Series 2 of our favourite satirical drama Utopia will be screening soon on ABC TV. Starting on Wednesday 19 August at 9pm, we hope this series exceeds our expectations. With the tag line: “The multi award-winning satirical comedy about a group of people charged with building this nation – one white elephant at a time” surely it will be a winner!
Australia’s apartment boom is in full swing. Nationally, 40% of new dwellings are now apartments or units, and building approvals outnumber those for houses. Melbourne and Brisbane are the most extreme cases, but these trends are national; and they are fundamentally reshaping the future of urban Australia.
In Melbourne, for example, the inner city is being flooded with 1-2 bedroom micro-apartments set in increasingly tall towers (+30 storeys). Almost half are under 50 square metres – not much bigger than a generous double garage. These would be outlawed in other world cities, including Sydney. The Property Council of Australia and much of the industry acknowledges the problem. Victorian Planning Minister Richard Wynne has now released a discussion paper, and there is a plan for new guidelines next year.
The market is not delivering what families need, and as a result, future liveability in Australian cities is in jeopardy. Much of the commentary is about size and density. An urgent discussion is also needed about quality and the market.
Reports of “vertical slums” are not entirely unwarranted. Apartments can be great homes – why are ours so mismatched with families and affordability concerns? For working families in the city who need access to services and work, there are few affordable alternatives.
Quality vacuum – a race to the bottom
Many new apartments have bedrooms with no windows, low ceilings and inadequate storage. They have poor access to natural light and ventilation, and underperform on environmental efficiency. Internal amenity of apartments is comparatively under-regulated. Apartment bedrooms without windows, for instance, are illegal in New York, Hong Kong and Vancouver.
Current regulation is failing families and future Australians. Building Code of Australia (BCA) and National Construction Code (NCC) requirements, borne out of original concerns with safety, are seemingly inadequate to the delicate task of ensuring quality while enabling innovation. Even the Guidelines for Higher Density Development (DPCD 2004) fail to provide specific and measurable outcomes, with high-level objectives that are evidently easily bypassed in practice.
Marketing airspace – unconstrained towers
A recent report unfavourably compares Melbourne’s high-rise rules to those of world cities. Developers in Melbourne can build at four times the densities allowed in New York, Tokyo or Hong Kong. Moreover, inner city developers are generally under no obligation to contribute to essential public infrastructure, such as affordable housing and community facilities, through density bonus systems. The findings are nothing short of damning, not least for a city that prizes itself, year on year, as the “world’s most liveable city”.
Market-driven urban development “logic” is rarely questioned, but there’s evidence of wholesale market failure. Much of our high density, high-rise apartment stock caters to the local and overseas investor market, enticed by favourable taxation and regulatory regimes. Putting aside concerns about the potential impact of tightening regulations on foreign property investments, many new apartments seem basically unaligned to households’ and families’ changing needs.
Two priorities emerge: for reform, and for understanding changing housing needs.
Reform or regret
Hodyl’s report makes a case for urgent market reforms to establish density controls; density bonuses to link development to public benefit, including open spaces, affordable housing and community facilities and an enforceable tower separation rule to mandate the minimum distances between towers. It also argues that Melbourne would benefit from apartment standards.
In Sydney, guidelines and processes have long been in place to regulate minimum apartment sizes, maximum numbers of apartments per floor, requirements for window provision, minimum floor-to-ceiling heights and minimum storage sizes (SEPP 65).
Reforms towards “good design” pre-suppose an understanding of the future occupants of apartments and their housing needs. A recent study found “good design” is a reasonably uncontroversial concept: it is design that accommodates changing household comfort and needs, and contributes positively to the environment, health, wellbeing and safety.
A current study called the LATCH Project is underway to determine changing household needs and the everyday experiences of inner-city apartment dwellers, including families.
The research reveals the huge diversity of households – future apartment dwellers are not just single-person households and empty-nesters. They need daylight, functioning kitchen spaces, storage, nearby schools and open space. Things that currently fail to align with high-density developments across our cities.
If you have not heard of tactical urbanism, you may be missing one of the latest urban trends.
Tactical urbanism refers to low-cost, temporary changes to the built environment, usually in cities, intended to improve local neighbourhoods and city gathering places. Tactical urbanism may also be referred to as guerilla urbanism, pop-up urbanism or D.I.Y. urbanism.
