Urban design would not have been front of mind when Danny Dorling wrote ‘Population 10 Billion’, but the text is riven with ideas connected to what it is that shapes our communities.
Dorling, a professor of Human Geography at the University of Sheffield and is also a visiting Professor at the University of Canterbury NZ, in the School of Social and Community Medicine of the University of Bristol and in the Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths, at the University of London. This short piece from his book tells a little of how he saw Melbourne when he visited in 1995:
“I’ve visited Australia only once, I 1995, for a conference on ‘Computers in Urban Planning and Urban Management’, back when some of us thought we only had to program our way out of trouble. I was driven around Melbourne, out past what appeared to be never-ending rows of detached homes each sitting in their own unsustainable garden, each requiring so much driving time into the city that I could stop feeling guilty over having flown halfway around the world just to go to a conference of fellow nerds. We finally reached the city limits, where they were still building new very low-density, very water needy housing. It was as if everyone wanted their own swimming pool.
Fifteen years on, and even further out from the centre of Melbourne urban sprawl has continued almost unabated. The billboards for property developments such as ‘Renaissance Rise’ and ‘Woodlands Waters’ have beneath them, as one contemporary commentator on the ground put it:..luxuriant fronds a fake green grass. Irony is not a characteristic of real estate promotion, but I had to wonder if a tongue was firmly in a cheek when the copywriter came up with the line on the next billboard: ‘Kiss the urban sprawl goodbye’ … A friendly salesman extolled the virtues of country life – though he admitted to living further west, in Sunbury, along another of Melbourne’s stretching suburban fingers. ‘It’s much safer than the inner-city,’ he said, ‘There is no crime, no theft, no need to lock your door.’ (I refrained from asking why all the display homes were equipped with burglar alarms. Maybe the alarms are there in anticipation that those areas will become more ‘inner-city’ as sprawl goes on and on).
In some ways, standards of living in Melbourne have deteriorated in the last two years. On 3 October 2012, the city’s entire road system appeared to shut down due to too much traffic and computer software crashing on the control systems on road tunnels. The government’s response was to say that they needed to build another road across the city. A caller to the local radio station explained, instead: “Each time we look for the basic cause of these problems, and the basic cause is suburban sprawl”. What is changing in places like Melbourne is that today, it is callers to radio shows who can explain the problem. Seventeen years earlier, it was a few town planners with computer models who were suggesting that all might not be well.
As Peter Mares, the contemporary commentator from 2010, put it when talking about Mernda, the most recently build outlying Melbourne suburb: The problem is not such the escalation of our numbers but the escalation of our wants. Growing up in a house with only one bathroom did not mean my childhood deprived. My parents were not unhappy because they lacked on en-suite and walk-in wardrobe. The average floor area of new homes increased by 40 per cent between the mid-1980s and the early 2000s, even though the average number of people per household fell sharply during the same period. Our homes our now the largest in the world, though the blocks they cover are no larger. Mernda, in the aptly named Plenty Valley, is just one of many sites of collision between our growing numbers and over ever-inflating aspirations for ‘life-style without compromise’.
Just two years later, the citizens of Mernda found that the roads to downtown Melbourne were blocked with all the other commuters’ cars. Australia shows how even in the most spacious of lands, it is possible to quickly exhaust carrying capacity by asking the land to carry us, our cars, our gardens, en-suites, walk-in wardrobes and idylls of living apart from each other in the way that cannot work. What went wrong in Australia was too little value given to time, and an overconsumption of energy.
Dorling, sees himself as a ‘practical possibilist’ and fellow author Stephen Emmott, who is the head of Computational Science at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, UK, and who has written “10 Billion”, as an ‘angry pessimist’.
Urban design and population appear inextricably linked and anyone interested in the future shape of our towns and cities could learn from Dorling’s book: ‘Population 10 Billion’, published by Constable ISBN 1780334915.