Urban Synergies Group (USG) hosted the Urban Thinkers workshop ‘Urban Talks: Emerging issues from Grassroots to International’ in order to contextualise the outcomes of the Habitat III agenda and the New Urban Agenda from an Australian perspective. The event took place on the 29th of November 2016, in Canberra, Australia, with academicians, researchers and practitioners in attendance. This article summarises the collective findings of the event.
During the opening contribution Gregor H Mews, founder of Urban Synergies Group, provided valuable insights and reflected on key messages from the Habitat III Conference in Quito, Ecuador. In particular, the paragraphs relating to the ‘Right to the City’ concept, Health and Well-being, Public Spaces and Sustainable Mobility were centre of the attention.
Mews stressed that cities today cover around two per cent of the total landmass, but are responsible for 70 percent of the Gross Domestic Products (GDP’s). At the same time, they are responsible for 80 percent of the global energy consumption, producing 75 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions and generating 75 percent of total global waste (UNEP, 2015, Cities and buildings report). Fast urbanisation is also having an effect on lifestyle that directly affects health. As a result, health challenges such as physical inactivity, unhealthy diets, overweight and obesity are increasing in emerging middle-income societies.
We are living in a world of uncertainty and accelerated change. If we want to win the race against climate change and promote a sustainable urban development we all need to work together. The New Urban Agenda emphasis that a successful implementation of its vision and commitments depends on the involvement of formerly atypical agents: community organisations, marginalised groups and independent actors, such as private sector and academia. In accordance with Dr. Joan Clos, executive director of UN Habitat, the message delivered was clear: ‘We shall leave no one behind’.
The average Australian lifestyle overshoots earth’s carrying capacity. There is a growing need to rethink and readdress the way we plan, finance, develop, govern and manage cities in Australia. This is a call for action where leadership at all levels is required pushing for the adoption and implementation of a truly sustainable, people centred, aged and gender responsive and integrated approach.
In order to reflect on the visions and implementation of The New Urban Agenda participants were invited to engage in a debate around the following three questions:
How can we implement the New Urban Agenda?
What are your top three action items?
How can we at USG work with you to enable better health and wellbeing outcomes?
The participants discussed in groups and presented their ideas for adopting The New Urban Agenda principles and for achieving effective implementation of actions. The findings of the final discussions were:
Regulatory government bodies should push large developments to be thinking about public realm upgrades and corresponding long-term cultural programs, to provide ways to enable social connection and so stimulate a sense of community. Bring back the ritual of having parties in the community, places where people can celebrate and meet. The participants stressed that an improved public realm is very important for sustainable communities.
Reinvestigate different sustainable urban forms in order to provide a greater housing choice and to allow affordability with the interface dynamics of the region in mind.
Improve strategic planning and investment in productivity in peri-urban areas under the assumption that some people do want to live in those areas.
Another area for collective action was identified in relation to productive use of space in the city: the role of autonomous vehicles and future transport corridors function.
Cities need to be committed to deliver better overall sustainability outcomes. There must be an open debate and actions around optimal instead of maximum productivity.
Questions such as ‘How many resources are different population groups willing to consume and give up?’ ‘How do we want to live in this new urban world?’ and ‘What are the choices we need to make in order to ensure health and wellbeing for all?’ must be resolved.
Research and existing findings on people’s lifestyle choices in relation to sustainability must be effectively translated and communicated ensuring that people can make better informed choices. Grassroots groups, civil societies, social entrepreneurships and governments need to collaborate more effectively.
Urban Synergies Group was acknowledged as a key partner that provides a platform for these discussions and exploration of collaboration. This article was also published by our partner the World Urban Campaign late 2016 and can be accessed by clicking here.
“Play is the way children make sense of the world in which they live!” Maxim Gorky
This is an interview with Gregor H. Mews, Founding Director of Urban Synergies Group, on insights around the need for a Forum on healthy child development and their environments in Australia.