Place Partners in Sydney is a strong advocate of interventions that create better places for people and recently held a workshop to look at tactical urbanism opportunities in one of Australia’s best known urban streets: Oxford Street, Sydney (home of the Sydney Mardi Gras).
A workshop facilitated by Kylie Legge of Place Partners and Ryan Reynolds of Gap Filler was held at the end of February. From this workshop three ideas for action were decided upon:
Bringing the Rainbow Up Oxford Street
With Mardi Gras approaching, it seemed like a great time to bring back the much loved Rainbow Crossing to Oxford Street – but this time, in a much safer way!
The proposal was to colour a chalk rainbow on the black asphalt between South Dowling Street and the Verona Cinema on the City of Sydney side (we did not want to install on expensive bluestone that would put the Council offside). This was a great way to test a response – if it was well liked by the public, we may be in a better position to lobby for a more permanent installation. The project draws on the goodwill associated with Mardi Gras and would hopefully pull some people a little further up Oxford Street than they would otherwise go for a great photo opportunity, in a space of relatively low-patronage.
UPDATE: This project has been completed and was up for one week before the Council removed it after Mardi Gras. The photos and a summary have been sent to the City of Sydney to suggest a permanent installation (with paint) nearby. Please contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any other ideas for projects elsewhere on Oxford St.
Shopfront Art Gallery
The Shopfront Art Gallery will be utilising shop windows to place some great artworks in otherwise overlooked spaces along Oxford Street. The project will collaborate with UNSW Art and Design to take care of insurance, liability, selecting the students/artist, hosting the website and the potential to sell work. The second step will be site assessment and contacting owners, including spaces such as the old box office at Verona, or the empty shop at Willow. Then… installation!
Manpower required: Some really great artists to put their hands up as well as people to help out with install. Three people on the team currently.
Timeline: Aiming to have talked to UNSW Art and Design and decided on formalities/project set up within one week. Aiming for at least 4 installations done within one month.
What would happen if Oxford Street had a voice? Rather than growling ‘For Lease’ or ‘Stop’, what if the street suddenly serenaded us with positive messages or inspiring quotes from literature, film and fashion? The aim of this project is to activate rundown walls and under used spaces on Oxford Street through the use of poetic, thought provoking, attention grabbing words. These will be applied to selected areas as pasteups.
Manpower required: We need people to help come up with the quotes, design, any of the graphics and help choose the location of installations. Any help would be appreciated! So far there are 5 people on the team.
Timeline: Aiming for minimum 4 installs within one month, hoping for 8. Send through your ideas to get this project moving immediately!
Strategies to improve health outcomes in developments, such as providing protected bikeways, minimising noise pollution, and offering amenities such as community gardens, are highlighted in a new publication from the Urban Land Institute, the Building Healthy Places Toolkit.
The Toolkit outlines 21 practical, evidence-based recommendations that the development community can use to promote health at the building or project scale.
On physical activity:
Incorporate a mix land uses (to reduce the need to drive from place to place)
Design well-connected street networks at the human scale
Provide sidewalks and enticing, pedestrian-oriented streetscapes
Provide infrastructure to support biking
Design visible, enticing stairs to encourage frequent use
Install stair prompts and signage
Provide high-quality spaces for multigenerational play and recreation
Build play spaces for children
On healthy food and drinking water:
Accommodate a grocery store
Host a farmers market
Promote healthy food retail
Support on-site gardening and farming
On healthy environment and social well-being:
Minimise noise pollution
Increase access to nature
Facilitate social engagement
Adopt pet-friendly policies
The report illustrates the application of the recommendations to seven real estate typologies – master-planned communities, multifamily, mixed-use, office, industrial, single-family, and retail.
The Building Healthy Places Toolkit is part of ULI’s Building Healthy Places initiative, an ongoing program of work to shape projects and places in ways that improve the health of people and communities.
Jan Gehl’s recent visit to Canberra brought with it a reminder and a clear message that cities are for people.
The history of many cities, particularly those designed and constructed in large part through the 1960s and 70s, has been to design for the car.
Canberra like many other Australian cities has made half-hearted and piecemeal attempts to tame the car, this has come in the form of pedestrian malls in the city centre, and the occasional lacklustre public square.
The public life of Canberra certainly suffers from the spread out nature of its suburbs and multiple centres and has been designed in plan view, with little thought for the human experience, particularly for those attempting to walk through its spaces.
