It’s the vibe, Brisbane!

It’s the vibe, Brisbane!

I wrote a piece on my home city, Brisbane, for the most recent Queensland Planner journal of the Planning Institute of Australia. It’s repeated below. Hope you enjoy it! GV

I have lived in Brisbane my whole life, apart from about five years in Beaudesert. I love this place. I travel a lot and have spent plenty of time in lots of cities overseas but I always like coming back home to Brisbane.

So this is my personal take on the history of Brisbane, as a planner and long time resident. It’s not meant to be an academic treatise, it’s more a folksy rendition infused with (hopefully) some planning nous… (shameless plug: follow me on Twitter @gregvann or read my blog at for more thoughts about cities). It’s about Brisbane’s vibe, what I like about it, how it has changed over the course of my life including 30+ years in planning; key moments in its journey from being a big sleepy country town to a modern subtropical city; and some challenges for its aspiration to be Australia’s New World City.

The early days

I grew up in Brisbane in the 1960s and 70s, when it was really a big country town. The pace of life was easy, getting around was easy and days blended into days through long hot summers accompanied by the smell of rotting mangoes; windy cool mornings playing games (marbles!) in the school playground in winter, thunder boxes in the backyard and a carpet snake in its roof to keep the vermin in line. The CBD was a pretty low key affair. People often joked that you could fire a gun down Queen Street on a weekend and not risk hitting anyone. It was only partly a joke. If you want to know more about that time, have a read of Johnno by David Malouf.

Photo 1

Queen Street around the time I was born

Much of the early planning for Brisbane was really about making sure it was properly serviced. Legendary Lord Mayor Clem Jones was famous for having sewered Brisbane long before its interstate big sister and brother cities. Brisbane made some of the same big mistakes other cities around the world have done – it closed down its tram network thinking buses and cars were the future; it adopted a Wilbur Smith freeway plan and built one of them. It adopted the model of outward suburban development as its future; and people fled its inner areas for the shiny new suburbs.

That era left its legacies – the Southeast Freeway and Riverside Expressway built in the 1970s continues to dominate the city reach of the river and cut the CBD off from one of the cities greatest assets. Places like Fortitude Valley and Spring Hill became notorious, unsafe and unsavoury. Our Buckley Vann office has been in the Valley since 1992, in buildings that had been brothels or were close to ones that had been. West End was home for waves of post war immigrant populations – originally Greek and Italian, and later Vietnamese.

And so it went till the late 1970s at least, Brisbane continued as the big sleepy country town. It all started to change in the 1980s. Here’s my graphic representation of a brief history of planning for the region.

Photo 2 

The Brisbane city population essentially stalled around 750,000 for decades as suburban growth leapt its green belt into surrounding local government areas. But by around 1990, that changed and so did Brisbane.

Some defining moments

I reckon it’s possible to pinpoint a few key events and decisions that changed the course of Brisbane forever and made it the city it is today.

The 1982 Commonwealth Games followed by the 1988 World Expo (see photographs below) changed Brisbane. As a city, it started to believe in itself, pushing back on its traditional cultural cringe, and realising that it might have something to offer the world after all.

Photo 3  Photo 4

The post expo South Bank development saw the city have its first genuine crack at urban renewal, producing a precinct with a world class mixture of commercial, retail, tourism, parkland, entertainment and education. The debate about that redevelopment, for me, was the first time the whole Brisbane community became much more engaged about the future of the city and realised they can influence the outcome. There were heated discussions about what should happen, and I’m pleased to say that the Planning Institute was at the forefront of those discussions at that time.

1989 saw the end of decades of National (previously Country) Party government led by a rural focussed Bjelke-Peterson Government. In a pent up rush of reform, Queensland became more outward looking, and became really interested in how city development was being done in other parts of the world. Political, planning and community leaders headed off to see how things were done in places like Portland and Vancouver. This was the start of a long period of change in planning thinking about Brisbane and South East Queensland. We started on a path to a more sophisticated approach than the simple “growth is good’ mantra that had dominated previously.

