Reflecting the diversity of specialities and activities that a concept like ‘sustainability of cities’ envelopes, speakers at this year’s conference included architects, planners, housing researchers, psychologists, politicians, local and state government bodies, developers, public transport activists and sustainability consultants. In a reflection also of the growing acceptance within Australia’s design community of both the importance and immediacy of sustainability issues, coupled with the high quality of invited local and international speakers, the 2 day conference was attended by over 600 enthusiastic, and at times animated, delegates from every state and territory in Australia.
Public transport crucial to sustainability
While public infrastructure, public transport in particular, was identified as crucial to any project for a sustainable urbanism, speakers such as Bogotá’s former Mayor Enrique Penalosa and Brisbane-based consultant David Engwicht showed that what was required was not simply a ‘lifting of percentages’, such as that advocated in Melbourne 2030 for example (20% of all trips to be by public transport by 2030, up from the current 9%), but a more fundamental shift in thinking. David encouraged a public transport system that was not solely focussed on facilitating ‘planned’ trips from A to B, but one that encouraged and enhanced ‘spontaneous’ interactions and meetings amongst inhabitants of the city, events that would both enrich and stimulate exchange. The Bogotá case study proposed that traffic congestion be looked on as a valuable urban design tool (particularly when you are trying to promote public transport options) but that, regardless of the quality of urban planning schemes, issues like that of public transport were first and foremost political ones and consequently only strong political will and action could alter the current imbalance between the public and private realms of the city. Curitiba, represented at the conference by two-time Mayor Cassio Taniguchi, remains a leader in the innovative use of its public transport network and demonstrated how it integrated its bus system into the provision of a range of local government services such as internet access, public library access and new mothers’ health programs.
Along side this consensus that design solutions (at any scale) must be accompanied by political will, many examples and case studies detailed at the conference showed that significant progress was possible. One of the conference’s great successes was showcasing how the developing world is increasingly at the forefront of innovative, sustainable and citizen focussed interventions in cities, with examples cited from India and southern Africa and South America. Recent developments in Australian cities were also analysed, with well known Danish urban designer and researcher, Prof. Jan Gehl, presenting to the conference the results of his latest study of Melbourne. This showed, over the last decade, a 40% increase in city visitors, a tripling of café seats and the nearly doubling of the number of people using the streets of the CBD of an evening. He reinforced the message that cities (and their urban design professionals) must strive to achieve places that are not just economically and environmentally sound, but socially sustainable as well.
CityEdge: Case Studies in Contemporary Urbanism, (ed. E. Charlesworth), containing selected papers from all five CityEdge conferences is currently available from Architectural Press UK. A book containing all of the talks presented at the 2005 EcoEdge Conference will be available later this year. The next CityEdge Conference will be in June 2006.