Jane D'Arcy May 20, 2012
Living in the lane: Nott Architecture's North Fitzroy Project.
Melburnians are making the most of their laneways.
Twenty-first century Melbourne loves its 19th-century laneways. Once thoroughfares for delivery carts, they're now home to cafes, bars, eye-catching graffiti and have inspired dedicated laneway tours and the annual St Jerome's Laneway Festival (which, somewhat ironically, is now too big for its laneway beginnings).
Modern Melbourne is in the laneway mood, too, with QV's retail development designed to ''encapsulate Melbourne's love of laneways''.
However, step outside the CBD and it's a different story. For the most part, bluestone laneways are seen only by straggly weeds, superseded TVs, corrugated iron fences and roller-doors. According to Yarra mayor Geoff Barbour, in Yarra alone there are 2027 lanes.
''If joined together they would stretch for 96 kilometres,'' he says. That's a lot of lane. It's also a lot of work, as most laneways, even those with the name of the original subdivider on the title, are the responsibility of local councils, which means it's the local council that keeps them clean.
''One of the big problems we have is that people use them as a dumping ground for unwanted household goods such as couches and TVs,'' says Mr Barbour.
With space at a premium in the inner city and, thankfully, pipes rather than people now disposing of sewage, are there ways to reclaim these neglected lanes? While selling laneways to developers has been taking place in Melbourne's CBD, buying your own strip of back lane in the 'burbs to increase your footprint is not a fait accompli.
''On average, about three people per week contact Yarra Council to discuss purchasing their abutting right of way [ROW],'' says Mr Barbour.
''Most of these inquiries don't proceed any further as council advises residents that it won't consider selling ROW space unless the space is at the dead end of a laneway. We don't want to see adjoining neighbours blocked off from accessing their properties.'' It's not necessarily cheap, either, with applicants up for all legal costs, as well as the market value of the land.
Terence Nott, principal architect of North Fitzroy-based Nott Architecture, has a different solution. In response to today's ''pressure for any bit of land,'' Mr Nott is designing houses that actually open up to the laneways and little streets of the inner city.
His two most recent lane-fronting designs are quite different. One involved subdividing a block of land, half of which houses an art gallery on Collingwood's Smith Street, and building a home on the 94-square metres that fronts Little Smith Street.
According to Mr Nott, there were few problems with the council, but some issues with gas supply and bin collection.
Mr Nott designed a two-bedroom, two-storey house with an entrance and garage on the ground floor, and a first-floor living room and balcony looking out over Little Smith Street. By the time it was completed 18 months ago, several lane-fronting townhouses had been built next door. He's positive about the result.
''It's definitely brought life back into that little street,'' he says. ''Previously, there was just traffic - just delivery vans. Now there's a lot more activity, a lot more people walking down, going to the coffee shops and hairdressers around the corner. You get conversations going on.''
According to Mr Barbour, Yarra Council has received and approved several permit applications that ''activate laneways'' by having studios facing them. ''These applications typically have some form of garage at ground floor and then windows and balconies at the upper level,'' he says.
''We support developments that retain the unique character of a laneway and improve perceptions of safety.''
Mr Nott's second laneway project (in design stage) is about giving a growing family more room and accessing the light and space of its rear laneway. This two-storey building will sit behind the family's existing North Fitzroy terrace and its living room will open up to the rear lane.
The property's owner, Michelle Khoo, is enthusiastic about the plans to ''punch windows into the laneway'' but has found that others don't quite get it.
''Friends were asking, 'what about security?''' she says. ''Well, I don't see a problem with security. I don't see a problem with people looking in; there's very little traffic. I just think 'what a beautiful community space!' Most people have access into the laneway - who knows, if you get to know your neighbours, it could be a great little drinking place or just a place [where] you can all get together and communicate. It's dead space now, why not turn it into a community space?''