People oriented city planning

Kingston foreshore buildings Canberra

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.

cone sculpture at New Acton

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.

Australian Urban Design Awards 2014

The 2014 Australia Awards for Urban Design (AAUD) were announced on Monday 14 July at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra. The Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) hosted the annual awards night, with 2014 Awards patron, Lucy Turnbull AO presenting the awards. Category winners were:

Delivered Outcome Award – Large-scale (two award winners)
New Acton Precinct, Canberra
Oculus with Fender Katsalidis Architects and client Molongo Group

Eagle sculpture in public space New Acton Canberra
Source: Oculus

Prince Alfred Park and Pool, Sydney City
Sue Barnsley Design and Neeson Murcutt Architects, created with the City of Sydney.

Palm trees at Prince Alfred Park and Pool

Delivered Outcome Award – Small-scale
Fremantle Esplanade Youth Plaza
Convic, City of Fremantle

skateboard arena FreemantleSource: City of Freemantle, Western Australia

Policies, Programs and Concepts Award – Large-scale (no award given)
Commendation: Pilbara Vernacular Handbook, Western Australia
CODA Studio with Landcorp

Pilbara Vernacular Handbook cover

Commendation: Darwin City Centre Master Plan
City of Darwin, Northern Territory Government, Design Urban Pty Ltd

aerial plan of Darwin

 Policies Programs and Concepts – Small Scale Award

The Goods Line, Sydney
Aspect Studios and CHROFI for the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority

Impression of the Goods Line precinct Sydney
Source: Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority

Commendation: Thinking outside ‘the box':
Key design elements for apartments in Ku-ring-gai
Ku-ring-gai Council Strategy and Environment Department

page of design guide for apartments
Source: Thinking Outside the Box 2011

Commendation: King’s Square Urban Design Strategy
CODA Studio with City of Fremantle and Creating Communities Australia

Renderings Kings Square

Sustained Contribution to Urban Design Award
Urban Voices – celebrating urban design in Australia
Editors: Bruce Echberg, Bill Chandler, John Byrne
For the first time, the judges were delighted to confer a special award for sustained contribution to urban design to the Urban Voices book.

The Australia Award for Urban Design was first presented in 1996 and is hosted annually by the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA), supported by the Australian Institute of Architects, the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, Consult Australia, Green Building Council of Australia, the Property Council of Australia and the Urban Design Forum.


Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns

Recent travels around the UK and Europe have revealed to us how important street design is, in creating spaces that are comfortable, useable and aesthetically pleasing. How to create great streets is the focus of Street Design a recently released book by two accomplished architects and urban designers, Victor Dover and John Massengale.

Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns provides insights on how good street design can unlock economic value, increase happiness, improve health and reknit neighborhoods. In the United States the Complete Streets policy has been adopted by over 600 jurisdictions, with communities demanding beautiful streets where people want to be. Street Design provides a blueprint for how to meet that demand.

This manual for street design looks at hundreds of streets old and new, revealing what works and what doesn’t and the secrets behind designing beautiful streets and walkable places. Massengale and Dover have solutions for how to improve neighborhoods, cities, and towns: to make them walkable again. This begins with great streets where people want to be, where they feel comfortable, safe, and enjoy their surroundings.

Street Design is a useful handbook for urban designers, civic leaders, architects, city planners, engineers, developers, landscape architects, and community activists. It is ideal reading for any person who wants to make their community walkable and create memorable streets that are not just routes to someplace else, but great places that are destinations in themselves.

The guide includes information on:

  • how to design new streets and improve existing ones to create more walkable cities and towns
  • examples of more than 150 excellent historic streets, retrofitted streets, and new streets, explaining why they are successful and how they were designed and created
  • common street-design challenges and ways they can be addressed through placemaking
  • strategies for shaping space in the public right-of-way through correct building height to street width ratios, terminated vistas, landscaping, and street geometry.

With over 500 colour and black-and-white photos and afterword by James Howard-Kunstler, we look forward to Street Design providing a source of inspiration for creating better streets around the world.

Urban Voices book released

Urban Voices coverpage of book

Urban Voices was recently released to celebrate the 100th edition of the Urban Design Forum. The book Urban Voices looks at urban design in Australia over the past 25 years and looks ahead to the challenges for the next 25 years.  It contains contributions from a wide range of people interested in how our cities and towns function and the quality of life they deliver.

The book acknowledges that urban design in Australia is a work in progress, with the past 25 years seeing radical changes in nearly all spheres of life in Australia, and the world.  These changes include climate change, population and household structure, immigration movements and urbanisation, as well as media and communications, finance, and governance.

For more on the past, present and future of urban design in Australia purchase Urban Voices or check out the Urban Design Forum for urban design news and updates.

Design 29: Creating a Capital

Design 29

The Design 29: Creating a Capital exhibition at the National Archives of Australia showcases the designs shortlisted  for the 1911 Federal Capital City Design Competition for Canberra.

The exhibit displays many of the the original entries of the design finalists and is an interactive exhibit that utilises augmented reality technology on iPads, to imagine how Canberra might have looked today, had some of these designs been realised.

The exhibit will be running from 1 March to 8 September 2013 at the National Archives of Australia, Queen Victoria Terrace, Parkes, Canberra.

