Brunswick is the first home-away-from-home for many students and young professionals. Ayeesha Cain is one of them. But the postcodes she once loved are losing their allure. Can they ever get back on track?
With its bluestone laneways, backyard gardens, ‘70s kebab shops and not-quite-as-obscenely-unaffordable rental stock, Brunswick has reigned as the go-to destination for young urbanites as neighbouring Carlton and Fitzroy was gobbled up by deep-pocketed downsizers.
I made the move – the first away from mum’s - five years ago. Postcodes 3056 and 3057 have underwritten countless break ups and an engagement, the transition from full-time student to full-time worker and, recently – excitedly - from renter to rate payer.
But … something has changed. The queue for DeJour jeans, once an in-the-know treasure where a pair of bespoke denims sets you back $57, now snakes well around the corner before 10am each day. The warehouses where we once partied, exchanging questionable tokens (broken screws) for drinks, the art studios and pop-up band rooms, are now prized real estate.
The skyline has been transformed by new apartment towers and cranes rapidly hoisting up more. The population has exploded. And the trams are full. Too, too full.
The number 6 route is so packed that the best chance of a seat on the commute into the city is to backtrack and climb aboard further north. When even that fails, squashed into too-intimate proximity with too-many other Brunswicksters, I’m given to wondering… is this still the Brunswick I fell in love with. Or has she been hoist on her own hipness?
Investigating this, I’ve tracked my tram rides down the length of Lygon Street into the city for two months. Every morning I board the tram on Lygon Street. And every morning I look around in vain for a seat. Nothing. Nada. Not once in 80 trips.
Instead, I lean against the windows, hold onto the bars, or balance against whatever or whomever I can until sudden movements throw me. At every major stop along the way, five to 10 people cram aboard, until we’re full to bursting and leave defeated commuters stranded in the shadows of the construction sites for the next major apartment buildings.
I take inventory of the characters with whom I share the journey. The ladies who knit (which, of course, requires a seat), the school kids who sing acapella, the father whose baby might not cry quite so much if he would just turn her to face him, and the ubiquitous "yopros" (young professionals) and students who spin about obliviously with their bulding, bruising backpacks.
These last are members of what census data confirms as the dominant cohort - the 52% of Brunswick residents and 53% of Brunswick East residents aged between 20 and 39 years. The same people who rent the apartments, which make up 33.5% of dwellings in Brunswick, and over 37.5% of dwellings in Brunswick East - more than double the greater Moreland City Council average of 16.5% apartments.
Brunswick has, for this demographic, many charms. Cafes that charge men 18% more in acknowledgement of the gender pay gap. Five boutique breweries, Very Good Falafel, 3 Triple R, and more artisan bakeries than you can calorie count.
Then there are the amazing public transport links. Lygon street is serviced by both the Routes 1 and 6 trams, two of five routes servicing the area, running every eight minutes. The Sydney Road tram is a stones-throw away, and the Upfield train also accessible on foot or by bus.
But after two months watching and documenting as the tram doors shut on people who can’t squeeze aboard, and countless mornings spent sniffing strangers’ arm pits or being sent sprawling after any sudden jolt or turn, I have to say the lustre of my Brunswick love affair is fading. It feels like a bad relationship – just like the one I ended on a street corner the commute takes me past every day.
Where did it all go wrong? I pay a visit to University of Melbourne urban planning expert, Professor Carolyn Whitzman.
She says it’s not her (Brunswick), it’s us – or rather them, the successive state governments that have comprehensively failed to get their act together to plan and enable a functional, sustainable vision for exploding Melbourne.
“Brunswick has to be seen in context,” Whitzman explains. “It’s better that this growth happens in areas (like Brunswick) that have infrastructure, schools and parks,” she says. “Like all cities … Melbourne is growing and changing, and with our population projected to jump from 4 million people in 2010 to 8 million by 2050, Melbourne has two choices.” Either we continue to expand outwards – which means creating more far-flung suburbs, consuming more agricultural land, building more roads, putting more vehicles on the roads and cobbling together more infrastructure to support the fringe-dwellers – or we intensify the occupation of inner and middle suburbs.
A search of the Urban Melbourne database, an online list of development projects across Melbourne, reveals there are presently some 60 urban development projects in Brunswick and Brunswick East. A number of these developments have applied to Moreland Council to cut down on their parking spots.
Professor Whitzman says developers are capitalizing on Brunswick’s established value, like good transport links, but are not adding to it. “When you have a tram line, value in the immediate areas goes up. The State Government isn’t doing a good job of getting developers to add to this value, instead they’re benefitting from the tram line."
She and the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, a network of urban planning and environmental experts, are calling on the government to do more.
“There’s not enough money going into better public transport areas. The tram line has already been built, it is fixed cost. But we could have more frequent trams. It shouldn’t be rocket science to provide more trams as it encourages more development.
“It makes better sense to have more tram, train and bus provisions. Brunswick is blessed with amazing transport infrastructure, it already sunk costs into them and it’s not actually that difficult and costly once you’ve sunk it into infrastructure to provide more services.”
A new public transport timetable introduced in May was supposed to ease congestion, promising - according to Public Transport Victoria (PTV) spiel, “more capacity where it’s needed, more reliable journey times and less congestion”.
But with doors still closing on stranded passengers daily, Transport for Victoria, the new transport agency that oversees transport projects and planning for Victoria, argues that building more trams is the answer. “The Victorian Government is investing in bigger better trams to get Melbourne residents where they need to go now, while also planning for future growth.”
Spring Street has announced more than $1.2 billion for 80 high-capacity, low-floor E-Class trams, which are being progressively introduced to the city's busiest tram routes (86, 96 and 11) as they come off the Melbourne manufacturing line. “This will free up our B and D class trams to carry more passengers on tram routes 1, 6 and other popular routes,” a spokesperson says. “We are also planning for more tram services before and after the morning and evening peaks to better reflect people's changing work and study patterns.”
Meanwhile, the Moreland City Council attempts to find its own solutions to manage its growing pains. In 2015 it was unsuccessful when it tried to introduce building guidelines to deal with increasing density. The guidelines aimed to improve the quality of development of five or more storeys in Moreland, particularly for apartment-style developments. A revised set of guidelines are currently awaiting comment from Planning Minister Richard Wynne.
Despite the discomforts of the city squeeze, Professor Whitzman wants to see large areas of vacant industrial land sprinkled through the inner suburbs redeveloped to provide for more housing, arguing that this is the best solution for a liveable, sustainable future city.
“Development brings benefits, as well as dis-benefits. If you are lucky enough to live in a well-serviced area, you have to accept the fact that other people want to live there too,”
Whitzman says. “Great cafés, restaurants, fruit and vegetable stores are supported by increasing population.”
That said, she also urges more focus by governments on looking after the needs of existing residents. “Moreland is setting aside areas for development, but it should be rewarding communities dealing with current strain and future, by providing more infrastructure.”
For now, this resident is fed up with the morning crunch. And even contemplating moving further out toward the Moreland road tram depot - a once unimaginable prospect now made enticing by the lure of an actual seat on the tram in the morning.
It’s a beguiling enough prospect to rekindle the love-affair.