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Making Cities: A Synopsis of the Melbourne Roundtable Event

Posted in Models by missleeder on April 19th, 2013

Degraves II_¡kuba!_BY_NC_SA
Photo by ¡kuba! via flickr CC

The IFPH (International Foundation for Housing and Planning) are celebrating their centenary this year, with a series of worldwide events to discuss important urban design matters from local to global scale. They are focusing on the seven foundations they see to be crucial to creating more sustainable cities: ‘Making Cities: Smarter, Grow Green, Climate Resilient, Healthier, Globally Connected, Socially Cohesive and Safe and Secure.’

Melbourne was the location for the ‘Making Cities: Safer?‘ Roundtable event, moderated by Dr.Soren Smidt-Jensen of the Danish Architecture Centre, with panellists Jan Gehl (Gehl Architects,Denmark), Rob Adams (Director of City Design, City of Melbourne Council), Hugh Nicholson (Principal Urban Designer at Christchurch City Council, New Zealand) and Khoo Teng Chye (Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), Singapore). An easy camaraderie, ensuing, no doubt from their numerous walking tours around the city in the previous days, added to the enjoyment of the evening.

Some key themes were addressed; the importance of both Government and Community approaches, the Docklands, small versus big developers, strategic retreats and most pertinently for its location, the implications, problems and ideas for Melbourne’s predicted growth.

This intriguing latter topic was expansive with ideas; one being the threat that a lack of social cohesion can have during growth, leading to a disparate city of the ‘haves and have-nots,’ according to Rob, who suggested mixed use, public realm, good connectivity and local character instead. Another threat, to both the aforementioned mixed use and public realm qualities, as well as active street frontages, was raised; that being the demise of the high street shop, in part due to supermarkets, the internet and out of town malls. Jan suggested new opportunities could arise from this, such as spaces for smaller scale businesses, voluntary organisations and creative outlets, whilst acknowledging that these would involve a new type of tenancy, and to a certain degree, economy. The work of Renew was mentioned as showing viable alternatives and opportunities to combat this issue, whilst Rob implored a move away from our current throw-away culture, to better, longer lasting products.

Developers came under scrutiny during this topic; with all agreeing that there has been a detrimental impact on the growth and sustainability of Melbourne due to the large developer, with Rob querying the lack of debate about such developments. He praised some interesting developments done by small scale developers, at a more human scale, and pushed for a procurement route that would allow these developers to be more competitive against the bigger ones. Jan agreed with ‘the lazy architect’s answer to density is the tower.’

These large developers again came under fire regarding the Docklands development. Following their walking tour of the site, the panellists were asked, with the benefit of hindsight, what should have been done differently? Hugh perceived the initial mistake to be opening up the entire area to only seven large developers, all working to one deadline, favouring instead, the division of the site into areas available for smaller scale interventions, in a rolling programme. Rob agreed with this sentiment, describing it as a mistake borne from a risk averse government.

Jan raised the importance of site evaluation with such developments; that it is imperative that whenever we build, we go back and assess, and then re-assess at a later date, and again and again; in this way we learn from, and prevent a repeat of our mistakes, as well as seeing and replicating the positive aspects: ‘we get cleverer and do things better!’ His team have been brought in to evaluate the Docklands; I will be very interested to see the outcome of that evaluation.

Khoo’s response centred around the very successful, new Downtown Marina Bay in Singapore, a development on reclaimed land that has been some forty years in the making. He identified the importance of a strong Masterplan and urban design requirements and a procurement route that allowed a range of private and public developers. A competition was run for the design of the casino, with the price fixed at an earlier date. This prevented the outcome being an economic one; instead being about the best integration and benefit to the site. He did concede that the development had also succumbed, to a lesser degree, from a lack of variety and scale, due to an over-prevalence of the large developer.

Khoo had earlier described how Singapore had made huge inroads in the last fifty years; from being a fairly dangerous and polluted city to a very dense but ‘liveable’ city now. CLC have recently published ‘10 Principles for Liveable High-Density Cities,’ something that cities such as Melbourne need to take heed of; there is a very real danger that we could follow the reverse pattern of Singapore’s recent years if growth is not managed correctly.

Jan had a very positive view on Melbourne as it currently stands, commending its appeal to the leisure walker. He felt that being able to meet face to face, mingle and marvel at the scenes around them, from day into night, is of paramount importance to the safety of a city, and that Melbourne had joined other cities such as Paris and Copenhagen in promoting this behaviour, by use of best urban design practise such as street furniture, outdoor cafés, wide pavements and easy crossing points. In contrast, he felt Sydney, New York, London and Moscow were sufficient only for the functional walker, who needs to get from A to B as quickly as possible.

A strong Government approach was recognised as being crucial to shaping our future cities, with Hugh acknowledging the good outcomes arising from such a governmental approach following New Zealand’s devastating earthquakes in 2011. He depicted the fairly immediate and long term strategic retreat, enforced from thousands of homes, triggered by unsafe ground following the quakes, and was impressed with the Government’s swift response in buying all properties at correct price, and dealing with the aftermath of displacing communities at such a large scale. He also commended the remarkable community spirit apparent after the quakes; where, as people’s perspective shrank, so neighbourhood strength and tenacity grew, and despite the depth of devastation, new and different possibilities were chosen and followed, as people embraced, rather than rejected, change.

This notion of strategic retreat was raised again, as Rob offered a possible, and very alarming, scenario; that a four degree temperature increase could lead to the majority of Australia, bar Darwin and Tasmania, becoming inhabitable, thus requiring such a retreat. Meanwhile, as Khoo pointed out, this type of retreat is not even viable for Singaporeans, due to being an island. Jan proffered a more optimistic view, suggesting we can learn much from the Dutch and their technology, who have happily lived below sea level for hundreds of years.

Overall this was a fascinating evening, spent in the invigorating presence of some real heavyweights of the built environment. Their opinions and ideas to promote healthier, safer and more resilient cities, are vital as we look to the future of our cities. Hopefully, with impassioned figures such as these, Governments will take note and begin to take much needed action.


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