So from about 1990, planning for Brisbane got really exciting! There was a whirlwind of activity as we started to realise that government could simply not afford to continue to pursue the development policies of the past. Indeed, regional planning in South East Queensland got going at least partly because (then) Deputy Premier Tom Burns realised (after a report by the Applied Population Research Unit of the University of Queensland which identified what the region’s growth meant in terms of new roads, buses, hospital beds, new schools etc) that the infrastructure required by projected growth was beyond the capacity of government to afford and we had to do things differently.

Meanwhile at City Hall, Lord Mayor Sallyanne Atkinson had realised new directions were needed for the city. Her ground breaking Inner Suburbs Action Program started to think about a new focus on the inner city, and there was also realisation of the need to plan for transport needs in conjunction with land use. With the election of the Jim Soorley administration in 1991, and the introduction of the landmark Building Better Cities program by the Hawke government, things really clicked into gear. We saw some other defining decisions made by State and Local Government about the future of our city including the introduction of footpath dining, urban renewal of the inner north eastern suburbs, Riverwalk, CityCat ferries and lots more.

 Coming of age

 I reckon Brisbane really came of age in the 1990s. We started to believe that we could do things in our own way, that we had something special here, that our city is different from other places. Since then we have developed a rich history of contemporary subtropical architecture, which is uniquely Brisbane and much admired around the world. My good friend former Vancouver city councillor, Gordon Price, always sings its praise – the use of colour, the blurring of the indoor and outdoor, and public and private space, together with buildings made more interesting because of external treatments that improve environmental performance – shades for temperature control and the like.

Photo 5  Photo 6  Photo 7

Brisbane also started to realise that its population need a much wider range of housing, and this started to roll out, often in our own particular subtropical style.

Photo 8 Photo 9 Photo 10 Photo 11 Photo 13


We also realised that one of our greatest assets was the Brisbane River, and Brisbane became known as the “River City”, and really started to invest in a range of things to make the most of that asset – the CityCats, Riverwalk, pedestrian and green bridges at key locations, urban renewal of the many waterfront inner city areas.

Photo 14 Photo 15

And we recognised that respect for our heritage was important, and started to protect it. Brisbane really started to become a big, grown up city. Since then, Brisbane has built some truly great places, from Southbank, to Kelvin Grove urban village, to the gasworks precinct, and many more throughout the city. These are world class. Suburban centre improvement projects have brought local main streets to life again – streets like Oxford Street in Bulimba, and Railway Terrace at Nundah.

Photo 16 Photo 17

We have also built some world class public transport infrastructure – our busways in particular, some great bikeways, and invested in river crossings for public and active transport.

Photo 18 Photo 19 Photo 20


And in recent years, we have seen lots of great things happening around the city that have helped make it really “new age” – laneway activation, a world class coffee culture, craft beers, deck chairs in CBD parks! Hipsters are colonising the inner city, baby boomers are moving back down town. People in Brisbane have access to a very active community life, especially in the inner city where festivals and celebrations, charity events and a real vibe of inner city life make the most of our outdoor subtropical lifestyle.

photo 21

My local coffee “chapel” where I regularly pay homage to caffeine!

 A New World City?

Brisbane markets itself as Australia’s New World City. I like that tag – it’s aspirational about our future. The term is a bit ephemeral, and often interchangeable with “global city” and there are many indices used to rank these cities. But the truth is that Brisbane doesn’t really rate in most of them, or gets a gig in the much lower order cities than the big names.

Being a real world city requires quite a few attributes. We do well across a number of indices, but for me there are a few important gaps.

Brisbane is grappling with growth just the same as most fast growing regions in the western world. Finding the balance between accommodating new population, retaining existing character, and allowing for a vibrant and exciting community life is an ongoing challenge.

We are seeing many communities pushing back against major change related to the inner city high-rise residential boom, and lower rise development in traditional inner suburbs. I reckon at least part of this is about design. Much of our latest development is unlikely to be admired as an attribute to the city in future decades.

Here, I agree with my fellow urbanist, Brent Toderian, that density done poorly is not acceptable. This is one of our greatest challenges. I regard Brent’s “Density Done Well” catchcry as the mantra for our future. Google the phase, and read his stuff.

We are also struggling with mounting road traffic congestion, even though much more road space has been provided, including our ill-fated massive investment in tunnels. And so to another challenge in our quest to become a New World City – transport. We don’t like to have it pointed out, but Brisbane is still rooted in an all pervasive car culture. It seems we still believe that congestion can be “solved” or reduced by building more roads. We hear talk of balanced investment in transport, but I see that as code for saying it’s okay to keep building more roads, as long as we build some busways and bikeways. Successful cities in the new world era are those that have realised that the key to being a successful urban, urbane place is to invest in transport quite differently. It is the quality of our pedestrian environments, how we allow movement by bike, and our public transport networks, that will be the backbone of Brisbane’s future growth. As yet, the balance here is a long way from what makes a world city.

Another big issue for us is how to allow more people to live in the inner areas of Brisbane – say the inner 5-10 kilometres. Brisbane’s economic future will in large part rely on how well it responds to continuing to provide quality and urbanity in the city, to facilitate the knowledge economy. The two big tides of demographic waves in our population – referred to as the baby boomers and millennials or echo boomers, or the description I prefer, the hipsters and broken hipsters, are moving into the inner city in droves. They want a lifestyle where you can walk to lots of facilities, and have the option to get around easily without a car.

As this pattern matures, many more people will want to live in the inner and middle rings of our city, and encouraging this will be important to our city economically, socially and environmentally. I doubt that we are providing sufficient diversity of housing we need to achieve that. Protecting the stock of tin and timber detached houses has its place, as does high-rise housing; but that won’t get us there. We need to provide more of what is often referred to as the “missing middle” – all those housing forms between those two extremes, which will allow us to cater for a much wider range of households in a city, and in the most accessible areas of it, while respecting our subtropical character. Here’s a diagram from the US based website about their version of this concept. Brisbane needs its own, subtropical version of this palette.

photo 22

And let’s think again about our transport systems. To me, extending our busway systems would’ve made a lot more sense than investing tens of billions of dollars in underground tunnels for cars, which will just become clogged again in five or 10 years. And the sooner we have a fully separated bikeway system, including converting some road space to protected bike lanes, the more we can take advantage of the health, economic, social and environmental benefits moving people by bike provides.

Another part of our journey to being a world city is having an engaged citizenry. Many leading world cities have on going community conversations about the big issues in their city; featuring public lectures, regular mainstream media items and social media discussions. We seem to focus on things when a big planning exercise comes along – we did this really well leading up to the 2004 Regional Plan, with the efforts of the Brisbane Institute and the Courier Mail’s Our Region Your Say series ignited community discussion about green space and transport. Over 300 citizens turned up at a community event as part of that, in the rain on State of Origin night, to discuss the future of their region. But there is little ongoing dialogue. Engaging people in shaping our city can happen at a practical level too, where tactical urbanism activities can get people out rebuilding our public spaces and their part of the city.

So Brisbane, you’ve come along way. Let’s use our new found maturity as a city to take on the challenges that will take us into the next decades to truly become a world city. Cities are becoming increasingly competitive nationally and internationally. For the foot loose creative and knowledge industries and workers, it will be the investment in our future liveability, urbanity, fairness and sustainable transport systems that will set us up to build on our wonderful city and climate to secure our long term future. Let’s engage our communities in working that out.

A few ideas about how the future World City might look!

I took to social media to ask people what one big change they would like to see in Brisbane in the future. This certainly engaged many citizens! The dozens of responses were much appreciated, thanks all! A lot focused on transport – more public transport, more protected bike lanes, more green river crossings, less reliance on cars, congestion charging, reallocating road space away from cars and parking etc, better use of our existing road space for cars and even burying the Riverside Expressway into a tunnel to open up the CBD to the river again. Other issues brought up were affordability (housing and living!), renewable energy, infusing cultural aspects, more night life and community life. And not making decisions solely on the basis of economics!

