Stories from a compact city

In the front yard of a small house within walking distance of the city, a dogs leash hangs on a front fence post. Three sets of neighbours walk the dog, so it’s become easier just to hang it in the same spot. The dog gets a regular walk in the morning to take the daughter across the road to school, and in the evening by another family wanting to work off Easter excess. It’s a tree lined street with only local traffic. Powerlines were put underground long ago so trees have their full canopy. All this makes it a great street for walking. And all of this goes to prove what research shows; that when people live closer to each other, a closer community results. Most recently, Grattan’s Social Cities bears this out.

Yet we often forget these human stories when we talk about Adelaide’s urban future. Instead we return to some abstract notion of ‘height’ as the only subject. We need to get over the ‘height hype’ because it distracts from the real issues. The future of cities like Adelaide lies in sustainable buildings and places that connect people in well landscaped public space. Sure, we have our share of poorly designed taller buildings because for a long time we were happy with whatever went up. But you don’t have to look far to see poorly designed ‘low’ buildings either. It only takes a single garage door with a driveway cutting a narrow footpath to send a message that ‘cars, not people, belong here’. Small can be an enemy of public space too. So it’s not size. We need to demand good design at all scales; from our Councils, developers, architects and planners.

Good design caters for people’s desires, and research shows that our choice of location is driven by our desire to be close to shops, schools and public transport. We value contemporary design, and we want well designed open space. These values align well with the principles of the 30 Year Plan, and reflect the feedback from the work of the 5000+ partnership (which is about local, state and Federal govt working together).

Contrary to how it’s often reported, local research shows we want to feel safe and connected in those places we live. The good news is that a well designed compact neighbourhood is not rocket science and involves some simple guiding principles;

Location, location
When shops, schools, sporting fields, cafes, libraries and the other essentials of daily life are closer to us we’re more likely to walk or cycle to them. This keeps us fit, takes a car off the road and supports small business owners like barbers, deli owners, butchers and all those other entrepreneurs prepared to take a punt, open a business on the main street and employ locals. It gets us out on the footpath, meeting neighbours, performing a basic role of citizens which is to be a participant – not just an observer – in our own community.

Fringe living is a reality in any city but it’s brought unintended consequences. It’s stretched resources. Griffith University publishes the frighteningly titled ‘VAMPIRE’ index – a map of those most Vulnerable to Mortgage costs, Petrol prices, Inflation Risks and Expenses. It glows red where it’s uneconomic to provide public transport; leaving households car dependent. And in many cases, in suburbs where ‘negative equity’ is becoming a reality. Premier Jay Weatherill’s speech to the UDIA was exceptional for a state Premier; “we failed to calculate the true cost of putting people on the fringe, isolated from support and services”.

The right mix
Communities that mix young and old, newcomer and old timer, rich and poor are always more vibrant and resilient than those postcodes where any single demographic dominates. Having a choice of housing in a community allows for people to shift from share-house, to townhouse, to penthouse without losing their connection to a place. Adelaide’s CBD is a mix of single storey cottages, two storey terraces, low rise townhouses, and mid rise apartments. This is a good mix, and a good model. The answer is not apartments alone. We need a mix.

Streets as social spaces
Research is showing that if you walk or cycle, society saves money. So the more we design our communities to support walking and cycling, the more we save in the long term through improved health (exercise fights obesity, diabetes, mental health). This means making streets safer and more appealing, more social and more active. It also means rethinking our economic models to look beyond the 3-4 year forward estimates. A street tree can reduce pavement temperatures in summer by 8 degrees. So to promote more social streets, we need to shift from labelling trees as an insurance risk, to seeing them as providing the green canopy essential for cycling, walking and sitting under.

Supporting small business
Globally there is a shift back to ‘local’. Local food is fresher, has traveled less, and has a more regional story. Local shops are more likely to be independent – meaning more cents in the dollar stay in the community. Small business more often relies on local suppliers, employs locally, supports local sporting and arts organizations. And in the case of my barber, sends their kids to local schools. We also need to do this because the old model of ‘big box retail’ – the sealed shed in a sea of bitumen – is dying.

So what does housing have to do with small business? Living closer to those shops brings more business to the main street. A bigger local catchment living where we say we want to – close to shops, schools and public transport. Well designed infill housing may just be the best way to revive local main street retail.

Back to the future
A more compact city is not a new concept. And it’s not the latest fad. Instead, it’s a return to the way we thought about Adelaide before cars. A walking city, a cycling city, a local city. A greener city. And no one’s talking about the ‘Copenhagenization’ of Adelaide (although this is a common quip from those seeking a snappy line; one borrowed from naysayers in New York who inexplicably fought the re-greening of streets, dedicated bike lanes and plazas that returned to people). It’s not about importing anything. Instead it’s more like an Adelaide that once was – where tramlines spun like a web across the city, and where people and places connected.

Design for people
Finally the research shows one big proviso in support for a more compact city is for innovative design to lead the charge. Innovative design means designing for mature landscaping to provide green space, generous planning that allows for natural breezes and sunlight in winter, year-round entertaining on deep balconies that allow a tricycle on a wet day, or christmas lunch with the in laws in summer and green roofs that can envelope a building in canopies for birds and biodiversity, and expand the green footprint of the city.

Just as poor design can devalue a neighbourhood, well designed buildings, open space, footpaths and sensitively managed car parking can increase the value of properties around it.

Let’s get over the height hype and start talking about how we want our streets, buildings, places and parks to function, look and feel. And let’s put the human stories back into Adelaide’s future.

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