Debate about cities often lurches from the overly academic and hard to understand, to the overly simplistic which fails to appreciate that cities are complex social, economic and environmental organisms under constant change.
Launched in June 2010, Australia’s Adelaide-based 5000+ is a design-led urban pilot; rethinking how we go about planning for the future of cities. Since then we’ve been working to understand our own complex organism better and chart a joint course it’s future. Along the way we’ve developed some basic ‘truths’. Lessons from studying the best from here and around the world. Some from observation. Much with evidence behind it. One that needs some credit is Urban Code: 100 lessons for Understanding the city by Anne Mikoleit and Moritz Purckhauer.
Of course it’s over-simplifying but let’s start with 30 basic rules for urban health;
1.When you pave, you shade. A favourite saying of Adelaide architect Robert Dickson. As if this needs any explanation but for a city that regularly passes 40 deg Celsius, you only have to look at our wide, unprotected streets – defenceless against summer sun. And where Melbourne needs it’s awnings to protect against the drizzle, Adelaide’s answer is the more Mediterranean – and more attractive – solution; tree canopy. More, please.
2.Pop up & permanent: a mix of street trade promotes pedestrian life. Splash Adelaide was/is a summer program of pop up interventions in the city centre and has shown that the permanent shopfront is not the only route to active streets. It’s also proved what we’ve long suspected; that fees, charges and regulation have cleared our footpaths of lemonade stands, coffee carts, and places to sit.
3.People attract people. Enough said. The Grattan Institute reminds us we’re social animals. We live to be with other people. People watching, people mixing.
4.Vibrant places rely on places of quiet (it’s not all uniformly ‘active’). All cities are a mix of quiet places and humming centres. A blanket approach to anything rarely works. So planning for those places of calm is just as important as planning for bustle.
5.Buildings outlive uses. Then get new ones. Houses become legal offices, warehouses become apartments, banks become cafes. It’s the brilliantly organic story of cities. It happens. It’s essential.
6.In defence of fine grain: one city block, many buildings. The downside of tall buildings is their tendency to have big footprints too. Meaning that for much of the 20th century, cities have cleared their smaller (often more eccentric) buildings and uses. But we can design big blocks with many buildings.
7.Each building has an entrance. Simple but true. And it’s around entrances that interesting things happen. Florists, seats, chance encounters. People say hello. People say goodbye.
8.Entrances are meeting points (ie more individual buildings, more entrances, more meeting points, more street life). See above.
9.Fast mornings, lazy afternoons (People walk more slowly in the afternoons). In the morning, street life is fast paced. We’re off the train or bus, along familiar streets to our places of work. Later in the day, tourists emerge and have a more leisurely pace. More likely to linger in places and meander. Morning trade is transactional: coffee, toast, juice. Afternoon trade is more for the experience; browsing, lunch with friends, tours.
10.The day to day happens on the street. Grenfell street at 5pm – people queue for buses home, high schoolers with their backpacks weave towards the Hindmarsh Square dinosaur park, rubbish bins and cardboard boxes emptied of their contents. All of this is a case for generous, well planned footpaths and the everyday logistics of vehicle pick up and delivery
11.Older people sit on benches. And not just in our parks. The long benches on North Terrace are shaded and placed to watch the passers by. Our best public spaces encourage generations to come together.
12.People like to sit with their backs protected. It’s primordial. It’s why we sit around the edges of things like public squares. Better still if we’re elevated with a sightline over a public space. It’s also why first floor balconies work.
13.When people sit, people watch. Generally more people equals more safe. Encouraging a mix of people regulates and reduces the need for law enforcement. You can design for safety. And sometimes the best tool is a pair of eyes.
14.Parents meet at playgrounds. Playgrounds may be intended for children. But with children come parents. And parents like the basics. Coffee in the mornings. Sitting down reading the paper if the kids are old enough to ‘self manage’. Parks deserve kiosks.
15.Edges are important. Another primordial thing. Watch what happens along building edges, public squares, parks, and along the edges of water. Spend 30% on the ‘middle’, 70% on it’s edges.
16.Many lights extend the day. Artificial lighting transformed streets and changed the way we trade. Lights enable a nighttime economy; late night shopping, bars and safe night travel are essential parts of a well rounded city economy.
17.Good streets have many destinations along the way. Is there any better example of this than the transformed Rundle St east? Alongside bookshops, clothing, cafes and special places (a shop just for tea!), are cinemas and lane ways linking to the Treadly shop, Nano’s, Belgian beer cafe. Quality, diversity and creativity. Interestingly all curated by private developer, the Maras Group.
18. Pedestrians walk on footpaths Seems simple enough. So why are some footpaths in the city barely wide enough for 2 people to pass? More footpath equals more pedestrians.
19. Pedestrians increase turnover. Wide footpaths not only invite more people to walk them, but they do it more slowly. Width slows people down. It turns a path into a boulevard. A shopper is just a slow moving pedestrian.
20. Pedestrian traffic follows business opening hours (ie it’s an urban question, not just a ‘labour’ question). When shops shut, most foot traffic evaporates. Longer business hours means more public life. One follows the other.
21. Safe streets increase profits. Streets are often safe because there’s people about. And people are about because the street is safe. More pedestrians means more turnover (and let’s face it, often higher rents). Safe streets contribute more to the city economy.
22. Kids are people too. And great ‘connectors’.
23. Buildings house business. The two are connected. Any city needs commerce. And commerce means business. And business need buildings. Small business and big business. And buildings need (good) development.
24. One street, many lives (deliveries early, shopping during business hours, clean after hours). Watch any street through the day. It’s use changes. From early morning deliveries, to the morning commute, to day time tourism and lunchtime shoppers. Some streets also have an after hours life too. Many streets change their character accordingly.
25. Locals and tourists use streets at different times. Locals work. Tourists don’t. Or rather, tourists wake later, and often stay out. Conventions and conferences often means groups. Groups walk slower, are more open to spending time & money on memorable experiences.
26. People wait at intersections. Business happens at intersections. It makes sense for footpaths to widen at intersections. It’s where cars are stopped or moving slowly. It’s where people wait to cross. It’s where street kiosks and creative businesses have the chance to draw in people.
27. Public space needs to be animated. It’s a subset of people being attracted to people. Street performers delight children and amuse grown ups. Skilled performers know how to curate a crowd; drawing in passers by and building atmosphere quickly.
28. Cars drive fast on wide roads. Slower on narrow streets. You can’t shop at 50km/h. You can on foot. Great streets allow wheels and feet to mix. Leigh St invites both pedestrians and cars to share space (until it was more recently closed to traffic). Overseas research shows removing traditional signs from roads makes it safer as drivers have to negotiate direct with people.
29. Traffic jams promote road rage. Traffic congestion is not just a problem for air quality or time management. It’s also a common cause of unnecessary blood pressure, angst and aggression. With a social impact.
30.People wait for public transport; trains, trams, buses, taxis. If we want more people to use public transport, these need to be generous, comfortable, and close to a coffee, newspaper..and even a chocolate bar!
For a long time, it was thought that these things just ‘happened’ in cities. But the interest in revitalising our urban centres means thinking again about how we can make the most of our city’s creative potential. Places are more complex and rich than any single set of ‘rules’. So while these are offered as observations, they’re not solutions. That takes time, effort and ongoing leadership over years.