Liveable Yarra

City of Yarra, Community engagement, Urban planning, People's panel

The City of Yarra recently undertook an engagement programme to canvass community opinion on future planning. The programme, Liveable Yarra, gathered local residents together for four half-day sessions to discuss and analyse the built environment, transport, housing and business. It asked participants to consider the shape of Yarra 20 years from now, by which time the local population is expected to grow from 85,000 to 115,000.

The programme, or people’s panel, covered a broad range of topics including urban density, streets, car parking, active ageing, job opportunities, heritage and housing affordability. It marked the early stages of a lengthy process that will eventually result in a new municipal strategic statement for Yarra.[1]

My involvement with Liveable Yarra began after a random mail drop to 10,000 Yarra households and an open invitation distributed via council newsletter. I was among 150 people who volunteered to take part, and the 60 selected to represent the diverse demography of Yarra.

Being an architect likely had no influence on my selection, but it is why I volunteered in the first place. I was eager to offer my expertise, and have a meaningful impact on planning policy within my neighbourhood. Like most architects, my primary contact with local council is at the statutory end of the planning spectrum – seeking approvals for projects on which I work. This is often an adversarial form of engagement, and one I’m happy to do without. Liveable Yarra was a chance to get involved at the strategic end, to help shape the broad principles that will govern Yarra’s future urban fabric.

I was fascinated to learn that I wasn’t alone in my eagerness: I met two other architects taking part for similar reasons to my own. Statistically, this is an enormous anomaly: there is only 1 architect for every 1,500 Victorians, yet here were 3 in 60.[2] For a profession that is most comfortable talking to itself, it was heartening to discover two fellow practitioners volunteering to step into planners’  territory.

City of Yarra, Community engagement, Urban planning, People's panel

Liveable Yarra was impressively coordinated by the City of Yarra and community engagement specialists, Capire. I felt they executed a well-conceived and well-funded event: this was clearly no publicity stunt, but a serious commitment to the local community and our diverse opinions.

Indeed, by describing the people’s panel as merely four half-day sessions, I really do it an injustice. Liz Mackevicius, part of the City Strategy team at Yarra, explained that council began work on it almost a year ago. Staff from multiple departments prepared comprehensive briefing documents on the main discussion themes, then worked collaboratively with Capire to design the panel format. Handling the call for interest and subsequent applications would themselves have been a huge logistical challenge.

The sessions were spread across August and September at two-weekly intervals, throughout which both the Yarra and Capire teams worked to keep participants informed, craft panel activities, and synthesise results. Council staff led a crash course in Planning 101, were on hand to answer technical questions, and provided ongoing feedback between sessions.

Effort was even directed towards filling in blindspots: community groups poorly represented amongst panel participants (the very young and the very old for example, or migrants from non-English speaking countries) and special-interest advisory groups (cyclists, business owners, visual artists) were co-opted to provide insight into their specific needs by way of detailed reports and summarised recommendations.

The data gathered each session was dutifully and thoroughly analysed. Hundreds of ideas, arguments and comments were distilled into thematic groups that were then distributed to participants and used to structure the subsequent session’s activities. While I sensed that the trajectory of Liveable Yarra was carefully designed, the content for each session was driven by the participants, so could only be locked down after the preceding one yielded its results. I imagine that Yarra and Capire were extremely busy throughout the panel period, absorbing and directing this flow of information.

City of Yarra, Community engagement, Urban planning, People's panel

The issues covered by Liveable Yarra were complex and without clearly right or wrong answers. This was emphasised repeatedly by Yarra and Capire, who wanted the greyness of the issues to provide a challenge to think creatively, as well as a crutch to fall back on when ideas weren’t easily forthcoming.

Yarra and Capire employed a number of different methods to help us tackle this complexity. The result was that no two sessions were alike, each approaching the panel themes from different directions. A common thread perhaps was an urging to think big but consider the real-world consequences of our proposals. This reinforced the idea that nothing in planning comes free of cost. If we vote for more parks, we’ll end up with fewer houses. If we want more pedestrian-friendly streets, we’ll have less car-parking.

During session #2 for example, the panel was divided into small tables and asked to identify the biggest planning challenges facing Yarra. We were also asked to consider the ways council could address these. By placing each challenge on an xy matrix, we were able to prioritise those that we felt were both most important and most difficult to address. Support for the stickiest ideas was then tested using the Poll Everywhere app, allowing us to vote for ideas via our mobile phones, and see the results in realtime on a projector screen at the front of the room.

During session #3, discussions at each table were provoked by leading questions like: “What is the most important transport change you would like to see in Yarra by 2035?”, “How can council actively plan for this change?” and “What would the positive and negative implications of this change be?” This spawned dozens and dozens of ideas and counter-ideas, which were later distilled into a limited number of action statements like: “Allow modernisation of some heritage areas to enable continued viable use of the property” or “Close local residential streets to through traffic to create living streets”.

During the final session, we were asked to consider this collection of planning proposals. We showed our support, neutrality or opposition to each statement by way of green, yellow and red stickers. Pinning these to the wall resulted in a visually rich colour field of ideas. Popular ideas, of which there were surprisingly many, were mostly green. Unpopular ideas, of which there were surprisingly few, were mostly red.

City of Yarra, Community engagement, Urban planning, People's panel

As Liveable Yarra progressed, I grew curious about its endgame. In particular, I was worried that somehow we would be expected to reach consensus. As the rabbinical proverb goes, when you ask two people for their advice about something, you inevitably receive three opinions.

This was made awkwardly apparent to me during one of the sessions when I sat next to a particular gentleman with very car-centric, and dare I say outdated, ideas about the city. His solution for poor accessibility to amenities was for council to purchase large tracts of land and convert them into multi-storey carparks. His even more radical solution for congestion was to submerge all the radial train lines across Melbourne and build freeways over them.

With minds like this contributing to a discussion otherwise populated by a wonderfully forward-focussed group of people, how could we ever agree on anything?

Luckily, Yarra and Capire had this issue covered. The aim of Liveable Yarra turned out not  to be consensus, but provocation. They didn’t want us to reduce our ideas to a couple of sparse recommendations to council, they wanted us to proliferate them. Our job was to provide insight into the diverse needs of a community, it will be council’s job to decide which ideas to throw away and which to champion.