Gehl’s concept of a human scale city is one which is designed for a person walking through the space at 5km/h. At this speed we see detail and can identify people, and at this pace there is the need for small scale visual interest and interaction. Cities designed for car use, tend towards big block development, open expanses and limited pedestrian scale detail.
Useful measures of success, when considering whether a city is designed for people include:
Is it accessible for a 7-8 year old (does it allow them to move around independently and safely)
Number of cultural events
Weekend visitors to the city centre (not just a place for office workers)
Number of evening activities such as restaurants, concerts etc.
While it was disappointing that Gehl didn’t provide much commentary on Canberra (hard to do within a brief visit), his advice to remove 50% of the asphalt certainly wouldn’t go astray.
From this perspective that would mean less surface car parks, more buildings with ground floor activity and smaller scale elements between existing big box developments and the street or surrounds. Sections of Canberra that have begun to experience some of this human scale development include Braddon, New Acton/East Acton and Kingston Foreshore.
Let’s hope that next time a Gehl Architects representative comes to Canberra the same can be said for other activity centres such as Woden Town Centre, Mawson and Weston Group Centres (to name a few). As these spaces, while delivering retail floorspace and convenient car parking, are underwhelming as places for people.
Canberrans love Canberra for many valid reasons including it’s clean, unpolluted air and water, it’s extensive outdoor recreation system, the ease of travel (by car mainly, or bike if you are fit) and the employment and education options available.
However for Canberra to continue as one of the worlds most liveable cities and become a vibrant city loved by visitors as well as residents, there will need to be a greater focus on human scale development, transport choice (not just cars), public meeting places, connected pedestrian and cycle networks and greater housing choice (not only detached houses on individual blocks or apartments, but more townhouses, terrace houses, cohousing, supportive housing etc).
Focusing on places for people, and ensuring that the overriding objective of putting people first in the design and planning of any new place or development, would support a more vibrant and active Australian capital.
How can we improve city life? That is one of the questions that the book ‘The Public City‘, honouring the late Associate Professor Paul Mees seeks to answer.
Co-edited by RMIT University’s Dr Beau B Beza and Melbourne University’s Brendan Gleeson, it is a tribute to RMIT’s Associate Professor Mees, one of the world’s great activist scholars,who died last year. His urban ideal counted on a watchful, confident and
well-informed citizenry to work collectively in a quest for fair and just cities.
Fifteen of Australia and New Zealand’s leading urban scholars, including Professor Emeritus Jean Hillier and Professor Gleeson, have contributed to the book.
The Public City includes a foreword by the late Professor Sir Peter Hall, a world leader in urban planning from Britain.
The collective works in the book draw upon Associate Professor Mees’ ideas as well as providing a blueprint for the improvement of civic and institutional purpose in the creation of the public city. The works also provide personal insights into his life.
The Public City: Essays in Honour of Paul Mees, will be launched next week. Father Bob Maguire, recently named as one of Victoria’s 20 Living Treasures in the Herald Sun newspaper, will open The Public City launch, hosted by RMIT’s School of Global, Urban and Social Studies and the Centre for Urban Research.
What: Book Launch – The Public City: Essays in Honour of Paul Mees When: Thursday, 4 December, 6.30pm Where: Pearson & Murphy Café, 124 La Trobe St, Melbourne, enter from rear of
RMIT Building 1. Cost: Free (RSVP through www.publiccitylaunch.eventbrite.com.au )
One of many fantastic presentations at Walk 21, was from Living Streets London Manager, Tom Platt. He spoke about the business case for investing in better streets and places to deliver improved financial return for the high street (also known in other countries as the main street, downtown or shopping streets).
In the last decade, 16 per cent of high street shops in Britain have become vacant. During this time people have continued to move from short frequent shopping trips, to longer, less frequent car trips, with two thirds of shopping trips made by car.
The UK based study entitled the Pedestrian Pound, was commissioned by Living Streets and supports investing in the public realm as a means to increasing retail spending, reducing retail vacancies and creating an environment where people will walk for shopping trips. (This also contributes to other established co-benefits related to health, social inclusion and the environment).
The study findings include that:
Well planned improvements to public spaces can boost footfall and trading by up to 40%.
Investing in better streets and spaces for walking can provide a competitive return compared to other transport projects, with walking and cycling projects increasing retail sales by up to 30%.
Many car journeys are short and as the volume of goods is small, these trips could be made on foot.
The report is also supported by interesting case studies from the UK, including: