I have just had the luxury of spending several weeks strolling around cities in northern Europe and experiencing their urban design qualities first hand. Having studied urban design in UK close to 40 years ago, and returned a few times over the years, I feel a sense of perspective on change in some of these cities.
While I was away the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Survey was released, putting Melbourne at the top of the pile and ranking other large Australian cities well also. I’m afraid I‘m not one of those Australians who returns entirely satisfied with home. There is no doubt the urban design of our cities has progressed in some areas but we are clearly heading the wrong way on many fronts.
Density and building form All these cities are compact and dense by our standards but there are no towers. Mandatory building heights and development designed to fit local context between four and 10 levels produces high quality streets. Our cities are crude and arbitrary and without urban quality by comparison. These cities all have a strong community lobby that resist any forms of tower development. Development in these cities is mainly infill that appears to be far more sustainable than new development in our cities.
Transport balance The car does not have a significant presence in these cities. Public investment in public transport has been substantial. Copenhagen just completed building a state of the art underground system but is now excavating all over the city to build a major expansion of new lines and stations. Copenhagen has long held the mantle of Europe’s most bike-friendly city but most other northern European cities are doing well or even better in this area. The staggering difference between these cities and Australia is that there is hardly any lycra, or fast light-weight bike, to be seen. Cyclists are all ages and physical capability in normal dress, and they move slowly, abide by the rules and rarely have to share the road space with cars.
Transport interchanges are a growing and vital part of cities attracting plenty of investment. Stations typically deal with multiple intercity trains, local train, metro, tram and bus routes, and often also have below ground car parks and bike storage facilities for literally thousands of bikes. You can usually walk out of many revamped stations into a new public square and a connected pedestrian precinct. In this setting cars become inconvenient. By comparison, our cities are totally car dominated and our recent decade or so of building off-street car parks in our centres will make it hard to reverse this imbalance.
Sustainablity I not surprised that per capita energy use in Europe is around 30% less than Australia. Lord Mayor Robert Doyle may be pleased with Melbourne’s regained number 1 status but that is about the lifestyle of high flying executives now, and not about the rest of us and our quality of life in the future. We have plenty to learn and a lot to do.