See the ABC news report for further information on the Design 29 exhibit.



Active Design

New York City Active Design Guidelines cover page

Karen Lee  Director of the Built Environment Program at the New York City (NYC) Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has been touring Australia speaking about the connection between urban design and human health. In particular she has been promoting NYC’s Active Design Guidelines, which are a fantastic resource developed over several years to support the implementation of urban design practices that support physical activty and improve health.

To download a copy of the Active Design Guidelines visit the Centre for Active Design or to see Australian based case studies and guidelines on the same issue visit Healthy Spaces and Places.

We are hoping to track down a few of the before and after shots from New York City, to demonstrate some of the Active Design success stories, including Playstreets.

How Urban Design Can Help Curb Obesity

aerial view of streets and houses katie chao and ben muessig/Flickr

Thanks to   for use of this article on the ‘Fat of the land: how urban design can help curb obesity’  by Billie Giles-Corti, University of Melbourne and Carolyn Whitzman, University of Melbourne.

Giles-Corti and Whitzman discuss below, how we can change our obesogenic environment through urban design.

Compared with our grandparents, feeding, clothing, and entertaining ourselves has never been easier: a one-stop weekly shopping centre trip in a car, facilitated by convenient parking and light-weight maneuverable shopping trolleys that allow us to whiz around the supermarket with ease.

In fact, these days people don’t even need to leave home to do their food shopping, order takeaway food, bank or pay bills, shop for clothing or household goods, “visit” with their friends, read the newspaper or amuse themselves. Using the internet or telephone, activities that used to involve some level of activity or a short walk, can be done with “anywhere, anytime” convenience.

The internet and telephone have made life easy but it’s not all good news. teoruiz/Flickr

If we couple this lifestyle of convenience with a media environment that advertises and provides an attractive array of easily-accessed, low-cost and tasty, high-fat, high-sugar foods – it’s not surprising that obesity is such a huge problem.

Australia is one of the global leaders in the obesity epidemic, with two-thirds of Australian adults and a quarter of Australian children, overweight or obese. Alarm bells are ringing in health circles about the impact this will have on all the major preventable diseases: type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. These diseases will get worse unless we can help people maintain a consistent belt size throughout their life.

Poor diet, lack of physical activity and other sedentary behaviours are the main culprits in the obesity epidemic. People choose how active they are and what they eat. But their local environments – their neighbourhood, local parks and streets, as well as their homes, workplaces and schools – provide opportunities and barriers that affect those choices.

There’s widespread agreement that we’ve created obesogenic environments that encourage both inactivity and overeating. So what can be done about it?

People are more likely to walk and cycle if they live in safe, compact, pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods. Marionzetta/Flickr

For a start, we could improve neighbourhood design to get people out of their cars and onto the streets. People are more likely to walk and cycle if they live in safe, compact, pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods characterised by connected street networks, access to nearby destinations such as shops and parks, mixed uses of building such as housing above shops, and high population density.

People living in the suburban sprawl walk less, drive more, and spend more time in sedentary pursuits, such as watching television or cruising on the internet, than those living in compact, pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods. We need to plan services in new communities so that schools, shops, public transport, and parks arrive at the same time as housing – so that residents can develop good walking, cycling and public transport habits from the outset.

At the same time, we need to share the resources available in established suburbs closer to the city where there’s already good access to parks, jobs, and public transport. This means increasing the number of people who live in inner-city suburbs and giving more people access to existing shops and services.

We also need to think about quality and access to open space: parks, ovals, play grounds, and school grounds. The way open space is designed gives people cues about how it is to be used – is this open space simply for vandals and hoons, or does it say to local residents (regardless of age), “this space is open for active business, come and join in”?

The way open space is designed gives people cues about how it is to be used. Grant MacDonald

Similarly, we need to make the most of what’s called “blue space” – waterways, such as creeks, lakes, rivers and beach fronts. We know that in wealthy areas, blue spaces are opened up and invite the public to be active with walking and cycling paths, but is this true in lower-income areas?

There’s growing evidence that people who drive long distances to work are more likely to gain weight. Reducing commute times would not only be good for the environment, it would also be good for our waistlines – particularly if it involved walking or cycling to rapid public transport. This requires the right types of jobs to be available locally – what type of local business activation models could assist?

We need to give people choices so that healthy options are easy to pick – in neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces. Policies ensuring there’s plenty of fruit, water, and healthy take-away food – not just high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar alternatives – give people the opportunity to make healthier choices.

Providing access to community garden spaces encourages children and adults to develop a love of fresh food has the potential to have a positive impact on our waistlines too.

Community gardens encourage people to develop a love of fresh food. RDPixelShop/Flickr

And we need to think carefully, as a community, about how happy we are about the way unhealthy food is marketed and actively promoted so readily to children and young people. This normalises unhealthy food choices. We may need restrictions on the marketing of fast food to children in the mass media, at school and at sporting events.

These are choices to be made not only by individuals and families, but also by society. Planning and policy interventions are crucial to correct a serious market failure that is promoting unhealthy lifestyles, at the expense of the health and well-being of the nation and the future life expectancy of our children.

We have choices to make as a society. We know what we prefer – how about you?

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.