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Urban greening in high density environments

Creating 'Vertical Forests' in high density residential developments

Southbank’s new green spine

By Danielle Cull

Traditional boulevards of the past have been adorned to celebrate the car, sometimes with perfunctory landscaping used to break up the vast sea of ash felt. Take Melbourne’s St Kilda Road for example, with origins dating back to the 1840’s – the now world famous 8-lane boulevard is lined with landscaped medians breaking up vehicle traffic.

Whilst the boulevard is a beautiful sight and recognised the world over, it could be said that boulevards like these with generous medians could be better used for pedestrians than the current 3m footpath at the roads edge.


What if these roads were reconfigured and the medians were used for meaningful public open space?

It’s not a foreign concept. Perhaps the most notable boulevard transformation is the world famous Times Square in New York. Completed in April 2017, the busy intersections of Broadway between 42nd and 47th Streets are now primarily pedestrianised spaces that welcome more than 45 million visitors annually.

Or on a much smaller scale, take Seattle’s Bell Street for example. The small inner city street has been transformed from a car dominated street into a pedestrian and vehicle shared space.

It seems the City of Melbourne has embraced the cries of the community and created a concept to rejuvenate a busy Southbank street into a much needed key pedestrian link and public open space spine, connecting the Southbank waterfront and St Kilda Roads Arts Precinct.

The Southbank Boulevard and Dodds Street Concept Plan has done just that. By reconfiguring the current 4-lane road and wide centre median and shifting the vehicle traffic to one side, means pedestrians and residents get to use what was a meaningless median as purposeful public open space.

Southbank Boulevard - before and after (concept) (source:

Is this the new boulevard where pedestrians are embraced and cars are secondary? Read more about the new open space here:

Is there a spot for contemporary street art in planning?

By Sam Palma

It is no secret that innovative urban street art captures the eyes or interest of most people who come across it, sparking a social element to what can commonly be a blank interface. Melbourne has the privilege of having some of the world’s best laneways and urban street artists which see locations such as Hoiser and Union Lane become not only a tourist attractions but add a layer of culture to our City. Contemporary street art and murals have the potential to stimulate conversation and awareness towards social, environmental and political issues, while providing opportunity for local artists to exhibit their work to a wide audience.

With the ongoing acceptance and appreciation of contemporary street art within an urban environment, does the planning system within Victoria have the provisions or tools to regulate commissioned street art on what would otherwise be a blank concrete wall?

Specifically, inner urban suburbs that see the construction of apartment complexes built to the boundary and left with four storeys of concrete walls exposed to the public realm, remaining blank and unappealing until the adjoining block is eventually developed.


Such interfaces bring to light the term ‘concrete jungle’, as overbearing, tall and dull interfaces proclaim and dominate streetscape views. Understandably, any development occurring on a property boundary will require the use of such concrete walls, and although there are mechanisms of texturizing the facades to soften the profile of them, is there scope to implement greater improvements or change? 

These photos from a recent trip I took to Berlin reveal the potential some of these blank facades can have to express art, social or political issues/change to the public realm and streetscape. Although street art is commonly conducted without permission, does that mean there is not opportunity to not only regulate such forms of art, but incorporate the delivery of such projects into the planning system to ensure appropriate messages are delivered?

Within a Melbourne context, this response would be best suited to podium style apartment developments where they comprise a boundary wall of up to 3-5 storeys high (which typically comprises of car parking facilities) and a single or double storey development on the adjoining site (as shown below).


It is noted that in some instances the introduction of street art to some of these blank apartment boundary walls has the potential to influence the architectural context of the building within the streetscape and broader context, and this will need to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Potential avenues for implementation within the planning process:

At the time the planning drawings are endorsed by the Responsible Authority, a design is agreed upon, shown and form part of the endorsed plans as a one off proposal.


Is there potential for developers to be granted ‘concessions’ for implementing innovative urban art on boundary facades, acting as a catalyst towards the idea of regulatory art on building facades.

What other avenues could be explored as a way of uplifting these blank concrete facades to spark social interaction?

Privatise planning assessment or as of right unit development – do we dare?

By Jonathan Halaliku

The Smart Planning program has acknowledged that over the past 20 years, Victoria’s planning system has grown significantly whereby the planning system now includes a massive 75,000 pages across 8500 documents and 15,000 PDF maps.[1] As acknowledged by the State Government, the consequence of planning regulation has become complex, inaccessible and inefficient.[2] Reform is required and I agree with this principles behind the program.

However with the Smart Planning program reaching the next stage of its roll out (VC137[3]) we as an industry should consider the difficult, and not so difficult, questions of wholesale reform – dare I say not just a cosmetic ‘nip and tuck’ to process. I believe transformative reform is required – and we need to be brave.

Year in review

According to DWELP’s planning permit activity monthly report[4], planning applications for alterations to a building, structure or dwelling, extension to an existing dwelling, single and mutli-dwelling totalled 23,281 applications across the state !! The sheer number of applications in our system is mind boggling and it is further reflected in the average gross days of Responsible Authority determinations of 121 days across the State. Worryingly, but no surprisingly, only 62% of all applications were completed within the 60day statutory timeframe. This is a system under immense pressure and steps need to be taken to remove not only the burden but the onus from the under resourced Local Government sector.

Given the weight of applications which have a residential redevelopment outlook, I believe our first point of call for reform is to the drafting of the residential provisions in the VPP’s.[5]

What should change - Rationale

We as constituents need to come to terms with the concept of change. Change in our cities, change in urban form, change in the way we experience, utilise and engage with our physical environment. Seldom do the masses spend the weekends tending to the quarter acre block. The once cherished quarter acre is now realised as being an asset not only to the land owners but as a resource for our broader needs of the City.

As our urban environment changes, the type of amenity we experience may change – not necessarily reduce. Where once we would marvel at expanses of freshly mowed lawns, now, the sheer pleasure of home ownership or the ability to house several generations prevails. The utilitarian benefit of urban consolidation has (and should) supersede the protection of underutilised land. So where I am going with this…?

