The CBD laneways, like trams and Australian Rules football, are something that defines Melbourne.
The importance of the system of lanes and arcades in the central retail area that form busy pedestrian routes, often lined with shops, is obvious. The retention of lanes, or at least ‘fine grain’ development and retention of pedestrian routes, has long been policy within the City of Melbourne. The laneways with older warehouse buildings were the first places that attracted residents back to the CBD from the 1980s onwards.
Over the last two decades laneways have become incredibly popular spaces for businesses to open up in, a ‘laneway’ address has become desirable for everything from small bras and cafes to boutique clothing shops and art galleries. The way that these spaces are ticked away off the main streets, hidden away from the busy traffic, is part of what makes them attractive. They are often closed to traffic and represent an ‘alternative’ Melbourne where people can walk, shop and eat within the network of human scale, heritage-rich laneways. The laneways have a rich mix of architectural styles and the visual interest of these ‘lanescapes’ is added to by things like the bluestone paving, the undressed red brick back walls of early twentieth-century warehouses and so on.
Many of the laneways have also become outdoor galleries. Spaces such as Hosier lane (which runs between Flinders Lane and Flinders St) host a rich and ever-changing display of graffiti art, paper art and stencils. These richly decorated spaces are now popular backdrops for music events and even wedding photography. The street art scene that has sprung up in Melbourne’s network of laneways has gained international recognition and the City of Melbourne celebrates the laneway street art, stating that “Melbourne is known as one of the world’s great street art capitals”. The council encourages new art by funding ‘Laneway Commissions’ every year at selected sites. Other laneways remain unchanged, and function mainly as access for rubbish collection and fire escape, but are still appreciated for their ‘back street’ grungy appearance.
Visitors and locals alike have fallen in love with this vital aspect of our great city. However, despite the success of laneways as urban spaces, their popularity with businesses and their recognition by the City of Melbourne, they are under threat from inappropriate development.
The City of Melbourne laneway policy is out-of-date and vague and gives nothing but lip service to the character and aesthetic of laneways. Many of our greatest lanes fall into the lowest ranking of laneway importance, and some are not even mentioned at all. Lanes continue to be sold off for short-term gain or developments are approved that replace fine grain and human scale lanescapes with bland and offensive concrete walls.
Because Melbourne’s unique laneway network is under threat. The existing policy for the management, preservation and improvement of our laneways is inadequate and out-‐of-‐date. It would shock most people to learn that under the current policy 80% of Melbourne’s laneways have no protection. In recent years this has seen important spaces destroyed by inappropriate and bland development. The demise of Caledonian Lane between Lonsdale and Lt Bourke Streets is a perfect example, where a vibrant laneway with thriving businesses – and which was the original home of the St Jerome’s laneway festival – was destroyed to give developers better truck access to build another bland shopping mall. The current threat to Hosier Lane is another example.
Melbourne Heritage Action has prepared the following documents as part of its laneways policy. In these documents we report on the current state of the different laneways networks across the CBD and we also propose that a number of laneway-focused heritage precincts be created.
All are available for download as Adobe PDF files:
Please note that most of these reports were created when we launched our campaign in 2012. We are in the process of updating them but some details may not be up-to-date and may not reflect recent demolitions and development.