Learning from European Cities
Source: The Fifth Estate
From “Sexy … as in small: the European angle on cities” by Robin Mellon, Green Building Council Australia (GBCA):
In Australia, we have borrowed much from Europe in the evolution of our cities, not least some of the names. But the majority of Australia’s urban development has occurred during the era of the motor car, and so our towns and cities are much less dense and much more sprawled. And with that broad expanse of country on which to build have come larger and larger homes.
On a worldwide scale, Australia already has five of the 20 least affordable cities, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2012 Worldwide Cost of Living survey. Energy prices are rising fast, mostly due to under-investment in infrastructure over the past 25 years, and water and landfill charges will be tracking in a similar direction.
Europe is similarly undergoing its own financial worries, with significantly higher levels of unemployment, inflation and national debts than Australia. But can we learn from our European cities? What have I taken away from the last few weeks? The lessons I’ve learned can be grouped into four areas:
It’s not the size that counts.
First and foremost is the question of building size – it really isn’t how much you’ve got, it’s what you do with it that counts. Many of the offices, houses and apartments I saw were simply smaller – there was less space available and a much greater demand for what there was, and so small apartments were the rule rather than the exception. There were also many more good design and good technology solutions for coping with small spaces – whether new development or retrofits. The bottom line is that smaller homes are cheaper to run – how much less would a 100 square metre apartment cost to operate than a 150 square metre apartment?
Small equals savings.
The cars you see in European capital cities are also smaller on average than those in Australia. Whole days would go by without me seeing a big 4WD or people-mover, with everyone using bicycle share schemes, public transport or chic little cars (many of which were, in turn, either car share schemes or rechargeable cars). Small cars are just cheaper to run, and often have a comparable safety rating to larger cars, especially when considering where and how they are most often driven.
Old world ideas for a new age.
Most of Europe’s older buildings were built at a time when ‘sustainability’ was not a buzz-word – they depended upon natural ventilation and natural daylight, shading from the sun, eaves, shutters, balconies on which to grow plants, dry washing and sit outside, and thick walls and insulated roofs to keep the buildings cool in summer and warm in winter. Many of these older buildings, therefore, have good opportunities for retrofitting, now that we can combine good passive design with good technologies and good behaviour.
Because smaller apartments and cars, and often older buildings, are the norm, people have different expectations. Sure, they might want the latest in modern convenience, but what was most readily available was small and traditional and so the expectations were lower. Certainly the dreams of a European first-time home owner do not equal a 250 square metre house and land package with double garage thrown in, but a small apartment in a walk-up block close to public transport. In Europe I heard many times that the percentage deposit needed for a mortgage was much higher; in turn this helps to keep expectations lower because the smaller the purchase, the smaller the deposit needed.
Read the full article by Robin Mellon on the Fifth Estate.