That said, I was struck by the resounding agreement revealed by the colour field experiment in the final session. Of the thirty or so action statements presented, barely a handful featured any red, and almost all were dominated by green. The ideas came from us and were thoroughly explored during our discussions, so perhaps it’s only natural that they be met with support. I think this success was also testament to Yarra and Capire’s proficiency, as well as the panel’s enthusiasm for the issues covered.

The panel participants need to be recognised here. Of the 60 who started, only 11 dropped out. This meant that 49 remained committed to lively conversation and visionary speculation across four precious Saturday mornings. It felt like there was a great deal of goodwill in the room: we could all sense that Yarra and Capire had invested heavily in us, so we responded by wanting to make a positive contribution.

If there were any shortcomings at all, it was the scarcity of time. I acknowledge that there are only so many hours you can ask of people, but we always seemed to run out of time just when we got to the juicy part of a discussion. During the final session, I asked acting Yarra Mayor Geoff Barbour whether in an ideal world he would have liked more time for the panel, six sessions maybe or even eight. His rather sage answer was that no matter how generously you plan an event like this, you always want more time.

City of Yarra, Community engagement, Urban planning, People's panel

If I sound overly enthusiastic about the panel, it’s nothing more than is deserved. Yarra CEO, Vijaya Vaidyanath, claimed Liveable Yarra was among a select group of engagement events pioneering new modes of community consultation, and among the first people’s panels convened by local government in Australia. For my part, I felt that the panel was open, ambitious, well-executed and sincere.

As a community engagement initiative, I think it was a resounding success. It extracted unexpected consensus on a complex series of issues. It educated a motivated group of people about the nuanced balancing act of planning. And I imagine it created a few citizen advocates for more planning vision from council.

Of course, the real test comes over the coming years, as Yarra absorbs our input and formulates its new strategic statement. I hope to be part of a small group of panel participants who will remain involved beyond the initial engagement phase, and present our ideas to council. With luck, I’ll even get to see the ideas find their way into policy and then action.


Footnotes

  1. The current City of Yarra Municipal Strategy Statement was instituted back in 2009 and outlines a soon-to-expire vision for 2020. It comprises sections 21.01 – 21.11 of the Local Planning Policy Framework, an aspirational and detailed series of documents that covers a similarly broad range of topics.
  2. Warwick Mihaly; Why I’m a member of the AIA; Panfilocastaldi; May 2015

Image sources

  1. Liveable Yarra, copyright City of Yarra. Modified from the original by author
  2. Liveable Yarra conversation, author’s own image
  3. Liveable Yarra learning, author’s own image
  4. Liveable Yarra feedback, author’s own image

The new architecture of Carlo Ratti

carlo ratti

Who is he?

An italian architect and “urban change agent”[1] who divides his time between Carlo Ratti Associati, the innovation and design studio he runs from Torino, and SENSEable City Lab, the research laboratory he leads out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston. Ratti’s design and research work overlap significantly, both focussing on the transformative effect of new technologies on our built environment and daily lives.[2] The scope of his projects is incredibly wide, ranging from drone-based wayfinding to experimental furniture to citywide data mining.

Ratti was in Melbourne last month for a week of programs courtesy of the International Specialised Skills Institute. We attended the lunchtime seminar he presented at the University of Melbourne entitled, Decalogue for a [smart] SENSEable city. It was hosted in conjunction by the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning and the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute.

What did we think?

Ratti began his seminar by quoting controversial American activist, George Gilder, who in 1995 claimed that “cities are leftover baggage of the industrial era… We are headed for the death of cities.” More moderately, fellow MIT scholar, Nicholas Negroponte, wrote in 1996 that “the post-information age will remove the limitations of geography. Digital living will include less and less dependence on being in a specific place at a specific time.”[3] Far from the death of cities however, Ratti observed that the past twenty years have instead witnessed their unparalleled prosperity. Global urbanisation is more widespread now than at any other time in history, with just over half of the world’s 7.1 billion population living in urban areas.[4]

Cities are thriving, but so is the penetration of digital technology into their fabric. “The digital revolution did not end up killing our cities, but neither did it leave them unaffected. A layer of networked digital elements has blanketed our environment, blending bits and atoms together in a seamless way.”[5] Evidence of this physical and digital conversion – the cyberphysical – is everywhere: from the 4 billion smartphones in circulation globally and the infiltration of social media into daily work habits, to the proliferation of remotely controlled security systems and transport infrastructure.

For Ratti, the exciting extrapolation of this process is our ability to use digital technology to learn from cities in order to improve them. Many of his projects involve crowdsourcing tiny fragments of data that are in themselves meaningless but when gathered together form very large sets of useful intelligence. He seeks to convert the city into a realtime control system, with inbuilt feedback loops that improve its economic, social and environmental sustainability. A difficult undertaking with a simple justification: while the physical layers of the city – roads, buildings, services – are expensive to build and respond slowly to change, the digital layers are cheap to implement and able to evolve very quickly to changing circumstances. In essence, Ratti wants the digital to allow us to better use what we already have of the physical.

Ratti structured his presentation around a series of diverse themes of urban engagement, including Smart phone smart cityi-MobilityNew universities, and Living together. The projects employed a compelling cocktail of skill sets, involving among others architectural design, graphic design, algorithmic computing, electrical engineering and web app development. Intervening in the emerging overlap between the physical and digital space of the city, they convincingly capture Ratti’s inexhaustible inventiveness and hunger for urban change.

