London Underground - reimagined!

Alternates to the London Underground map

The Death and Life of...

Planning for our future (figuratively speaking)...

Urban greening in high density environments

Creating 'Vertical Forests' in high density residential developments

Up Versus Out

By Gareth Mogg

In the wake of the recent gazettal of Melbourne Amendment C270 (Central City Built Form Review) - as well as the release of the State Government's final 'Better Apartment Design Standards'  - now is a good time to revisit one of Melbourne's most contentious debates... is urban consolidation an appropriate response to urban sprawl?

We’ve all seen them, those images of a sprawling metropolis. Highways weaving their way out into the distance, flanked by suburban low rise dwellings, stretching in a seemingly endless retreat away from the urban heart of the city. These ‘boomer’ strongholds have recently become more archaic in their desirability with large sought after back yards replaced with city vistas, and the proximity to small local neighbourhoods overshadowed by a need to be close to large scale urban amenity. Urban densification has become the new modern, with population numbers surging in city centres. One needs look no further than Melbourne to see this.

The vision of the city has taken many forms, from the idyllic garden settings proposed by Ebenezer Howard, to the urban revitalisation envisioned by Le Corbusier. The idea of the city has undergone a variety of 'facelifts' and has over the years, embodied a mercurial personality. Back when Melbourne city centre was an industrial hub, there was little in the way of the amenity and services enjoyed by us today. The city was for work, not for play. And so, our suburbs formed. Large backyards, plentiful space, local communities far from the smog and a safe environment were on offer for families who were not condemned to live in slums.

Our cities changed however.  Melbourne’s notorious slums were replaced with renovated, highly valued accommodation, the far reaching suburbs became the vestiges of those who were unable to live closer to the city centre and urban populations grew alarmingly. City skylines are no longer dominated solely by office buildings and hotels, but with high rise apartments. These trends are seen from Vancouver to Melbourne and from London to Berlin.  Densification has grown in place of the economic agglomeration of residences and business along stretching highway and rail corridors. Postcode 3000 is now desirable. 

The topic of urban consolidation versus sprawl has been hotly contested in Melbourne. While it is acknowledged that sprawl is an inherently poor response to city growth (for matters ranging from sustainability and car use, to equitability and housing stress), urban densification has also been lambasted with arguments around its impact on population numbers, internal and external amenity for residents and resulting in less interaction with neighbours. 

So what solution is there if both sprawl and consolidation are considered inadequate responses? The arguments for and against both are quite convincing, yet our population must go somewhere and the provision of accommodation close to services, amenity and connectivity seems a much more positive response than pushing residents to under serviced, far flung corners of our cities. The new Better Apartment Guidelines demonstrate a way within which Melbourne is adapting to this growth and demonstrating management protocols to best facilitate this trend.

There has been a degree of flirtation in European and North American countries with the notion of satellite cities, working in a polycentric manner, instead of focusing growth in one location. Melbourne’s nearest urban centres are Geelong and Bendigo, which are too far away to serve as Melbourne’s second city centre. While there are areas of Melbourne, such as Box Hill, which are emerging as places of employment and accommodation, there is still a predominant ‘single city’ idea prevalent in Melbourne. With Melbourne’s population increasing, simply providing higher rise apartments will not necessarily alleviate the issues of congestion which comes with the mass grouping of people.

What are your thoughts? Is it time for Melbourne, as well as many other cities around the globe, to embrace the multi-city ideas of the past? How can cities combat sprawl yet control densification?

Car Free Futures?

By Gareth Mogg

Cars are becoming a thing of the past! Well, at least in a handful of city centres. No, we aren’t experiencing the first in a wave of hover vehicles, nor am I talking about the rise of the self-driving autonomous automobile. Instead, some places are reverting back to traditional means of transportation … our feet.

This is at least the case in Europe, which is currently seeing a rise in car free commercial centres, or in the case of Paris, the recent possibility of a city wide ban on cars  . The Paris Mayor has recently talked of the bold plan to pedestrianise the city centre of Paris, with the intention to remove half of all private motor vehicle usage across the city. This is the biggest example of a pattern emerging across Europe of cities, such as Copenhagen, Oslo and Brussels, making a move away from car-centric planning and towards more pedestrian friendly urban environments.

The impetus for this can probably be found in our growing awareness of climate change and the increase of carbon emissions and pollution levels in major cities (no longer just an issue in developing super cities, but also in London and Sydney). Another instigator can be found in rapidly growing urban centres and levels of car ownership leading to increased city centre congestion issues. Although car ownership levels are dropping as a percentage, the actual number of people who own a car in urban areas has been growing.

