Sprawl out or grow up?

In a good public space, people take off their shoes – Fred Kent, President, Projects for Public Spaces.

This has to be my favourite quote from my two days at the Sustainable Communities Symposium, an event hosted by the Property Council of Australia last week (7-8 June 2011).

Wednesday’s session was about public spaces and the importance of creating active, interesting public spaces in our communities: squares, plazas, boulevards, walkways and bikeways, village greens, places to eat, read, rest, kiss, meet, dance, laugh…  place where things happen and which add character and energy to our community.  Name a few of those places in Adelaide?  I can think of the Norwood Parade, perhaps the Central Markets and Chinatown and the Willunga Farmers’ Markets (once a week on a Saturday morning).  You could also add Jetty Road Brighton when the sun shines.  Email me with other suggestions, because to be honest I can’t think of many … and that’s in one of the world’s most ‘liveable’ cities (The Economist’s World’s Most Liveable Cities 2011).

The motivation for this conference’s discussion of Adelaide’s public spaces comes from the move towards urban densification in Adelaide as a necessary response to counter urban sprawl.  This is a requirement of The 30 Year Plan for Greater Adelaide, which projects adding several hundred thousand more people to South Australia’s population and most of them living in Adelaide’s existing urban boundary (a 30:70 split between fringe development and urban infill is outlined).   There is debate about the long-term population projections upon which the Plan is based, but there is little doubt that in the immediate future Adelaide’s population will increase and we need to think about where these people will live.  We can grow up, or grow out.  I’m in favour of the former, so long as it’s done in the right way.

Urban infill is provocative.  South Australians are attached to their large blocks and sprawling back yards, but while this contributes to a good quality of life, it has left us with a city with a huge urban footprint.  Our most southern suburb, Sellicks Beach, is a petering 51 km away from Adelaide’s CBD (according to whereis.com.au) as our city splutters to an end with limited public transport options, poor social infrastructure and limited employment opportunities.  The same story is repeated in Adelaide’s north.

At the end of the day Adelaide is a city designed for cars.  But with a growing population this has to end.  We cannot justify creating an urban conurbation which is a tsunami of Tuscan villas sweeping from Port Wakefield to Victor Harbor.  It’s time to do things differently – and that means the densification of our city within current boundaries.

So how do we sell urban infill to a population which bristles at the thought?  Well we do it well.  According to Fred Kent, President, Projects for Public Spaces, and an earlier speaker, Alan Boniface from British Columbia’s Urban Land Institute, we need to design well and create amazing public spaces in the midst of our communities.  Mr Kent talked of these becoming destinations so good that they compensate for less backyards and private spaces.  We invest in our parks and plazas, we fight the dominance of the car and make it easier for people to travel to these destinations.   Mr Kent spoke about cities having ten destinations which they work to develop into really special places.  At a macro level the Adelaide urban area should have ten, but equally at the more local level a council such as the City of Marion should also be able to point to ten standout public places.   Places which are interesting, attractive, educational and surprising – they should be promoted well and looked after.  Linkages should be established between them, local communities should be involved in designing and looking after them and they should be easy to get to with good public transport.

In Marion we’ve got a long way to go.  There are places which have potential, but none which I feel confident in saying are reaching Fred Kent’s destination criteria.  There’s our wetlands at Warriaparinga and in the future at Oaklands too.  There’s the State Aquatic Centre and its precinct through to the Marion Cultural Centre and Westfield.  The Living Kaurna Cultural Centre also has potential, but is not quite there (mostly because I could count on one hand people outside of the council’s administration who know it exists).  Hazelmere Reserve is becoming a hive of activity and could have ‘destination’ status in the future.

In my own backyard, Coastal Ward, I look around and I don’t see a lot of public spaces that draw me to spend time in them.  Council recently agreed to proceed with a redevelopment of Glade Crescent Reserve in the heart of Hallett Cove and there’s a lot of potential there.  I’m also keen to see what can happen around the much under-used Heron Way Reserve and Hallett Cove beachfront, because this can become an exciting place with a stunning ocean backdrop for Marion’s southern residents.  Nearby the proposed Hallett Cove Enterprise Hub, library and community centre also has potential.  And my love of the Field River valley, extending from Hallett Cove beach through to Glenthorne Farm, means that I cannot ignore the huge potential this vast swathe of open space in the midst of suburbia presents us with.  We must protect it, then activate it.

Urban infill is coming to a suburb near you in the future.  That’s a reality because population growth is inevitable (more on that in my next blog) and we cannot stand by and watch our city swamp iconic South Australian landscapes in the Barossa and Fleurieu Peninsula.  So we can either put our heads in the sand and ignore this reality, or we can commit to making a damn good job of it like they’ve demonstrated is possible in cities like Vancouver.  In the coming years our city will literally grow up, but in doing this we can develop some amazing public spaces, exciting destinations which are the heart of our communities and which have people desperate to kick their shoes off.

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  1. Christopher Mardell June 17, 2011 at 1:26 am #

    Totally agree with you on this one David, particularly that infill development must be done WELL. You don’t have to drive far in Marion before you see a block where an old, perfectly functional house has been knocked down and replaced with two or three small houses with lots of paving, tiny eaves (hopefully 6-star requirements will improve those) and no consideration for orientation whatsoever. Denser? Yes. More appealing? Apparently to some. More sustainable? Definitely not.

    I think the swimming centre looks great (although I was hoping a spur line for the train would eventually run into Marion through what is now the diving pool) but that precinct, while funky, modern and stylish, has nowhere for people to BE. It needs al fresco cafes, more grass, more reasons for people to stop on the way to wherever they’re going. Paving alone, and a few trees can make for walkable, bike-friendly landscapes, but they don’t create vital spaces.

    Even grassy parks can be done well, or badly; small parks close to roads are unsafe for children, and some time ago all the drinking taps seemed to be disappeared from a lot of parks (hello bottled water). Some of the great family parks (think: Seacliff Esplanade) have low fences, public barbecues and rotundas, so they become a place to hold events like parties, or just to hang out. If you have easy access to such spaces, every house doesn’t NEED to have a massive back yard with a 200 square metre pergola.

    At a talk I went to recently Paul Downton (who was heavily involved in Christie Walk) gave a talk on “urban fractals”, which (if I interpreted correctly) suggests that each small part of a sustainable city, or neighbourhood, should contain all of the components that make up a whole, sustainable city. Following this line of thinking, every neighbourhood must have good community spaces, accessible shops and schools, workplaces etc. As soon as any of these things are missing you will end up with a community with one or more of:
    - unemployment
    - boredom
    - lack of cohesion
    - graffiti
    - mental illness
    - lots of cars, all driving elsewhere (unless you have great public transport and cycle infrastructure, which… is in the pipeline…)

    He also mentioned the idea of Pocket Neighbourhoods, which push the car parking and roads to the periphery and create walkable, kid-friendly, social spaces between the houses, thereby encouraging interaction and preventing all the problems above (except perhaps unemployment). I think this kind of housing (and its near, more community-driven cousin ‘cohousing’) – which, as demonstrated at Christie Walk, can work with a variety of densities – are a great model for building communities that are happy, resilient, sustainable and filled with great spaces… and hopefully I’ll be part of one in the next few years!

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