Though Ratti covered a lot of ground during his hour-long seminar, we will focus here on three projects only, the ones that struck us as most clearly demonstrating his multi-disciplinary approach to urban problem solving.

hubcab overall170 million annual taxi trips in New York City

hubcab journeyJourney from West 15th to East 54th Street

HubCab
www.hubcab.org
Project video via YouTube
i-Mobility
2014

HubCab is an interactive visualisation that allows users to explore every taxi trip taken within the City of New York in a year: a network of journeys that leave no lasting trace but nevertheless stitch the whole city together. Like many of SENSEable City Lab’s projects, the seduction of the visualisation masks an extraordinary backend algorithm processing vast quantities of information. According to the HubCab website, the basis of the project is “a data set of over 170 million taxi trips of all 13,500 medallion taxis in New York City in 2011. The data set contains GPS coordinates of all pick up and drop off points and corresponding times.”[6]

Employing an efficiency concept developed by Ratti’s team, shareability networks, the data set is analysed for potential redundancies i.e. whether a taxi trip travelling from point A to point B can be combined with a second trip travelling from point C to point D, thereby eliminating one trip entirely. When we click on a nominal trip, say from West 15th to East 54th Street (see above image), we can see that it forms part of a route with annual savings of $3.1m, 1.6m kilometres and 445,000kg of CO2. Ratti explained that employing shareability networks within a large, dense city like New York has the capacity to reduce the number of taxi trips in a year by a staggering 40%.

isochronic singapore
Map of Singapore where the scale is not measured in kilometres but travel time

formula one city
Maps of central Singapore comparing mobile phone usage on typical days (left) and during the Singapore Grand Prix (right)

LIVE Singapore!
www.senseable.mit.edu/livesingapore/
Project video via YouTube
Public engagement 2.0
2010

LIVE Singapore! is an exercise in citywide mapping, establishing “a feedback loop between people, their actions, and the city.”[7] It gathers useful information like temperature, mobile phone usage, rainfall, taxi availability and traffic, and maps them with localised detail in realtime. The project team curated the mapping process, for instance juxtaposing taxi availability against rainfall, or mobile phone usage against a popular sporting event.

The selection of information types and process of juxtaposition reflect the true agenda of this project: “giving people visual and tangible access to realtime information about their city enables them to make their decisions in sync with their environment, with what is actually happening around them.”[8] If traffic congestion mapping can accurately tell us how long it will take to get somewhere, we can leave early enough to arrive on time. If we know that taxis are likely to get snapped up whenever it rains, we can take the train (or authorities can ensure greater supply).

trash trackThe tracking device used in TrashTrack

trash tracking map
Movement of waste after two months

TrashTrack
www.senseable.mit.edu/trashtrack/
Project video via YouTube
Waste tracking
2009

This project asks the question, “why do we know so much about the supply chain and so little about the removal chain?”[9] It suggests that our interest in the supply of local produce does not extend to waste processes in large part due to our lack of awareness of them. TrashTrack seeks to highlight the movement of our waste products from household bins to final destinations.

Using a simplified version of technology found within mobile phones, Ratti’s team developed a tracking and broadcasting device that could be attached to pieces of waste. The team then invited 500 volunteers to tag regular pieces of household rubbish, 3,000 items in total ranging from old sneakers, to empty cans, banana peels and dead batteries. Once the volunteers went home and threw out their tagged waste items, the tags started reporting their locations and establishing tracking vectors of their movement.

The tags, or smart dust as Ratti referred to them, established a network of tiny locatable electromechanical systems. The video of the mapping process is astounding: items of waste found their way from Seattle to every corner of the United States, in the case of some alkaline batteries not coming to a rest for two months.

What did we learn?

To understand Ratti’s work, we must consider the way he views the major forces affecting contemporary urban environments. The rapid growth in global urbanisation is his first and perhaps most important influence: Ratti does not deny the decentralising tendencies of digital technology, but attributes the city’s survival despite these tendencies to our deep need for social contact: people want to live together. His works are inherently social, interested in enhancing the connections between people and their environments. Rather than permitting digital technologies to alienate the inhabitants of a city, he wants to empower them with new and unprecedented control.

Second, and essentially the core area of Ratti’s interventions, is the aforementioned and ever-expanding blanket of networked digital elements. He is impatient with the slowness of hard infrastructure, far more interested in the opportunities presented by new digital technologies: data, networks, connections and apps that have the power to reach and affect millions of people at a time. He reasons that a city is not such a big place nor such a mysterious creature to understand, not when millions of people are already walking around in it, already absorbing and transmitting data about their environments.

For us, we are most impressed with the clear DNA of Ratti’s projects. They tackle issues of environmental sustainability, quality of life, resource use, cultural engagement and social spaces. If these questions seem familiar it’s because they are: they’re the same questions architects face. What the architecture profession traditionally addresses via urban and building design, Ratti addresses with digital, scaleable technologies. His is an exciting new world, one where the practice of architecture retains its worldview, but expands to encompass whatever tools and skills are necessary to get the job done.

This thinking has been recently manifested in a project not discussed by Ratti in his presentation but already receiving a lot of attention online and now available for pre-ordering, the Copenhagen Wheel. An electric motor that attaches to the rear wheel of a bicycle, it “transforms the bicycle into a hybrid e-bike that also provides feedback on pollution, traffic congestion and road conditions in realtime.”[10] This project is an exciting development within Ratti’s work, one that shifts his practice beyond demonstration into application. We look forward to seeing more of it.


Footnotes:

  1. Carlo Ratti in Melbourne; ArchitectureAU; 13th March 2014
  2. Studio synopsis; Carlo Ratti Associati; accessed 20th April 2014
  3. Nicholas Negroponte; Being Digital; Hodder and Stoughton; 1996
  4. In 2011, 52.1% of the world population lived in urban areas. By 2050, this is projected to grow to 67.2%. Source: World Population ProspectsPopulation Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat; 2011
  5. Carlo Ratti; Digital Cities: ‘Sense-able’ urban design; Wired; 2nd October 2009
  6. Project description; HubCab; accessed 27th April 2014
  7. Project description; LIVE Singapore!; accessed 27th April 2014
  8. Ibid.
  9. Project description; TrashTrack; accessed 28th April 2014
  10. Project description; Copenhagen Wheel; accessed 29th April 2014

Image credits:

  1. Carlo Ratti. MIT Technology Review, author unknown.
  2. Annual taxi trips, for HubCab; SENSEable City Lab; MIT; New York City; 2014
  3. Journey from West 15th to East 54th Street, for HubCab; SENSEable City Lab; MIT; New York City; 2014
  4. Isochronic Singapore, for LIVE Singapore!; SENSEable City Lab; MIT; Singapore; 2010
  5. Formula One City, for LIVE Singapore!; SENSEable City Lab; MIT; Singapore; 2010
  6. Trash tag v2.0, the tracking device used in TrashTrack; SENSEable City Lab, MIT; Seattle; October 2009
  7. Trash tagging map, for TrashTrack; SENSEable City Lab, MIT; Seattle; October 2009

Streets Without Cars

20140331 drummond street

What is it?

