The pandemic is a rare shake-up of the urban status quo, and it’s served to particularly challenge the dominance of cars and traffic as the design priority of urban streets.

Imagining Lonsdale Park: turning roads into parks could be the renewal our city needs

The pandemic has underlined an important truth of city life: urban nature is essential infrastructure. Life in lockdown reminded us that urban parks don’t just look nice - they also provide valuable social space, and are a key support to our physical and mental health [1].

The pandemic also showed us how quickly we could make space for this essential infrastructure. The rapid rollout of ‘parklets’ – long successful in San Francisco - reminded Melbourne of the adaptability of our streets. Some leaders are taking this lesson a lot further. Barcelona is surging ahead, expanding its ‘superblocks’ program to remove traffic from smaller urban roads, and ensure all residents have a park within 200m. Paris is converting 70,000 parking spaces into pedestrian and cycling space, and converting the infamously busy Champs-Élysées into an ‘extraordinary garden’.

These are big, bold moves that will create large areas of valuable new green space for residents of those cities. Melbourne has the opportunity do the same – and perhaps go further. The pandemic is a rare shake-up of the urban status quo, and it’s served to challenge the dominance of cars and traffic as the design priority of urban streets. The opportunity will pass, but if we take the initiative soon, Melbourne could inaugurate a new generation of urban parks that used to be roads.

If you need a bit of help imagining what that might look like, here's an aspirational vision from New York.

An animation showing the streetscape in front of a tall, narrow building with green lawn being rolled out along the road, green planter boxes, trees and people popping up alongside, and green walls growing up neighbouring high-rise buildings.

A re-envisioning of New York's Flatiron building - animation by WATG

As fanciful as this visualisation may seem, it’s really quite possible, and demonstrates the real opportunity to re-create our streets as desirable public green spaces. If you prefer not to imagine (or trust glossy animated renders), Sønder Boulevard in Copenhagen is a great example of how wide roads can become beautiful, multifunctional linear parks.

Sonder Boulevard - photo from Air BnB.

Melbourne has been taking tentative steps in this direction, with the possibility of parklets being made permanent, and the early signs of a move to shared zones in many CBD streets. While it’s progress, these are comfortable, incremental moves that don’t rock the boat. We could be making much bigger steps. Radical as it sounds, a program converting city streets into parks would simply be a re-balancing of priorities in how we use public space.

We must recognise that the spaces between buildings, currently so dedicated to transport infrastructure in the form of roads, can become other kinds of essential social and natural infrastructure. To provide attractive, high-amenity space that keeps us cool, promotes exercise and helps our mental health. Build the park in a way that provides habitat and you also give people a chance to see wildflowers, hear birdsong and remember that they are part of a large natural ecosystem, not separate to it.

Well-equipped linear parks can also provide valuable social infrastructure, giving us opportunities to be among other people. This might mean something active like playing basketball or climbing a rock wall, or just quietly sitting on a park bench or walking your dog. By converting a few city streets into parks, we provide two vital things the internet can’t replace: real social contact and access to nature. These are powerful offerings, because our social needs haven’t changed. In fact, they may have increased, with the elimination of so much of the incidental social contact we used to get through work and shopping. This makes social spaces more important than ever. Urban nature has always served a social function [2] but many of us appreciate these green spaces a little more after the pandemic, where they played a key role in our emotional resilience as we socially distanced [3].

People playing basketball in a fenced court on a city street

People playing basketball along Sonder Boulevard - photo from

The politics of making these changes are challenging, but gladly, there are plentiful precedents for the conversion of traffic space to public space and a few narratives that seem to work. The Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, took a direct path campaigning overtly in her support of walking and cycling over cars. It worked, and she was re-elected last year. Sydney’s Clover Moore looks to be taking a page out of Hidalgo’s book, proposing a number of road conversions in the leadup to elections in September . In cities like London and Madrid the shift is explained by the need to reduce urban pollution.

Closer to home, the City of Yarra has been showing how it’s done at a micro scale for years by converting a number of road segments into exceptional pocket parks. This is driven by the need to provide parks for residents in dense former industrial suburbs like Collingwood and Richmond. More recently, research undertaken in the City of Yarra found that each restaurant and café with access to a parklet brought in an average of approximately $10,000 in additional income each month.

What could this mean for Melbourne?

In our central city, the narrative that may work best is one of urban renewal. Creation of a set of new linear parks could be a powerful strategy to renew our flagging CBD, which is struggling in the wake of the pandemic. Hybrid work, online shopping and abundant home delivery options have made the CBD an increasingly optional destination for many of us. If we want it to thrive, our city’s streets have to become places we want to go.

Of course, there will be practical challenges to manage, and some will predictably argue they are insurmountable. A crucial step will be showing doubters that there are well-precedented design solutions to address the challenges. With a skilled team of engineers, landscape architects, urban designers and horticulturists, the typical issues can be worked out. Access for emergencies and deliveries can be designed into an urban park and underground services can be relocated, or worked around, to get trees into our new linear parks. Access by car to these new green corridors doesn’t need to be impossible either. Parking can be provided nearby with spaces reserved spaces for disability access.

Potential gentrification impacts will need to be managed carefully. While our new parks may dream of the New York Highline’s pulling power, it would be a disaster if we saw the same escalating local rents. Choosing the right streets will be just as important. A top-down process is a sure recipe for backlash and political opportunism. The selection of a street is best led by local citizens, with guidance from planning and design experts. Which streets would you suggest?

My instinct says Russell Street would fare best, but ‘Lonsdale Park’ has a nice ring to it. Maybe we should just do both.

Thami Croeser

Thami is an urban planner and spatial analyst, working in the RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research. He works with cities around the world to prepare plans for urban green infrastructure in his role on the EU Urban GreenUp project.