In this ‘Year of the Built Environment’, it is time to reflect on the influences and production processes that have delivered our multi-faceted urban form. Not only are these forces important, but corresponding changes within the way urban design has evolved provides us with the knowledge of why it happened and where our future may take us.
It seems that the production of urban design is charged with delivering a sustainable future for our communities, whether by research, local government or private practice. The once trusted efficient model of catalogue matching – ‘one size fits all’ – approach to place making or copying elements of other inspired places is fading fast. It is also not consistent with a community’s future based on sustainable principles. A community’s culture may be unidentified or not apparent, but implanting a non-endorsed culture can have negative effects.
Local solutions go hand in hand with the development of place, yet State Government planning directions are still largely based on a two-dimensional understanding of our built environments. The ‘Activity Centre’ debates that have arisen from Melbourne’s 2030 policy are due to the lack of understanding of particular ‘places’, because of criteria setting models that do not explore its context.
South East Queensland is trying to come to grips with growing to an urban entity some 320 km in length – what will happen to its consumed communities is anyone’s guess. The reliance on ‘places’ that attract economic activity, balance social and environmental values is being faced by all state and local governments in Australia, and the de-industrialised world.
Casting off old dogmas
The urban development focus of local government is still finding it hard to cast off the ‘model efficiency’ dogma, due usually to a failure to embrace principles supporting an ecological sustainable development model as identified some 14 years ago in Local Agenda 21. Are we delivering ‘place’ built on the essential and unique characters of a culture, or is ‘place’ now being defined by the dominant or generic cultures that are shaping our societies?
In designing ‘place’ today, the production of urban design should be developed around the very essence of what makes a place special. Urban critic Jane Jacobs, noted this when she explored the virtue of the street in 1961. In a recent book, Monash History Professor Graeme Davidson showed that the urban form that Melbourne sometimes loves or hates was created by the very enemy that Jacobs identified as destroying her street – the car.
These cultural layers play an enormous part in the developing and future direction of a city or, succinctly, a ‘place’. Our urban form will require guidance developed from these processes and supported by sustainable values. The urban design profession is at a cross-roads. Now there is no excuse but to acknowledge the balance required for the production of ‘place’ within the public realm and the legacy of our future urban world.
Kevin Abbott, an Urban Designer and commentator, has worked extensively in Queensland and is now working at Shire of Yarra Ranges in Victoria.