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Editions

The Docklands factor

04 Mar 2013

By Bethany Williams

Docklands, it seems, is a place people love to hate.

A negative attitude towards the area seems to have seeped into Melbourne’s popular culture.

“Soulless” and “dead” are words all too often used to describe Docklands.

For the residents and business owners who spend much of their time in Docklands, each negative news story and each scathing description of Docklands as a “ghost town” is another blow to an area that is already suffering from low self-esteem.

Try as they might to spread the news of the community and vibrancy that they have cultivated, it all seems to fall on deaf ears.

There may be many reasons that people dislike Docklands. Like any suburb, not everyone is going to love it. But the difference is that no other suburb in Melbourne is the subject of such consistent vitriol.

What makes Docklands different? Why does it attract such attention and commentary?

And what came first, a negative public perception of Docklands or negative news stories about Docklands?

One thing is certain - a bad news story about Docklands sells papers.

The Age’s city editor Jason Dowling said Docklands punches above its weight in terms of interest and that stories about Docklands attract a huge readership.

This is evident on The Age website, which attracts hundreds of, generally negative, reader comments on each Docklands story published.

Mr Dowling said one of the reasons that Docklands was such a prominent news story was because people realised that it was an amazing opportunity, being the key waterfront location in the city.

He said one of the issues with the perception of Docklands was that it had always been seen as a commercial development.

This is echoed in the comments left on Docklands stories published on The Age website, which tend to concentrate on the idea that developers have destroyed the area and that the Kennett government was responsible for setting them loose.

He said first impressions lasted and because people had seen it grow as a very large commercial site it had missed an opportunity early on.

The Age has often deferred to RMIT planning professor Michael Buxton for expert comment on Docklands.

Mr Buxton said one of the reasons there was so much interest in Docklands was because Labor hyped it up in the late eighties and early nineties and the Kennett government echoed this.

“It had a historical context. It was sold as critically important,” he said.

He said the government had promoted the site and tried to create excitement around it, which created high expectations.

According to Mr Buxton there was dissatisfaction with government and a sense of failure that Docklands had been given away to developers.

It seems anti-developer and anti-government sentiments are two of the underlying factors contributing to the anti-Docklands attitude.  

However, Dr Trevor Hogan from La Trobe University suggested there are other factors that have contributed to the way Docklands is perceived.

Dr Hogan is a senior lecturer and works in social theory and urban studies.

He said Docklands constituted a form of city building that Melbourne had never seen before.

“In being all new, people look at it as though it’s the Gold Coast or Perth rather than being part of Melbourne,” he said.

Dr Hogan explained that each of us carries around a cognitive map, which allows us to negotiate our city.

“Everybody carries around their own city and you only have to shift a street in your own suburb to realise how much you have to reorient how you map and walk and drive and any other way you move around,” he said.

“For a lot of Melburnians, Docklands is not on the map.”

According to Dr Hogan it could take another 50 years before Melburnians will own Docklands as part of their city.

He said the ultimate answer to changing the perception of Docklands was to make sure there was a big population.

“If you try to keep it as an exclusive enclave that will be very perilous,” he said.

It may not be completely clear to those who love Docklands why it has become such a pariah.

One thing is certain, it continues to be up to the people who live and work in Docklands to spread the news that Docklands is beautiful.

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