Well, change in urban environment (often termed neighbourhood character), does not, if managed properly, equate to a reduction in amenity. It is commonly misconceived that changes in character negatively change amenity experiences. Hence, neighbourhood character is at the heart of most, it not all, planning stoushes. It is as much a ‘shield’ as it is a ‘sword’. It is a coveted mechanism of planning control, and I say, the defining difference between the planning and building worlds.[6]

Neighbourhood character, its identification, assessment and evolution needs to be forward looking rather than an exercise in preservation of the built form and amenity expectations of days gone by – character, like the intangibles of our city, should be allowed to evolve organically.

The assessment and consideration of neighbourhood character is, in my mind, the main difference between assessment of siting requirements under Part 4 of the Building Regulations, and the processes and delays of residential planning permit applications that we see today. What if we could design a test for neighbourhood character that allows assessment to take place within a confined siting criteria – a tick box assessment? Following this, I would then question why would extensions, single, dual occupancy or multi-unit[7] development proposals actually require planning consent?

Provided the test for neighbourhood character can be resolved, ResCode should return to its origin of assessment – as part of the siting requirements under Part 4 of the Building Regulations.

Granted there will be architectural expressions which won’t be as appealing as others they would nevertheless be an expression and provided mandatory siting provisions are met (i.e. confining unreasonable offsite amenity impacts), there is no reason for the enormous amounts of residential applications that we see in single, dual occupancy and multi-unit applications (of less than 4 dwellings) clogging up Council and Tribunal resources.

The takeaway – form an objective approach to neighbourhood character,[8] formulate a test for character performance that can be incorporated into a ‘siting assessment’ or similar criteria, and relinquish the burden of assessing thousands of straight forward applications by Local Government.

What could change - Zone Provisions

As an example, within the General (32.08-6) and Neighbourhood Residential Zones (32.09-6) each respectively trigger the requirement for a planning permit for the construction and extension of two or more dwellings on a lot. To release the pressure, and on the back of a well considered assessment framework, the requirement for planning consent for more than one dwelling on a lot should be removed, or, “as of right” for dual occupancy and multi-unit development of 4 or less dwellings on, for example,… “of dwellings less than two storeys on a lot size of 1200m²”.[9]

I acknowledge that a robust assessment framework must be established to release various densities of residential redevelopment to “as of right” status. The provisions and assessment (by private assessors or otherwise) would need to be grounded in mandatory requirements (with few areas of discretion). A suite of Planning Scheme amendments would need to be initiated from a platform of up to date character studies, needs analysis, landscaping and housing strategies for which ‘lock in’ preferred character expectations. Maybe it is wishful thinking however the concept of releasing the assessment burden by removing permit triggers is a reform strategy that could be employed if, and only if, the assessment framework is itself well resolved.

Essentially, extensive work on the ‘front end’ of Planning Scheme amendments could then facilitate a ‘tick box’ assessment phase for siting (similar to the new garden area requirements). Here, neighbourhood character can evolve organically rather than with the ‘detached, pitched roof and eave reproduction’ often forced as a result of responding to neighbourhood character concerns.

What could change – Assessment of applications

Privatised assessment of various planning applications should be considered.

The assessment of various classes of low impact, straight forward planning applications should be privatised, or at least, Council’s should be equipped with facility to refer to a third party assessor to make determination in place of the Responsible Authority. The legislative framework underpinning the authority to make a decision on planning applications should be extended to include privatised assessment for various classes of permit applications. I understand that determining such classes of applications beyond the obvious single dwelling, dual occupancy and multi-dwelling townhouse developments (without overlay controls) is beyond this piece, however the conversation about privatised assessment should not be intimidated by recent visible (although not relatable) examples such as Lacrosse[10] or Mount Waverley.[11]

Granted there are lessons to be learnt from our building surveying brethren, but where the appropriate assessment frameworks are in place, and the relevant professional standards and liabilities are accepted by privatised assessment parties, then Councils should have the legislative facility and discretion to refer assessment to a private assessor where deemed appropriate.

It is acknowledged that planning has intricacies of discretion that may not be prevalent in the building surveying comparison, nevertheless, the concept and principles behind privatised assessment, are, as per ResCodes genesis in Part 4, equally applicable if the provisions and development controls are correctly drafted.

Blue-skying change

Easing the burden on the planning system could be achieved by:

a) Elevating some forms of residential development to “as of right” status based on density and built form, and;

b) Privatising, or at least providing the facility for privatised assessment, of various classes of low impact planning permit applications should be considered.

Either or a combination of the above would initiate a shift in onus and burden from an under resourced public sector. Unfortunately I am a realist and I understand the breadth of work that is required, top down, and from all sides of the industry to put these concepts in place. Nevertheless, as per the 1989 classic - Field of Dreams - “if you build it, they will come”.


[2] Above 1 consequences of these growing issues include:
  • lengthy approval times 
  • inconsistencies in planning schemes and decision making 
  • a system that is difficult to interpret and understand 
  • barriers to public participation 
  • higher compliance costs than necessary 
  • less effective policy implementation. 
[3] Which seeks to expands the Vic Smart fast-track planning process by changing the Vic Smart Planning Assessment provisions at Clauses 90 to 95 of the VPP’s. Amendment VC137 is required to implement an extension to the VicSmart permit process by transferring particular classes of application from the standard permit process to the VicSmart process.


[5] Obviously governed by changes to the legislative framework.

[6] Understandably neighbourhood character is primarily concerned with fit, contextual design response and ‘looking out’ of a site, rather than confining consideration to the boundaries of a site.

[7] Up to 4-5 dwellings in a townhouse configuration

[8] Tainted by political platforms or grandstanding for a vocal minority.

[9] An arbitrary, but reasonable, threshold for planning permit trigger chosen for illustration purposes only. A detailed empirical assessment would be required to establish density and lot size provisions.