Paris may be leading the way in terms of completely eradicating cars from its city centre, but what about the rest of the world?
Car free days are already celebrated in numerous cities across the world. September 22nd marks the day when World Car Free Day is celebrated (although this is similar to winning the World Series … hard to justify the title when the entire world doesn’t take part). It is growing steadily and promotes any alternative to using a car. This trend has already grown beyond European borders and has made an appearance in Jakarta, and Bogota as well as in North American, where Vancouver has several annual car free event as well as Portland.

So what about Australia? Car ownership levels are high in Australia, which is unsurprising given how the majority of Australian cities have sprawling suburbs. There is certainly room within Australian planning to incorporate more walkable elements into our city centres. Melbourne currently has Bourke Street Mall, Adelaide has Rundle Mall and Sydney has Pitt Street. These areas are always full of activity, including shoppers, diners and buskers. Melbourne has also recently pedestrianised the Acland Street activity centre in St Kilda in a move that has been met with both praise and criticism. They normally serve as a focal point for the city and form the backdrop in numerous city advertising campaigns to showcase the city’s vibrant nature. Yet, there are relatively few urban areas solely dedicated to pedestrian traffic in Australia and the notion of a car free centre, weekend, or even a day, has yet to take hold.

With the rest of the world moving (albeit slowly) towards less reliance on cars, there is the potential for Australian cities to consider alternatives to the car in the city centre and to alleviate congestion in activity centres.  Sure, there will always be a need for a car (at least in the immediate future) in order to travel between suburbs or other cities, or even to pick up weekly groceries. Yet the benefits of encouraging more pedestrian activity and removing cars in activity centres cannot be ignored.

Fewer cars means safer streets, a cleaner environment, more diverse and enjoyable public spaces … plus we all get a little work out!

Planning for Feng Shui

By Vincent Pham

The Bank of China, designed by architect I.M Pei, had its façade modified multiple times during its construction after a Feng Shui expert noticed that building design featured primarily of crosses, which would bring bad luck to the bank owners and its customers. Consequentially, the façade was modified and retrofitted to become a pattern of “diamonds,” where previously crosses.
Melbourne’s urban growth has ignited many discussions on all aspects of the city from the macro to the micro. Large scale projects - such as the new Melbourne Metro Rail line, for example - create a conversation around how their locational and physical attributes “value capture” the benefits of the project. Location and placement are key aspects of successful city planning and - regardless of whether the issue is large in scale or small - carefully considered design is a central and functional component of planning. Feng Shui is inherently concerned with location and placement and with the upcoming 2017 Lunar New Year approaching, the concepts of city planning within Melbourne could also be viewed through an alternative light: the practice of Feng Shui.

Feng Shui is a philosophical system of channelling positive and negative energies within the environment. It is concerned with placement of certain objects or structures within certain locations to influence health, well-being and luck for inhabitants and has been around in the orient for many millennia. Although, Feng Shui is normally practiced domestically within Asian households, it has permeated building design and city planning within oriental cities such as Hong Kong and Shanghai. 

It can essentially be broken up into 15 core principles, as briefly described by Howard Choy:

  • An integrated and Holistic System: our environment is considered to be an integral system as a whole…each individual system does not stand-alone; they are mutually connected.
  •  Being suitable and appropriate to the restriction of limitation of the site: every site has its limitation and advantages….there is a need a determine what site is best suitable for…and not forced out of balance with its neighbour.
  •  Bound by Mountains and Near Water: culturally, the Chinese prefer a landscape strategy that is hidden nature and is part of it rather than being exposed and set oneself above nature.
  •  Carry the Yin and Embrace the Yang: A Feng Shui house should be protected from the cold wind and facing the warm sun …if no protection nearby, then the wind will penetrate the bones, and bring the owners increasing defeat.
  •  Observe the Form and Examine the Configuration: …so observation and investigation of the land to locate the correct form…is one of the core principles of Feng Shui … this allows the designer to have a comprehensive appreciation of what he or she is dealing with.
  • Examine the Geology of the land: place where tin is produced is not suitable for agriculture, there the inhabitants are usually poor and has to emigrate to survive.
  •  Analyze the Quality of Water: the quality of water (especially drinking water) often determines the quality of ife because plants need to be watered and humans need to drink constantly.
  • Determine the Amount and the Standard: “Feng Shui has an affinity with sustainable development; a guideline we can adhere to so the resource can keep up with the population growth … we should not waste the land or the resource, nor should we allow an insufficient land size to create unnecessary pressure.
  • Take Advantage of the Sheng Qi: Sheng Qi is the life force makes things grows…Sheng Qi can be cultivated by adjusting the Yin and Yang balance of a situation so they are in harmony and mutually supports each other.
  • Suitability Located in the Middle and Residing in the Middle: the reason why historical capitals in China were never located in the coastal cities like Guangzhou or Shanghai because a capital needs to be centrally located… urban business centre is always located in the middle of a modern city.
  •  Aesthetic Appreciation: with our five senses and our mind, an aesthetic appreciation of a built form in its environment become important part of Feng Shui.
  • Greening the Environment: the amount of trees and wood can give an indication of the quality of the Feng Shui of a site.
  • Feng Shui can be Transformed and Improved: the Feng Shui of a place can be remoulded to improve its quality…in the process of enhancement, the natural environment should be respected at all times.
  • Yin Yang Dialectics to Achieve Harmony; in practice, when we observe and analyse a situation, we can contrast and find the extremes…we can find an appropriate solution lying somewhere within the bound of the two poles.
  • Being Timely and Affectionate; …Feng Shui, in essence, examines and contemplates this intimate relationship between humans and nature.

