When we parachute into a city, whether for work or leisure, we are more sensitive to contrasts between the familiar places we leave behind and the new places we encounter.
When I travelled from my home near Fremantle in Western Australia for a three-week stint living in Richmond and working at Deakin University, I admired the rich intensity of Victoria Street and noted how the odd junctures in the grid street pattern created a maze like a children’s puzzle played by adults in sedans. However, the feature that struck me the most was the contrast between old and new Richmond.
Even without my experience teaching and researching about heritage and landscape, the effects of Melbourne’s property price boom would be painfully obvious. I found the vast differences between the older and newer properties jarring. This is because of a lack of empathy between the newer buildings and their older neighbours.
Building with empathy
For there to be empathy with the neighbours’ houses, the style of the renovated or new house should fit with the existing houses. This requires attention to features like height, colour, fencing, gardens and setbacks from the street.
Most of the time, a new building with empathy should not copy the older styles. It should complement the neighbours’ houses and not reduce their enjoyment.
For instance, the house in the photograph below has little empathy with the houses either side in terms of material or scale, while its setback is similar. I can imagine that a point of particular contention with the neighbours is the large reflective wall on the west side of the house that both blocks sun in the morning and would be a source of glare and heat on summer afternoons.
In the photograph below, the house on the right has colours and materials that are typical of many of the new developments. The dark colours and smooth surfaces generally contrast with the brick or weatherboard cottages that make up most of the older buildings.
The following example also demonstrates this contrast in colours and materials, but adds a problem of scale. A row of similar, stone cottages along Burnley Street runs into a large, grey apartment block that towers over them.
Remember the residents
The lack of empathy for existing homes can be an indication of a lack of empathy for existing communities. Institutions and places that have existed for generations can suddenly come under threat.
Take, for instance, the netball courts mentioned in the photograph below. The courts at 510 Swan Street are to be part of a land swap related to the building of a new Richmond High School. While new courts are planned at a busier location near the town hall, the concerns of people who use these courts need to be considered in the context of a rapidly changing suburb.
An example that gets to the complexity of contemporary gentrification is the transformation of Dimmeys into Coles, specialty shops and apartments on Swan Street.
While the Herald Sun wrote of heritage conservation, new jobs and “a state-of-the-art supermarket”, The Age highlighted the sense of loss and passing for existing residents and employees. The renovated facade of Dimmeys and the grey new residences mark a pattern of displacement not just of buildings but of people.
The biggest costs of gentrification are to existing residents who, after establishing patterns of family, community and work over many years, are forced further out from the urban centre. They must move away from their jobs and social networks that support and nurture them and which they in turn support and nurture. The new shops, apartments and conserved facade where Dimmeys stood do not benefit these ex-residents of Richmond.
Involve existing communities
I am not against investment and development, which are essential to maintain suburbs and communities. However, we need to acknowledge that development can take many forms and that investment can lead to poor outcomes and displaced and alienated communities.
If a higher bar for development is set in Richmond, with greater attention to the character of the surrounding buildings that directly addresses the impacts on existing residents, then the transformation of Richmond to boxy townhouses and apartments slows down, a more diverse housing stock slows the displacement of older residents, and there are better buildings, streetscapes and opportunities.
I am against a planning system that acts without empathy for existing communities of residents, visitors, houses, businesses and buildings. The City of Yarra, which includes Richmond, recently made its own statement about the effects of rapid redevelopment.
The council needs to look at new ways of engaging residents in planning decisions. One of these ways should be to give residents a greater say in addressing the fit between new houses and their neighbours.
There needs to be a concerted effort to reject a future that forgets and undermines the relationships, things and people that make up Richmond.