[10] Media release, “Lacrosse Building Surveyor to face disciplinary action”, VBA, 23 March 2016.

[11] Media release, “Mt Waverley Building Practitioner to face disciplinary action”, VBA, 29 April 2016.

Must see films for Urban Planners and Designers

By Julia Moiso

Sometimes it seems like the profession of urban planning and design shifts between being bureaucratically mundane to wildly imaginative, exciting and futuristic.

One of the great aspects of urban planning is that everyone at one point, whether they realise it or not, has formed basic thoughts about what they perceive as “good planning”. Everyday citizens interact with different typologies of the built environment; a women stuck in traffic on her way home most probably wonders why there are not better routes for her to travel home, a pedestrian caught at a red traffic light maybe wonders why such timely provisions are set up to prohibit him from crossing the road, even though there is little vehicular cross traffic. These interactions between citizens and the environment are a such common thread of everyday urban life, it can be said that planning is a fairly popular topic in the media, both directly and indirectly. Whether it’s a blockbuster dystopian future film or an anthropology documentary, planning has found it’s way onto the big screen.

I’ve compiled a list (in no particular order) of some of my favourite planning and design related films and documentaries that planners and non-planners alike may also find both visually intriguing and thought provoking:

Blade Runner (1982)

It’s hard to believe that this film was created in 1982 featuring such futuristic visions for urban design, and it’s even harder to believe that Harrison Ford features in discussions about urban planning! This film, created by Ridley Scott, is one of my favourite dystopian, fantasy films that triggers viewers fascination with space and place. The film is set in what is supposed to be Los Angeles in 2019 (37 years into the future from its conception) and opens with a nightmare scene of future LA where ‘air-cars’ maneuver through the darkness lit by fires and explosions among a sea of monolithic commercial towers. The visuals of these towers dominate the city and embody a “Times Square vibe” of supersized commercial billboards as a constant reminder of the corporate powers that control the city. In the film, the wealthy citizens live in isolated high-rise towers, where powerful corporations control the city of 106 million people and the poor are shunned to polluted, crime filled streets. In my opinion, Blade Runner is one of the most visually stunning movies ever created.

Metropolis (1927)

Yes you read that correctly, yes it was created in 1927 and yes it is a silent movie, but don’t let that deter you from viewing one of Fritz Lang’s more famous creations, and a masterpeice of early 20th century film. Metropolis is an amazing piece of a architectural sci-fi film, set in a dystopian Orwellian urban future where citizens are enslaved to huge industrial organisations. The built form comprises of intensely dense and souring high-rise buildings, mass freeways (which were barely common in 1927) and, of course, flying cars. Metropolis depicts the dark side of urban places which may have either intentionally or unintentionally urged viewers to move towards a suburban lifestyle.
If silent film isn’t really your thing, I recommend you watch this film purely for the visuals, as it’s hard to believe that this film was made before the advent of CGI (computer generated imagery). Lang’s unrestrained imagination created a city of the future in which step-pyramid towers rise from vaguely glimpsed streets, drawing inspiration from iconic New York architecture such as the Rockefeller Centre.

Back to the Future (Part 1 and 2 - I have no time for the 3rd film) 

Ah, the Back to the Future series, a cult CLASSIC, and it even makes the cut to some of my favourite childhood films. Speilberg’s classics can be portrayed as some of the most memorable films about urbanism, since it shows the comparable disparity between built environments of different ages; walkable urban and driveable suburban (in 3 different time periods). The walkable urban environment is dominant during a scene in 1955 in downtown Hill Valley, a fictional small Californian town centre based around a landscaped plaza. As the camera pans, and the movie progresses, you will notice an overwhelming town centre vibrancy as jobs, shopping, schools, and houses are all within walking distance to the local centre, integrating well into the character of the walkable town.

Another form of the built environment the film indirectly explores is the driveable suburban characteristics that dominate the fictional town of Hill Valley in 1985. The nearly abandoned town centre is now home to x-rated theatres and the landscaped plaza has been converted into a parking lot. For those of you with A+ memory and have seen the movie 20 times like me, you will remember that Marty McFly parks his DeLorean behind an old 1955 billboard that advertises a planned mass subdivision and master planned estate (in which Marty will be born into), thus demonstrating the shift from walkable urbanism to driveable urbanism over the next coming decades.

In Back to the Future 2, the film aces typical downtown walkable urban re-development trends that occurred within America during the late 20th century. The film also shows that the outer suburbs have become slums, which can reflect 21st century suburbanisation of American poverty. For predicting such accuracy (minus the whole flying car deal) I strongly recommend you re-visit this urban classic this weekend.

Human Scale (2013)

The Human Scale, looks at ways to turn urban places into better places to live and makes an excellent case on how to design cities around people instead of automobiles. This wildly intriguing film/documentary examines cities, from New York to Chongqing, which demonstrate various problems, solutions and possibilities for urban development. This film, heavily inspired by Jan Gehl, explores how humanity is rapidly urbanizing and how humans are increasingly adapting to the new automated lifestyle and questions the way cities are being built and if they are being built conducive for our human needs of the future.

Another popular category of planning movie includes films that are determined to exploit the underbelly of picture-perfect American suburbs.

Truman Show (1998)

Another classic, this film directed by Peter Weir stars Jim Carrey and was filmed in Seaside, Florida (known as Seahaven in the film) - one of the first and most iconic new urbanism projects at this time, characterised by mixed uses and walkability. Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, a man whose entire life is a 24-hour reality TV show. The irony is that not only is The Truman Show a satire of reality TV, but also of urban planning. On one hand, the film explores a place where everything (places of employment, retail, and social settings) is delightfully within walking distance. On the other hand, it may remind planners of the dark site of utopian master planned visions and the dangers of paternalism.