An unsolicited project our architecture practice, Mihaly Slocombe, recently completed. We redesigned a segment of Drummond Street in Carlton North, the street where we live and practice.

The project began with conversations with around two thirds of our neighbours, who helped us understand the cross section of the community for whom we were designing, as well as providing specific project briefing requirements. We published (and continue to maintain) a blog that tracked our research and design activities, and facilitated ongoing feedback to the community. The blog can be viewed here.

Our essential agenda for Streets Without Cars is best summed up by the opening remarks on the project blog:

Around 50% of all developed land in Melbourne is consumed by space for vehicles, most of which is streets.[1] The characteristics of a street, its dimensions, footpaths and traffic volume, all contribute to the wellbeing and happiness of the people who live along it. Drummond Street boasts a generous green median strip, but of its 28m width, 14m is reserved for car traffic and car parking. For the 130m between Curtain and Fenwick Streets, that’s a total of 1,820sqm, or around 15 typical Carlton North terraces. Also consider how little of the time this space is in use: on average, people are either entering, exiting or driving their vehicles for only 14 minutes in every hour.[2] So not only does Drummond Street dedicate a lot of its valuable space to the car, this space is left unused most of the time.

Imagine if there were no cars: no need for car parking or wide moats of asphalt reserved for car traffic. What could we do with the space and how might we foster new ways of living together as a community?

Once we began work on the project, it became clear that while removing all cars was a romantic proposition, it was not viable. We elected instead to explore a shared or living street philosophy. This is an idea that requires a street to be designed for walking first, cycling second and driving third. It slows down bicycle and car traffic; removes the traditionally separate zones for people, bicycles and cars; replaces asphalt with materials typically associated with parks and plazas; and encourages communal engagement between all streets users. We discussed aspects of this idea here.

20140331 aerial day

20140331 aerial night

What did we design?

We have just published our full design proposal to the Streets Without Cars blog, which can be viewed here. An animated flythrough of the project can be viewed on our Vimeo page.

We also presented the project at Volume 22 of the Pecha Kucha Melbourne series earlier this month. The 20 slides x 20 seconds format of Pecha Kucha offered the productive opportunity to distil the project down to its essential aims and qualities. Also relevant was the theme of the event, Members Only. It asked presenters to consider the value of clubs, their members, why and how we gain access, and what we do once we’re in. We titled our presentation, Getting Back into the Players Club.

The visual and spoken content of our presentation was as follows:

20140331 pecha kucha 01
Good evening. I’m Warwick Mihaly, a principal architect of Mihaly Slocombe. Every year we like to work on a speculative project that engages in questions of urban design. I’m going to present our 2014 project to you tonight via my presentation, Getting Back into The Players Club.

20140331 pecha kucha 02
Who are the current members of the Players Club? They’re the people and corporations shaping the future fabric of our cities. Once upon a time they used to be architects and urban designers, but this is less and less the case. These days, they’re mostly project managers, developers, even bankers.

20140331 pecha kucha 03
There are now whole cities springing up from the desert sands whose core focus is not livability but investment opportunity.

20140331 pecha kucha 04
Recent approvals for very large towers in the city, coupled with the poor urban outcome of the Docklands and dubious planning strategy for Fishermen’s Bend, shows that this is happening in Melbourne also. Do we really want our city to be corrupted by money?

20140331 pecha kucha 05
The traditional procurement model looks like the top line. A big investment company commissions a building design, then markets it to smaller investors who aim to lease out individual apartments. How the inhabitants are involved in this process is not clear. What we’d like to do is explore the bottom line, where design and community consultation drive the development process.

20140331 pecha kucha 06
Which brings me to our project, Streets Without Cars. The premise of the project is this: we wanted to redesign the street where we live and practice as a shared space, with pedestrians as its highest priority. We also wanted to engage our local community, so we spoke with as many of our neighbours as we could to understand how they would like the street to work.

20140331 pecha kucha 07
This is the site. It’s a 120m long section of Drummond Street in Carlton North, running between Curtain and Fenwick Streets. It’s 28m wide, 14m of which is currently covered in asphalt to provide room for north- and southbound car lanes. It has a central grass strip that is already reasonably well utilised.

20140331 pecha kucha 08
We were able to interview 22 of our 39 neighbours within the site zone and received rich feedback containing both concrete and aspirational design direction. One of our neighbours, James, gave us the phrase that ended up guiding our entire design process, “Like a big backyard for everyone.”

 

20140331 pecha kucha 09
We discovered a lot about the demographics of our neighbours. We now know there are 2.6 bicycles per household, that around 72% of our street works within a 5km radius, and most households have limited access to private open space. We were also able to collate the many briefing comments into groups of activities to design for: living, eating, socialising and play.

20140331 pecha kucha 10
So we came up with a design that removed the southbound car lane and used the space for a 17m wide strip of activity space bordered by a narrower strip of paving to be shared by bicycles, cars and pedestrians. A series of small pavilions runs down the length of the site, providing shelter and gathering.

20140331 pecha kucha 11
Our material palette is robust and urban. We used Bluestone paving on the ground, steel structure for the pavilion roofs, hit and miss brickwork and timber battening for the pavilions themselves. The four mature trees on site were retained and added to.

20140331 pecha kucha 12
At the heart of the site are the living and dining rooms, terraced spaces that can be used for just about anything. Gentle slopes in the terraced platforms allow us to catch pools of water for play and cooling. The roof over the dining room kicks up to support a solar panel array. All roofs collect water for irrigation.

20140331 pecha kucha 13
The dining room is loosely divided into four sub-spaces, some of which are undercover and others in the open. They are bordered by an open weave of brickwork that permits air movement, and down the track, trained vines.

20140331 pecha kucha 14
Running the full length of the site is a community vegetable patch. There’s also a fruit orchard embedded into the side of one of the pavilions. Our hope is that these would become activity centres to strengthen the local community. It would be pretty handy to harvest a few extra apples and a sprig of coriander too.

20140331 pecha kucha 15
20140331 pecha kucha 16

A big part of our design thinking revolved around transport. We decided to retain around 80% of the existing carparking, then added a couple of carshare spaces and 96 bicycle parking spaces within secure storage sheds. These anchor the ends of the site, free up valuable space within peoples’ homes, and encourage more integrated use of the street.

