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Urban greening in high density environments

Creating 'Vertical Forests' in high density residential developments

Reflecting on Urban Form from an Aerial Perspective

By Sam Palma.

With the majority of social activity within a city occurring at the ground level, it is no surprise that urban design and statutory planning focus on the visual interests, protection of amenity and aesthetic presentation of built form and landscaping from the ground level. However, the form, siting and layout of cities, towns and/or precincts can become eye catching spectacles when viewed from a birds eye perspective, although these views are often rarely seen unless you are flying over a city. Technological advancements in the industry has seen drones become increasingly popular and accessible, as the ability to view and explore cities takes a new form and provides us with the opportunity to views cities from a new perspective.

This article seeks to explore cities from a birds eye to view to appreciate and reflect trends in urban planning and development of societies. Viewing cities from an aerial perspective provides the opportunity to identify trends, learn from mistakes, appreciate the aesthetic form, improve functionality of cities. It is also interesting to see how some of the more aesthetic cities perform on a practical level.

Citadel of Palmanova:

Initially built as a fortress during the late 16th century, the star shaped town provides a geometric urban form. Palmanova strived to implement the ideal city based on utopian ideas of the time which stemmed from the concept that beauty strengthens the shape of society.

The town of Palmanova although being quite eye catching to look at, did not perform so good on a practical level, with the fortress like walls located on the perimeter of the star being a barrier to its success and integration with surrounding cities/towns.

Palmanova - Italy. (Source:

Delray Beach Florida:

The art of urban sprawl (if there even is such a thing) is demonstrated within Delray Beach, Florida. The layout and form of roads, lakes and cul-de-sacs presents a level of interest at first glance, however this residential development would fail the practically and connectivity test, reflecting a high level of car dependence and limited walkability.

Delray Beach - Florida (Source:

La Plata – Buenos Aires

Founded In 1882, the City of La Plata was built with the intention of being the provincial capital of Buenos Aires, possessing a strong grid pattern with diagonal roads connecting parks, public spaces and districts of the city. The city adopts a linear and fairly symmetrical layout which can contribute to a visually aesthetic form while providing practical and predictable trends and movements. The City and urban form is said to have traits of freemason symbolism. Around the time it was built, the city won awards for “the City of the Future” through the rationalist concept of urban form.

La Plata - Buenos Aires (Source:

L’Eixample – Valencia, Spain

Constructed in the early 19th to 20th Century the term L’Eixample is Catalan and translates to “Expansion”.

At the time of construction the city focused its layout and design on transport, light and ventilation, however has now become well known for its long straight streets, wide boulevards and chamfered corners.

The communal courtyards located within the grid form have become an iconic urban fabric seen throughout Spain.
L'Eixample - Valencia, Spain (Source:

It is evident from some of the photos I’ve shown above that a cities layout and form can contribute to a visually aesthetic urban fabric (from an aerial perspective), as different periods of time, objectives and ideologies shape how these cities functionally perform and are enjoyed by society. Although cities are often developed through a master plan which anticipates future growth from an aerial view, what translates from paper into the urban fabric can change and trends develop over time , providing an opportunity to evaluate the functionality, successes and failures of cities.

Some questions worth considering:
  • Do you think a thorough investigation into cities from a birds eye perspective can reveal unexplored concepts in the evaluation and assessment of a cities performance? 
  • Are we currently providing a harmonious balance between the visual interest of a city and practicality? 
  • Although a symmetrical city can provide visual interest from an aerial perspective, does this also provide for functional and connected urban centres? 
  • What are some of your favourite cities from an aerial perspective?

Visual Branding of your Urban Design Projects. Why Not?

By Amy Ikhayanti.

It is undeniable that urban design projects rely heavily on graphic presentation. In order to communicate the analyses, reasoning and design proposal, the phrase ‘an image can speak a thousand words’ could not be more true. In other words, graphics are crucial in communicating certain aspects of your project that cannot be portrayed otherwise. Finding the hybrid between both a visually insightful and verbally informative document is irreplaceable within this industry. Knowing that, we, urban designers, put much effort into the visual presentation of our projects. 