American Beauty (1999)

Similarly to The Truman Show (and even Edward Scissorhands), at a surface glance, the film is set in an ideal suburban american lifestyle with roses, white picket fences, nice large homes with sizeable backyards and extremely happy neighbours who appear to have it all. However the closer you pay attention, you will notice that it is that very notion of the perfect community is what makes the film both divisive and cynical. This isn't a revolutionary concept, but instead it offers a cynical examination of suburban lifestyles.  To me, viewing it as a dark satire of mega-suburban lifestyle is far more enjoyable and satisfying than interpreting it as (the still brilliant) poignant drama as it’s normally perceived to be.

While there may not be an “urban planning and design” section in your local video store, an awareness and understanding of these movies can visually create the potential for some self-reflection as planners and designers. By understanding which movies resonate (both positively and negatively) with our profession and why, deeper enlightenment can be sought of what we may feel to be the most daunting challenges and possibilities that this practice promotes. Film helps us to reconfigure our perspective on what is possible and what is real in planning, the construction of human interactions in any given place. 

Sick of Generic Planning Reponses? Try these instead!

By Brodie Blades.

In-principle, every planning system in this country seeks to achieve the best quality planning and design outcomes for future apartment development. Whether it be NSW’s SEPP-65 or Victoria’s recent Clause 58 implementation, applicants for apartment development approvals are being endowed with increasingly complex and rigid benchmarks for future development.

Rather than pursue the ‘stock standard’ approach, why not consider some of these alternatives instead?

Neighbourhood Character

It is a common requirement for most (if not all) developments to demonstrate a level of response to either ‘existing’ or ‘preferred future’ neighbourhood character. But what could possibly be more responsive than simply reflecting the existing character straight back to the street?

Take the infamous ‘Treehouse Hotel Mirrorcube’ in Hards, Sweden, for example. Designed by Tham and Videgard Arkitekter, the elevated treehouse suite is clad entirely in mirrors, which gives the illusion of an ‘invisible building’ nestled in amongst the pines.

Figure 1: Mirrorcube (Source: AvacadoGarden)

Or – closer to home – the Cairns Botanic Gardens (Charles Wright Architects), a design which the architects claims ‘literally reflects the gardens as camouflage for the building with visual effect similar to the suit worn by the alien hunter in the original 1987 Predator film’. Impressive! (Authors note – I love that film, and I love this building).

Figure 2: Cairns Botanic Gardens (Source: Australian Design Review)

Solar Orientation

The stigma surrounding south-facing apartments and private open spaces (or north-facing, for our northern hemisphere friends) has long polarised planners, homebuyers and developers alike. So skip all that by simply developing a building that rotates 360O every 90 minutes! No more arguments about south-facing apartments, poor outlook or compromised energy efficiency ever again.

This is exactly what the developers of Dubai’s proposed ‘Dynamic Tower’ have in mind. Designed by architect David Fisher at an impressive 420m high (and at an approximate cost of $330 million USD), the Dynamic Tower literally incorporates individually rotating floors that rotate at a steady 6m per minute. Only catch is, Dynamic Tower is yet to get off the drawing board, so instead you may wish to use Brazil’s rotating 15 storey ‘Suite Vollard’ (15 storeys and completed in 2001) as a more ‘practical’ precedent.

Figure 3: Dynamic Tower (Source: SkyscraperCity)


ESD and energy efficiency is certainly one of the most pressing issues to face our industry. Authorities across Australia have long mandated the demonstration of environmentally sustainable design initiatives within the built environment to varying degrees (and success). Within this context, what could possibly be more environmentally friendly than a completely biodegradable building?

This is the sentiment of ‘The Living’ studio’s ‘Hy-Fi’ tower – the winner of the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PSE1’s 15th Annual Young Architect Program in New York. Constructed entirely of ‘ecovative manufactured organic bricks’ (ie. bricks made of corn stalks and living root structures), the ephemeral 15 storey tower will stand proud as a ‘cool summer retreat’ New Yorkers until such time as it completely disintegrates back into the very planet from which it came. Perfect for the developer who wants zero return on their investment.

Figure 4: Hyfi (Source: ArchDaily)

Have you come across any ‘left field’ responses to generic planning requirements? Share them in the comments below!

Sexism in Urban Design – Designing for Equity

By Julia Bell

How we use a city can depend very much on how safe and comfortable we feel within it. It can also impact equity in public spaces for woman. Led by Dr Nicole Kalms, XYX Lab is investigating space, design and gender in Australia Cities.

Initially, the investigation began by examining public transport spaces as 2015 figures suggest “almost one in 11 sexual assaults that were recorded in public places happened on public transport. Furthermore, the Victoria Police statistics showed sexual assaults on trams, trains, buses and taxis jumped from 167 in 2003-04 to 268 in 2012-13”. (The Age, 2014)

In response to these frightening figures, XYX Lab has begun examining public transport spaces in order to propose policies and toolkits for women generally, and also for project partners and policy makers.

In relation to public transport safety, Kalms suggests that generally the approach to improving conditions is ungendered, and involves the introduction of CCTV cameras, ‘safety zones’, and alarm buttons for all users, which may deter an attacker but generally only become useful once the assault or harassment has occurred.

Kalms goes onto suggest that “at present, public transport service providers have yet to account for women’s gendered experience of public transport spaces, and imply that users regulate their own behaviours and that safety in public transport is their own responsibility.” Meaning, don’t travel on your own, sit close to the drivers cabin, don’t sit in empty carriages, stand in a well-lit area or in designated “safety zones” with proximity to emergency buttons (Metro Trains 2016).

In other countries, such as Japan and Brazil, the problem of harassment on public transport has become so severe woman only carriages have been created that are manned by policemen during peak hour travel.

The XYX lab’s approach is different, through a design approach which combines activist driven design research with solution-focused framework. The XYX lab does not just focus on public transport. It reviews Australian cities, wanting to understand how sex, gender and sexuality impact the culture of cities. The outcome of XYX lab is to design ‘probes’, but also communication strategies and toolkits for women and stakeholders.

“The XYX Lab wants to produce projects which challenge the causes and consequences of gender inequity in Australia. We have been working with LGBTI communities and partnering on projects around women and girls’ safety in cities, and also in public transport spaces.”

