By Dr Matthew Burke, Senior Research Fellow, Urban Research Program
Urban planning is usually viewed in the same way as a bad warm-up act at a live music gig.
Planners and others who regulate land uses in Australian cities often get a bad rap and cop abuse for their efforts. Planners and the codes and approval processes they’re involved with get blamed for everything from the unaffordability of housing to destroying the economy by tying up business in red-tape.
I myself recently suggested bad planning is partly responsible for the dull retail sector we find in Australia, particularly in our shopping malls . But what we might call ‘good planning’ rarely gets due acknowledgement. And something good happened in Brisbane this last decade that shows what’s possible if planners are empowered to do what they do best.
Planning helped save live music and the associated industries in parts of this city. And they helped make it a better place to live.
The problem of live music venues
There’s a small place called The Press Club in Fortitude Valley.
It played live music, at volume, many nights a week. But around the turn of the millennium, the abandoned offices next door were redeveloped into the Sun Apartments building following planning approval. The new residential complex shared a wall with the existing live music operator. Noise complaints ensued and, under the out-dated noise and liquor laws of the day, the authorities forced The Press Club to pull the plug on the music.
Every iconic music venue in the city was effectively faced with the same threat. A poorly sound-proofed apartment building could be erected next door and long-standing music operators who’d always kept their noses clean would be shut down.
Given live music isn’t all that profitable and is faced with a litany of other challenges, it wasn’t a happy time in the industry.
Of course, live music has its positives and negatives. On the plus side, live music attracts visitors, supports cultural expression and cross-cultural interaction. It helps create a sense of place, and provides key social and recreational outlets for residents. It also contributes significantly to the local economy (Deloitte Access Economics 2011).
On the down side, it emits noise and vibration from amplified music that can affect noise-sensitive land uses like houses, community facilities and public spaces. And patrons can be unsociable at times. If left unregulated live music often ends up in an ‘underground’ scene in disused factories and other fire-traps, or in suburban dwellings, outside of basic health and safety regulation. Resolving the conflicts that ensue is important for not only maintaining social order but also public health, as sleep disturbance has clear links to human health (Muzet 2007).
Our research: Amy Schmidt and I looked at this problem over a number of years, with Amy conducting an honours thesis that explored the planning approaches in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. In Brisbane we found a process we call ‘collaborative planning’ was critical in finding a solution for Fortitude Valley. Our work was published this month in the journal Australian Planner.
All the Brisbane informants we spoke to praised the planners and the process involved.
One particular officer from Brisbane City Council was asked to work with residents groups, the music industry, lobbyists and others to revise five pieces of legislation, plus planning controls and find a way through the mess.
Some technical noise modelling helped, but the main approach was in gathering the parties together, mutually learning from one another, and finding possible compromises both within the regulating authorities and the affected communities. Once people understood the broader benefits of the live music scene and the scale of the threat, things started to happen. Not everyone got everything they wanted, but a plan emerged that gained consensus approval and was put in place.
The solution was to ring-fence part of Fortitude Valley and to effectively give ‘first-occupant rights’ and other certainties to both housing developments and the live music venues.
The framework was enshrined in the Valley Music Harmony Plan, first released in 2004.
Now, residents had every right to complain about a new venue opening up next door if it wasn’t sound-proofed. But similarly, developers had to put better soundproofing into new dwellings and residents could not complain about long-standing venues that only emitted noise at a standardised level.
Brisbane City Council even produced a ‘Valley sound machine’ to help prospective apartment purchasers understand what noise can be like in the location (it only recently disappeared on the Council website – perhaps it will return soon?).
The outcomes a decade later are obvious.
Live music venues proliferate across the Valley. Venues and operators come and go but iconic places like The Zoo and Ric’s are seemingly thriving.
There are the same old issues for venues outside Fortitude Valley that need fixing, such as recent problems in West End, and we question the increasing concentration of Brisbane’s night-time economy into the Valley.
But the Brisbane case shows that good planners can and do provide solutions when empowered to do so.
Deloitte Access Economics. 2011. The Economic, Social and Cultural Contribution of Venue-based Live Music in Victoria. Melbourne: Arts Victoria.
Muzet, A. 2007. ‘‘Environmental noise, sleep and health.’’ Sleep Medicine Reviews 11 (2): 135-42.
Dr Matthew Burke is a Senior Research Fellow and Australian Research Council Future Fellow with theUrban Research Program, Griffith University
Disclosures: Matthew Burke receives funding from the Australian Research Council, the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads, Queensland Health, Moreland City Council, Moreland Community Health, Logan City Council, Springfield Land Corporation and Lend Lease Communities.