Bringing an eye for good urban design to Docklands

Bringing an eye for good urban design to Docklands
Sean Car

Dr Elek Pafka has brought the best of both worlds to life as a resident of Docklands.

As a senior lecturer in urban planning and urban design at the University of Melbourne, as well as the parent of a student at Docklands Primary School, Dr Pafka is seeing the precinct around him through both lenses.

His combination of professional and lived experience provides for valuable insights into how the public realm in Docklands could be improved to create more enjoyable and safer spaces and journeys for residents, workers, and visitors alike.

Having previously lived in the CBD for 10 years, the Romanian-born academic moved to Docklands with his family in 2021 to be within walking distance of Docklands Primary School.

And as many parents with children attending the school will attest to, it’s not an easy walk. Located at the busy nexus of Footscray Rd, Harbour Esplanade and Docklands Drive, trucks, trams, and speeding cyclists are just some of the many obstacles one must navigate to arrive at school safely.

Since the school opened, the issues for families have been so bad that concerned parents formed an action group to lobby authorities, resulting in a suite of safety measures and improvements being introduced to the area.

But as Dr Pafka said, the public realm surrounding the school, and throughout the precinct generally, still had a long way to go.

“It’s unfortunately a bit monotonous to go down Harbour Esplanade every day, the same route, and that’s perhaps one of the areas that I think should be urgently improved,” he said.

In December Docklands News reported on locals lamenting the lack of sun protection and overall heat levels surrounding Victoria Harbour, with particular focus on the “hot” and “exposed” nature of Harbour Esplanade.

While Dr Pafka shares this same view, he said it wasn’t uncommon for post-industrial urban renewal areas around the world such as Docklands to have challenges when it came to achieving “fine grain mix”.

 

“An approach that is now quite popular in urban design is temporary and tactical urbanism, which are very small interventions that are not necessarily conceived as being permanent, although sometimes they are so successful that they remain in some form,” he said.

 

“The [Good Cycles] container that repairs bicycles on the esplanade is one example, but there could be many other interventions that are similar that test various business ideas or community services and would be relatively easy and affordable to implement to test whether there is sufficient need for them in this area.”

Dr Pafka said that in politics, thought is too often about “possible futures in very narrow and highly framed ways” and that public discourse is similarly limited. Development Victoria’s recent public engagement process on Central Pier is perhaps one recent example of this.

And, when it comes to planning for the future, who better to consult on urban design than children?

The City of Melbourne’s Docklands Summit in 2022 identified a strong desire to create a “family-friendly precinct”, and Dr Pafka said Docklands Primary students should be engaged in helping to realise this ambition.

“We’ve never had a wealthier society than we have now, and the possibilities in terms of what we can achieve with the material wealth and technology we have are way broader,” he said.

“One way to look at that spectrum of possibilities is to engage with as many perspectives as possible with people who are perhaps less likely to participate because they come from different cultures, are new to the place, or are children who often are forgotten about.”

He added that major developments such as Central Pier, “perhaps deserve a competition where many ideas have been presented to the community, and perhaps the community has a say as well, which proposal is more interesting to be shortlisted.”

During 2024, Dr Elek Pafka will contribute regular columns on urban design and planning for Docklands News, where he will explore a range of different topics aimed at educating and empowering the community about what might be possible for our suburb.

“I think many people have relevant urban experiences from cities they visited around the globe, but often do not have the language or the literacy to talk about urban design futures,” he said.

“I hope that some articles on that would be helpful to empower the local community; to advocate for better public spaces and a better neighbourhood.” •

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