It is important to realise that in 2029 over 90% of the infrastructure of Australian cities would have been built prior to 2010. Transformation, by this definition, cannot simply be read as rebuilding infrastructure but rather will need to, in the main, involve the rationalisation and better utilization of our existing infrastructure. Only one thing is certain: if we continue to understand, develop and utilise our infrastructure in the traditional ways of the 20th century, we are doomed to perpetuate our current problems.
Dream or nightmare
The garden city movement promised us the dream that we could live in the countryside and work in the city, while modernism turned us away from pragmatic, locally-based solutions and towards international solutions supported by technologies (such as air conditioning) that no longer made ‘place-influenced design’ a necessity. Overlay this mindset with an over-reaction to the ills of the industrial city and the emergence of the motor car and you have the root causes of the current form of our cities – namely low density, widely spread, specific activity zoned cities where the motor car dominates our public realm and public transport has been largely marginalised.
Recent research undertaken by Curtin University that found that for every 1,000 dwellings, the costs for infill and fringe developments are $309 million and $653 million respectively. Additional fringe development costs incurred include hard infrastructure such as power and water, increased transport and health costs, and greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore by encouraging infill development, the economic savings to society would equate to over $300 million per 1,000 housing units, in Melbourne’s case $110,000,000,000 over the next 50 years. That figure does not take account of the indirect benefits. This research adds considerably to concerns about the unending sprawl of our cities and strengthens the case for more compact settlement patterns.
Sustainability and liveability
We have reached an interesting time when the drivers of sustainable cities are the same as the drivers of liveable cities, namely, mixed use, connectivity, high quality public realm, local character and adaptability. When these characteristics come together, as they do for example in Barcelona, they provide an alchemy of sustainability, social benefit and economic vitality.
A new paradigm for Australian cities should recognise the need to not only direct future development to Activity Centres around rail infrastructure (which most are planning) but also to recognise the enormous development potential of the road-based public transport corridors created by bus and tram movements. Curitiba in Brazil, for example, has pioneered development of the ‘linear city’, using a trunk Bus Rapid Transit network as the foundation for medium rise high density development, surrounded by low density development.
Urban Corridors, Productive Suburbs
Over the next decade in Melbourne, Urban Corridors (9% of the city) along with Activity Centres, will need to become known as the most desirable locations for new urban development. The aim should be that, by 2029, the key linear transport corridors will have developed into medium-rise high density corridors that connect all the activity centres, and provide easy access to high quality public transport from the adjacent ‘productive suburbs’. Development of these corridors would take development pressure off the existing suburbs (91% of the city), which can then develop as the new ‘green lungs’ of our metropolitan areas.
Australians have a love affair with the suburban block with its detached single dwelling and extensive greenery. This deep seated empathy is not going to change in the short term, nor are these areas going to be rebuilt by 2029. Attempting to retro-fit significantly increased density development in areas not well serviced by public transport is unlikely to be a viable proposition. Instead we need to enhance the quality of these suburban areas, while introducing greater sustainability.
One of the key issues arising from Melbourne 2030 was the inability to implement the strategy rapidly enough to give confidence to the community and the development industry. The key to implementation is the ability to provide simple pragmatic guidelines and then use exemplar projects that can quickly and successfully produce results that demonstrate the efficacy of the new approach. In a recent study for the Victorian Department of Planning and Community Development by SGS, a simple one page set of Urban Design Guidelines were developed that were capable of ensuring high quality urban design outcomes. If these guidelines were to be tested along a designated tram route, such as Nicholson Street, North Fitzroy or Lygon Street, North Carlton – where there is sufficient road width to give dedicated road space to trams – it would be possible to demonstrate the practical results within a few years.
Small scale infrastructure superior
A related shift in thinking is to recognise that our cities are not necessarily best served by large scale infrastructure. Current thinking that power generation and water supply can only succeed through the provision of large centralised infrastructure limits our options and ability to not only climate proof our cities, but also defend them against the extreme weather events. Smaller distributed solutions are not only more efficient and economical in their requirement and use of distribution networks but are also, as a result of their distributed nature, less vulnerable to extreme circumstances.
$20billion invested in conventional infrastructure, through the new Commonwealth Building Australia Fund, will give us conventional outcomes. $20billion invested in ‘new age’ technologies could see us become a world leader. The proposal to transform our cities is one that relies on small investments at all levels of Local, State and Federal Government, with complementary private investment encouraged by government policy direction. The end result will be a transformation of our cities, and nothing less will resolve the current problems confronting us.
We must not keep on sprawling!