Human Settlements Theme Report

Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 (Theme Report)
Lead Author: Professor Peter W. Newton, CSIRO Building, Construction and Engineering, Authors
Published by CSIRO on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06747 7

Emerging issues (continued)

Urban design

  • Implications
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    The achievement of liveable and sustainable settlements (to the extent that any settlement can ever be fully sustainable) requires more than attention to the specific issues discussed in this chapter. It also requires significant changes to the governance and management of human settlements. Prominent among these changes must be institutional change, change in the structures and approaches of the agencies of government, the private sector and the professions, and change in the way that issues and problems are defined and their solutions are approached.

    To illustrate what that might mean in one area of the planning, design and management of human settlements, the concluding section of this chapter explores ways in which urban design might in the future more effectively contribute to liveable and sustainable cities, towns and villages.

    Urban Design in Australia, the report of the Prime Minister's Urban Design Task Force (1994), described urban design as being concerned with visual meaning, functional efficiency and broad access to change in cities and towns. 'Good urban design policy and practice', it continued, 'seeks to optimise options that take into account aims of public participation, access, ecological health, social impact, economic growth, technological innovation and meanings of place.' Since 80% of Australians live within 50 km of the coastline - nearly all in urban settlements, and a considerable proportion of the balance live in inland towns - urban design quality significantly affects most Australians, economically, socially, environmentally and culturally.

    What has been achieved through urban design in recent years? It was largely as a reaction to the sterility of some aspects of architectural modernism, especially when applied to the public realm, that a resurgence of interest in urban design took place around the world and in Australia from the 1970s onwards. One significant achievement in the last 25 years has, therefore, been a growth in the awareness of urban design. Today, urban design is a familiar term in academia, in government, amongst consultants and in the community. There is a vast body of international and a growing body of Australian literature on urban design. State and territory governments have taken many urban design initiatives. Municipalities have multifold urban design strategies. Urban designers and urban design consultancies abound, although few have been formally educated in urban design. A further significant achievement has been the movement to protect historic precincts within Australian cities and townships. Many such areas, including city streetscapes such as parts of Collins Street in Melbourne; historic precincts such as Paddington in Sydney; northern Adelaide; and heritage towns such as Fremantle in Western Australia, Beechworth in Victoria and Tilba Tilba in New South Wales, are protected under planning laws and there is now, for the most part, a mature respect for them in the Australian community and treatment of them by government agencies. Table 75 provides an illustration of the extent of local government heritage protection in Victoria and New South Wales. Other material is to be found in the SoE,Cultural and Natural Heritage Theme Report. In South Australia, 13 of the 14 regions have been surveyed, and 17 of the 68 councils have local heritage lists and 15 have heritage advisers.

    Table 75: Local government and heritage protection in New South Wales and Victoria. [HS Indicator 3.1]
    Description New South Wales (1997) Victoria (1999)
    Number of local councils 177 78
    Surveys - comprehensive (completed or under way) 84 42
    Surveys - partial n.d. 24
    Protection in planning scheme or local environment plans (LEP) 126 9
    Protection - partial n.d. 67
    Councils with heritage officers 40 n.d.
    Councils with heritage advisors 102 55
    Councils with heritage funds 64 n.d.
    Councils with no LEP, advisor, funds or committee (New South Wales) 34 n.d.
    Councils with no protection (Victoria) n.d. 3
    Councils with no surveys attempted (Victoria) n.d. 12

    n.d. = no data.

    Source: Data from the New South Wales Heritage Office, Sydney; Heritage Council Victoria (1999).

    Heritage listings are commonly on property in the most sought-after areas within our cities and towns, with a consequence that pressures for redevelopment remain high and can result in major conflicts between local governments and property developers.

    A third important change has been the use of public space. Cafes and delicatessens have spilled out onto the streets in cities and towns across Australia. Public space has become livelier and better used and the quality of streetscape settings has greatly improved. Other achievements have been the improvements in many waterfront environments. Southbank in Melbourne, Circular Quay in Sydney, the Brisbane city waterfront and the Newcastle foreshore redevelopment are good examples. Information on green open space in Australian cities is difficult to access, quantify and compare, with each authority operating their own idiosyncratic classification; most cases relate to zoned land use under planning schemes (e.g. Melbourne, Canberra, Perth) rather than actual land use. Melbourne is distinguished by its many fine public gardens within walking distance of the CBD (see Whitehead 1997), a feature shared with the city of Adelaide and Canberra city, and all products of enlightened planning from an open space perspective. Subsequent generations of planners and developers have deserted the 'garden city' concept in favour of privatised open space-the detached house on a 'quarter-acre' block of land.


