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.

The Public City: Essays in Honour of Paul Mees

the public city bookcover

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 )

The business case for better streets and places

Electronic walking man on screen

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:

  • Sheffield, Heart of the City
  • Oxford Circus, diagonal crossing – where improvements to the pedestrian environment were found to result in an increased turnover of 25% for one of the major retailers facing this intersection.
  • Reinvigorate York, providing pedestrian improvements for the 7 million visitors that visit York annually.

To find out more about this study click here.

Walk 21 Sydney: How do we create walkable cities?

Sydney opera house with walker in foreground

A stimulating couple of days at Walk 21 Sydney, has drawn a whole host of research projects, concepts and innovative thinkers to our attention. Over the next month, we will highlight some of these people, publications and research to assist in spreading the word on how we can develop better urban environments.

If you would like to add a post, or links to relevant information please get in touch.



Festival of Urbanism: Health and high rise, is density bad for you?

Just in case there is not enough on your calendar, the Festival of Urbanism has just launched in Sydney! Running from the 15 October to the 6 November 2014, the festival is packed full with interesting of events. Tonight’s discussion is ‘Health and High-rise – Is density bad for you?

Expert panellists (see below) will address health issues related to increased density.

  • Associate Professor Stephen Corbett, Director of the Centre for Population Health in Western Sydney Local Health District
  • Dr Jennifer Kent, Urban Planner, Macquarie University
  • Dr Peter Sainsbury, Director of Population South Western Sydney Local Health District

To attend register here.

The theme of this year’s Festival of Urbanism is ‘Megaprojects’ for more information see the Festival of Urbanism.Tr


The Inaugural Paul Mees Debate

On Tuesday 14 October 2014 the Sustainability and Urban Planning Program at RMIT, Melbourne is hosting the inaugural Paul Mees debate, to honour one of Australia’s foremost transport advocates and planning scholars, Dr Paul Mees OAM

Panellists will consider the topic:  

That public transport planning is too important to be left to politicians

Debaters are:

  • Senator Janet Rice, Australian Greens, former Mayor of Maribyrnong and co-founder and former Chair of the Metropolitan Transport Forum
  • Mr Rod Quantock, Melbourne comedian and self-professed ‘failed architect’
  • Councillor Jackie Fristacky, Mayor of City Yarra Council
  • Associate Professor Wendy Steele, Principal Research Fellow at RMIT University
  • Professor Carolyn Whitzman, Professor of Urban Planning at the University of Melbourne
  • Mr William McDougall, Consultant transport planner, engineer and economist.

The debate will be held at the RMIT Capitol Theatre, 113 Swanston Street, Melbourne at 6pm on Tuesday 14 October, 2014.

For further details, including how to register for the debate see:

Happy PARK(ing) Day 19 September 2014

Parking Day logo upside down car with park growing out of it

Temporary pop-up parks and artistic installations are occurring worldwide today in celebration of PARK(ing) Day, these will transform metered parking spots into temporary public parks.

PARK(ing) Day started in 2005 when the San Francisco arts collective ‘Rebar’ came up with the idea that paying a parking meter is a bit like renting a public space, so instead of parking a car, why not park something better?

On the third Friday of every September, designers, creatives, planners, architects, landscape architects and anyone passionate about new ideas for their city, temporarily transforms on-street car spaces into creative places that make the street more enjoyable, attractive and sociable.

park in a parking spot, lady on sun chairSource: Romania PARK(ing) Day website 

Here are some links to PARK(ing) Day events:

For more information see the PARK(ing) day website.