Some features are:
- it was set up by, and has significant funding from, the National Government
- it has high profile members – and status and clout relating to both urban spaces and buildings
- it has an impressive list of achievements in influencing urban design (and some failures no doubt?)
- its publications are relevant for many jurisdictions and cultures – including Australia
As CABE’s reputation grew, a number of Aussies (including myself ) were attracted to see what they were doing. And we were impressed. Creating an even stronger association, a number of wandering Aussie professionals sought employment there, and became part of the CABE experience. Some of them have now returned to Australia, and are working in positions of influence.
Our cities and towns have many good planning and design aspects, and we have professionals operating with ‘best practice’ skills. But are we ahead of the game internationally? I think not. Francis Greenway was the first (Colonial) Government Architect. And his legacy includes fine buildings which we have managed to retain. In more contemporary times, most State Governments have appointed Government Architects, and they are making contributions in raising the design bar. But is this enough? I am always wary of introducing ideas or processes from other places and other cultures – even if many our city names and designs originated in the ‘Old Country’. But, in short, what Australia needs right now is its own version of CABE.
What shape should it take?
Firstly, it is important to recognise the National/State/Local structure of jurisdictions – it is different from UK. Infrastructure Australia does just that, but its emphasis is on big engineering – such as roads, railways and ports. All good stuff, but its associated ‘Major Cities Unit’ (see below) has a miniscule budget and staff – nowhere near enough given its importance and its potential.
COAG (Council of Australian Governments) has already begun to address what is happening in cities, and referred to ‘city strategy’ in its December 2009 communiqué. It is crucial that all three levels of government be active players in any version of CABE down-under that evolves.
Secondly, it is now widely accepted that good design is good economics. Good urban design (both the functioning and the aesthetics) of cities and towns it not an added extra – it is a vital part of our national economy. Therefore, the positive economic benefits of urban design need to be part of the ‘down-under’ remit. Thirdly, what’s in a name? Many professions contribute to the design success of cities and towns. None of them can claim primary ownership. So, looking at the creative integrated dimensions of the challenge should be the focus. In is interesting to see that the South Australians are about to create an ‘Integrated Design Commission’. So, what about a national IDBEC – the Integrated Design of the Built Environment Commission (pronounced id bec!)?
Fourthly, do we have sufficient professional skills to operate IDBEC The simple answer is – yes! They, with whatever help from other places is relevant, could make a major contribution to the key challenges facing Australian cities: population increase; civic diversity and harmony; climate change, water and energy issues; quality of places, and overall sustainability.
Don’t just sit there!
When all is said and done, this is hardly a new idea. Australia had its own Urban Design Task Force – set up by then-PM Paul Keating in 1994. It spawned the Australia Award (see below), and accelerated interest in urban design – but it lost impetus when the Howard Government took over in 1996.
Time is long overdue to move the debate along and, more importantly, do something about a ‘IDBEC down-under’. Send your ideas and intentions, for publication in the next UrbanDesign Forum.