Opportunistic Urban Design

Sep 25, 2012
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Designer

Above: Ponyfish Island, a pop-up bar attached to the footbridge over the Yarra along Melbourne’s Southbank. Design by Moth Design, photo by Albert Comper

The giveaway is in the title: Opportunistic Urban Design. I shouldn’t have been surprised that the tone of the 2012 International Urban Design Conference was significantly more upbeat and forward thinking than last year. While last year’s theme, resilience, was reminiscent of a steady, reliable carthorse, this year’s focus took the form of a prancing thoroughbred.

Proceedings commenced this year with an engaging presentation on the High Line project by Alexandros Washburn, Urban Design Director at New York City’s Planning Department. Two men, unconnected to the built environment profession, began a project to save this above-ground, disused train line from demolition and turn it into an urban park. The project quickly grew legs of its own, and attracted attention from different professions as well as the City of New York. More happened too, including the transferral of development rights from the notional space above the High Line to areas further out, leading to a plethora of development alongside the refurbishment of the line – a development equivalent to the Nash Equilibrium.

Sharing a brief history of development in New York City, Washburn paid homage to the three people that he believes have made the biggest impact on the city: Frederick Law Olmsted, Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Imagining how each might have viewed the High Line development, Washburn proposed that we combine the naturalism of Olsted, the quantity of Moses and the quality of Jacobs in our urban design approach.

The High Line in New York City, by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Photo by Iwan Baan, courtesy The High Line.


Marcus Westbury, founder of Renew Newcastle, questioned the balance of software and hardware infrastructure in effective urban renewal projects, showing photographs of sleek new street furniture in front of rows of empty shops. Renew Newcastle’s business model brings together owners of empty buildings and creative enterprises in search of short-term opportunities to build their businesses. Thirty day licensing agreements allowed the tenants to develop their ideas, while, in return, they reinvigorated neglected areas of the city creating opportunity for prospective paying tenants. As Westbury described it, “decay creates decay, activity creates activity.”

LAB Architecture’s Donald Bates explored ideas of cross-pollination in his beautiful, albeit currently hypothetical, Birrarung Pools and B1– Veloway proposals for an urban swimming pool and cycle path at the underused Batman Park. Cross-pollination explores the utilisation of inflows and outflows between different buildings, and what can be recovered from the waste process. Bates referred to it as ‘SWOPA’ or  ‘Sustainable Whole of Precinct Approach,’ which, in this case, would utilise excess heat and water from the surrounding buildings – many of which currently collect rainwater, only to later empty it into stormwater drains. Offering a captivating vision of people swimming besides the river with the city as a backdrop, Bates acknowledged Melbourne’s history of developing cultural and sporting buildings that improve the city’s liveability.

This was not the first mention of ‘liveability’ over the course of the conference. Keynote speaker Andrew Tongue from Victoria’s Department of Planning and Community Development introduced the audience to Melbourne as “the most liveable city in the world,” while Dorte Ekelund of the Major Cities Unit deliberated on the relationship between liveability and a city’s ecological footprint – and the ongoing challenge of increasing the former while decreasing the latter.

The Docklands development proved a popular topic during the conference. Jackie Ross of Places Victoria noted that 74 per cent of ground floor facades in the area were inactive, and suggested that uses other than retail ought to be considered for these empty spaces in order to introduce a richer, more diverse urban environment. The application of a more creative approach to filling these spaces – adapting Westbury’s Renew model for the Docklands – would shift usage patterns to ensure the area remains populated outside office hours.

A year on from last year’s introduction, the Gold Coast Light Rail scheme was revisited, which has been boosted by the region’s successful bid for the 2018 Commonwealth Games – both of which are seen as generational developments for the area. Rather than building a host of new buildings for the Games, the council is instead focusing on refurbishing and adapting existing buildings.

The redeveloped Hamer Hall, designed by Roy Grounds and renovated by ARM Architects. Photo by Jo Leeder


A delightful boat tour down the Yarra concluded the conference, with a walk though the ongoing refurbishment of the Olympic Park through to the newly renovated Hamer Hall – an impressive landmark on the Yarra’s southern edge. Roy Grounds’ building, completed in 1982 before the rest of the Southbank district had been developed, has now been opened up to its surroundings – creating a greater level of permeability between the hall and the riverside promenade.

Ponyfish Island, a floating bar attached to one of the footbridges over the Yarra River in Melbourne’s CBD. Design by Moth Design, photo by Albert Comper


The tour continued and passed Ponyfish Island – a neat little bar attached to a bridge pillar beneath a pedestrian footbridge. As I watched the customers basking in the reflected sunlight from the Yarra, it brought to mind several snippets of the talks from the previous two days: that the scale of opportunistic development is multitudinous, that often the window of opportunity is small and fleeting, and, that finally, imagination can be just as important as infrastructure.


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