Every designer has their own signature move to illustrate their projects. It is a well-known fact that consultancies exercise distinctive graphic palettes to differentiate their work from others. From time to time, we can tell who the lead consultant is just from viewing their strategic document or reports by how they are designed and the style of graphics and diagrams used. That being said, the idea of branding or marketing of an urban design consultancy through their graphics has a long-standing history. However, what does visual branding entail and how can you achieve the best results possible through this?

In its entirety, branding covers not only the visual look of a product, but also the experience it provides the user. One famous example is the experience of buying and unpackaged Apple Macbook laptop. When you arrive at the Apple Store, you find yourself in a sleek, modern building with an open plan, soft lighting and full of gadgets that you can compare to suit your different needs. Moreover, you can also customise your choice of laptop with the help of a ‘Apple Genius’ (“Apple Genius?” You may ask. this is all a part of their carefully thought-out branding). When you get home with your choice of laptop, you find yourself opening the packaging the same way you’ll open a suitcase. It definitely is a different experience compared to how you usually unpack your electronic purchases. A suitcase can be synonymous with the feeling of affluence. When Apple prompts its buyers to unpack their newly bought laptops the same way they open a suitcase, it triggers the feeling of opulence, and most importantly, 'specialness'. It is this same principle that applies to every other product and its associated branding, so why shouldn’t this work for urban design?

As a simple rule of thumb, your branding checklist should include the following.
  • Look and feel 
  • Tone of voice 
  • Market position 
Look and feel refers to visual components, such as colours, shapes, layout and typeface; as well as the feeling those components evoke in its audience. Bright colours can communicate the feeling of cheerfulness and playfulness, while dark earthy colours can convey a more serious personality. Tone of voice strongly influences the product impression in the customer’s mind. When the tone is strong, concise and detailed, it exudes confidence, professionalism and mastery. On the other hand, a soft, elegant tone can be found in many premium urban design products that companies produce. Lastly, the market position specifies the target market and how the product responds to it through its look and feel, as well as tone of voice. 

Heidelberg West Urban Design Framework. (Source: David Lock Associates). 
It is important to remember that there is no sure-fire way of branding for success. Successful branding is a delicate hybrid of each of the three components described above. One of my favoured ways to start my approach is to ensure that I have a comprehensive understanding of the target audience in order to craft a personalised tone of voice, which is then translated into a specific look and feel of the product. Learn the company branding. This for me creates a tailored product that communicates concisely and directly to the target market and successfully translates our vision through graphics, style of writing and report layout. However it is important to note that this method may not be the best approach to every designer, branding and design are indeed personal and subjective. 

Heidelberg West Urban Design Framework. (Source: David Lock Associates)
From time to time, consultancies may provide a comprehensive graphics template and palette that is usually strictly followed by its designers. In other cases, a freer look and feel can be pursued, or should be pursued out of necessity (one example may be a project that is of different nature and type compared to other standard long-standing ones previously done by the company). Such cases call for a good understanding of the company branding as a whole and how it can be interpreted in the simplest elements of lines and shapes. It can be considered crucial that that the consultancy should take into account these three branding elements and provide their unique direction and approaches in applying them effectively. If such guidance is not available, a branding exercise should be pursued to avoid conflicts and confusion among the designers.

From experience, a good understanding of visual branding and its application in urban design has proven to be a prosperous gateway into creating successful urban design outputs. It allows me to contribute to the graphic repertoire and visual character of DLA whilst also maintaining its established brand and unique identity. In that respect, what are your visual branding experiences in urban design?