Image source:

Site Spotting: Where do we begin?

By Vincent Pham.

Within Metropolitan Melbourne, there is an ever increasing pressure to continue to provide more housing within the established suburbs and to make use of well serviced land. Melbourne’s population is growing and diversifying, and not a week goes by that I don’t see an article within the media that discusses these pressures.

Downsizers wanting to live closer to their family members, young-couples who want to live closer to the services and amenities or those who just simply want to provide a renewed home to meet the current and future size of their family, are amongst many who may choose to develop their land – but can be caught up in a stratosphere of unknowns – to the point of deterrence. So, where do you begin?

Regardless of the scale of project you are (or thinking of) embarking upon, consideration could be given to some general ‘rules of thumb,’ as a starting point, as follows:

1. Site Features

When analysing site features, it is important that one has consideration to what the physical envelope of the land is such as the shape, dimensions and orientation of the land. These factors can generally influence the overall concept at first instance, depending on overall intensity, of the project and needing to meet all other residential design regulations and design codes. For example:
  • The shape is an important consideration as this can significantly influence the type of ‘layout’ for your project. For example, a standard rectangular block of land offers flexibility to consider a range of layouts.
  • The dimensions follow on from the shape of the land and will generally influence the ‘siting’ of the project. Although the land may be regular in shape, its overall width and depth can also influence how your project is located on the land. For example, a wide but shallow lot may require a 2 townhouse development sited in a ‘duplex’ (side-by-side) layout, whilst a narrow but deep block of land may require a ‘tandem’ (one-behind-the-other) layout.
  • The orientation of the block is another natural physical feature of the site that influences the location of the backyard areas and certain rooms in your project. The general rule of thumb is residential dwellings should be designed in a manner which enables living rooms and backyards to face north, where possible. If this is not possible, then the number of ‘obstructions’ to the backyard should be reduced, where practical.

2. Physical surrounding context

An aspect of undertaking development projects (regardless of scale) is to have a reasonable level of consideration of the features that abut your land, that are not within your control/ownership. This may influence the detailed design of your project. Some points that are worth noting are:
  • The proximity of your project from neighbouring backyards and habitable windows/balconies which could influence the location and style of windows to prevent ‘overlooking’;
  • Location of existing public infrastructure assets (i.e. electricity poles or service pits) or street trees in proximity to your boundaries, that can affect the locations of new or widening of crossovers; and
  • The presence of trees on adjoining properties, which may require your development to be physically modified to ensure protection of trees.
Having an awareness of such physical surrounding features may also ensure that your project is designed to minimise the extent of unreasonable impacts to neighbouring amenity, which in turn minimise potential offense to neighbours and concerns from authorities.

3. Zoning regulations and land-specific controls

An important aspect to consider when embarking on any development project, that triggers the need for Planning Permits, is to have a basic knowledge of the local Council zoning regulations and specific-controls (such as ‘overlays’).

The Zoning of the land helps discern whether your project is suitable for what is envisaged in this area. Overlays will draw your attention to whether there are specific features affecting your land (such as heritage, flooding or significant landscapes). There are a range of overlays that could apply to your land. In established residential areas of Metropolitan, there are generally three common residential zones, each with a different ‘level’ of change envisaged:
  • The Neighbourhood Residential Zone generally envisages low-scale 1-2 storey development (such as townhouses or units);
  • The General Residential Zone envisages a medium level of change and development up to and including 3 storeys.
  • The Residential Growth Zone envisages a higher density of development such as multi-level apartments.
These general ‘levels’ of change will also need to be balanced against other Council policies and specific local circumstances, but also influence your project capacity or future expectations of the land.

4. Title restrictions

Another aspect is the presence of restrictions registered on the property Title such as ‘easements’, ‘covenants’, or ‘agreements’. These have the potential to greatly influence the overall concept of your project.
  • Easements can be present on a land and generally cannot be built over without the relevant authority or benefiting parties’ consent. A land can be affected by multiple easements;
  • Covenants are specific restrictions that can limit the use or development of land (such as a ‘material-specific’ covenant, or a ‘single-dwelling only’ covenant); and 
  • Agreements are generally between landowners and an authority. It can be imposed on land requiring that landowners to do certain actions.
Whilst the presence of these restrictions can be readily discerned by simply reviewing a copy of your property Title, the interpretation of the restrictions may require the assistance of a town planner, solicitor or conveyancer (or a combination of all three). An awareness of whether these exist on the land may prevent future roadblocks towards obtaining approval for your project.

Of course, the above rules of thumbs are not an exhaustive list, and will vary depending on specific circumstances, however, if you’ve ever wondered where to start – why not give these points a go?

Real life Frogger

By James Mackness

Those of a certain age may remember Frogger (the video game of guiding frogs home across a busy road). Well, sometimes crossing roads in Melbourne feels a little like that.

I do more than my fair share of walking as I haven’t owned a car for coming up to 10 years now (although most of that time was in London where a car often feels more a hindrance than a convenience). I know I’m in the minority in Melbourne not owning a car, but if I need one there’s always a GoGet round the corner (other car share services are available).

When it comes to creating a more walkable Melbourne I can’t help but feel a huge improvement could be achieved with one small change. If every set of traffic lights at intersections was set to automatically include pedestrian crossing signals without the button being pressed it would make a huge difference. Many crossings are already set up that way, probably mostly contained to the CBD, but there’s a significant enough number that people often assume that it’s the default state. I regularly see people waiting patiently at the lights without having pressed the button, leading them to wait considerably longer than necessary. It’s also frustrating to arrive at the lights in almost perfect timing, but because no one else has pressed the button you have to wait a whole cycle – well you should do, I often walk across, but I think that’s the British nature, we love to queue for everything aside from crossing roads!

I don’t even think this change would lead to a huge inconvenience to car drivers; after all you can still turn if there are no pedestrians crossing the road. If you’re a traffic engineer and can answer this one, please put a comment below.

