EDITORIAL

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!   

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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.

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Canberra on the way to become a more resilient city?

Sitting on Canberra’s beautiful Lake Burley Griffin on a Sunday afternoon with the sun hitting my nose and I look over towards the yacht club and the green landscape makes me think about Canberra as a resilient city?

Jared Diamond, an American leading scientist and author once described a possible future as follows:

Thus, because we are rapidly advancing along this non- sustainable course, the world’s environmental problems will get resolved, in one way or another, within the lifetime of the children and young adults alive today. The only question is whether they will become resolved in pleasant ways of our own choice, or in unpleasant ways not of our choice, such as warfare, genocide, starvation, disease, epidemics, and collapse of societies.”

In relation to the future of Canberra it’s really our choice. Canberra is in a very lucky position to have a general well established and well- educated middle class with the highest average income in Australia. Committed community leaders want to drive change from the bottom up.

The city prediction is geared up towards growth, the ACT government undertook an enormous community consultation “Canberra 2030 –time to talk” and reformed its public service in order to achieve a whole of government approach.

But the challenges ahead cannot be underestimated and will hit us hard if we don’t use this current opportunity to work together.

Personally I don’t want to picture a future for Canberra that proves “climate doomsayers” and “peakers”, with their apocalyptic projections right. But I pretty much believe that in an age of high fossil fuel consumption there will be continued growth in forms of mobility, which are predominately fossil fuel based. I still believe that Canberra will find a transition to a post- oil economy on its own very difficult as long there is no real united response while we have still time.

Looking at the recent mortgage meltdown in theUS, increasing oil prices are invoking panic. This crisis also showed that within a short time period entire suburbs can collapse. These are usually located on the fringe, where public transport services are perceived as very inconvenient, access to social services, quality open spaces are outside of walking or cycling distance and households find it hard to pay off the mortgage.

Suburban sprawl has given us many advantages, based on cheap oil, but this honeymoon time has come to an end. The obesity epidemic is evident.

If we keep providing the existing rational of greenfield development that will consume valuable land and other natural resources it will seriously undermine the future resilience of Canberra, within or outside of our 10 km growth radius as indicated in the Canberra Plan.

Also Canberra has a higher car dependency than the national average and is about ten times less dense than Melbourne and Sydney. Under the bottom line the Australian capital is one of the lowest density cities in the world.

Also by distracting us from seeking just solutions to the issue of energy, water, waste and food production in favour of individualised approaches is not equitable.

ACT Government website www.measuringourpgrogess.com.au shows that contact outside of households is declining.

Canberra as a city is a collective entity that needs to find common good solutions to avoid the risk of becoming highly exclusive for some members of its population.

I hope it is not in the interest of the greater community to support the fact that the amount of road infrastructure needed to be maintained has grown by almost 30 per cent since 1990.

International best practise exemplar shows that there are solutions which are working very well on different levels. For example Freiburg Vauban in Germany or Somerville in Western Australia show wonderful creations of communities that drive innovation and share social, economic and environmental goals on an equal basis.

Decision makers we count on you!

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Visions for Canberra

Today I was walking through the bookshelves, a magazine titled Cities of Tomorrow – envisioning the future of urban habitat caught my eye and made me think.

Since cities exist as planners, architects and designers visioned urban aspirational strategies. Some of these visions are more and some less radical or scary. Internationally we can look back to a long history of vision starting with Georges Eugene Hausmann modernised Paris, Edgar Chambless Road towns approach in Baltimore to Washington, Le Courbusier’s proposal of the Radiant city based on CIAM principles, Richard Neutra with his Rush City and even the creation of Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer with Brasilia as a planned city.

Hold on – then there is also the fine capital of Australia, namely Canberra, where Walter Burley Griffin designed this ideal city. A city for up to 75,000 people with grand boulevards to enhance high quality vistas and green spaces, a public transport system that enables convenient travel options through the city as well as a leasehold system that ensures equity in access to housing. As we all know. Canberra has not become an ideal city and is still emerging. Planning paradigms, political climate and community engagement has changed. Like all these realised visions around the globe,Canberra adopted contemporary ideas at the time and tried to adopt world’s best practice.

Since I arrived in the ACT I have got the feeling that the planning profession suffered significantly and is under criticism from all directions. I think this criticism it is not deserved. Compared to other countries Australia has a huge shortage of planners and this is reflected in the number of planners per capita. Through the creation of a political neo-liberal environment, the planning profession experienced a systematic de-skilling and has been terribly under resourced for many years. Some well-known examples included the National Capital Authority, which has had extensive funding cuts over the last decade and future is in question.  ACTPLA will now emerge with a potential loss in responsibilities as part of the new sustainable development directory. How can one perform well under very constrained environments? You wouldn’t throw a single doctor into a hospital full of very ill patients, let him know that he has to treat and cure all of the people in it, and without the use of medicine, tools and infrastructure necessary to do so.

Urban and Regional planning is an exciting profession and, in my experience, appears to generate interest and discussion among a good cross-section of the community.

Most people agree on the vision for Canberra to be a vibrant, sustainable and healthy city that is a shining examplar in the 21st century.

Recently the University of Canberra in collaboration with ANU created a joint Centre for Urban and Regional Futures that offers a good selection planning courses. This is an ideal opportunity for the people of Canberra to follow this invitation to take up the fulfilling challenge, study Urban Planning and to make a difference.

Good skilled planners are able to harness this information and try to translate that into a reality that maximises opportunities for all members of the community. Let’s create master plans and a vision for Canberra that adequately reflects the community values, acknowledges the achievements of the past and builds on the professional expertise that good skilled planners bring on the table. After all, the built environment informs us of who we are, where we came from and where we are about to go in the future.

Let’s hope we are heading in the right direction!

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