What identifies cities as vibrant, communal, distracting, intimate?

I relish the chance to discover a place away from tourist sites amid a jigsaw of lanes if the city has such. In Australia Melbourne was the first city to catch on to their contemporary appeal. As well as running a chapter in Melbourne: Global Smart City, on their intimacy, great artwork and ability to revitalise a place I wrote a homage to them for Indesign. I am always pleased to read of cities introducing them to their patterns, where plans allow them to survive and flourish.

What identifies cities as vibrant, communal, distracting, intimate?

By Deborah Singerman

Call me shallow but when I’m at a loss with myself I head for the throngs, city streets full of people, distractions, smiles, aggravations, the detritus and the joy of life.

We don’t say front streets for those typically grand, tree-lined approaches, the tourist brochure territory of London’s Oxford Street, New York’s Fifth Avenue, the Champs-Élysées or Tokyo’s Omotesandō – and we could include Pitt Street, not least because retail in these central business districts is measured in big rent per square metre.

Yet the streets that run behind them take the moniker, backstreets.  I have always preferred the haphazard zigzag of these public ways to get from A to B or Z. As well as being functional they are atmospheric and especially in strict grid form have personality and pattern that give pavements a good name; I have a terrible sense of direction and grass verges throw me completely.

The most hopelessly lost I have ever become is in Tokyo’s maze. The numbering system is so incomprehensible it even reportedly taxes postal workers. Whenever I showed a local an address and asked for directions, they drew maps with landmarks such as hairdressers or post offices or police boxes or took me there as if I were their guest of honour. This street network, however, turns the megalopolis into a series of tiny neighbourhoods, adding to the city’s identity and image.

Among the Macquarie Dictionary definitions for lanes is “any narrow or well-defined passage” and again, they layer and open up the city in ways surveyors, planners and government officials did not necessarily foresee.  The historic benefits of rear access to buildings have more recently been overtaken by the push for active frontages and the tremendous growth of small businesses seen first in Melbourne, where Postcode 3000 was so important in creating a city residential population and later with Sydney’s Living City ideas for a multi-use, vibrant city that does not close down at 5 o’clock.

Active streets are part of the pulsating puzzle to keep people in the city. Keeping people in the city, in turn, encourages more businesses to service them.  I have read that there are 180 small streets throughout Melbourne CBD and, says Professor Rob Adams, director City Design at the City of Melbourne, the increase in people living and playing in the city led to the number of bars, cafes and restaurants going from 580 to over 2,000.

After meandering through Melbourne’s lanes – Hardware, Manchester, Hosiery and the mainspring, Degraves Street – it all fits together. I marvel at the conviviality of the cafes that line both sides and also dissect them, making it impossible not to eavesdrop.  In my experience this communal spirit is furthered by bathrooms shared between several cafés, up stairs plastered with the most rock posters I’d seen for a long time.

Perth too, now wants the city centre to “hum” to match its inner-city fringe and again bars in laneways are integral to the plan. Funnily enough Sydney’s fringe City of Villages have also created their own rhythms, showing that perhaps a CBD is a hard nut to crack.

Well designed, attractive chairs and tables on a sidewalk cafe add to the overall aesthetics of a streetscape, says Elisha Buttler, curator of West Australian creativity advocate FORM. For laneways to buzz, there also needs to be a planning strategy to ensure quality and variety of enterprises, and a marketing strategy to sell the stories, she says.

Of course, this is something Melbourne and its energetic adjectives has done so well – who visits Melbourne without going to the lanes? Sydney’s next planned foray is to transform three “drab” laneways in Chinatown to pedestrian friendly, well-lit ones with the usual attractions from upgraded street furniture to shading from trees and safer access to encourage outdoor cafes and public spaces.

With laneways, connection is about people, ideas and creativity and not simply about function. It is not surprising that critics of the current large-scale plans for Barangaroo bemoan the potential missed opportunity to design some small parcels on a scale allowing for individuality and flair.

For all their contemporary manifestations, lanes are also working monuments to more intimate times. The memories of Rowe Street, where interior designer Marion Hall Best had her shop, literally brought tears to the eyes of former customers at a WEA adult education talk I attended.

Canal Street in Manchester in England’s north, symbolises the renaissance of industrial heritage warehouses that, in a gamble, became a cobbled, gay-only bar district and then so popular with everyone it is now party central adding to the audio fabric of the city.

I know I am alive in the lanes. Melbourne’s ongoing visuals entrance – the voluptuous, vivid, geometric graffiti, which is much more satisfying than occasional temporary artworks though Sydney’s Angel Place, Ash Street combination for one has benefited from these all-too brief excursions from pre-theatre dining, huddled under heaters and umbrellas.

And although I was shocked the first time I came across one of Melbourne’s service lanes, designated as such because they have no through access and are then usually full of garbage bins, I began to be reassured by something so normal. Diversity comes in all shapes and sizes. For café dweller or not, lanes in their flamboyance and ordinariness show us actuality, promise possibilities and help to define what we, and the city we live in, mean.