Streetscape improvements are ongoing all over Melbourne lately, such as Brunswick Street in Fitzroy which is currently being upgraded to provide at grade footpaths across all of the side streets (see image). This project also includes reclaiming some road pavement back for uses such as bicycle parking and outside dining. While it is a fantastic initiative, these types of work require a significant capital outlay. My proposal for a more walkable Melbourne should be virtually free, assuming required changes can be made remotely or during routine maintenance.

It’s a small change, but could make a big difference to us poor peds.

For those of you interested in experiencing my daily commute, please see the below link:

Also Diabetes Australia Walk to Work Day is not too far away on Friday 6 October 2017, maybe some of your daily commute could be swapped for a walk:

Possible solution to join the CBD and Docklands?

By Danielle Cull.

When you look at the recent built form emerging on both the western edge of the Hoddle Grid and in Docklands, it is clear that there is a ‘hole’ (or a missing link) between the two. The opportunity to repair this is often the subject of numerous reports by State Government and anyone who wanders over to Etihad Stadium from Southern Cross Station, and one potential opportunity is to develop the land over the railway tracks.

Already there are examples of ‘rail capping’ development in Melbourne. For example, one walking back to Southern Cross form Etihad Stadium is greeted by the commercial office space by Grimshaw at 699 Bourke Street built directly over the roof structure at Southern Cross Station. And further afield in Stonnington, two apartment buildings have recently been revealed that are proposed to be built over the railway tracks at both Windsor Station and Commercial Road. And who can forget the remarkable difference Federation Square has had on the city since its development in 2002?

So why then aren’t we further developing over the tracks between Spencer Street and Etihad Stadium? Perhaps there’s light at the end of the railway tunnel!

The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) have recently established an initiative for the ‘Fast Track Government Land Service,’ which charges DELWP with the responsibility of rezoning disused government land sites which are suitable for reuse and redevelopment.

Similarly, the Access Docklands Strategy (2013) proposes the expansion of the city grid with continued staged development over Wurundjeri Way and the rail corridor, to stitch Docklands and Etihad stadium back into the traditional CBD and complete the extension of the Hoddle Grid into Docklands[1]

This is also in addition to high profile commentators such as Eddie McGuire, whose commentary about the sale of Etihad Stadium and it’s relocation within the broader MCG sporting precinct (which entertains rail corridor ‘decking’) is the subject of a State Government taskforce Cabinet committee formed last year to explore the potential. 2

If we want to further develop Etihad Stadium and Docklands and integrate it to the CBD, instead of more buildings built right to stadiums edge, why not create a Central Park of sorts with an over-rail air-rights site that incorporates public open space and retail opportunities?

Just imagine: instead of walking over to Etihad Stadium via the cramped and congested pedestrian bridge with 30 thousand other people, you could have a game of kick-to-kick or a pre-game picnic in a 7.5ha park - bigger than the size of the field inside Etihad Stadium!

BADS in practice. What do the new Victorian BADS planning controls mean for the design of apartment buildings?

By Mark Sheppard.

The Victorian Better Apartment Design Standards (BADS) have now been officially introduced to planning schemes. New apartment developments (except those lodged before 13 April 2017) are now required to meet the requirements of the new Clause 58, or new apartment provisions in Clause 55.07 if they are in a residential zone and lower than five storeys. Notably, the Guidelines for Higher Density Residential Development remain in place, although new Apartment Design Guidelines are slated for May.

The new standards are largely focused on establishing minimum standards of internal amenity. But what are their other consequences for the design of apartment buildings? First, let’s look at the things that won’t change much.

Energy Efficiency

The new provisions seek to ensure apartment developments are oriented to maximise solar access. In practice, most apartment developments already do this. Importantly, the new provisions are discretionary standards, so they can be balanced against other aspirations (such as an attractive view) in the design of a development.

There is also a provision that seeks to avoid unreasonable overshadowing of neighbours but, again, this is already common practice and, in the absence of a particular overshadowing standard, is unlikely to lead to a significant change.

Integrated Water and Stormwater Management

Similarly, the standard seeking rainwater collection merely reinforces current good practice.

Access and Parking

The new provisions seek to influence the number, width and location of vehicle accessways, and the location of car parking. However, these standards do not depart from current good practice, so will have limited impact on apartment building design.

Building Setbacks

The new provisions include building setback requirements. However, numeric requirements have been eschewed in favour of qualitative standards relating to character, daylight, privacy and outlook. Consequently, the setbacks of apartment developments will continue to be guided by other, unchanged provisions of the planning scheme.

Private Open Space

3-bedroom apartments are now required to have 12 sqm balconies and podium apartments are required to have 15 sqm balconies, up from 8 sqm, while the minimum dimension has increased from 1.6 m to 1.8-3 m depending on the apartment size and location.

The changes for 1- and 2-bedroom apartments are relatively modest and unlikely to have a significant effect. It has also been common for 3-bedroom apartments to have larger balconies, reflecting their higher price-point. And 15 sqm terraces will be relatively easily accommodated on podiums (although they may have to compete for room with communal open space—see below).


Habitable rooms are now required to have a window in an external wall. The provisions allow for ‘saddle-bag’ bedrooms with ‘snorkels’ provided the latter are at least 1.2 m wide and no longer than 1.5 times their width. Given the increased focus on internal daylight and natural ventilation over the last few years, this essentially represents what has already become standard practice.

Natural Ventilation

The new provisions require at least 40% of apartments to have cross ventilation. This is easily achieved by corner apartments, so will not have a significant effect for small-moderate sized developments with up to ten apartments per floor. Developments with larger footprints may need to introduce substantial slots or cross-over apartments mid-way between vertical circulation cores to achieve this standard. However, such variations are not uncommon in larger developments.

So, the new standards discussed above won’t have much effect on the current practice of apartment building design. What about the others?