20140331 pecha kucha 17
The kitchen is a small cafeteria located adjacent to the dining and living rooms. Its operator would also act as caretaker for the vegetable patch and orchard, to keep them from getting unruly and providing an opportunity for the enjoyment of local produce.

20140331 pecha kucha 18 20140331 pecha kucha 19We met with the sustainable transport group at the City of Yarra today to present the project. They didn’t exactly front up a few million cash to build it, but they were very enthusiastic about the community consultation and radical, for Melbourne, urban design strategy. Our vision is that this sort of project could be rolled out across an entire municipality, small insertions designed to decrease our reliance on the automobile and increase our shared use of our streets. They could be spaced out so every resident has access to one within walking distance: another, finer layer of public parkland.

20140331 pecha kucha 20
That’s a 20-slide tip of the iceberg. We’ve been engaging with our neighbours via a dedicated project blog. If you’d like to find out a bit more about us, you can look us up on our website, design blog or twitter feed. Thank you.

Where to from here?

Our design may be finished, but the project is far from over. As mentioned above, we are now embarking on consultation with the local council to investigate ways we might implement this project. With some considerable determination and a bit of luck, future funding earmarked for the Carlton North area as part of the City of Yarra’s Local Area Traffic Management scheme might very well find its way towards Drummond Street and Streets Without Cars.[3]


Footnotes:

[1] At least a third of all developed land in cities is consumed by space for vehicles. In the especially car-focussed cities of the United States and Australia, the average rises to around half. In Los Angeles, an estimated two-thirds of urban land is primarily for vehicles. Michael Southworth and Eran Ben-Joseph; Streets and the Shaping of Towns and Cities; Island Press; Washington; 2003
[2] See our Drummond Street traffic research conducted in October of last year. Mihaly Slocombe; Traffic Conclusions; Streets Without Cars; Melbourne; 2013
[3] See a brief introductory page on the scheme at the City of Yarra website. Local Area Traffic Management; City of Yarra; Melbourne; 2014

Image credits:

  1. Drummond Street. Author’s own image.
  2. Aerial by day. Author’s own image.
  3. Aerial by night. Author’s own image.
  4. Pecha Kucha slide 1. Author’s own image.
  5. Pecha Kucha slide 2. Author’s own image.
  6. Pecha Kucha slide 3. Author’s own image.
  7. Pecha Kucha slide 4. Author’s own image.
  8. Pecha Kucha slide 5. Author’s own image.
  9. Pecha Kucha slide 6. Author’s own image.
  10. Pecha Kucha slide 7. Author’s own image.
  11. Pecha Kucha slide 8. Author’s own image.
  12. Pecha Kucha slide 9. Author’s own image.
  13. Pecha Kucha slide 10. Author’s own image.
  14. Pecha Kucha slide 11. Author’s own image.
  15. Pecha Kucha slide 12. Author’s own image.
  16. Pecha Kucha slide 13. Author’s own image.
  17. Pecha Kucha slide 14. Author’s own image.
  18. Pecha Kucha slide 15. Author’s own image.
  19. Pecha Kucha slide 16. Author’s own image.
  20. Pecha Kucha slide 17. Author’s own image.
  21. Pecha Kucha slide 18. Author’s own image.
  22. Pecha Kucha slide 19. Author’s own image.
  23. Pecha Kucha slide 20. Author’s own image.

Walkability squandered

southA typical Carlton North green median strip

We consider ourselves very lucky to live in Carlton North. Walkscore ranks its walkability in the top 20 of Melbourne’s 346 suburbs, awarding it 88 out of 100 total points. The Walkscore summary states that “most errands can be accomplished on foot” while residents “can walk to an average of 7 restaurants, bars and coffess shops within 5 minutes.”

Empirically, we experience excellent access to public transport, bicycle networks, parks, recreation, entertainment, shops and schools. Almost every day to day activity we undertake, including work, shopping, dining, socialising and exercising is accessible within a 5km radius. We truly live a post-car lifestyle: mobility has been replaced with proximity, and the 1.5 hour return trip of the average Melbourne commuter has been replaced by higher productivity and more time with family.

parks mapCarlton North parks map

Parks in Carlton North are represented at a variety of scales:

  • Out our front door is a green median strip, providing immediate access to lawn area. We and our neighbours use it regularly for activities that would otherwise take place in private back gardens. We use it for picnics, playtime, garage sales, yoga and sunbathing.
  • Within a 5 minute walk is Curtain Square, a small, intimate park well designed for families. It incorporates play equipment, basketball courts, shade trees, a gazebo, park benches and lawn areas.
  • Within a 10 minute walk is Princes Park, one of Melbourne’s more significant parks. It has a 3.2km circumference perfect for running, large ovals for sports activities, a bowls club and Visy Park, home of the Carlton Football Club. Ovals and lawn areas are used during the day by nearby Princes Hill Secondary College and during the evening by private sports leagues.
  • Also within a 10 minute walk is the Capital City Trail, a busy walking, running and cycling trail which feeds into the Merri Creek Reserve. For many kilometres in both directions, the trail and creek connect Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs, parks, sporting ovals, golf clubs and Collingwood Children’s Farm.

streets mapCarlton North streets map

Local streets also possess most of the qualities identified by the Grattan Institute in their 2012 report, Social Cities, necessary for social connectedness and personal wellbeing. Author Jane-Frances Kelly encourages readers to think of streets like rooms in a house, with some streets (highways) like corridors: “places for moving through rather than staying”; and others (local streets) like living rooms: “places for sitting and socialising”. The City of Yarra has done well to design the local streets of Carlton North like a connected series of communal living rooms:

  • Strategic road closures and speed limiting devices restrict car access to non-local traffic, while permitting free access to pedestrians and cyclists. Frequent dead-ends, intersections and roundabouts reduce vehicles to non-threatening speeds.
  • A dense housing fabric provides varied and engaging streetscapes, augmented by well-maintained green spaces and street trees.
  • Shallow street setbacks enhance opportunities for interaction with neighbours.
  • Dense commercial fabrics like the Rathdowne Street Village offer a diversity of commercial, civic, health and hospitality uses at a variety of scales, encouraging social activity and communal living. Small businesses are run by local owners whom residents can get to know, “fostering recognition and connection.”
  • Family-centric programmes like schools and childcare centres are embedded into the residential fabric, increasing intra-suburb pedestrian activity and establishing strong connections between children and their local environment.