These core principles are still relevant to planning urban settlements today and continue to align with the objectives of 21st century planning, despite having been around for long times in oriental culture. The core principles are explored greater by Howard Choy at this website.   

Indeed, not all principles can be immediately applied in the blink of an eye, but whatever time, place or culture, we continue to work towards one goal – to create safe, vibrant and happy urban environments for all. So, as even more discussions within the industry continue emerge, is there possibility for such ideas to influence the future of the Melbourne?

Big Problems / Small Solutions

By Brodie Blades

A tiny house parked in the backstreets of Vancouver, BC (author's own photo)

There’s an interesting dichotomy at play between town planning and the free market in major Australia cities. On the one hand, it makes complete sense to encourage housing intensification in well-serviced locations such as inner-city areas, but - on the other hand - the price of property in such locations is prohibitive for the bulk of younger home buyers. Add to this the unprecedented exposure of potential purchasers to new ideas and concepts (as well as the emerging generational awareness that material possessions and ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ does not necessarily bring happiness) and it is easy to understand why the ‘tiny house movement’ (that is, the notion of living in extremely small movable dwellings) is gaining popularity and traction as a legitimate lifestyle option.

But where does this fit in an Australia planning context?

Originating in North America, the basic premise of the tiny house movement is that keeping a small house ‘mobile’ by attaching them to a trailer base bypasses local planning and building requirements. After all, you don't need planning approval to park your caravan but you may to build a house. In Australia, the legitimacy of this approach was recently tested when a Brisbane-based couple won approval through the Queensland Building and Development Dispute Resolution Committee to keep their 18m2 tiny house parked within their inner-city backyard after Brisbane City Council previously ruled that structural approvals were required. Whilst the ‘rules’ around tiny houses in SEQ differs from municipality to municipality (they are prohibited outright on the Gold Coast but permissible on the Sunshine Coast with conditions), the Lord Mayor of Brisbane has indicated that the regulations around tiny houses in Australia’s most populous LGA will be revised shortly for greater clarity.

Closer to home, the Victorian Planning Provisions already make allowance for a form of tiny housing through the ‘dependent persons unit’ (DPU) land use definition within Clause 74 (ie. a movable building on the same lot as an existing dwelling and used to provide accommodation for a person dependent on a resident of the existing dwelling). DPUs are rarely Section 3 (prohibited) land uses within residential zones, but of course there may still be permit requirements for buildings and works and actual building permits. This use definition also invokes the need to prove the ‘dependency’ of the occupant of the DPU on the resident of the primary dwelling, so it is not a ‘true’ reflection of the purpose of the tiny house. But if a tiny house in a backyard is deemed legally acceptable for a dependent, why not then for a non-dependent too?

It is important to note that we have recently witnessed a deliberate ‘shift’ away from mandating minimum apartment and dwellings sizes in Victoria under the Victorian State Government’s ‘Better Apartment Design Standards’. This supports a view that ‘good design’ is inherently preferable to prescribing minimum dwelling dimensions, although it is also important to note that discretionary minimum living room and bedroom dimension standards have been outlined. Regardless, the discretionary approach to the new guidelines does leave the door ajar for further consideration of smaller housing typologies such as tiny houses and perhaps the time has come for a comprehensive planning review in Victoria to ascertain how we can make alternate dwelling options such as tiny houses easier and more attractive as a legitimate lifestyle option.

What do you think? Could you live in an 18m2 house?

Further reading: