden on 16 September 2000. It states: “Activists in social and environmental planning. They inspired, guided and encouraged our communities in seeking to make a better world.”
- The main hall at the Melbourne Arts Centre is dedicated to former Liberal state premier Rupert Hamer.