FOR Melbourne to retain her charm, the next growth period, which will be huge, must be gently managed. As our population doubles from a medium-sized city of about 4.2 million people now to a large metropolis of 8 million by the middle of this century, we will be changing shape at a fast rate. The question is, into what?

To design the future, we must look to our past. What characteristics define this place, what types of buildings and interactions between people and places, how do we participate in our city and what is missing?

There remains a drive by many developers and their supporters to build high-rise towers to provide for the masses. But that may not prove a sensitive and comfortable future for Melbourne.

It appears the macho collection of mediaeval stone towers in Italy's San Gimignano have somehow taken root in the imagination of our builders, who have suggested we construct huge towers for Federation Square stage 2, with others mooted for the west end, Docklands and Fishermans Bend. Their idea is that tall is good and taller is better.

But Docklands now shows how misplaced values and a rush for quick profits will stain a development, leaving the task of humanising, making it secure and liveable, to future generations.

This new west end of Melbourne is isolated, the streets are nondescript and the spaces between places are dead boring, non-functional and made of tough urban litter.

Bad planning usually overlooks history and local traditions. And much of that comes about because the city grows in piecemeal stages, driven by individual developments that owe little to the communal good.

But the patterns of Melbourne, the characteristics that make this city so enjoyable, are not that hard to decipher.

The Hoddle Grid works. It allows the city through its wide streets and secondary roads to breathe using the southern prevailing winds that whip through the grid. By contrast, the secretive north-south lanes, arcades, passages and paths allow people to navigate through the city with relative protection from harsh winter rains and burning summers.

Wide lateral streets in much of the inner city allow for street trees, which provide protective canopies and shade, but also a character to the street, a stippled light across buildings and the gentle sounds of leaves moving in waves of breezes.

Melbourne is a city lived on the street. We don't have much of interest to look at outside (as do Sydney, Hong Kong and San Francisco, for example). A giant ferris wheel has little visual subject matter here, making it redundant.

Melbourne's focus is at a human scale: a shop window, a cafe doorway, secluded bars leading from nondescript footpaths, walls of graffiti art best seen close up. We spend time detailing brass windows and ornate doorways, elegant block numbers and textured walls.

Lighting is discrete. We don't need to flood the place with huge graphics, we are best using spotlight lamps, smart signage and concealed pelmets, with filtered light spreading through skylit roofs.

The texture of our streets is important. The subtle change from Chinatown to the legal precinct, or from emporium windows to tiny boutique displays, provides a regulator to everyone's experience of the city. These gentle changes enrich our experience at a human scale.

With few exceptions, large open spaces don't work well in Melbourne. Our bitter chill-factor winds - which are common - require small, protected gathering spaces, rather than spacious open plazas.

Melbourne is a three-dimensional woven tapestry, not an open air zoo. The fabric is woven out of carefully considered threads that developed over our 170 years since European settlement at least, and, like all fabrics, it needs care and good management to survive.

I think the best growth pattern for us is that of a dense city located on ground level with wide open avenues running east-west and small lanes and arcades moving us north-south.

There may be room for some high-rise buildings in all this, but the essence of this city is on the street, at human scale, in places that protect, entertain and enliven.

Norman Day is a practising architect and adjunct professor of architecture at RMIT.

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