Laneways Article: Through the (back) streets of our town

Burnett Lane Sign

Over the past four years, the laneways of Brisbane have transformed from a filthy back alleyway overrun by trucks and abandoned by those who like to maintain their personal hygiene, into a cultural and vibrant Mecca for Brisbanites. Today the laneways are utilised for everything and anything, from a café or wine bar frequented by inner CBD workers at lunch or after work to a hip and trendy festival sought out by the indie population. With the Brisbane City Council’s Vibrant Laneways and Small Spaces Project four year run drawing to a close, how have they transformed over the four year period and what does the future hold for Brisbane’s laneways?

Laneway café’s and restaurants are known for their unique locations and their architecture. Weaving a maze through the city, they can be found between buildings, down the narrowest of alleys and in the most unusual locations. However, it’s the artwork and graffiti lining the brick, urban walls as well as the eclectic and quirky mix of furniture that defines the characteristics of the café’s and restaurants.

The Laneways Project saw the Brisbane City Council spending $10.65 million from 2009 to 2012 on the development of unused spaces around the inner and outer CBD and in the Fortitude Valley. Lord Mayor Graham Quirk this year announced that an additional $2 million would be put towards the project. The pledge by Cr Quirk will deliver four council designed laneway “facelifts” over the next three years, building on the project implemented by previous Lord Mayor Campbell Newman.

Amidst the dulcet amber tones and leather furniture of Brew Café and Wine Bar, you’ll find an early adapter of the Vibrant Laneways and Small Spaces Project in Brew owner Brett Rowland, who believes that Brisbane’s laneway culture is continuously growing and Brisbane is ready to explore. When it comes to the funding of the laneways, Rowland said that, “funding wise I don’t think you need to do too much. I mean you go to Melbourne and a lot from what I can gather, the emphasis was on support for businesses to get up and running rather than beautifying the lanes themselves.”

While Melbourne’s graffiti stained labyrinth of laneways emerged gradually over time, Brisbane’s laneways have been the result of council rule changes allowing easy access for Brisbane laneway enthusiasts. Rowland believes that “once you start getting the pedestrianised access and people moving in and out, just about any business is going to be able to operate.” While a dental surgery or a doctor’s surgery might not work, Rowland argues that just about any business would compliment the theme of the laneway. “You go to Central Place, which is just up from Degraves [Street] in Melbourne and you’ve got a range of cafes, restaurants, bars…you’ve got a shoe shop in there at the moment [and] a lingerie shop,” he said.

The development of the laneways hasn’t always been smooth sailing, having faced an array of challenges over the years both from the governmental red tape to lack of foot traffic. “There’s always the access challenge and when you utilise it and the access whether it’s for deliveries, for consumers, for customers, for staff, I mean that’s always an issue,” Rowland said. One of the big challenges Rowland thinks the laneways face is “blocking off the laneways for certain periods of time to allow people to sit on the street and the footpath dining” as well as “the negotiation around licensing restrictions between food business and the operation of the business in a space that would not normally be used.” But what is the biggest challenge overall? Keeping everybody happy.

As the tide of the Brisbane River devastatingly seeped its way into the CBD and most of Brisbane in January last year, budgets across the city and the state were cut, with the project losing $1.3 million of it’s funding before it was suspended. However, there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel and for the laneways of Brisbane, their saviour came in the form of newly elected Lord Mayor, Cr Graham Quirk. Under Cr Quirk’s new policy, $1.3 million of upgrades would be received by three laneways. Under the existing laneways project, Burnett Lane, the home of Brew has already seen an improvement of $2.5 million; in addition, it’ll receive $750,000 from Cr Quirk.

Cr Quirk has said that the Vibrant Laneways and Small Spaces Project have established Brisbane as a “new world city”. “It’s [also] about fostering Brisbane’s cosmopolitan culture and supporting those small businesses that show civic pride in wanting to revive Brisbane’s forgotten spaces,” Cr Quirk said. However, Rowland doesn’t share Cr Quirk’s optimistic outlook of Brisbane just yet. “In relation to a vision for the city, I think as anything it is a visionary statement; we’re always trying to achieve our vision and goals. I still see Brisbane as a big country town and I think that’s really a part of the drive of people moving back to Brisbane. A lot of our clients who have done time in Melbourne and in Sydney in corporate offices like BHP and big law firms, they come back to Brisbane because they like the big country town,” he said, “but at the same time, we’re now providing and have those ‘new world’ type services and restaurants.”

While comparisons are often drawn to Melbourne’s laneways, Rowland believes that while Melbourne has led the way, looking at laneway restaurant development, Brisbane and Melbourne aren’t that dissimilar. “We’re developing some great operators that are doing some amazing stuff in all different areas – Woolloongabba, the guys there at Uptown or Crosstown. The Barracks is doing well with their stuff, with Libertine and Peasant and then you go to the traditional James Street which has been around for a while now and they’ve done well as well. The guys there at Canvas, Pearl have really done well with activating Woolloongabba again,” he said. In regards to Cr Quirk’s vision, Rowland said, “I think we are getting there and we’re working hard to get there and it’s getting there. What is a ‘new world’ city? I still think that’s a question to ask – is that a London or an LA? If it is, I don’t want to get to that. I think that bigger businesses are coming here; we are doing things smarter and better. If that’s about progress in a ‘new world’ city then I think we’re getting close to it.”

The Changing Lanes Festival, held on May 25 in the Fortitude Valley’s Hynes Street showcased work from QUT design students. Guests were greeted by a 9-foot tall vagina, aptly named the “FLESHold”; just one of the many forms of urban craftsmanship on display. Despite the day’s heavy rain, festivalgoer’s braved the storm to check out the future of Brisbane’s laneways. Co-event organiser, Olivia Hallam is one of the many CBD workers who frequents the winding and maze like back streets of Brisbane. “I like the uniqueness about them [laneway cafes]. Going for coffee there has a completely different culture to it, than going to that of a mainstream cafe. I love seeing the different things cafes do to set themselves apart from others. You wouldn’t think it, but milk crate stools are incredibly cute and cost effective,” she said. When it comes to Laneway culture, Miss Hallam believes that it needs to be built in Brisbane, “I think to attract consumers, they need to advertise stronger than that they’re doing at the moment. The great thing about laneways is that they have this ‘underground’ feel to it, but if no one knows about it, it’s not going to take off…and this is why we’re having the festival, to do exactly that.”

With the Vibrant Laneways and Small Spaces Project’s four year run coming to an end, what does the future hold for our laneways? “What I hope is that people will make the best of the opportunities that are there. That’s all I think you can ask for,” Mr Rowland said. “The hope for me in all of these laneways is to provide the opportunity to allow the growth to occur, that there is a continued support from council, by the state government around licensing and regulations and I think the population of Brisbane is ready to explore different things.”

According to Mr Rowland, on any Friday night at Brew, “we can have a group of mid-fourties rockabilly women fully tatted up in one corner and in another the barristers that are working out of the Hitachi building and a couple of council workers or ATO workers.” So next time you’re in the CBD, pop into a laneway, explore the scene and sit amongst the “ridiculously diverse demographic” that the laneways have to offer.

Just don’t compare them to Melbourne.

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