It is estimated that around 50% of car-based cities like Melbourne are given over to car-related infrastructure, of which streets form a major part. It is a good thing that our local streets are designed to inhibit vehicular activity and promote pedestrian activity, as all that land area not only facilitates mobility, but also significantly contributes to residents’ safety, health and sense of community. The Social Cities report makes reference to Donald Appleyard’s pioneering work on streets, where he showed that residents in “a street with light traffic flow had three times more friends living in the street than residents on a street with heavy traffic flow”.

It should come as no surprise to us then that we are on good terms with a number of our immediate neighbours. Nor should it be a surprise that many of the owners of the shops and cafes along Rathdowne Street know us by face, name and order. We attend playgroups at the local library, Italian classes in a nearby church, have our clothes drycleaned at the local milkbar and buy our bread from the local bakeries – all activities we undertake on foot.

Whether by coincidence or mutual recognition of the qualities outlined above, there are also six households of family and close friends living within a 10 minute walk of our house, four of which are actually on the same street. The residents of one of these households are in fact the inspiration for this article, but not because they embody the attitudes of a healthy, social city. Rather, they embody the opposite: when they visit our house, or go out for dinner on Rathdowne Street, both journeys of less than 1km, they do not walk, they do not cycle, they drive.

Why, in the name of all things good and true, do they drive?

It might be suggested that for busy professionals, working long days and enduring further hours of commuting each week, time has been transformed into a scarce commodity. When a lawyer charges out her time during the week in 6 minute intervals, or a banker works a 70 hour week, it could even be considered natural that the precious little time left must be treasured, streamlined and maximised. Why should they waste the 10 minutes it takes to walk to our house, when they can instead drive and take only 3 minutes?

Simon Knott from The Architects on Triple R recently discussed a study related to the State Government’s new planning reforms, part of whose agenda it is to encourage the 20 minute city. Providing opposition to Matthew Guy’s rhetoric surrounding the reforms, who believes that disseminated workplaces will establish a localised workforce and shorter commutes, the study discovered the remarkable truth that for journeys of less than 1km, 50% of Melburnians will still opt to drive. In other words, there is such an engrained reliance on the car, it supplants even walkable journeys. Our friends, despite living in one of Melbourne’s most walkable cities, provide us with firsthand proof of this distressing statistic.

What can we do?

We would very much like to confiscate the keys to our friends’ car each weekend, though we suspect this will not make much difference to the broader attitudes of most Melburnians.

Dreaming as large as we possibly can, we would love to see a major paradigm shift in the infrastructure investment practices of our State and Federal Governments. As mentioned only last week, it is long past time for investment in roads to be replaced with investment in public transport. Every call for a new or wider road makes us shake our heads in dismay. The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics has estimated that congestion costs Australian $9.4b annually: when will the decision makers learn that building more roads does not reduce congestion, it increases the number of cars on the road?

At the grass roots level too, there are ever more opportunities for positive engagement in our streets that will enhance their pedestrian-friendliness and living room qualities:

  • Since 2005, San Francisco design firm Rebar has been running PARK(ing) Day, “an annual open-source global event where citizens, artists and activists collaborate to temporarily transform metered parking spaces into temporary public places.” Sydney is running their second PARK(ing) Day event this year, though Melbourne has yet to take up the mantle.
  • Renew Newcastle is a not-for-profit organisation established in 2012 “to find short and medium term uses for buildings in Newcastle’s CBD that are currently vacant, disused, or awaiting redevelopment.” So successful has this organisation been that it has now been expanded into a national initiative.
  • The Social Cities report outlines a raft of further ideas for social connection in cities, including the installation of more interactive equipment in under-utilised parks; the commissioning of public and community art; the promotion of active and mixed-use streetscapes; community gardens; sharing household resources; and the proliferation of hyper-local websites.

For our part, we will continue to enjoy our walkable suburb and try, weekend after weekend, to encourage our friends to leave their car at home.

north

Stalinist architecture?

palace of the sovietsPalace of the Soviets by Boras Iofan (1932)

What is it?

Michael Gurr wrote an opinion article in The Age recently condemning the Footscray Station Precinct development by SJB and McBride Charles Ryan as Stalinist. “If the communist bloc still existed, Footscray’s apartment buildings are what their security headquarters would look like. These buildings are big, grey and black… [without] a kind line in them. They seem to refuse human involvement.”

Disturbingly and inexplicably, Gurr widened his attack to encompass the entire architecture profession. Comparing us to owners of vicious attack dogs and methamphetamine dealers, he claimed we’re the bad guys, the real bad guys.

Offended by Gurr’s non-specific vitriol but wishing to remain constructive, we wrote into The Age with a letter of rebuke. The letter was published the next day, its full text reading as follows:

Michael Gurr’s criticism of recently built Footscray apartment buildings is fair and reasonable, relying as it does on his first hand negative experience of their impact. His attack on the entire architecture profession as a result of this one development is both unwarranted and unsubstantiated. On the back of one poorly written novel, would he dismiss every author everywhere?

Architects are not the bad guys Gurr makes us out to be. We believe in humane experiences within the urban environment and work hard to achieve them. We fight against a vast array of interests aligned against this aim, from developers wanting to make a quick dollar, to neighbours crying NIMBY, to builders wanting to build as cheaply as possible, to planning regulations that discourage innovation. On larger projects, we take on the unpopular and improbable role of attempting to reconcile every competing aim presented by these diverse interests, and are in too many cases the only ones at the table interested in a quality outcome that improves the built environment.

I suggest Gurr delve more deeply into the processes behind building developments around Melbourne before he starts throwing stones.

While we are happy to leave Gurr’s personal taste undisputed (despite any credible connection between the pompous monumentality of Stalinist architecture and the activated streets and articulated facades of the Footscray Station Precinct) we could not leave unchallenged his clearly misguided understanding of the procurement processes behind most large scale developments. He pleads for us to sit down at a development meeting and “say something radical such as, ‘Let’s build something friendly. Let’s build something the neighbourhood might like'”. We wish architects had the power to steer large developments with nothing more than a suggestion. The sad truth of our era is that, sitting at the table with the developer, project manager and builder, we often have the smallest voice.

