Working paper

The highway of civilisation and common sense: street regulation and the transformation of social space in 19th and early 20th century Melbourne

URP Working Paper No. 49
Roads Open spaces Land use Car industry Public spaces Cars suburbs Melbourne

The introduction of the automobile at the turn of the century and the swift regulatory phase that ensued marked the line between two discrete eras of the city before and after the car conquered the street. The urban morphology of the twentieth-century city is notable for the atomisation of space into more and more discrete units. The shopping mall, the department store and the office block have subsumed many of the activities once the domain of the street. The interstitial space between home, workplace and shop was annihilated by the growth of dormitory suburbs and the cult of privacy. By 1920, rush hour at Flinders Street Railway Station was a hallowed institution of urban life , as the crowds of city workers flowed out to their suburban retreats, and by midnight, after the pantomimes, theatres, musicals and reviews had disgorged their audiences in time for the last train, Melbourne was ‘a city of dreadful night’; indeed, ‘Had Cindarella been a Melbourne girl she would have needed no promise to a fairy godmother to remind her that midnight was at hand.’

By the 1920s, the motor car had radically and incontestably changed the physical landscape and geometry of the street, had altered its aesthetic experience as smoke, noise and speed began to replace the sound, pace and odour of the horse-drawn age, and had created a whole new conception of time and space. Traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, new street signs and safety zones would replace the horse trough and the hitching post to become the hallmarks of city streets. In 1914, Melbourne’s traffic was in chaos. A conference convened at the Town Hall in June brought together representatives from the Melbourne City Council (MCC), the Automobile Club of Victoria, the Police Department, and the Melbourne Tramway and Omnibus Company, in order to discuss the regularisation of the traffic laws. A special committee of the Council was appointed to deal with the question and in September 1916, By-Law No. 134 repealed and replaced 26 previous street traffic by-laws dating back to 1844.

The'advent of the motor car, it seems, sounded the death knell not only for the horse as a means of transport but for traditional street culture. Morphological changes to the city centre, urban sprawl, the disfigurement of the public street as locus for human ritual - in short, the ‘death of the street’ - have been traced directly to its influence. The disappearance of a lusty and frenetic nineteenth-century street life has been put down directly to the effects of the motor age on Australian cities. It has also been seen as an irony that a new technology designed to bring the chance of greater individual freedom in fact led to more stringent regulation of public mobility: Rather than creating freedom, the automobile created the myth of carefree motoring. Mobility must not be confused with, not mistaken for, freedom.

It is incontestable that the motor age changed the face of urban life forever. What is more problematic is its role as the prime instrument of this spatial and cultural shift. To what extent did the motor car in fact accelerate a long process of spatial redefinition dating back long before its advent? Are the perceived destruction of traditional street life, the marginalising of former street activities and uses, the trend towards the organisation, regulation and privatisation of so-called 'public' space, concomitant with quite different regulatory urges. To see the horseless-carriage as the bete noire of urban decay and the twentieth-century pathology of the street is, perhaps, to misconstrue the dynamics of urban socio-spatial regulation. To understand the nexus between space and society we must go right back to Melbourne's beginning, to a surveyor’s grid in the 1830s, and trace from this ab initio ruling off in the wilderness of a matrix enclosing an invader's territory, which at once gave form to an idea of settlement, of progress, of civilisation, and at the same time replaced, denied, conquered the pre-existing patterns of an indigenous culture, the exercise of social power through spatial form.

To regard the street as a discrete observable element of urban space in which the evolution of spatial practice and control may be traced, as an historical artefact, as an identifiable arena for human drama, is inspired by spatial and social crises which beset late twentieth-century Melbourne. The problems of traffic congestion in the city grid, already observed by the first decade of the century, are yet to be solved, and ever-increasing environmental concerns demand more immediate solutions. Allied to contemporary desires for spatial reorganisation is an observation of other socio-spatial questions: the general privatisation of what was once a more public space, the engrossment of lanes and streets by large-scale private developments, the manipulation of public streets by commercial interests, the marginalisation and control of the casual street economy, the use of the street for public protest or ritual, the provision and control of footbridges, squares, malls and arcades. Contemporary images of Melbourne s city streets are continually shaped by historical stereotypes, from the pervading image of the ‘Paris end of Collins Street’ to the identification of the very street grid itself as an historical artefact. It may well be a truism to suggest that in planning for the present we must observe the lessons of the past. But we may be well advised, as we plan for the cities of the twenty-first century, to observe the simple advice of Asa Briggs, one of the first historians to awaken an interest in Melbourne’s urban past, who called for a historical dimension to any discussion of environmental quality and who cogently observed that ‘there is more to be gained from comparing actual experiences, past and present... than from thinking of environmental problems in either an over-systematised fashion or in a utopian mould’.

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