The new provisions include a requirement for deep soil and canopy trees, something that has often been missing from apartment developments, particularly in activity centres. However, they contain the following ‘get-out’ clause: “If the development cannot provide the deep soil areas and canopy trees specified in Table D2, an equivalent canopy cover should be achieved by providing either … (trees in planters, climbers on pergolas, green roofs or green facades)”.

It remains to be seen how this standard will be applied. Notably, the decision guidelines include the suitability of the proposed location for canopy trees. It is likely that in areas such as activity centres where ground level vegetation is not characteristic, on-structure vegetation will be considered acceptable. However, in residential areas the deep soil provision is likely to be applied. While most apartment buildings are sufficiently set back from side and rear boundaries to enable perimeter tree planting, it is often in planters sitting above basements. So this provision will reduce basement areas which may make the difference between a project being viable or otherwise on lots 20 m wide or less.

Communal Open Space

New developments of over 40 dwellings are now expected to provide landscaped and sunny communal open space. While it has been common for larger apartment developments to incorporate podium-top or roof-top communal open space, this new requirement would apply to moderately-sized developments (and, therefore, a much larger proportion of projects)—e.g. a 6-8 storey mixed-use development in an activity centre.

The likely location for communal open space in mid-sized developments is on the roof, which will easily accommodate the size (e.g. 100 sqm for a 40-apartment development). But rooftop terraces require high screens for wind protection and, ideally, structures for shade. In places with height restrictions that do not exclude structures associated with rooftop gardens, this will create tension between the desire to maximise the number of floors with that for a rooftop terrace. In addition, rooftop terraces will need to compete for space with services, including solar panels. Will the need to provide communal open space reduce the number of solar panels?

Building Entry and Circulation

The new provisions require visible, easily identifiable and sheltered entries—nothing that isn’t already good practice. However, they also require daylight and natural ventilation in corridors, which has not been typical of most apartment developments.

In a typical ‘double-loaded’ apartment configuration, this means extending at least one end of the corridor to an outer edge of the building. Apart from the intended internal amenity benefits, the implications of this include an additional element in the external presentation of the building—potentially creating a welcome break in its form—and longer corridors resulting in the loss of some accommodation floorspace.

Functional Layout (bedroom and living room sizes) and Accessibility

There are now minimum dimensions for bedrooms and living rooms (but not dining or kitchen areas). While some of these dimensions represent recent standard practice, others—such as the minimum ‘depth’ of 3.4 m for the main bedroom and 3.3 m for the width of a living area—are a little larger than has been common.

The new provisions also require 50% of apartments to be universally accessible. In essence, this will result in wider internal passageways and one larger bathroom.

In order to maintain the overall apartment size and therefore affordability, the functional layout and accessibility provisions are likely to mean reductions in the size of other parts of the apartment. This is likely to come at the cost of dining and kitchen areas.

Room Depth

One of the most significant new standards is that habitable rooms that only have windows in one wall (‘single aspect’ rooms) may not have a depth of more than 2.5 times their ceiling height (measured from the window). With the typical floor-to-floor dimension of 3 m and resulting ceiling height of approximately 2.6 m, this means a maximum depth of 6.5 m.

The provisions allow single-aspect open-plan living areas with the kitchen at the back to be up to 9 m deep provided the ceiling is at least 2.7 m high. This option will be enticing to developers because it allows a more efficient building depth of around 20 m. However, it is likely to increase floor-to-floor dimensions to approximately 3.1 m, increasing the height of buildings or potentially reducing the number of floors in areas with a height restriction.


Storage requirements have increased, and now include storage within the dwelling in kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms. The new requirements exceed the amount of storage that has typically been provided (both internally and in storage cages). In order to maintain the overall apartment size and therefore affordability, this is likely to mean reductions in the size of other parts of the apartment, particularly dining and kitchen areas. It may also result in more storage areas at the centre of podium levels, occupying floorspace that is distant from natural light and therefore not useable as part of an apartment.

So, while they will undoubtedly raise internal amenity standards, the introduction of the BADS may also result in the following unintended consequences:
  • Fewer apartment developments on narrow-to-moderate width lots in residential areas
  • Greater height as a result of higher floor-to-floor dimensions, and rooftop terrace screens and pergolas
  • Less efficient buildings due to longer corridors and, potentially, fewer floors
  • Smaller dining and kitchen areas
  • Fewer rooftop solar panels
  • The expression of internal passageways on the outside of buildings
  • Storage areas in the middle of podium levels

What Makes a Great Shopping Street?

By Amy Ikhayanti.

The 'shopping street', or more commonly known as a retail strip in Australia, is undeniably the heart of any urban area. It is indeed the 'smorgasboard' of a shopping experience that can range from clothing, accessories, food and beverage, galleries, gadgets, experiences and other paraphernalia. Undoubtedly, it is one of the most vibrant and attractive places to live, work and play - as well as more commonly the place with the highest real estate value in the wider city. With all that being said, a very curious question arises of how best to create a successful and vibrant shopping street.

As urban designers, we are capable of providing the shell and components of the city. However, there is always the ‘it factor' - that is, something else that injects 'life' to the built form, which makes it an attractive destination for people. In this article, I will take a closer look at three different shopping streets to explore how the built form can influence the identity and vitality of a place.

Orchard Road, Singapore

Orchard Road (Source: Singapore Guide, 2017).

Traffic users: private vehicles, bus, pedestrian
Average building height: 30-40m to the podium and towers up to 200m in height
Landscape characteristic: lush landscapes with green buffer areas and mature trees along the pedestrian path
Pedestrian path: Up to 8m in addition to 4m front building setback.