Ultimately, Gurr’s opinion article raises three separate though related concerns: first and foremost, that architects do not unfortunately enjoy the unchallenged authority he attributes to us; second, that such a misinformed, incendiary article defaming our entire profession could have even be published; and third, that the best rebuttal our community could muster was the above short letter.

As already elaborated in a past article here, where was the Australian Institute of Architects on this issue? Why did our representative body once again leave us all to our own devices to defend ourselves?

footscray station precinct aerial

20130127 footscray station precinct streetFootscray Station Precinct by SJB and McBride Charles Ryan

Flinders Street Station Design Competition

Flinders Street Station from the northeast, courtesy of Major Projects Victoria

What is it?

An international design competition to redevelop Flinders Street Station, Melbourne’s busiest train station and home to 200,000 passenger visits a day. With a site area of over 40,000sqm and a significant presence between the Hoddle grid and Yarra River, the competition offers one of the city’s most important opportunities to redefine its southern urban edge and relationship to the river.

What do we think?

117 entrants from Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Italy, China and others submitted their Stage 1 proposals a few weeks ago, with competition organiser Major Projects Victoria (MPV) announcing the shortlist on Sunday afternoon:

  • Ashton Raggatt McDougall
  • John Wardle Architects + Grimshaw
  • HASSELL + Herzog and de Meuron
  • NH Architecture
  • Eduardo Velasquez + Manuel Pineda + Santiago Medina
  • Zaha Hadid Architecture + BVN Architecture

The 6 shortlisted projects will proceed to Stage 2 and undergo significant extra detailed design to resolve structure, services, finances and universal access. Despite their selection, they have yet to be released to the public and are not slated to be for some time yet, thus it is impossible to judge what sort of vision they each propose for the station precinct. MPV have promised they will stage an exhibition of all entries at the conclusion of Stage 2, some time in the middle of next year.

We aren’t certain why they are electing to wait so long, particularly when there is so much discussion of, and enthusiasm for, the competition at the moment. We sincerely hope the promised publicity does not get conveniently forgotten. The studios that entered the competition deserve to have their hard work rewarded with public exposure, the architecture profession deserves insight into the competition process, and the population of Melbourne deserves the chance to discuss the aspirations and future direction of their city.

This competition is an unsurpassed chance to start a conversation about Melbourne, about what it is and what we want it to be. The exhibition should happen right now.

Our competition proposal viewed from St. Pauls Cathedral

Our own submission, a collaboration between Mihaly Slocombe, Steve Rose Architect and Foong + Sormann, may not have been shortlisted but it has left us with lingering insights into the city, the challenges and benefits of teamwork, and the real value of architectural competitions.

What did we learn?


The north bank of the Yarra River

The city

The Hoddle Grid both defines and binds Melbourne. It provides order, a hierarchy of streets that encompasses the largest of thoroughfares and smallest of laneways, and supports towering office buildings and tiny clothing boutiques alike. And it crafts identity, a clear edge marking the extent of the city, a quality never more necessary than today, where the inexorable sprawl of greater Melbourne establishes an ever-increasing gulf between the centre and its fringes.

But this order and identity also limit the city, rendering uncertain its relationship with surrounding areas, whose urban plans reorient and dissolve the grid. This is no more evident than towards the south, where the city, despite 150 years of European settlement, still doesn’t know how it should behave. What was once a means for industry, the Yarra River is trying to redefine itself as a source of leisure and entertainment, yet the grid generally and Flinders Street Station specifically continue to obstruct this objective.

In rethinking the station as a conduit via which the city might connect to the river and beyond to the arts and leisure precincts of Southbank, we gained insight into Melbourne’s ballooning affluence and shifting aspirations. We learnt that cars and roads are the opposite of a new connectivity now recognised as the most optimistic path forward for Melbourne. Long gone is the 9am – 5pm central business district of the 1980s: what has usurped it is a rich and diverse urban environment open 24 hours a day and plugging directly into the natural and cultural resources around it.

An interface between programme (farmers market) and landscape (vegetable garden)

Canoe in Rapids by Winslow Homer, 1897

Teamwork: the analogy of the river

Belonging to a competition team that comprises three small studios, each with aspirations for, and talent in, design is like navigating a swiftly moving river in a three-man canoe.

Momentum must at first be extracted from nothing, yet in time it develops a life of its own, carrying the boat on a strong and irresistible current. The river has many forks, with some tributaries running true, others meandering maddeningly and still others ending abruptly. It is also of unknown length: the time taken to reach its end has a strict deadline, but the amount of rowing required to get there is impossible to predict. And through it all, rocks and eddies threaten to capsize or beach the boat at any moment, demanding vigilance and care.

When all is said and done however, three oars are better than one. Once they fall into a complimentary rhythm, the boat begins to eat up kilometre after kilometre, the river speeding by beneath the hull. There is a sense of synergy, that more is being achieved together than the single rowers could ever hope to achieve alone. And finally, there is the undeniable attraction of camaraderie: companions with whom to share the journey and celebrate its conclusion.

Our revised, luminous Elizabeth Street clocktower

International competitions

The competition guidelines enforced the strict adherence to anonymity, with submissions prevented from incorporating any “name, business name or logo, motto, identification or distinguishing mark”. Despite this, one juror confided to us that 80% of all 117 entries were recognisable. Such recognition went staunchly undiscussed, but we imagine it can’t have helped but nuanced the jury’s conversations and influenced their decisions. Thus it was without surprise that we accurately guessed 4 of the 6 shortlisted entrants.

On the one hand, we could argue that the big names in the shortlist deserve to be there a priori. Zaha Hadid and Herzog and de Meuron are world renowned starchitects, lending gravitas to any competition they enter. ARM and John Wardle Architects are local heroes, producing fine work of significant scale and importance. But on the other hand, what is the likelihood that the entries of all 4 were so much better than 111 other proposals?

The cynic in us suspects that the jury, easily recognising a Zaha Hadid project when it’s handed to them on a silver platter, had no choice (consciously acknowledged or otherwise) but to include it on the shortlist. The State Government and MPV, for their parts, have wasted no time in extolling the virtues of their star-studded cast, we imagine giddy with excitement over the possibility of commissioning the next Guggenheim. Minister for Major Projects, Denis Napthine, said that “this competition has always been about finding the best local and international talent to reinvigorate Melbourne’s iconic Flinders Street Station precinct and looking at this shortlist I think we’ve managed to do that.”