Urban Agriculture: Tackling Sustainability and Social Cohesion

By Kirsty Smith.
Marrickville Markets. Source: Green Villages Sydney
The highlight of my Sunday is a trip to do my grocery shopping. I know not everyone would share my enthusiasm for the weekly shop, particularly if that means queuing at a local Coles or Woolies. However, my grocery shop involves a local farmer named Hapi. Hapi lives up to his name and always has a smile on his face as he tells me about what seasonal produce he has on offer at the Farmers Market that week. Hapi tells me all about his dryland farming and how most of his produce is produced organically and if it isn’t deemed to be organic then why not. I feel fortunate to have access to Hapi and the other farmers at Marrickville Markets in Sydney’s inner west as it has taught me a lot about the importance of understanding where our food comes from. Before the markets I can’t say that I have had much interaction with farmers; much appreciation for seasonality, and that I may not be able to get my fresh blueberries all year round or that there was a reason the beloved hass avocado is replaced with a shepard at certain times during the year. I know I am not the only one that would feel this way, but why is that?

As city dwellers, convenience is usually always at our door step. We don’t even need to leave the house to order our groceries or have a delicious meal cooked for us. Technology and mobility has made it so easy for us to be disconnected from where our food comes from. So how can we as planners and urban designers change this? And why is it important that we do?

Urban agriculture is on the rise globally, with more and more farms appearing in our cities. Social, economic and environmental benefits allow urban agriculture to contribute to the multifunctionality and sustainability of cities. In terms of land use planning, multifunctionality is a great asset, and urban agriculture can deliver a variety of potential benefits simultaneously (van den Berg 2000), making it a ‘cheap’ producer of public goods (Moustier and Danso 2006).

Urban farms, which are different to allotments and community gardens, occupy much bigger spaces; they can employ people, regenerate huge neighbourhoods and give residents access to fresh produce on their doorsteps.

Urban Agriculture. Source:
Numerous land uses are associated with urban agriculture, including city farms, verge farming, community composting, farmers’ markets, rooftop garden, keeping of animals (e.g. poultry and bees), etc. As a result, there are numerous ways in which land use planning can encourage, support, regulate and hinder urban agricultural practices. In Australia, intentional urban agriculture planning is at a very early developmental stage, with no comprehensive policy or strategy and only a small proportion of local governments in capital cities having community garden and farmers markets provisions. The main hurdle is to recognise urban agriculture and all of its practices as a desirable land use, rather than an incidental one.

In our master planning and rezoning proposals here at DLA these types of uses could be included within our proposals to/ or on behalf of Councils, but encouraging these types of uses through our statutory work may be more challenging due to existing land use restrictions etc. Through recognition and understanding of urban agriculture practices, existing regulatory provisions could be altered to facilitate urban agriculture development. This could be achieved through recognition by local governments of the importance of urban agriculture in its areas. It would require investment in education particularly of decision-makers, planners and the community on its practices, benefits and risks.

So why is urban agriculture important and why should policy makers consider it? Urban agriculture encourages sustainable and healthy compact cities, helping to reduce food miles. Urban farms act as a social incubator, bringing together communities and connecting cultures. Many also impact significantly on health and well-being, allowing city-dwellers to access fresh food and understand where the food comes from and how it is grown.

The practice has been popular in North America for many years, with many huge rooftop farms surrounding New York City. Brooklyn Grange for instance, produces close to 23,000kg of organic vegetables each year, and the world’s largest urban farm recently opened in Chicago.

These types of uses also foster innovation; a good example of this is Farm Urban in Liverpool, which is using leftover land (including the University of Liverpool Student Union’s rooftop) for aquaponics: a man-made, symbiotic system where plants and aquatic animals such as fish can nourish each other.

Many urban agriculture initiatives are increasingly using hydroponics and other forms of technology to grow food more efficiently. Those adopting a highly technical approach appear to be more sustainable than other types of urban farms.

