Dream job for CBD neighbourhood partner

Residents and businesses have shared their vision for the CBD with neighbourhood partner Michelle James, who will work to strengthen the community for years to come. 

Michelle grew up in seven different cities, including Melbourne, Houston, Shanghai, Tokyo and Madrid. Her globetrotting childhood gave her a passion for places and people. 

It’s a passion she carried forward into her career as an architect, designing small public spaces like schools and libraries, and later into community development and placemaking work. 

All this was the ideal training for her current role: neighbourhood partner for the CBD. 

‘People and place have been the main thread throughout my career. I enjoy “connecting the dots” between community members to support them to do great things,’ Michelle said. 

Michelle has now been working with the central-city community for five years (previously as a community engagement partner for both the CBD and Southbank), facilitating engagement and connectivity. 

She is part of a team of partners who work with unique neighbourhoods across the municipality.  

‘We spend a lot of time in the community talking to small business owners, residents, students and visitors to understand what’s important to people in their unique neighbourhoods,’ Michelle said.

‘People are really excited about the potential of this neighbourhood model. After all, people experience the city through place, not through traditional siloed organisational departments.’ 

About our neighbourhood model

We’re working to better understand and respond to community needs in a highly localised way through a new neighbourhood model.

Led by passionate neighbourhood partners, the model aims to ‘connect the dots’ between the City of Melbourne, residents and businesses, to empower local people, build community capacity and guide city projects.

To find out more and have your say on what matters to you in your local area, visit Participate Melbourne.

Michelle said that people in the CBD gained a new sense of community during COVID-19. 

‘The pandemic reminded residents and business owners who are in the city 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, that they have a community here, aside from the commuters who come and go each day,’ Michelle said. 

‘People finally connected with each other as neighbours and that anonymity disappeared a bit, even if their interactions were through masks for a while. This was a lovely moment of connection. 

‘While of course we want to see people return to the city so businesses can thrive, this sense of neighbourhood connection and community resilience is something that we want to support and encourage into the future.’  

So, in addition to a visionary city-shaping agenda, a big part of Michelle’s role is connecting disparate parts of the neighbourhood to improve people’s day-to-day lives and deepen the impact of grassroots projects. 

For example, facilitating a collaboration between the Melbourne Men’s Shed and a local childcare centre, or connecting an isolated person to conversation clubs or activities at a local pop-up library. 

‘It’s these simple connections that can make a big difference in people’s lives and make neighbourhoods all the stronger,’ Michelle said. 

During the community consultation process, Michelle has discovered more and more about what central-city residents value about the CBD. 

‘We all know and love our city – there’s the iconic imagery of laneways, bars, heritage buildings, trams, theatres and restaurants. All that is integral to the character of Melbourne and what we love about it,’ Michelle said. 

‘But also people are telling me how valuable it’s been to have all the amazing parks, gardens and waterways on their doorstep, particularly during lockdowns. And of course they’d like to see more greening into the future. 

‘It’s also clear that the CBD isn’t a homogenous place. Across the Hoddle Grid there are distinct areas, some which are well developed, and others that we could really strengthen.’ 

‘You could think of it like the New York model, where they have SoHo, Tribeca and so on – distinct neighbourhoods within the greater neighbourhood of New York City.’ 

The City of Melbourne is home to people from many different cultures and backgrounds. A key part of Michelle’s work is to ensure that all voices are heard. 

‘My role is about deeply understanding the various people who make up the neighbourhood, which includes long-term residents, small business owners, international students, workers, people sleeping rough, visitors and many more,’ Michelle said. 

‘Inclusion is key. That is, not just hearing from the most engaged citizens, but also other people who have different interests and perspectives to offer. This is more than just a survey, it’s about long-term engagement and participation.’ 

The neighbourhood partners document everything they hear to create a rich knowledge bank of insights about people who work, study and live in each neighbourhood, to inform city projects into the future. 

‘Coding and capturing all the data and insights allows us to pull together all of the information to create a comprehensive picture of the neighbourhood,’ Michelle said. 

‘Using this information alongside amazing data sets from other work areas, we can help project managers understand, for example, community sentiment about greening among people aged 60 plus in the CBD.’  

Michelle’s consultation work has surfaced 27 priorities for the CBD neighbourhood, including community connectivity, safety in the street, apartment living, homelessness support and street cleanliness. 

‘I’m hearing that people are keen to tackle these things together. They don’t see it as something solely for council to solve. They want to work together,’ she said. 

Michelle believes that the CBD can bounce back stronger than ever post-pandemic. 

‘Recovery is super important from an economic and social perspective. We are all seeing the devastation that COVID-19 has caused, but this time is also about reinventing,’ Michelle said. 

‘Melbourne is known for being a creative place, with so many amazing thinkers and doers. It would be great to find ways to repurpose buildings that perhaps aren’t being used in the way they used to be. 

‘Through this process, it’s important that we don’t leave anyone behind. We can’t turn the city into a place for a certain type of individual. It needs to be accessible, affordable and integrated, not just one person’s vision. 

‘To be honest, this is my dream job. I pinch myself every day and I’m looking forward to working with the community for many years to come.’ 

Visit Meet Your Neighbourhood Partners to hear from partners for other local suburbs.

A group of people smiling on a city street

Neighbourhood partners outside Melbourne Town Hall