June 23, 2015 12 Comments
Greater Urban Density is the absolutely necessary (but alone not sufficient) ingredient for more liveable and sustainable cities. Everything else depends on getting density right. A clear consensus on “density done well” emerged from the neighbourhoods we visited in Europe. While there were variations on the theme is was mid-rise residential density that characterised the most liveable neighbourhoods. From three to four storey terraces and apartments up to six to eight storeys depending on the area and its land values. This didn’t mean no highrise development (of 12 floors and above) but these were largely one-off landmark buildings like the Turning Torso in Malmo’s Western Harbour or small defined pockets of one taller residential towers. This was seen to be the ideal density mixture that meets a wide range of community needs from families to aging member of the community. None of the best practice liveable and sustainable neighbourhoods we visited had single-lot, detached, residential housing as their primary built form, if at all. Large single houses are seen as not only expensive and energy inefficient but they also resulted in too few people in an area to enable the other services from shops to childcare to be close to most people.
The implications for Perth are clear. As Prof David Gordon, an urban planning professor from Canada’s Queen’s University, said recently: “Perth’s the lowest density major city I’ve ever seen” (https://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/wa/a/27875484/perth-low-density-stuns-planner/ )
Greater Perth has an extremely population density of around 17 people per hectare which inevitably results in urban sprawl.
At the heart of the future of liveable cities is in making them “cities of short distances”. A short trip to the shops, a short stroll to the local park, a short commute to work, a walk to drop the kids off to child care – these are all key ingredients for more liveable cities. Perth though is a city of long distances exacerbated by low suburban densities and a lack of mixed uses in our communities. So the Perth-ite spends around an hour a day commuting in their car because, according to the RAC Perth is the city has the lowest proportion of residents living within 10km of their workplaces of any Australian centre. With uneven public transport access it means many depend on their cars – all attributes that are the antithesis of liveable cities. Having no choice but to drive your kids to school or to drive to the shops to get essentials is hardly environmentally sustainable either.
This doesn’t mean the very liveable developments we visited were anti-car. The third lesson was that you need to provide for car use but need not design your suburbs around them. Or to put it another way: keep cars to fringe of residential developments or at least design them so cars don’t dominate. Children playing safely in the street is without doubt the ultimate symbol that a liveable community-focused neighbourhood has been created. This means very low speeds and limited parking at the core of neighbourhoods with most of the parking designed on the fringe underground or in multistorey parking stations.
The above approach is largely dependent upon (or at least greatly assisted by) the important fourth lesson of the trip – upfront investment in public transport and cycling infrastructure. By upfront I mean ideally before the first resident even moves in. This ensures the best habits are embedded early on. This lesson was clear from to the Netherlands to Germany and beyond. In Australia we normally do the reverse – wait for patronage numbers to rise to justify the public transport investment or cycling numbers to rise to justify bike lanes and infrastructure. The experience from Europe turned this thinking on its head.
Part two coming soon