Two years ago, Rob Adams led a team study jointly commissioned by the Victorian Department of Transport and the City of Melbourne to establish the potential to transform metropolitan Melbourne to meet the projected population of 8 million by 2050. ‘Transforming Australian Cities – for a more financially viable and sustainable future – transportation and urban design’ was a major contribution to the metropolitan planning and sustainability debate. In a recent interview with UDF, Rob Adams reflected on what led to his observations about how cities work, and how to plan and design them sustainably for the future – and what has happened since the report was published.
There are some ironies, says Rob. Superficially, the then Labor Victorian State Government supported the proposal to focus low rise medium density development on public transport routes, and limit fringe sprawl. But they missed the point of the concept completely by legislating to allow increased development 200m either side of all public transport routes – potentially a 400m medium density ‘corridor’. Needless to say, this was met with serious opposition.
Despite seeming to absolutely oppose the concept prior to the election last November, the then Opposition, now State Government, seems to be more in tune with the actual intent of the proposal: to accommodate the increased population in about 7.5% of the existing suburban area, focussed on public transport nodes – retaining the traditional suburban form for the remaining 92.5%, without resorting to high rise.
However, they have proceeded with major extensions of the urban fringe. Rob notes that recent research further complicates the irony: the fringe is now becoming unaffordable, despite rhetoric to the contrary.
Einstein was right!
Rob says Einstein got it right: you can’t use the ideas and techniques that created the problems to solve those same problems. [what Einstein actually said was: ‘No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it’] We are still trying to use the ideas of the 1950s, when suburbanisation really took off, and what we need is a new paradigm, Rob says. Currently the resources are insufficient, and new skills relating to community engagement and implementation are needed.
As a member of the Urbanisation Council of the World Economic Forum, Rob was recently very surprised, indeed shocked, that when setting the agenda for the Davos Symposium, there were many important topics – but not ‘cities’. Rob says that this omission flies in the face of the fact that cities are primary home to the world’s population, its greatest economic driver – and its largest producer of greenhouse gases. National governments are mostly blind to the importance and challenge of cities, he says.
Notwithstanding the flurry of recent activity by the Australian Government, interest in cities is very limited. Rob says it focuses only on the large scale and the macro, such as main roads and railway projects, not the fine grain, or with an understanding of how cities actually work. Governance is a key challenge to be addressed. We are still operating on 19th century patterns of decision-making. We have Minsters for all sorts of things – but not cities. Community often don’t trust planning – with changes to controls, political decisions – and often lack credibility. Local government decisions need to be well thought through, sensible and robust – not driven by fear of change, say Rob.
Effective problem solving
The real challenge is to convince politicians, and the public, that successfully planning and designing cities is an effective route to solving other problems – such as population increase, climate change and social inclusion.
The City of Melbourne has adopted a new and simplified approach to planning for change. Rather than traditional zoning, the planning principles revolve around three types of areas: those where stability is paramount, those where tweaking is acceptable, and those where comprehensive development is appropriate.
Rob was stimulated first by the lessons from Cape Town University in 1960s where, instead of building more spread-out universities, they discovered better, cheaper and sensible options – such as re-timetabling lectures with extended hours. The result was three times the number of students, and more buildings, but no more land taken. And it created a more active and enjoyable social environment. This approach also applies to cities, says Rob. Rather than relying on ‘big infrastructure’, such as stand-alone shopping centres and roads, look at fine grain mixed uses such as very accessible child care adjacent to where the parents can take advantage of part-time work and diverse job opportunities.