Closer to home Pocket City Farm is an urban farm in Camperdown, Sydney’s inner-west. The farm is part of Camperdown Commons, a community rejuvenation project that is an initiative of the Canterbury-Hurlstone Park RSL. It shares the space with the RSL-managed Common Spaces, which offers local community groups, businesses and not-for-profits on-site spaces to meet and hold events, and with acre, the adjacent eatery that overlooks the farm. acre uses the farm’s organic produce in their seasonal menus and contributes to the farm’s composting and recycling programs. Collectively, they also run seasonal events together. Pocket City Farms connects with the local community in as many ways as they can. They run yoga classes and community education workshops for kids and adults (current events include: How to Grow Greens; Native, Stingless Beekeeping, and; Biointensive Growing). They have monthly crop swaps on-site, sell their produce to local cafes and restaurants across the inner west and have school groups, corporate and community groups use the space for outings. The Farm was created by a desire to grow food locally and to help create more points of connection with the production of our food.

The capacity of urban farms to tackle major social and sustainability issues should not be underestimated. Global, national and local initiatives mean we’re likely to see more of these urban farms appearing across the world – improving city dwellers lifestyles, impacting positively on the local economy and regenerating neglected spaces. We look forward to encouraging these spaces in our development proposals. Would you like to see these spaces in your local area? Do you have other examples you could share with us?

Additional reading:

Pressing Problems with Pocket Sized-fix

By Siobhan Hudson.

London boroughs are struggling to provide well located, affordable housing and are now suggesting selling public land to private developers – does this sound familiar?

Pocket Edition’s affordable 2-3 bedroom apartments in Wandsworth. This slender 27-storey development breaks away from negative stigma of modular construction and affordable provision with the help of terracotta cladding and fine detailing. (Source: Pocket)
What is the situation?

Marc Vlessing is an avid cyclist who was perplexed by the patterns of infill developments on his morning route - they were only ever in multiples of fourteen. Floor plates would creep to fill each site and provide luxurious 2-3 bedrooms in prime locations. Meanwhile London mayor, Sadiq Khan , accuses property developers of constructing “too many luxury penthouses that only the very wealthiest investors can afford” and morning newspapers revealed the number of young professionals in public service professions who can no longer afford to live, and therefore work, in the bustling capital.

Vlessing, asked the question of a town planner, “Why just fourteen?” The answer, that apartment designs now had an unspoken rule. Greater than fourteen apartments mandates inclusion of social housing or paying a penalty (closer to home, inclusionary zoning (meaning planning ordinances that require a given share of new constructions to be affordable housing) is proposed for inner city Sydney developments). Appalled and frustrated, Vlessing set a new personal agenda of solving the affordable housing ‘crisis’. He threw in his role as a financier at Canary Wharf and started a housing development company – enter Pocket Living.

What is the solution?

In response to the shrinking provision of affordable housing, Vlessing devised a business case for providing well designed, well located, high density affordable apartments. These receive no public subsidy, sell for 20% less than market value and target first time buyers, as ‘starter homes’, for those earning less than £45 000 per annum and working in the borough.

In order to do so, Vlessing approached councils to acquire prime inner city brownfield sites for development, close to public transport, local shops and employment opportunities though without the additional social housing provision. The arrangement did not come easily though.

Pocket properties can only be sold for the price they were bought and to those meeting re-sale criteria. Current apartments sell for £270 000. Since establishing seven years ago resale numbers have been slim, whilst a minimum annual residency and the provision of common spaces encourages interaction between neighbours and fosters a neighbourhood – or perhaps you’ll run into them brunching on the local high street?

As the name suggests, Pocket supports small footprint living – 38m2 to be exact. These one bedroom apartments are smaller than your average tube carriage and local authority policies had to be changed to make way for the first prototype scheme. The apartment plans were far smaller than the minimum standards however, they promised high quality detailing and materials to ensure longevity. The current waiting list of 35 000 people proves good things can come via small floor plans! Mandating no on-site parking and instead providing bicycle parking allowed large ground works savings that could increase the construction quality. Affordable, well deigned, well located apartments are incredibly rare in London so it is easy to view a Pocket offer letter as Willy Wonka’s golden ticket, particularly when offers are prioritised to those who need the housing most - earning well below the income cap and via ‘help to buy’ schemes.