    The practise of new urban design in Australia, with some notable exceptions, is still sadly wanting. In city centres, good strategies are often put in place, such as the strategy for the Southbank area of Melbourne, but then structures that contravene those strategies on many counts are allowed to be built. In the suburbs there seems to be general government indifference to the impact of powerlines and cabling on residential areas, and of inappropriate scale and treatment of suburban shopping centres to the significance of neighbourhood character in inner and middle ring suburbs experiencing redevelopment. Along the coastline there are few coastal towns of any real urban design quality. Of even greater importance is the lack of an integrated vision for urban areas - that is, of a vision that encompasses ecological and equity concerns, effective transport planning, the needs and behavioural preferences of people, the planning of the public realm to maximise public benefits and encourage appropriate commercial, economic and other uses - together with sensitive design skills and approaches. When very creative, aesthetic designs are generated they are rarely integrated with these broader social and environmental concerns.

    Of particular concern is the way design for sustainability has been neglected as a key component of successful urban planning and management. Some of the greatest opportunities for interventions to bring about more sustainable settlements are through sustainable design, such as the design of new settlements, infrastructure, buildings and facilities. Important work has been done by the National Centre for Design at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology to start to rectify this situation.

    One problem is the failure to translate academic research and theory into useful practice. Another is the nature of the operation of the property market and the failure of government to manage and encourage property developers to produce outstanding design, and a corresponding blindness from the development industry to the financial benefits offered by good design. Also an issue is the short-sightedness of politicians in their rush to encourage development of any kind, regardless of its long-term impacts on the city, as is the failure of national governments to take effective leadership roles. Another problem is the absence of strong community organisations focussed on the quality of urban design. And finally, there is the neglect of techniques used in other countries to encourage higher-quality urban design. Each of these problems is briefly explored below.

    Although academic urban design research has greatly increased, there is not nearly enough research into the ingredients of successful urban design in Australia. This kind of applied research, together with penetrating theoretical investigation, is of crucial importance. As Stephen Dovers has observed in another context, its absence leads to policy adhocery and amnesia because policies and institutional arrangements are constantly being reinvented (see Yencken and Wilkinson 2000). We also rely upon the universities to help teach and train policy managers and urban designers to understand the way in which urban design needs to encompass enlightened coordinated approaches to transport, economic, property development, and ecological and social planning, together with research findings on people's concerns and behaviour in public places. Design education for the built environment requires cross-disciplinary teaching, all too infrequently achieved in universities.

    Effective public urban design requires an in-depth understanding of the property market and skill in the evaluation of commercial costs and opportunities. There are very few instances where urban areas are under the full control of public authorities. Nearly all major urban design initiatives require the steering and management of private development. There are two possible options for public authorities. One is much more strategic public acquisition of land for development. This is an approach regularly used in Europe. It not only helps to reduce land prices, but also enables public authorities to set higher design and other standards for development. While it is of great importance that governments control the quality and accessibility of public space (roads, pedestrian areas, water edges, open space), land acquisition or assembly by governments does not imply that public authorities have to be the land developers and builders. In many instances, it will be most effective to put the development of acquired land out for tender by private developers. The second option is to develop much higher skills in land and development economics so that public managers are able to debate proposals with developers on equal terms. This is another area of urban design teaching and practice that is greatly neglected in Australian universities.

    Good urban design takes time. Nearly all interventions to get work completed to coincide with political or other short-term cycles lead to flawed results. There are many misconceptions about the real economic benefits of 'cranes in the skies' - the sense that any development, no matter what its impacts, leads to economic vitality. Many developers now understand that design quality has significant long-term benefits, but there are still many who do not. Here the problems are exacerbated by the different motives of short-term developers and long-term owners. The issue of life-cycle analysis in the context of energy costs in building, for example, is explored in an earlier section of this report. The concept of self-containment in urban design is also being explored in several of Australia's cities; for example, the town centres of Canberra, Melbourne's 'urban villages', and Brisbane's new master-planned community at North Lakes.

    The commissioning of the Prime Minister's Urban Design Task Force (1994) and the publication of Urban Design in Australia in 1994, together with the urban design election platform of the first Howard Government, marked a high point of national interest and leadership in urban design, signifying a bipartisan federal valuation of and approach to urban design. Since that time, the Federal Government has decided to leave issues of urban design to the states and territories. With other national agendas in place, this seems an appropriate moment for the Federal Government to reintroduce a modest national program designed to raise awareness and develop skills across Australia.

    A crucial problem for urban design is the absence of strong community groups committed to urban design. In the UK, the Civic Trust plays a key national role in arguing and negotiating for higher-quality urban design. It is supported by many regional and local amenity associations. In Australia, we have powerful non-government organisations, such as the National Trusts and State Conservation Councils, that take an active interest in urban design quality, but there are no comparable bodies concerned, as is the Civic Trust, with wider aspects of urban design. The encouragement of such groups is the key to the future.

    In sum, urban design and urban planning and management across the full spectrum of built environment applications should be looked at more rigorously as one of the prime means of dealing with the issues highlighted in this chapter. Good urban design is a form of public wealth creation. Urban design with highly valued aesthetic qualities, good movement and sustainable form goes on creating wealth for centuries.