We must shift gears to save our cities

More Australians than ever are sitting in traffic, standing in queues and competing for fewer traditional jobs, increasingly disconnected from a lifestyle perhaps once taken for granted. This was inevitable, many experts will argue, because of unprecedented economic growth, the internet revolution and aspirations for global influence.

Economics are well and good but most residents of Australia’s largest cities - Sydney and Melbourne - don’t dwell on economic growth when they choose where to live.

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Above all else they value an ideal – the 'Australian way of life'. This can mean different things but ultimately refers to comfort, space and a congenial attitude.

" Cities must be designed around people, not planned with superimposed logic." - Jane Jacobs

Yet the trajectory many cities are currently on – furiously competing, building up, overcrowding and grinding into gridlock - has eroded the ideal. It’s happened so quickly we’ve barely had time to consider the impact.

It was the great urban thinker Jane Jacobs who said cities must be designed around people, not planned with superimposed logic. She was largely concerned with the way people interacted with each other and the streets they moved along.

Perhaps Australians should be asking more questions about how their streets are used – how city life is being funnelled – before it’s too late.

What city dwellers want

In JLL’s 2016 TEDxSydney survey Is Humanity the Future Architect? respondents were asked about how they saw the future of their cities. Notably, they were unanimous in wanting more human connections and shared a desire to be closer to nature. This is a sentiment that’s familiar to many of us in the city.

Given the opportunity to start again, many respondents also said they would not replicate the existing built environment. Instead, they want multi-purpose structures (81 per cent) and like the concept of an eco-campus where people can live, work and play within one area.

Furthermore, 57 per cent of respondents would not create central business districts (CBDs) where most of our business interactions occur. In short, they want self-sufficient communities, rather than commuting.

Ending long work commutes seems integral to the future success of Australia's biggest cities. These daily trips – often in cars – have been linked to poor health, reduced exercise and high levels of stress.

One approach to combatting the commute is better neighbourhood design because while we can’t move homes necessarily, we can rethink how and where people travel for work.

Senior research fellow in RMIT's Centre for Urban Research Dr Cecily Maller says there's room for improvement but it will require being more strategic about urban design. 

The challenge, she says, is to not only improve transport delivery and service but to reduce the distances between where people live and work – whether spatially or technologically. 

"It’s absolutely worth trying to find alternatives to having to be physically located in CBDs for work, nine to five, five days a week," she says. "[Though] it will suit some business, like those that are e-based, and probably not others.

“While there might be benefits from not having a long commute, there is also the potential for reduced social interaction, potentially affecting work relationships and so on.”

There are challenges Maller says. Resource consumption could escalate if every home becomes an office. These are valid points, which might mean any immediate change is limited to the most impacted areas. 

For example, it may be easier to revise outer ring and new fringe suburbs, which tend to suffer most from traffic congestion due to their lack of public transport options and, of course, the distances residents must travel.

Smarter design

A well designed neighbourhood can enhance the wellbeing of its community by encouraging people to be more physically active and engaged, according to the government website,

In a similar vein, RMIT research shows better neighbourhood design can create a sense of place.

"I would say that we just need better strategies and models for the design and delivery of new suburbs," Maller says. "Currently things seem to be heading in the wrong direction, with housing developments extending well beyond the reach of transport and other infrastructure of cities. 

"This is incredibly inequitable and will have serious long-term health and environmental impacts for current and future residents of these communities. The model we have of supplying housing first and transport and other key infrastructure later is not serving residents or the livability of our cities well at all.”

Any shift must consider the way we move around. In a recent report, Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) considered the indicators of physical connectivity - that is, how cities accommodate the movement of people within their environment - including mass transit, road congestion and airport connectivity. 

Notably, it looked at the movement of information, too - how a city builds and promotes equitable digital connectivity across broadband and mobile communication networks.

While part of the allure of any great city is its density and the resulting inter-connectedness, all cities are in a perpetual state of adaptation to strike the right balance of density and growth, PWC says.

Given the technology is available to us, digital connectivity seems a rather obvious solution to the challenges of urban sprawl. While some steps have been made, there are a number of case studies Sydney and Melbourne might refer to in boosting connectivity.

For example, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines have all turned to digital technology to help improve ‘the flow’ of their cities, says PWC.

Singapore’s ITS (Intelligent Transportation System), for instance, spans over 164 kilometres of expressways and road tunnel systems. The city is now preparing for its next wave of smart transport, called Mobility 2030, in which it envisions driverless cars alongside other cars, according to PWC. 

Thailand also launched its own ITS in 2013, which includes collecting real-time location data from vehicles and making it available to commuters and traffic police.

PWC estimates this technology in Bangkok will cut travel times, carbon emissions and accidents, yielding up to $US1 billion in annual social and economic benefits, too.

Similarly, Auckland is planning an overhaul of its mass transit network with a strong emphasis on multi-modal transport including roads, rail, trams, buses, bikes and ferries.

Better run roads and transport is just part of the equation though. The question for Australia’s big cities is can we actually shift the balance from centralised CBDs into a range of more modern, interconnected and varied workplaces.

Shared spaces

Co-working is proving a highly successful idea in some major cities, including Singapore, where real estate and free space come at a premium.

The Working Capitol building on Keong Saik Road is just one example where companies ranging from start-ups to multinationals are letting workers set up in a convenient location, with everything they need technologically and socially to complete their jobs.

This idea is spreading, with the number of co-working locations globally expected to increase by 25 per cent in 2017 to 12,700, according to real estate firm Knight Frank.

Senior research analyst for Knight Frank, Alex Pham says co-working hubs are also popping up in the suburbs and outer areas of our big cities as we’re further impacted by large population growth and congestion. 

In Sydney, there are already hubs in Strathfield, Parramatta, Penrith, Wyong, North Sydney and Oran Park.

"Our research shows there were 18 co-working facilities in suburban [Sydney] locations across 8,732 square metres of space, as at October last year,” Pham says. This represents an annual growth rate of 87 per cent over the past five years, according to Knight Frank.

Recalibrating the street

In the end, the discussion must turn back to the street – the very circuits connecting us from point A to point B and which we seem to be misusing at an alarming rate.

President of the Project for Public Spaces in New York, Fred Kent, who collaborated with the Committee for Perth on recent urban design work in the Western Australian capital, says when cities transition to a more ‘place led’ approach, small scale issues take precedent. 

"Shifting the purpose of a street from a traffic focus to a social-place focus naturally enhances interest in going there,” Kent says. 

“Complexity breeds interest. When you design your city around cars, you get more cars. When you design your city around people, you get more people. “

“You could apply the same idea to architecture – you get the same outcome. So, in principal, if human scale and sense of place becomes the priority, you get a big return on many levels." 

It’s this sense of the place being ours – the community’s – that we’re losing most. Cities change and adapt, certainly, but they must always prioritise the very people creating the spirit within them.

It’s ultimately their movement that moves the city forward.

Jean-Paul Pelosi is a property and technology journalist

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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