Healing Canberra – by taming the cars and creating a solid pattern language

If we want to heal the Canberra pattern language we need to have a healthy balance between providing sufficient area for development within the existing footprint (commercial viability), efficient and convenient circulation and high quality social spaces.

The wound is deep!

The recent Hawke review of the ACT public service indicated that Canberra is 10 times less dense than Melbourne and Sydney, is one of the lowest density cities worldwide and less than one quarter of the ACT is suitable for development. The potential for significant urban redevelopment is apparent and key to enable efficient and convenient circulation systems.

What do I mean with that? Efficient movement allows all people to move from A to B in a fast way. However, convenient also includes what happens between A and B.  So far Canberra has been successful in “perceived efficiency” to move people from A to B via cars. The implication on equal access and holistic safety to this form of movement by the population with a youth and aged perspective is concerning. Bus use is still far beyond being convenient for all members of the community and as the Ottawa example shows requires long- term support.

Car use just creates convenience for a small number of people per vehicle and degrades the space between A and B to a “desert quality” or when have you seen last time a good crowed of people having quality time on a medium stripe.

In other words people had for a very long time a very exclusive way of moving in space, which resulted in a 30 per cent increase in road infrastructure that needs to be maintained, not even to mention impacts on human health and their environment through air pollution, heat island affects, amount of sealed surfaces etc.

In search for a right medicine!

In the medium term future cars won’t disappear, but we need to tame the cars and change the pattern language in the city if we are serious live in a sustainable and healthy Canberra.

The street pattern and urban structure is important to determine the pattern of movement, setting the parameter for subsequent development and in contributing to an urban character.

Introducing a stronger movement hierarchy, plan under the banner of “city of short distances”, which allows people meet most of they needs in short walking/ cycling or public transport distances and maximise the opportunities of social spaces in between.

The Department for Transport in the UK adopted in 2007 a new movement hierarchy for their “Manual for streets”:

  1. People;
  2. Bike users;
  3. Public transport;
  4. Special service vehicle, car share and taxis;
  5. Private cars.

The shape and size of an urban block is important in conjunction with basic typologies/ codes/ rules about physical parameters. Innovative and creative precinct plans can address these issues and are able to address social spaces that benefit all members of a community.

Indicator for getting healthy!

The greatest indicator of a disappearing wound is when you start seeing a wide range of people using urban spaces up to 24/7- simply more people living, ageing and socialising locally in very safe, pleasant and child friendly environment.

Be part of the healing process!

The ACT Government has released two key strategies for public comments. The ACT Planning strategy will set the direction around Canberras future pattern language and other urban design challenges. The Transport for Canberra strategy aim is to tame the car and providing a real opportunity to create equity in transport. The strategies can be found under http://www.timetotalk.act.gov.au/time-to-talk/. Make a difference – be an urbanist!   

Places we need

What connects people in cities and what makes cities places where you want to be? That is a question I’ve been asking myself since a long time.

Most urban dwellers consider themselves as individuals, which want to be unique in material manifestations such as clothing, goods and mindset.

However, cities play the unique role in terms of catering for everybody’s needs in the same an equal manner. A city provides spaces for the young and old members of the community as well as for disadvantaged groups.

Translating these individual needs into the public realm –the space that should provide spaces for all of us in a city – can enable liveable places. In liveable spaces everybody can celebrate their uniqueness on many places and it takes just a couple of simple mechanisms to achieve that.

1. A decent population density that can support economic viable use of infrastructure.

2. Be nice to people by providing sufficient spaces for them.

3. Design that space for the people by considering light, noise, scale and imageability.

For all the readers who may find that to abstracts please let me describe this through an simple comparison (metapher).

A person sits in a coffee shop, reads talks, enjoys good food and company. Overall most people feel quite nice once they are in them. Why, because all design components have been achieved. However, it should be noted that you need financial effort to benefit from them. First of all coffee shops are spaces for people, the scale of the establishment appears comfortable, leaves spaces for some privacy and they are considered to be very safe. The light is just right – not to strong and not too dark and the noise comes usually from other people and gentle music in the background. This noise level above 35 dbl enables a feeling for social inclusion and can help to reduce depression. Imageability can make a place unique.

Artworks, interesting structural elements, vegetation, view connections etc. are tools to allow individual imageability. Spaces that have special sense of place have some unique qualities that cannot be repeated on a large scale – the same in coffee shops. Just imagine all coffee shops would have the same artwork in them.

All these four elements should be possible in a liveable and healthy city. But even more important a coffee shop could not function without a good crowed that lives near by to fill it with live and the same rule applies to the city.

Canberra has the potential to have many of these high quality places for all members of the community if we are prepared to accept and support on our individual level the fact that we need a population higher density. This will allow Canberra to become a city for people – a healthy and more sustainable place to live it.

Other cities around the globe are already committed to create sustainable and liveable place for their people. The city of London started to ban cars in the city and applied mechanism to reduce car speeds. Copenhagen is introducing more and more spaces for active transport and is increasingly blocking spaces for cars. Freiburg new developments are people oriented developments, that are environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. All these cases have one huge advantage – most individuals accepted higher density as the opportunity to create a better future for the coming generations so that they have even better and more liveable spaces to live in.