This realisation becomes a sobering reality check when you consider the impact of a global issue such as soaring fuel prices. While today’s urban designers strive to deliver a built form that is responsive to community scale and where the car is somewhat ‘controlled’, the reality is that our communities today are basically dependent upon the car. A further ‘reality’ is that increases in fuel pricing will not only affect mobility and accessibility but also all other social, economic and environmental outcomes.
There is growing awareness there will be immense problems to be faced by the urban design profession and society in general if fuel prices continue the trend of the past 30 years and increase faster than capital growth. The current popularity of ‘Spectacle City’ theory, in which today’s contemporary cities centralise public infrastructure and use public events to fund and support their ongoing development, will compound these problems. The consumer driven ‘spectacles’ are very much at the mercy of changing values, sometimes changing faster than capital infrastructure remuneration.
A series of questions need to be addressed urgently:
- what will happen to most of Australia’s cities if petrol prices increased to over $3/litre or even the high end of $10/litre in less than 10 years as predicted by fuel based industries? (This same scenario was presented by Environment Victoria at this year’s conference in a video production supported by none other than Peter Calthorpe of New Urbanism fame).
- will our public transport systems be able to cope with sudden patronage demands if the cost of car travel becomes excessive?
- will the ‘compact centralisation urban form’ dogma become an obstacle to delivering a sustainable built environment, especially when considering the social values such as access to public services that are considered essential to maintaining quality well-being?
Pressures to economic growth and balance will also be felt as rising costs of living eventually dominate and, as recently documented by Jared Diamond in Why societies collapse, followed by environmental degradation. Consider this scenario in the light of the ‘solutions’ proposed in current built environments – both through typical strategic planning and it’s delivery.
The impact of these issues also compounds if we accept that our key job as sustainable urban designers is to plan and deliver real outcomes that address the next 50 years+ as opposed to the normal 20 year timeframe seen today. The key question then is if we know access to cheap fuel is going to stop and even become non-existent in less than 20 years – what are we doing today to address it? What will be our real legacy?
While current urban design approaches are important tools to achieve outcomes in the built environment, it will be our visioning, reality checking and a dedicated use of these tools to meet desirable and sustainable goals that will be our legacy. There needs to be real visioning and commitment to develop strategic plans for our cities that discard outdated solutions for our urban form. Unfortunately, solutions offered today by many participants in the built environment debate are still based on foundations that don’t address the reality of our future. New Urbanism, now some 20 years old, was and still is based on car dependency although in theory it tries to address this addiction.
Perhaps it is not how we ‘do’ urban design best that is the question. Perhaps urban design done best is a process that addresses long term and sustainable outcomes through whatever means possible.
Urban design is influenced by everyday cultures and how they respond to pressures. The ‘City’ – the organic artefact or by-product of our culture, is more than just a legacy, it is the instrument that determines our way of life. Australian cities are now losing the ability to be adaptable due to the implementation of less than sustainable approaches to urban design.
I’m sure that a Roman Senator in 100 A.D. could not have predicted that the Forum, the very building where their public policy and the processes of urban progress were developed, would be demolished and re-used to support a collapsed society that refused to accept and address reality. Today’s reality-check recognises that scientific evidence from around the world suggests that our cities, and their social, economic and environmental structures – will also change dramatically in the next 20 years.
While it might have been funny on the way to the forum – it begins to weigh heavy on your mind when you consider the short-sightedness of the current strategic planning that governs our urban form and will impact so dramatically on our future.