Melbourne academic creates a formula to explain what makes a city tick


It’s a question raised by locals, travellers and tourists in great cities all over the world as they admire their surroundings and absorb the energy that flows through them. What’s the source of it all? Or in common parlance, what is it that makes a city tick?

In seeking an explanation we often think of a city’s rich history, unique architecture or the pervasive attitudes and perceptions amongst its occupants (e.g. the famous New York minute, which as Johnny Carson once said is ‘the interval between a Manhattan traffic light turning green and the guy behind you honking his horn.’)

Undoubtedly, these all flow into what gives each city around the world a unique identity. But in a recent article in The Conversation, Kim Dovey and Elek Pafka both urban design academics at the University of Melbourne approached the question from a unique urban design perspective.

Dovey and Pafka’s theory cited three key attributes, which they believe are common to all great cities and neighbourhoods. They labelled it ‘urban DMA’, that is a city’s density, mix and access.

“When we talk about ‘urban DMA’, we’re talking about the density of a city’s buildings, the way people and activities are mixed together, and the access, or transport networks that we use to navigate through them,” Dovey and Pafka write.

It’s a lot less romantic than talking about a city’s iconic figures or its major historical events, but according to Dovey and Pafka, a city is more likely to be the place of interesting happenings and events if it has a certain urban DMA.

“Like biological DNA, urban DMA doesn’t determine outcomes, but establishes what is possible,” they write.
With Melbourne being judged the world’s most liveable city for the last six years by the Economist Magazine’s Intelligence Unit, we thought we’d try and unravel Melbourne’s urban DMA to see if we can’t come up with a few insights into what makes this great city tick.

Density
In regards to density, Dovey and Pafka speak of the relationship between density and intensity, but argue that one doesn’t equal the other.

“When we don’t have the synergies of the DMA, we often get density without intensity” – basically congestion. But there is a sweet spot where density (of both jobs, residents, and housing size) fuels interactions that lead to the creation of ideas, cultures and ultimately dynamic atmospheres. And for the most part Melbourne hits that sweet spot.

Yes, housing density in Melbourne is an ongoing issue (like in all cities around the world) but overall Melbourne has planned very well so that areas of higher-density living are not over-crowded and are still well interspersed with shops, services, schools and green open spaces.

Mix
We know that in a big city we will see a mix of people, move through a mix of environments and have a mix of experiences. In Melbourne, the inner-city suburbs are renowned for being eclectic places possessing different characters that enable people to have a mix of experiences. Why is this important? Like density, Dovey and Pafka write that it enables “encounters and flows between different categories of people, buildings and functions.”

The inherent value of mix is obvious when we consider Melbourne protection of it famous Victorian era buildings. Basically, by layering old and new, the city offers a window into the past. A fact that enriches the lives of all Melburnians.

Access
Perhaps the least obvious aspect of what makes a great city is access. Although just about every large city has a big task dealing with transport issues, there is no doubt that great cities have far better transport connections than less-renowned cities. Dovey and Pafka also make the point that while access refers to major transport connections it also refers to the walkability of the suburbs in which we live – and Melbourne’s inner suburbs are highly walkable.

Ultimately they conclude “access means nothing if there is nowhere to go – the synergy with density and mix is everything.”

At LK Property Group, we believe that Melbourne’s urban DMA is in pretty good shape.

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