Apr 5, 2018

Look to street level to make high density work – Opinion – The Daily Telegraph

Famed Danish architect Jan Gehl once made an important observation about the design of buildings.

Architecture, Gehl said, could only be considered effective if it met human needs, including the fundamental need for human interaction.

In coming decades, the way we design buildings and communities in Australia will become increasingly important as population growth drives an increase in density.

The populations of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth are expected to increase substantially over coming years.

Unless proper planning occurs, the negative response to this growth will continue to increase.

One necessary response to take pressure off the major capital cities, is to develop decentralisation policies which grow our regional cities.

This was part of the motivation behind the drive to deliver high speed broadband, just as it is a positive product of High Speed Rail.

Even with interventionist policies our capital cities will still grow in density, particularly along public transport corridors.

However, it would be a mistake to conclude that increased population density inevitably means an inferior quality of life. If we get the planning right, we can harness change to enrich life in our cities.

The starting point must be an acceptance by governments of the need for more parks and open space in our cities. We must also carefully manage the impact of multi-unit developments on traffic patterns.

In particular, the Federal and State Governments must increase investment in public transport to prevent traffic congestion eroding quality of life and reducing productivity.

These changes are obvious, but still challenging.

But the tougher challenge is to preserve liveability, including people’s capacity to engage with others.

One of the great things about living in a house with a yard in the suburbs is that you tend to mix with your neighbours. This draws you into the life of your community.

Apartments are different. You can live in an apartment and seldom see your neighbours outside of the car park.

To promote community interaction, we must focus heavily on building design.

Rather than thinking about apartment blocks in isolation as individual buildings, it is critical that planning processes also address the spaces between buildings.

Urban design in 21st century Australia must emphasise the development of safe open spaces between city buildings; places where people congregate for community activities.

That means encouraging mixed-use developments with units on upper floors and public spaces beneath.

It also means zoning for recreational facilities and entertainment districts that encourage human activity and provision of cycling and walking tracks to draw people out of their apartments.

It could also mean incorporating community facilities like libraries at the street level of apartment buildings, which will require greater collaboration between the public and private sectors.

Put another way, governments must accept that they need to be prepared to invest in liveability.

Developers will also need to broaden their thinking.

The apartment buildings of the future should be designed to encourage human interaction, not just inside their buildings, but also around them.

That means bigger and more common areas.

For example, greater flexibility in planning schemes could allow a developer to increase the height of a building as a trade-off for provision of more gardens and open spaces around the building.

Developers will also be doing themselves a favour if they work more closely with the existing residents in the vicinity of proposed projects.

Too often critics of development proposals are attacked as NIMBYs, rather than concerned citizens who want to preserve the quality of life of their communities.

That approach absolves developers of their responsibility to work with local communities to achieve genuinely good outcomes.

Collaboration and compromise can often help developers produce better homes.

In my own Inner West community, developer Mirvac recently provoked community protest when it proposed building a 28-storey tower in Marrickville in an area dominated by detached housing and with limited road access.

The company has now been forced back to the drawing board.

In contrast, Mirvac’s redevelopment of the old Harold Park racetrack and tram shed for medium-density housing has been a roaring success.

The difference between the two projects is simple. At Harold Park, Mirvac worked with the local community.

It is often said that you can’t stop progress.

That’s true. But you can make progress work for you.

This piece was first published in The Daily Telegraph on Thursday, 5 April 2018.