The New Enclosure? Public Space in Our City

Handing over public space to the private sector has been in the news in Melbourne recently with the proposal to allow Apple to build its own space (with its own design) in Federation Square.

While reading all about how public space has been used (or gifted) to the private sector here in Melbourne, we’ve also been updating economic profile data for the City of Melbourne’s online presence. And mindful of how important public space is for civic life, I decided to look at the data on public space in the City. What I found was that, while we are creating more (of some types of) public space in the City, it is at a much slower rate than population growth. Additionally, overall there is much less of all forms of public space per resident or per worker now than there was at the turn of the Century.

Less public display space, but more retail space

The City of Melbourne does a rolling census of land use and employment (CLUE). It’s a fantastic data set, made even more so by the fact that the City of Melbourne has embraced open data. You explore CLUE yourself here: https://data.melbourne.vic.gov.au/clue. If only we had this sort of data (and this sort of enlightened open data policy) for the rest of the metropolitan area and for all publicly funded information collection.

One of the types of land use documented is ‘public display space’. To quote the City, this is “Floors designed for (non-retail) displays, including museums, non-retail galleries, and exhibition space.” It does not include retail galleries and showrooms. And while it is not the same as public open space (the parks and gardens we normally envisage when we think about public space), it is, nonetheless, truly space the public can visit and enjoy, usually (but not always) without having to buy a ticket, but definitely without having to buy a phone.

Figure 1 shows how the per capita provision of this space has changed from 2002 to 2016 across the City.

Figure 1: Public Display Space Per Resident Compared with Resident Population — Population is plotted on the right hand vertical axis and space/resident on the left. Source: CLUE, 2017; melbournepopulation.geografia.com.au; ABS, 2017

While total public display space increased by about 20,000 sqm (an 11% increase[1]), its share of total space declined a little (from 0.44% of all space in 2002 to 0.39% in 2016). At the same time, private retail space increased by 600,000 sqm (going from 2% of all space to 3%, with the growth concentrated in Docklands and the CBD).

During the same period, the population grew by around 87,628 (a 145% increase). Not surprisingly, then, the amount of public display space available to each resident has dropped considerably (from 2.97 sqm per resident to 1.34 sqm, a drop of 55%) (Figure 2).

Figure 2: The Change in Public Display Space

Public display space is highly concentrated

As Figure 3 shows, over half of the current 198,585 sqm of public display space is found in Southbank (which accommodates, amongst other things, the National Gallery of Victoria — the State’s art gallery). Despite this concentration, public display space only makes up around 2.5% of the total floorspace area in Southbank (for comparison, that’s a little less than the 3% made up by car parks).

Another 24% of public display space is in Carlton (including the State’s Museum). It accounts for 1.3% of the floorspace in Carlton and the suburb actually saw a small drop in total public display space (around 329sqm). The CBD (where we find several smaller museums) has another 15% of the total provision of public display space. Here it makes up 2.3% of the CBD’s floorspace.

Very little public display space can be found anywhere else in the City and it really is concentrated in a few large public buildings.

Figure 3: Where‘s the Space?

What has happened over the last fifteen years, then, is:

· Public display space has increased in total sqm; but

· As a share of all space in the City, it is very small and has declined slightly; more importantly

· In per capita terms, it has halved; and

· During the same period, retail space has increased by 63%.

Maybe, though, the loss of per capita public display space has been made up for by the increase in privately controlled open space[2]: the foyers and private courtyards that make up part of our built environment (this includes spaces such as university courtyards, which are, for the most part, quite accessible to residents and visitors). But no, the total sqm of private open space in the City has declined (from about 14.6 million sqm in 2002 to 14.4 million sqm in 2016).

It looks like we’re not gaining ground here either.

We know that public open space is important for a City’s liveability and organisations like the City of Melbourne do what they can to provide it at sufficient volume and quality for residents and visitors. This is no mean feat in a rapidly growing and densifying City where space is expensive and in demand. But surely public display space also has a role in making Melbourne a liveable city?

We know public open space is good for our health and we could probably do with as much as we can afford. We’d also benefit from more public display space that we can enjoy without feeling compelled to buy something. By contrast, do we need more private space masquerading as public space, like we may end up with in Federation Square? I think we should hang on to the truly public realm where we can.


[1] For the sake of reference, total floorspace in the City grew from about 40,400,000 sqm to 50,900,000 sqm; a 26% increase.

[2] This is not to be confused with ‘public open space’, the parks we normally think of when using this term.