Subiaco is an inner-suburb of Perth, originally settled in the nineteenth century. It has a bustling commercial centre, a large stock of heritage buildings, and many leafy residential streets. Despite the quality of Subiaco’s physical environment, however, local residents described its character mostly in terms of community cohesiveness, its diverse social mix, and the wide range of shops and cafes – these were all more significant to its character than were features of physical form.
There was a deliberate effort to reflect “Old Subiaco’s” existing character in the planning and design of the eighty hectare ‘Subi Centro’ project. Guidelines were prepared for streetscapes, building types and detailing, and over one thousand homes and 200,000 m2 of commercial space have been developed since 1998. Subi Centro has been successful in many ways, but residents in Old Subiaco nonetheless claim that the project is out of character because its community is not as socially cohesive, nor as mixed as Old Subiaco’s community: whilst the project may be physically in character, they argue, socially it is not.
Collingwood is a low-income residential suburb of Vancouver. In the early 1990s, it was low-rise, low-density and most dwellings were single-detached with front and rear yards. For residents, Collingwood’s character at the time was about knowing your neighbour and participating in community life, the neighbourhood’s physical form was not part of its character.
Density and community facilities
Following public consultation on a proposed eleven hectare intensification project, residents raised concerns that high-density development would damage this social character, and requested that the project incorporate community facilities in order to address this. Planners explained that community facilities could not be provided unless development densities were increased, due to the developer’s narrow profit margins. Residents were then given a choice between a high-density project with many community facilities, or a lowerdensity project with fewer facilities. Their response was to negotiate for an even greater increase to development densities in exchange for a broader range of community facilities.
Completed in 2006, the ‘Collingwood Village’ project houses 3,000 residents in buildings of up to twenty-six storeys. There are three parks, a community centre, gymnasium, community policing centre, school and childcare centre. Despite the significant impact that the project has had in changing the physical appearance of the neighbourhood, residents claim that the community facilities which it provides have allowed Collingwood’s social character – the high levels of engagement, cohesion and spiritedness – to be maintained. For them, the neighbourhood’s character has not changed, in spite of the fact that its appearance undoubtedly has.
These two case studies do not provide all the answers for urban designers, but they do challenge our conceptions of what makes a project ‘in character’, and they demonstrate that urban intensification does not have to involve a change to neighbourhood character. Perhaps most importantly, however, they suggest that social relationships and experiences of a neighbourhood can be just as important a component of its character as features of physical form.