Key Lessons from Europe’s liveable cities for Perth (Part 1)

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” ( )

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

About Mayor of Fremantle Brad Pettitt's blog
City of Fremantle Mayor

12 Responses to Key Lessons from Europe’s liveable cities for Perth (Part 1)

  1. Jo Harris says:

    Great article Brad. Your observations are absolutely correct. Densities up to about 6 storeys are ideal to achieve critical population to enable economic amd social activity and keep people connected to the ground rather than giving them a sense of disconnection. History tells us that settlement patterns always develop in response to transportation routes and means but we just dont seem to acknowledge that in planning in WA. Keep up the good work we need serious politic commitment to facilitate better outcomes for the future.

  2. johnwv says:


    These aren’t lessons, its common sense. We’ve all been singing the same song for years…except the reverse happens in front of us despite the common sense our planners have. All levels of government have a responsibility for upfront investment, prior to approvals. …..”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.”….
    The high density Northbank village was built 1995, yet North Fremantle station was relocated 800m further away in 1991. McCabe St tower is being built in 2015…..Leighton train station sits adjacent, dormant and derelict, while discussion revolves around road works through North Fremantle…..shish…..
    The bookends of North Fremantle high density development covering 20yrs are testament to the reverse of the lesson observed. The adjacent train stations to these developments became one station in 1991,relocating almost a kilometre from each development. What a stroke of luck that the Leighton towers are nearly adjacent the North Fremantle station, with its carpark and absolute absence of cycle paths.

    John Vodanovic

  3. James McIntosh says:

    I agree with your observations and recommendations for Perth. This transformation process you are speaking of is at the heart of all Australian Light Rail projects. This intensification of urban activity should be seen as the basis for capturing the benefits that the access to transit creates. Fremantle has the transit, a good supporting bus network, as well as the bones of a cycling network too, but the urban densities are so low that very few actually have access to these facilities to use them.
    Keep up the good work.

  4. freoview says:

    I for one hope that “cities of short distances” will bring back the corner shops and small retailers because smaller satellite urban villages might not attract the large supermarket chains, and there is opportunity to attach apartments above or behind shops, so the operators actually live in the suburbs they work in.

    Roel Loopers

  5. raymond foulkes-taylor says:

    we are not Europe Australia is a totally different Country our Climate is far removed from Europe
    so why do the so called experts try and make us fit Europe.
    As far as I can see you are a bunch of nitwhits.

    • Raymond
      We might have different climates but I don’t see how that is the major determinate of urban form, density and transport? Australia is lucky with more hours of sunshine to make even more liveable and sustainable communities.
      cheers, Brad

    • Dan says:

      You’ve never been to Europe have you? Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece all have very similar climates to Perth. And they have high density living. In fact places in Morocco have very well designed, highly dense buildings. In fact they keep the sun out so its cooler naturally. The issues aren’t climate, but affordability and even mental health. Far flung spread-out suburbs cost a lot to government and the individual. Transport costs are very high. Also they tend to reduce connection and community so making people isolated. The massive increase in depression jas, in part, been linked to suburban sprawl and houses that aren’t designed to facilitate neighbourly meetings. You just drive into your 3 bay garage and close the door, only to come out on your car. Not much chatting over the fence goes on.

  6. Diana Ryan says:

    Without being facetious, Brad, but don’t you live in a “single-lot, detached, residential hous[e]”?

    Why does this continue to be your preference? And I think we paint things too broadly by making the single standing house the bad guy!

    • Diana
      I do now but before that I rented an apartment in the Freo’s West End. When I then wanted to buy a place (around 10 years ago) there was nothing affordable and nice near cnetral of Freo so I bought a run down cottage in White Gum Valley, which i have grown to love.
      Well designed single standing houses aren’t the bad guy – not having a range of housing choices is the bad guy. My hope is we can get a better mix of apartments, town houses and houses so people can choose depending on their life circumstances. In Perth we are failing at offering affordable choices at the moment.

  7. freoishome says:

    Thanks for the series about your trip.

    I think what you have learnt and now advising is the right direction. However, how to actually bring about that change at a pace needed to absorb a doubling of Perth’s population is another matter.

    I think part of that solution is to identify and start the process of building two new Metro size cities well north and well south of Perth, ie, completely separate physically, economically and politically, eg, Great Southern City and Pilbara City, or what ever. The scale I am proposing is totally different to the current thinking for the regions, ie, a few thousand here and there. Rather by 2050 two cities of 250,000, probably a 1M by 2100.

    Perth cannot remain all things, to all, in perpetuity.

    These two new Metros could be designed as you outline Brad. So that style could be fast tracked. Lots of advantages, a developers dream for a start, no conflict over development. For Perth it would take the pressure off, to enable it to adjust to the higher density at an evolutionary pace rather the revolutionary pace and the conflict that accompanies it, that we are experiencing today!

    We should use the same approach with CoF and the Harbour. Identify and start building a new container harbour based on freight rail, forget about the Perth Freight link concept. As the current harbour then shifts it Ops to the new port transfer the current Ops land to CoF, ie, extend the cities boundaries towards the coast rather than inland, then use this land as you describe. Refocus the current port away from bulk to specialised freight and liners. Make the extended harbour part of CoF, its activity precinct, ie, it is activity that will revitalise CoF, lots of people doing things, and the locating the people to organise, manage and inspire that.


    • Paul
      I think satellite cities will need to be part of the debate of Perth’s long-term future although getting them up has proven hard in the past. In the short to medium term there also need to be a stronger focus on investment in cntres outside the Perth CBD from Freo to Joondellup to Armadale to make Perht more liveable and sustainable

    • Dan says:

      I actually think development of places like York or Northam or even Gingin would be good. But starting with a regular, high frequency train service into the centre of Perth. Developing an existing town gives sense of place and history, which helps people identify with where they live. It would need to be done with sensitivity and intelligence, but could be far enough away to be its own place, but close enough to Perth to allow residents to take part in the culture that only can exist in large cities.
      Mind you, I’m not sure that the population projections will be accurate. I reckon we’ll either be over run by climate refugees or we’ll be climate refugees ourselves by 2050!

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