Is it just us, or was the purpose of this competition to find the best architectural proposals to reinvigorate the Flinders Street Station precinct? A subtle distinction, but an important one.

At any rate, entering an international competition was a task we undertook with eyes wide open. We knew there was a strong likelihood we would be competing against a large number of established architectural studios both locally and globally, studios with greater resources and competition experience than our own. Between our three practices, we may have dedicated 350 hours to the competition, but this pales into insignificance when compared to the 19-strong project team of HASSELL + Herzog de Meuron. We knew also that there was little chance MPV would include such small, relatively unknown practices on the shortlist (our hats off therefore to the young and energetic Eduardo Velásquez + Manuel Alejandro Pineda + Santiago Medina).

From the outset, it was inevitable we would not win. Luckily though, winning was not our primary objective. Nor was it our secondary, or tertiary.

The real value in entering competitions is a topic we discussed some time ago, in a strangely prophetic response to a critic of their propagation. Now, as in then, we remain very clear why we entered the Flinders Street Station Design Competition.

We entered to learn something about our city. We entered to expand our design horizons beyond the much smaller work that makes up our regular practices. We entered to test our capabilities. We entered to learn how to work in a team of passionate designers. We entered to fill out our websites with another concluded project. We entered to enjoy ourselves. Most of all, we entered so we could be involved. The redevelopment of Flinders Street Station is our generation’s Federation Square: a project so big and so important it has the power to change a city. No way were we going to pass up that golden opportunity.

Landscape in the city: a public garden at the edge of urban grid and river

Competitions will continue to be an important part of our practice, a well-spaced but reliably consistent interlude between our typical projects. They push us, improve us and may one day even win us a commission. Perhaps next time we’ll opt for something a touch less ambitious than an international competition with a site the size of two city blocks… Maybe a project only 50 times the size of our biggest house.

Density and the Suburbs

What was it?

A seminar organised by Justine Clark on behalf of the Australian Institute of Architects recently that discussed Melbourne’s suburbs and its disconcertedly low housing density. Rather than propose specific solutions, it sought to broadly articulate the scope of the issue and how our understanding of it might help us chart a course towards a more sustainable suburban environment.

Chaired by Professor Paul Walker, the impressive panel was populated by three individuals with significant experience in urban planning and policy: Brendan Gleeson is a Professor of Urban Policy Studies at the University of Melbourne, Emma Appleton is the Director of the recently formed Design Review Panel at the Office of the Victorian Government Architect and Damien O’Kearney is Strategic Development Facilitator at the City of Frankston.

Presentations from the panellists covered interesting territory: Gleeson’s was the most general, touching on concepts and broader issues; Appleton drew on her experience with CABE in the United Kingdom to contrast our local condition against international equivalents; while O’Kearney focussed in great detail on the current urban planning paradigm within the City of Frankston.

From these, we drew a series of concise messages:

  • Gleeson: According to energy and water profiles, low-end high-rise residential developments have the worst environmental performance of all building typologies.
  • Gleeson: According to post-occupancy surveys, low-rise medium-density residential developments perform the best of all building typologies.
  • Appleton: According to a detailed survey conducted in the UK, 86% of the housing stock that falls within +/- 20% of the average house price meet so few performance standards they should not have received planning approval.
  • Appleton: Despite the climatic, cultural, lifestyle and construction differences between Australia and the UK, suburban growth areas in both countries are indistinguishable.
  • Appleton: While homeowners in the UK collectively dream of owning a large, detached house on its own land close to the city, most are prepared to entertain apartment living as long as they have access to good parkland nearby.
  • Appleton: 42% of all multi-residential development proposals in Victoria go before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
  • O’Kearney: 45% of Frankston households earn less than $1,000 a week.
  • O’Kearney: Frankston South has a median house price of $520,000 while Frankston North has a median house price of $280,000. Neither condition is sufficiently expensive to justify densification via apartment developments, which typically sell in excess of $500,000.

As well as more involved insights:

  • The transition from Melbourne’s current low-density sprawl to a higher-density fabric needs to take social equity into account. This applies to achieving good design outcomes for lower income families as well as protecting collective lifestyle values from the potential pitfalls of blanket high-density development.
  • Revitalising a stagnant suburb requires both grand, top-down vision as well as grassroots exemplars. O’Kearney noted that the Seaford Lifesaving Club by Robert Simeoni and Keast Park Community Pavilion by Jackson Clements Burrows are both small projects whose good design are inspiring unexpected interest in architectural design within local communities.

Seaford Lifesaving Club, Robert Simeoni

Keast Park Community Pavilion, Jackson Clements Burrows

  • NIMBYism is not the source of development stagnation but a symptom of poor underlying education in urban design and the functions of a liveable city. Even one member of the audience came curiously close to suffering from this ailment, railing against the inappropriateness of high-rise development.
  • Most residents support higher density development in their suburbs as long as it’s good quality and in keeping with the existing context. We do question this insight: surely increasing density and keeping with the existing (lower density) context are a priori incompatible concepts?
  • A cooperative development model has worked well in other countries, and could be employed with success here. It involves the pooling of neighbouring land parcels owned by separate individuals into a larger lot with the potential to achieve more significant, high quality design outcomes.

What did we think?

The content of the presentations was fascinating, and subsequent conversation engaging. They raised palpable issues very relevant to architectural practice and contemporary Australian culture.

Though we expressed a profound lack of faith in the abilities of the current political and planning systems to intelligently handle the much-needed transition towards a more compact city, we left Density and the Suburbs feeling uplifted and certainly more hopeful than when we arrived.

Indeed, we hope to organise a follow up session, operating as a workshop rather than within the presentation format. With a suitably open-minded client (O’Kearney would be perfect), productive curator and constructive workshop group, we can see real benefit coming out of such an event. Architects constantly bemoan Melbourne’s vast, untouched suburban fringe. We ask: why does the State Government continue to release new fringe land? Why do developers continue to design and build such poor-quality surburbs? And why oh why do people continue to purchase the resultant houses?

It’s about time we contributed more meaningfully to this issue.