1. Why are you organising a forum, and what do you anticipate to achieve with it?
We at Urban Synergies Group, together with our partner the Health Research Institute at the University of Canberra, found sufficient evidence that indicates the health conditions of children in Australia are concerning.
The international forum “Shaping Spaces for Gen Z“ is part of our collaborative commitment to shed light on an important societal issue, that cannot continue to be ignored. Our message is clear and simple- we need to do better. If we want to ensure that future generations can enjoy equal opportunities, prosper and develop to their full potential, we need to explore new approaches to decision making around such ‘societal’ challenges. Collective actions need collective discussions and a fair, informed process for key decision making.
With this forum, we want to create a platform where we can come together with all relevant stakeholders and passionate members of the community, including concerned parents to do something about this societal challenge.
We will attempt to answer two questions. Firstly, how can we provide more daily opportunity for children to develop the social and emotional skills, psychological resilience and physical attributes to enable them to succeed in life as independent individuals? Secondly, how best do we align our collective resources to reconfigure our environments and the opportunities available to children within them in a fair, effective, efficient and cost-effective manner?
2. Why do you focus on child play, and what kind of relation does it have to obesity?
From our own data gathered since 2000, 69% of primary school children in the ACT are of low general fitness and 1 in 4 are classified as over a healthy weight. Children’s gross motor skills are another area of serious concern. We observed children that are unable to walk properly backwards, because they never had the opportunity to explore and engage in risky experiences on their terms. In our society the perception of risk has shifted. The ACT Government is aware of this and is committed to address this issue. Many Non-government organisations are doing their very best to reverse this health crisis.
Play offers a very potent narrative for children to engage in a meaningful way with the natural world around them, if we allow them to have enough space and time. Indeed, evidence suggests who children that engage regularly in outdoor play have higher levels of physical activity. Children are not even aware that they are getting healthier, because it is simply fun. Playful experiences offer mental health benefits and improve their capacity to be creative as well as learn important social skills. We are thrilled to have our colleagues from Yale University join us on the day, sharing their latest research findings.
However, despite of all the evidence, the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child clearly states in article 31, that children have a right to play. In theory, this alone should be enough reason for adults to make sure their children have enough time and space for playful experiences in our cities. The health data helps to strengthen the case for play.
3. Is there a big cost associated with transitioning environments to allow for adequate physical exercise, what is this compared to the greater cost of childhood obesity?
True, there is a high cost associated with childhood obesity, which puts pressure onto the healthcare budgets, not just in Australia but worldwide. Combining these costs with physical inactivity as an independent risk factor is even more compelling. Infrastructure interventions in the built environment cost money and can have a lasting impact over their lifespan. This can be more or less helpful to achieve better health outcomes. Spent in an effective way, a piece of health supporting infrastructure, for example a safe and inclusive bike lane or footpath connecting attractive destinations, can become an effective measure in preventing diseases. However, the questions we should be asking ourselves are; how much do you value your own life? Can you put a price tag on it? Perhaps you want to be loved, spend as much time as possible with people you care about, grow up in comfortable home and have access to clean and safe environments. All of these contribute to your overall health and well-being. So I’d like to ask you why do you choose to spend these days so little time among your loved ones, feel like you need to spend more money on a bigger house, and pollute the environment contributing to an ecological footprint that is now five times higher than this earth’s carrying capacity? The price tag is our children’s overall well-being and we all are starting to pay for it. They are becoming fatter as well as sicker and sadder. Playful spaces near you can be part of the solution. Share your thoughts with us, be part of the debate and help us shape spaces for future generations on Wednesday 8th March.
3 cars stop, 24 people cross the street and 7 bicycles cruise along within 10 seconds on a Friday afternoon in Bunda Street, Canberra. I am sitting in a street café overlooking a zebra crossing between the Canberra Centre and City Walk.
