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A Land Use Planning Lesson from the Aussies

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to travel to Melbourne for a Fulbright dinner to congratulate the 2010 Australians selected for Fulbright Scholarships to the US, and also as part of the celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the Australian-American Fulbright Commission. The dinner was lovely, and it was really great to get to meet some of the other Fulbright Scholars, both from the US and from Australia.

I also really enjoyed visiting Melbourne. We were fortunate enough while we were there to go up to the top of the Eureka Tower. From up there, you can see how beautiful the city is, but mostly, you can really see that the city is cleverly designed and planned (though suburban sprawl is definitely an issue). One of the coolest things about Melbourne is that there are pedestrian bridges to all of the sporting venues, which means there are fewer people trying to drive their cars right up to the entrance. I don’t know if Aussies are more willing to leave their car behind because they don’t have a strong tail-gating tradition, but I have to say it seems immanently sensible to increase pedestrian access and decrease automobile access to sporting venues.

The other extremely sensible thing that Melbourne has done is to turn the city towards the river, rather than putting its back to it. The Yarra, which people often refer to as the river that flows upside down since the surface looks so brown and muddy, isn’t the most beautiful of rivers. However, it’s still a lovely gathering place, and really makes for a great social place with beautiful views of the city. In fact, I was often reminded of London during our trip to Melbourne, with modern buildings, interesting bridges, and even their own version of the London Eye called the Southern Star Observation Wheel. Unfortunately, some structural difficulties have closed the wheel until further notice. I also thought the building in Federation Square looked surprisingly similar to Scotland’s new Parliament building, which strongly reminded me of Gaudi’s Barcelona.

We learned from our excellent tour guide that Melbourne had recently decided to pay more attention to the river, and the results clearly demonstrate the wisdom of this plan. I was probably more excited about this fact than most people because I love rivers, and getting cities to view their rivers as important assets rather than as sewers is definitely something we need more of in the US. It just makes sense economically and socially. Seeing how well it has worked for Melbourne was a sort of vindication for me, and also brought back fond memories of Land Use Regulation this past fall. I also realized that despite the issues of sprawl and traffic in Melbourne, most American cities could really learn a lot from Melbourne’s land use decisions and city planning.

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