The post-war period in Australia was one of acute suburbanisation. Beginning in the 1980s, Australians rediscovered the joys of the inner city: its mixtures of use, its social density, and the vital public spaces which these conditions supported. Whilst waterfront redevelopment was in most cases a relatively late phase in the transformation of the inner city, it is currently at the cutting edge of urban redevelopment and urban design: waterfronts allow for functional expansion and augmentation in CBD areas which are already heavily built up; they are generally well served by existing transport infrastructure which can deliver visitors; and as new linkages, they add value and amenity to existing investments.
This paper critically examines the urban design of waterfront cultural and leisure precincts in Australian cities, in terms of simple functional planning matters such as use, scale and connectivity, but also examining how these are entangled in more complex representational, behavioural and political outcomes. The paper draws primarily on an analysis of ‘Southbank’ precincts in central Melbourne and Brisbane, although it also makes comparisons with urban waterfront areas in other cities both national and international. Particular attention is given to the tensions between the careful management of activities and imagery in these leisure zones, and the messy diversity of everyday life which actually takes place in and around them. The underlying hypothesis is that it is the constant unfolding of oppositions, contradictions and conflicts between different users and different social ideals which makes these waterfronts vital, exciting, meaningful urban places.