3 cars, 24 people and 7 bicycles – an interesting modal split that made me think about joining the dots and drawing a picture in regard to appropriate street design with people in mind.
My first dot will be around the latest initiative by the Australian Federal Government, which recently launched the National Urban Design Protocol with the ideal title “Creating places for people”. The document aims to define high quality urban design and to provide a consistent quality framework for future design throughout the country.
My second dot will provide a connection to this initiative and what happens (or still does not happen) on the ground. For example, the National Capital Authority recently announced a delay in rolling out an urban design project for Bowens Crossing until 2014, the year afterCanberra’s Centennary. The reason for the delay is cited as a funding shortfall resulting from major capital maintenance works to be undertaken on Scrivener Dam. It is unfortunate to see projects like Bowen Crossing postponed The Federal Government and theCanberracommunity should demand higher priority for quality urban design projects and the improvement of local amenities.
My third dot will be the apparent disconnect between budget reality, community expectation and future budget projections. Funding for urban planning and design projects will become increasingly scarce as competing priorities place pressure on the ACT Budget. I’d like to invite you to bear in mind, for example, that the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Health Directorate budget is increasing by 11 per cent per annum and in a ‘business as usual’ scenario will, according to Access Economics, consume the entire ACT Budget in the medium to long term.
Let’s start joining the dots and attempt to draw a picture. On the one hand, we are creating a strategic framework for better quality design to meet community expectations. On the other hand, we will have in the long run less funding to realise those expectations.
The picture that came out of connecting these dots is not good one. Here is my initial attempt to rescue the drawing to ensure quality spaces for all people.
a) I’d like to start by highlighting that there is no silver bullet solution to what is becoming an increasingly complex problem.
b) Education is key. In order to resolve a complex design issue we need to have a certain amount of common knowledge around the issue.
c) Potentially competing interests need to work hand in hand with a collaborative spirit to achieve designs that will benefit all members of the community.
d) Be creative, be open-minded and think outside of the square. There are no wrong questions.
Drawing a short initial exemplar illustration onBunda Streetas a shared space:
a) The advantages of making streets more people friendly are potentially far-reaching, encompassing environmental, social, economic and health benefits. Most academics and leading practitioners in various fields call for an integrated and holistic approach to issues such a climate change, non-renewable resources, food access as well as the obesity epidemic in Australia. A triple bottom line approach is necessary and needs more than just a single tool.
Of course every reader should feel encouraged to research further pending their level of interest.
c) Call out for a workshop that brings all parties together in a comfortable and neutral environment and share stories (personal or evidence based) about the importance of having equal access to good quality spaces for all members of the community in Canberra Civic.
d) Some creative ideas for Bunda Street as a high quality shared space:
–> Consider innovative pavement design using local recycled materials;
–> Use intelligent landscaping (trees, planting) to provide a green, balanced environment that can protect the space from the heat island effect.
–> Ask local stakeholders to commit to maintaining the new amenity. In addition to enjoying well maintained spaces, homeowners stand to benefit economically from quality urban design projects in their local neighbourhoods.
–> Think about human scale and imagine walking with a kid’s eye through the space. As an ideal outcome you should feel comfortable to move freely in the space and be able to communicate easily with other people.
–> Have in mind that we will have 20 + per cent elderly people by 2030 and consider the needs of disadvantaged groups.
–> The place should be considered as an open living room where people can celebrate, communicate and interact 24/7.
–> Think even of interesting signage that invites users to change their behaviour. This could be by having a big welcome sign saying, “You are entering the city’s open living room”.
e) Recently the South Australian Government announced the creation of an independent Commissioner for Integrated Design. Such a person could ideally provide the platform and framework of collaboration and facilitate the dialogue needed to achieve a satisfactory and truly democratic outcome.
3 cars stop, 24 people cross the street and 7 bicycles cruise along within 10 seconds on a Friday afternoon in Bunda Street, Canberra.
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”:
Special service vehicle, car share and taxis;
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!
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.
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.