So here are a few ideas for the Brisbane of the future, partly informed by that great response:

  •  everyone (not just the well off) have genuine choices about where to live, where to work and how to get around;
  • a transport system that prioritises people, rather than cars. The cross river rail and extending our busway network are no brainers. And let’s talk about some of the sacred cows – should the Riverside Expressway go underground?
  • ongoing opportunities for our citizenry to understand and engage in the complexities of the issues we are grappling with, and to help shape the city;
  • a buzzing, multi-modal inner city with a thriving knowledge, financial and creative economy;
  • a shared and engaging public realm, including rebalancing the use of our road space, which people feel connected to and influence;
  • remade suburban areas across the city that offer good local community life, a focus on “happening” mixed use centres, options for getting around, and a range of housing that suits all households, ages and income groups;
  • smarts infrastructure (free wifi etc), big car share schemes, parklets, urban agriculture, green walls and roofs, simple cheap interventions that create community spaces and interaction;
  • Everyday people doing everyday things in everyday clothes, on bikes; and
  • and lots of street trees!

Greg Vann

December 2015



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  1. Stephen Lacaze says:

    Cars vs Bne is an interesting conundrum with its roots in exported American auto culture. Except for the brief foray into the busways, the Wilbur Smith plan still seems to drive transport design. Even the Transapex tunnels were only a slight metamorphosis of it.
    At this stage, rather than denial, my suggestion would be to actually complete the East West link tunnel whilst stalling other major road developments. This would at least provide the city with an effective ring road with multiple tendrils to the M1 bypass backbone. By providing toll subsidies on M7 from M1 to F3 of say 50% during peak hours, traffic volumes in those facilities would increase and faith could be restored in the ppp concept. Costs of this would be offset for at least 15 years by halting the upgrde of KSD and Darra to Rocklea both of which were elements of WSP, and Darra to Rocklea being the first part of Ipswich expressway completed in 1990s.

    At this point road infrstructure should be set to maintenance mode, with major projects representing hazard and bottleneck reduction, eg Grannard Rd overpass of Beaudesert Rd, which would relieve much of the congestion of Darra to Rocklea.
    The development then of xriver rail which is a major bottleneck should not be in the either or basket but an immediate priority. The sidelining of freight volumes which must use the suburban network is now at breaking point, and since the relocation of much of the port to the POB needs urgent attention to reduce the increased use of road freight options.

    So in a nutshell there are 3 essential projects (maybe 4) 1. Xriver rail 2. Toowoomba Range rail first and road tunnels 3. East West road /multi purpose link.

    Curious about your thoughts.

    • Greg Vann says:

      Thanks for all that, Stephen! Interesting ideas. Agree cross river rail is our #1 priority. I’m not much for any further subsidy on the road tunnels – induced demand caused by massive increase of that road space supply will fill it up over time, and unhelpfully create a lot more car use. PPPs do work for PT, just not road projects. See my earlier post as to why… Other transport priorities I’d recommend are bikeway network and busway extensions.

      Anyone, appreciate your commentary – the discussion is important! Cheers

      • Stephen Lacaze says:

        I guess what drives my logic is a desire to see something actually finished. The road network, with a functional east west link completing the city ring could be considered a completion milestone.
        The busway programme which has now achieved an important milestone can be said to have been executed almost in stealth, but remains to fulfill its full potential.
        The electoral pshchology of having a major project like the East west link sitting there serves only to fuel clamour for expensive distractions as noted above.

        We are so far down the car road that we cannot deny it, but rather need to get to a point where we can realistically say enough for the moment and turn efforts to mass transit.

        Further, really simple things such as utilising the NSW line to provide commuter services from Jimboomba to say Coopers Plains or Rocklea, would be stupidly simple and low cost as an alternative to the continual upgrading of Beaudesert rd.