13 Sep 2021
In this article, Eric reflects on some of the unintended outcomes of the Liveable Neighbourhoods Policy, using local centres as an example, and toys with ideas to further evolve the guidance to best achieve a compact and connected City.
The Crucial Design Elements We Lost Sight Of.
25 years ago, during the late evening hours of an Enquiry by Design workshop in Perth, a fierce debate took place between two groups of otherwise aligned designers in relation to the centroid location of a neighbourhood’s core. The proponent’s of Traditional Neighbourhood Development argued that any central focal point (be it civic dominant, institutional or retail) should be located internally to the neighbourhood unit, away from high-capacity thoroughfares bisecting the neighbourhood. Alternatively, the proponent’s of the Liveable Neighbourhood stuck the needle point of the compass leg right on the intersection of two arterial roads, holding firmly to the belief that both transit and retail would fail without direct exposure to regional thoroughfares.
These debates took place as part of the Community Design Code formulation in 1996, and the proponent’s of the Liveable Neighbourhood won out. Such a nuanced but notable distinction from our US urban planning contemporaries, the Lexicon of the New Urbanism publication (first drafted in 2003) recognised the model as a very ‘Australian’ way of arranging things. Not just a ‘West’ Australian phenomenon; the broader description reflecting the influence Liveable Neighbourhoods had on other jurisdictions around the nation, recognized as an award winning code by the US Congress of the New Urbanism in 2001.
There was, however, an important cautionary note from our US friends in the Lexicon document regarding the successful execution of a local centre located on arterials: “The Australian Livable Neighbourhood has the disadvantage that, because the center of the neighbourhood is bisected by what is a high-capacity thoroughfare, its spatial quality as a social condenser may be degraded. A strategy to minimize this negative impact is the careful design of the thoroughfare as a boulevard.” A quarter of a century later, we now have the benefit of hindsight in considering just how well we managed to tame traffic and deliver said ‘boulevards’. Our performance? In short, not great.
Typically, one of the major thoroughfares bisecting a centre will carry anywhere from 15,000 – 25,000 vehicles per day, while the other might carry 7,500 – 15,000. This is within Walcott and Beaufort Street territory in terms of functional road classification, but miles away in terms of a planning outcome. Contrast the two and consider the differences.
In our typical local centre example,
- the distances between buildings are too vast, meaning a sense of enclosure is not achieved;
- the roadway design has not a single cue to motorists that this might be a place where people can cross or linger and speeds should lower;
- there is no shade or shelter from trees;
- the highway standard lights are intimating and lack human scale;
- the industrial box architecture is simply a response only worthy of its equally poor public realm; and
- the phone towers fashioned into a billboard scream out to fast moving cars.
Every single design element of that street environment is entirely alien to the human experience. This is not a place for people. It clearly looks as though the buildings have stubbornly been pulled forward to meet the street.
It is a bit of cruel joke to intervene in private land and expect buildings to frame the street without the requisite level of intervention necessary to deliver a comfortable public realm. The result is a centre that neither the developer wanted nor the planners, and certainly not what the end user (the community) wanted.
Chip Kaufman alluded to these types of problems in his opening address to the then Ministry for Planning at the 1996 charrette (watch it here), explaining that “Codes are potentially rudderless, unless there’s something that they are aiming for.”
But are these types of outcomes a deficiency in the code?
Well it depends how you look at it. The Code was visionary; it’s objectives and policy intent is sound. What is highlighted is a broader problem area in our discipline that has failed on countless occasions to formulate a compelling argument against prioritising vehicles, not people, in street design.
As a result, we continue to see slip lanes being used in the wrong context, there is no mechanism for design review if an intersection gets ‘too big’ to navigate, and we barely care that in this current day we are still rolling out brand new intersection designs that deliberately omit pedestrian crossings because asking virtual cars to wait more than 60 seconds 20 years from now is a much more important concern than catering for our most vulnerable class of people that seek to access services on foot, with dignity and in comfort.
Codes are potentially rudderless, unless there’s something that they are aiming for. - Chip Kaufman
A street design manual for planners, designers and engineers, centered on a Healthy Streets approach, would substantially help address some of these issues.
While the local centre example is just one instance of a typical ‘Liveable Neighbourhood’ outcome, there are various other gaps between what was intended and what was delivered.
In updating the document for it’s next generation as Neighbourhood Design under the SPP 7 document suite, it would be worthwhile first contemplating all the design guidance originally included in the 1996 version of the code and now excluded from the 2009 operational version (3).
Namely, items like traffic calming treatments, encouragement for 90 degree on-street parking, and intersection details showing correct locations of footpaths, crossings and kerb radii sizes have all been removed (probably because of Agency pressure and non-support).
It would also be worthwhile engaging other Government Agencies to understand the design requirements affecting their remit, not to simply accommodate their requirements, but to better anticipate how they will respond and assist in delivering the vision (particularly where compromises are necessary in the interest of delivering great planning outcomes).
For the efficacy of the document’s planning objectives, these important negotiations need to be held at the policy level, where collective clout can be mustered. The responsibility for what should otherwise be ‘as of right’ planning outcomes should not fall on individual Applicants or local governments to continually justify to other Agencies on individual projects, as competing design requirements are resulting in poor liveability outcomes for the end user.
Unlike other Policy instruments that typically focus on a specific subject matter, Neighbourhood Design is the most comprehensive and important reference by which all policy requirements can be collated and understood in spatial terms. All operational assumptions from agencies should be on the table for inspection under the microscope of the State Government’s strategic policy direction for a compact and connected city.
For instance, the Department of Education’s 3.5 - 4.0 hectare Primary School land requirements, and 8-10 hectares for High Schools, should be challenged. Particularly in the context of a 50 hectare walkable catchment (400m circle), where 25% (12.5 hectares) is taken up for streets, and the large permitter of school sites can interrupt the fine grain nature of a connected street network.
The best inner City Schools are compact (Mt Lawley, North Perth and Victoria Park Primary are all approximately 1.5 hectares), have a proper relationship of buildings greeting the street, rather than car parking, and have far higher percentages of students independently walking and cycling to and from integrated urbanity (In NSW the policy standard for new Primary Schools is 2.0 hectares).
Admittedly the examples cited generally include some form of double-storey construction, do not have a junior size football oval, and there would no doubt be resistance from Teacher’s Unions objecting to design that forces teachers to marshal students across public streets to make use of community shared ovals on a different site. And it is precisely these types of issues that need to be brought to the surface and debated in the context of shaping a compact urban environment.
The Honorable Paul Keating summed it up best in an address to the UDIA in 2010, “the best, most interesting city was the compact one… …All great cities have compactness and a geometry that facilities the movement of people through them.” But, as Keating went on to say, it is the execution of density that must be done in a pleasing way and with aesthetic sense, or risk the community resenting the places they are forced to inhabit.
...the best, most interesting city was the compact one... All great cities have compactness and a geometry that facilities the movement of people through them. - THE HONORABLE PAUL KEATING
There are various other elements of Policy and Agency requirements that are resulting in bloated spatial forms in all aspects bar lot sizes. This article only begins to scratch the surface.