Arguably the most famous shopping area in Singapore, various mega shopping centres line the strip between the Orchard and Somerset MRT stations. Orchard Road proves that a harmonious co-existence is possible between great pedestrian environments, retail activities and busy vehicular traffic corridors. On each edge of the 16m of two-way road reserve, a generous pedestrian path is provided that spans up to 8m in width that stands in addition to front building setbacks of up to 4m. This ample space allows all different kinds of activities to occur, such as street food stalls, seasonal public art exhibitions, street performances, seating areas, as well as creating a separated green buffer between the traffic and pedestrian zone. The thick green buffer and mature trees (trees which are more than 20m in height) that services as a canopy to the busy street and creates a 'lush' impression. The generous pedestrian path also helps create a spacious feeling that one often doesnt feel in metropolitan areas, despite the busy activities on the sidewalk.

Xintiandi, Shanghai, China

Xintiandi Shopping Street (Source:, 2017) 
Traffic users: pedestrian.
Average building height: one to two storey houses with pitch roof (approximately up to 10m high)
Landscape characteristic: sparse presence of greenery with occasional trees and shrubs that serve to define public and private (outdoor dining) areas.
Pedestrian path: averaging 5m in width, with 0m building setback and outdoor dining area

Apart from being one of the most trendy areas for shopping, dining, or simply hanging out, Xintiandi is one of the most famous and successful urban renewal projects in Shanghai. Previously, the area was full of dilapidated shikumen houses, which is a traditional Shanghainese architectural style that combines both Western and Chinese elements. Most of the neighbourhood is redeveloped into mixed-use high-rise buildings, while a couple of blocks that contain the original shikumen buildings are maintained and converted into a pedestrian-only entertainment district. It is worth noting that in a car-oriented Shanghai, the presence of a pedestrian-only block is unusual and accentuates its character and attractiveness as a destination for locals and tourists. In other words, Xintiandi is an example of creating a successful retail destination through creating unique place branding. 

Bourke Street Mall, Melbourne, Australia

Bourke Street Mall (Source: Flickr, 2017).

Traffic users: pedestrians and trams
Average building height: ranging from 15m to 30m in height.
Landscape characteristic: mature trees (up to 10m high) on planters that double as seating areas.

In the middle of the busy Melbourne CBD, Bourke Street Mall is the primary retail strip inaccessible by cars and houses various shopping centres and anchor retail stores. In a way, the concentration of strong international brands creates a centre of gravity amidst the many shops and services around. Additionally, the wide pedestrian path (approximately 8m wide, including the tree planter and seating area) allows for different activities to take place and flourish. There are more areas for street performer and a small audience without obstructing high pedestrian volumes alongside the retail frontage. The wide varieties of architectural style and façade details also add to the 'richness' of the pedestrian experience. For me, I always find the juxtaposition of contemporary architectural interventions fascinating (in the form of canopy, ground retail façade and signage, along with heritage building structures), and definitely contributes to Bourke Street Mall’s distinctiveness as a shopping destination.

What about you? Can you think of any other shopping streets that can be added to this list?

These three examples above illustrate the differing characteristics and components of shopping streets from different parts of the world. That being said, we haven’t even touched on the typical European shopping streets, which are commonly located in the traditional city centre and occupy heritage buildings. Nevertheless, it is important to note that high-level pedestrian access and movement, which can be encouraged with the elimination of car traffic, is crucial in creating a successful shopping street. A distinct character is also an important part in enhancing the attractiveness of a destination. Therefore, at the end of the day, we can always ask a question about any given space, “Is this space interesting enough retain high volumes of pedestrian activities? ”

ESD - Just Another TLA?

By James Mackness.

Green Wall, Docklands - Melbourne. (Source: Mackness, J, 2017).

Ecologically Sustainable Development (or Environmentally Sustainable Design, depending on your preference for a good old three letter acronym [TLA]) is now well-embedded into planning lingo. Despite the Environmentally Sustainable Design Statements we’re typically required to produce as part of the planning process, the question arises to whether what we’re delivering is really environmentally sustainable?

Our predominant building materials such as concrete, steel, brick, and glass are generally at the ‘higher end’ of the scale for embodied energy. Also, unlike timber, these materials don’t grow on trees. They are finite resources, which  drive up construction costs as scarcity increases.

Relative embodies energy of building materials. (Source: Australian Government, 2013)
Not every building can use timber construction, but that possibility is now closer than ever.

An alternative way to provide for more sustainable buildings is the inclusion of green infrastructure. Green roofs, walls, and façades reduce the energy demands of buildings for heating and cooling. Green infrastructure has the added benefit of being truly multifunctional. A green roof not only lowers the energy use of the building, but it also reduces the urban ‘heat island’ effect of the city, provides habitat for nature, and provides a more  aesthetically pleasing view than that of a traditional built rooftop would offer.

Despite views to the contrary, green roofs aren’t incompatible with providing energy generation via solar panels. In fact, photovoltaic panels can benefit from being on a green roof by virtue of a cooler microclimate, thus increasing the efficiency of energy generation. The green roof also benefits by virtue of the shade provided by the panels and condensation runoff, which can improve the biodiversity of the roof.

Green roof and photovoltaic cells on one of Transport for Londons buildings, UK. (Source: Living Roofs, 2017)
Although maintenance is required for the green roof, there can be a reduction in maintenance requirements in the long run as the living material protects the roof structure from UV radiation. This aspect is of course more attractive to institutional investors and their long-term view of property assets rather than developers looking for an immediate return on investment.

So with all these great benefits, why aren’t we building more of them? With the introduction of the Better Apartments Design Standards (BADS) to the Victorian Planning Scheme, maybe we will. Standard D10 states:

Development should provide the deep soil areas and canopy trees. If the development cannot provide the deep soil areas and canopy trees specified…an equivalent canopy cover should be achieved by providing either:
  •          Canopy trees or climbers (over a pergola) with planter pits sized appropriately for the mature tree soil volume requirements.
  •          Vegetated planters, green roofs or green facades

It will be interesting to see how this requirement will playout at VCAT, where many development ‘rules of thumb’ are often determined. Will the expectation of green infrastructure in lieu of deep soil zones be on a one-for-one basis? Deep soil zones provide greater opportunities for stormwater retention, planting, and the ability to recharge groundwater, so should a greater ratio be applied?

Further reading: