Graeme Davison. Image Monash University

“We badly need a new vision for our cities”: Graeme Davison on city dreaming

Foreground talks with Graeme Davison, one of Australia’s most eminent historians, about his recently released book City Dreamers and the urgent imperative to reimagine our urban future.

Graeme Davison’s City Dreamers aims to restore Australian cities, and those who create them, to their rightful place in the national imagination, excavating the cultural history of the Australian city by focusing on dreamers, those who battle to make and re-make our cities. In short, it’s hard to imagine a subject more appropriate to Foreground. For this interview, we asked Graeme if he would do us the honor of showing us his favourite urban place in Melbourne. The location he picked for our meeting was a bit of a surprise…

FG: Graeme we asked if we could meet in your favourite urban place here in Melbourne. You’ve selected Merri Creek, and we’re sitting here now. It’s a very idyllic setting; it’s almost Arcadian. We’re right by what is literally a babbling brook. There’s birdsong. I can’t actually see a great deal of urban infrastructure around here. Why did you choose Merri Creek?

GD: Well, Merri Creek is one of the places I really discovered in recent years. For most of my life, like most Melburnians, I’ve got around the city by motorcar and sometimes by public transport, but after I retired, I decided to take up cycling, and I’ve rediscovered Melbourne along the cycle paths, and it’s brought to me an awareness that really, in many ways, Melbourne lives around its waterways. Those waterways are a life source for us – we get most of our water still from the headwaters of the Yarra – but the water courses have also been the site of much of the life of the city, so in many ways, we can rediscover what Melbourne is like, beginning with the waterways where, by the way, we can also see remnants of the first inhabitants of this landscape, the Aboriginal people.

“I had to recognise there’s a kind of dreaming that’s been here long before white people came” – Graeme Davison

FG: You talk about some of that Aboriginal history – as well as Merri Creek – in City Dreamers. Can you tell me a little bit about what a ‘city dreamer’ is and, in fact, what an ‘urban imagination’ might be?

GD: City dreamers are really all the people who, in one way or another, imagine the city. I use it very broadly to include people as diverse as doctors, artists, journalists, photographers, architects, landscape planners – all sorts of people who have visions of the city and who are involved in that continuous conversation that we have about what we want the city to be like. Once I started to talk about city dreamers, of course I had to recognise there’s a kind of dreaming that’s been here long before white people came. And the creek valleys, by the way, as I said before, are one of the places where I think we become very aware of the Aboriginal presence in the landscape.

FG: Dreaming has a very particular meaning in the context of indigenous culture. In your book you talk about this idea of an indigenous dreaming as being distinct in some ways from the settlers’ dreaming, their urban dreaming. How is it distinct?

GD: Well, Bill Stanner wrote a famous essay on the dreaming. He quoted an Aboriginal man saying, ‘White man got no dreaming. Him go ‘nother way.’ And what I think he was drawing attention to was the fact that our dreaming is very different in the sense that it’s really posed around ideas about what the city might become. It’s part of our process of planning and so on, whereas I think Aborigines reside in the landscape and belong to the landscape in a way that I think is in some ways more profound than we Europeans do. We wrestled for a long while with how we belong to the city. For a long while, there was a tendency for us to regard our cities as simply outposts of Europe. They weren’t really Australian. In order to go to the real Australia, you had to go somewhere into the interior, and I think that’s still an attitude that’s quite prevalent. I’ve had this conviction since I was young that since the cities are where most of us live, that’s where we have to rediscover who we are, and that’s where our belonging is. So, in that essay, I’m wrestling with how we can attach ourselves or connect with that deeper sense of connection to land that comes from Aborigines, together with those senses of belonging that we have as Europeans. And I’m thinking particularly here of our sense of civic belonging. We would say we belong to the city, because we belong to each other, and the classic site for that, I suppose, is a place like the city square, so in that essay, I talk both about the river or the creek valley and the square as being the classic sites of belonging for us as city dwellers in Australia.

“We now have to wrestle with the fact that we may have to restrain growth for our own survival” – Graeme Davison

FG: And in that context, presumably, the valleys associated with the creek and the river are much more closely aligned with Aboriginal dreaming and country?

GD: They are, except that if we had come here fifty years ago, we would have been conscious of all the industry around about us. The environment has become a bit deindustrialised now as industries moved away from the places where it first was, but in the first couple of generations of European settlement, we managed to heavily pollute our rivers and creek valleys, largely because we were intent upon using them for industry. So, there’s remnants of all sorts of phases of activity along the creek valleys. I mean, there’s now, of course, apartments and offices going up in places that were once occupied by industry. So, if you read the creek valley as a palimpsest, if you can read it as a document that illustrates the whole history of the river, you can see remnants of both European and Aboriginal and of ethnic and of religious and all sorts of other elements of our culture superimposed on that place. That’s really why I like to visit it, because as I cycle along the creek valley, if I begin in the city and I make my way up toward the headwaters of the river – or, for that matter, if I cycle inwards from the suburbs into the city – I’m discovering that all of those layers of occupation that have formed the city since we first came here.

FG: In your first book, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne, you talk about Melbourne in the 1880s as being obsessed with growth for growth’s sake, and you also talk about this idea of ‘home sweet home’ as being a powerful city dreaming, if you like. Do you think things have changed? How does that condition compare with today?

GD: Oh, I think there’s things that are both the same and very different. I mean, that book was really hinged around the distinction between city and suburb, and I think, from the very beginning, Australia happened to grow up as a country at about the same time as the suburb was becoming a popular movement in Europe, and it was a reaction against all the things that people thought were wrong in the urban environment. So, we’ve been a suburban people as much as anything else as our cities have grown. By European or even by American standards, they’re very low density cities. There’s still a strong attachment to that idea, but I think we’re also beginning to recognise that it carries some costs. We are now a very automobile-dependent civilisation, where we carry certain costs because of the environmental effects of low-density settlement, so there’s something of a mood now, I think, to review all of that. Similarly, I think that when I talked in that book about growth for growth’s sake, I think we remain still very connected to the idea of growth as being an absolute good. We now have to wrestle with the fact that we may have to restrain growth for our own survival. So, in many respects, we’ve come a long way since the end of the 19th century.

“Some anti-suburban arguments imply a condescension towards people who happen to live in suburbs…” – Graeme Davison

FG: You mentioned earlier that this idea of a kind of suburban urban imaginary is somewhat problematic, because of the costs associated with an automobile-dependent existence. But I think I detected a note throughout your more recent book, City Dreamers, that was sympathetic to the ideal of the suburb, to the ideal of ‘home sweet home’. Is that a fair reading?

GD: I think it’s probably a fair reading. It’s where I’ve come from, and I’m like many other people who have been attached to that idea, trying to figure out how far it can really be a sustainable ideal in the future. I’m certainly very sceptical about some of the anti-suburban arguments. I think some anti-suburban arguments imply a condescension towards people who happen to live in suburbs, and I think there’s an overconfidence that we can actually somehow do a U-turn and suddenly turn ourselves into a city like Paris or London or high-density cities. There will be costs in attempting to reverse our course, and it may well be more important to think about ways in which we can adapt what we’ve already got to make it more environmentally sustainable. So, to take an illustration, if you live in a suburb – a low-density suburb – you have the opportunity, say, an apartment dweller doesn’t have to put solar panels on your roof. You have the opportunity to grow your own vegetables. You have the opportunity to do all sorts of things that may well contribute to sustainability, so I’m not yet convinced that, for example, going high-rise is necessarily the right way to go, and I think many people will experience that change, if it comes, as a diminution or deterioration in their quality of life, rather than improvement.

FG: A book has just been published called Planning Melbourne. It was published by the CSIRO and features Michael Buxton and others. In that book, there is an assertion that Melbourne’s reputation for liveability rests largely on 19th infrastructure, the parks and gardens that were built back in the 1880s and so on, and they point out that through successive governments, that foundation is being eroded. Do you think that is a fair reading?

GD: I had the pleasure of launching Michael’s book, so I do agree. I think a lot of the quality that’s built into our cities is associated with what people would often call that ‘sprawling’ late-19th century development, so we need to be very careful about what we give away of that quality.

“We’re seeing a massive intergenerational inequity in the way in which our cities are organised.” – Graeme Davison

FG: That period of development was a very visionary period in many respects. They were building a city for, at that point, no people. They put the infrastructure in before the people came, to a large degree. Do you think we still have or share the same degree of urban imagination, urban vision, that our late 19th century ancestors enjoyed?

GD: Not altogether. I mean, you might well say that some of that development at the end of the 19th century… If you had asked people in the mid-1890s whether it was prudent, a lot of people would have said no. I mean, the Commissioner of Railways who said you can build a railway anywhere within nine miles of Melbourne and it will pay ended up in court in the mid-1890s, because it was alleged that he had simply overspent by a large degree. Melbourne’s public transport infrastructure was largely built at that time. In many respects it looks reckless. This was long before the days of cost-benefit analysis. I sometimes think when I notice people debating current proposals using cost-benefit analysis with great confidence whether they wouldn’t be just as well served to throw it away and to do what their heart tells them to do, because very often it requires a leap of conviction or faith – whatever you like to call it – about what kind of city you want in order to achieve it.

I’ll make one other observation about the liveable city – one of the things that’s happening now is that we’re seeing a massive intergenerational inequity in the way in which our cities are organised. So, now, largely, the middle class are migrating back into the inner city where they’ve got all that good infrastructure, and they’re leaving those with poorer incomes to outer parts of the city where the infrastructure is nowhere near as good and where they’ve got poorer public transport. Those people who are now taking advantage of all of that infrastructure, they didn’t contribute to it – it was built by their forefathers – but they’re now, as it were, acquiring it and holding it to themselves largely at the expense of people who really need it, in many respects, more than they do.

FG: So, do you think there’s a need now for a powerful urban vision on the scale of the late-19th century visionaries?

GD: I think there is. I mean, I think the quality of imagination is something that’s very, very important. I think an awful lot of planning is these days done by rule, by statutory kinds of controls – which are, no doubt, necessary in their way – but we’re not necessarily educating and producing a group of planners and planning visionaries who have got an overall global sense of where the city would be, so I think we badly need a new vision for our cities.