These one bedroom apartments are smaller than your average tube carriage (Source: Pocket)
Construction costs have further been kept to a minimum by re-introducing modular design. After a reputation for poor quality and unattractive homes throughout the 1960s, Pocket has sourced high quality providers of prefabricated building elements to ensure speedy assembly on-site. This process effectively halved the construction time and takes approximately twenty weeks to assemble. The Government has been particularly excited with this production flow as it shares construction work with the Midlands and the North and also provides local jobs. Traditionally work has been dictated by site location and kept work predominantly in the South-East.

Pocket has successfully provided seven developments since commencing in 2010 and houses 200 professionals locally. With this development track record, the government provided a huge boost of encouragement and financial security. London’s then mayor, Boris Johnson, and all 33 London councils invested in a profit making private housing developer for the first time in 2016. This took the form of a social investment loan, not a grant, while the Greater London Authority, Lloyds Bank and the London Enterprise Group provided £150 million, interest free for ten years. Pocket is now worth 25 million and has big aspirations.

How can Pocket up-scale?

This social investment loan is an opportunity to provide 1000 homes by 2021, a significant amount of the social housing provision that local authorities need to provide. Provision of 43 000 affordable homes per year is needed to meet with demand and Pocket serves as a precedent for similar developments.

Excitingly, future evolutions now provide larger units for family homes and are investigating private rentals or acquiring public land to incorporate a mix of social housing…sounding familiar? This arrangement would allow councils to hand over the site on first day of construction, now down to a timeframe of 20 weeks, and provides a huge saving on construction costs. This would support inclusion of not-for-profit social housing. As Australian cities discuss how best to upgrade their own social housing stock and put public land on the private market, Pocket should serve as a precedent with a successful development record and exciting future development models in store. Watch this space!

Who wore affordability better?

A creeping trend in inner-city developers has been berated after providing lavish street entrances for private owners and providing ‘poor doors’, Spartan rear entries for lower income earners. Even bicycle storage spaces, rubbish disposal facilities and postal deliveries are being separated. In planning applications developers have even argued;

"that on-site provision of affordable housing would result in significant design inefficiencies due to the need for separate entrances and building cores".

These design choices reinforce social strata each time you enter the building and assure you never accidently say ‘hello’ to your well-earning ‘neighbours’ on the stairwell. It is a modern day approach to Victorian servant circulation – except these individuals are your nurses, police and key public service providers. Pocket developments are deliberately designed to respond to neighbourhood character whilst providing beautiful interiors and shared spaces. Affordable apartments can be achieved without sacrificing aesthetics and without stigma.

Left, the luxury lobby of One Commercial Street, marketed to wealthy City workers. Right, the side-alley entrance reserved for affordable housing tenants. Photographs: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Pocket Living were among keynote speakers attending the recent Agency Congress in Sydney, November 2017. The Congress focused on practitioners who have noticed opportunity for growth and innovation in policymaking and the built environment, and more excitingly, are being proactive about it.

Further reading: 

Osborne, Hilary.
Poor doors: the segregation of London's inner-city flat dwellers, 26 July 2014, .

Colson, Thomas.
These factory-made homes the size of a London Underground carriage could help fix London's housing crisis, 20 September 2017,

Knowles, Tom. Pocket-size solution to help solve housing crisis, 4 September 2017,

Evans, Judith. Marc Vlessing of Pocket micro-homes is big in small housing, 18 May 2016,

Allen, Kate, Housebuilder Pocket Living attracts cash from Boris Johnson, 25 October 2013,

Booth, Robert.
Sadiq Khan: London needs to build 66,000 new homes a year, up from 29,000,
27 October 2017,