liveable cities

Guy speaks at the Liveable Cities Conference in Melbourne

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Guy recently attended and spoke at the 8th Making Cities Liveable Conference in Melbourne.  The theme of this conference was “The liveable city of the future”. Guy presented the findings of his ‘NANA Project’ Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship last year which highlights some of the design features of the future age friendly liveable city.  Indeed in his opening address, Dr Gavin Turrell, an epidemiologist from QUT, saw ageing as one of the top four issues facing the city alongside equity, chronic disease and obesity.

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Design is central

Turrell also highlighted the importance of design and planning on health and well being, citing the overwhelming evidence showing the effect the way our environment is designed on our health. In fact design was a key theme throughout the conference, both blamed for the current ‘bad’ things about a city and lauded for good’ inclusive and well considered design.

Other key issues that figured prominently were:

1 What is Liveability?

Given that Melbourne has been judged the most liveable city in the world, it was appropriate and interesting that the question of what this actually means was addressed. Dr Paul James from UWS described the existing indices as limited and primarily used by US Corporations to apply increments to their ex pat executive salaries as compensation.  So it is no accident that the wealthiest cities are also the most ‘liveable’. This was contrasted with a place like, Dharavi, the large Mumbai ‘slum’ with density of some 400,000 people per square kilometre (Manhattan has 28,000) that is a vibrant, productive and even happy place; also good indicators of liveability.

In the end the conclusion seemed to be that a liveable city was not a set of indicators with a definite end but something more open and organic, messy even. The solutions needed to be more heuristic, adaptable and ongoing. This led onto the next major theme.

People walk through laneways in inner-ci

2 Public participation and community engagement

Lucinda Hartley from Co Design called the environment, the ‘hardware’ of the city and community engagement the ‘software’, with loneliness shown as one cause of death and illness.  Sheryn Pittman from Adelaide also referred to a study that showed social inclusion was better than happiness or sex! Clearly being engaged and connected to a local community is beneficial, but working with people and across the regulatory boundaries and regulations is hard and complex making change difficult. It is a ‘wicked’ problem.

Various approaches were presented with a key objective to have realistic and achievable goals with some quick wins and a measurable impact. Strategy and process were critical. Michelle Blicavs from the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) presented their approach that seeks to facilitate community involvement through planned processes to suit the level engagement sought.

Co Design tactical urbanism

3 Place making

Design and public participation come together in the concept of ‘Placemaking’.  Placemaking is a fairly self explanatory term used a by civic authorities and urban designers alike.  What is intriguing is that there appears to be no clear formula that makes a place a ‘place’.  A successful place needs not only design and public participation but authority and industry backing and approval.  It not only needs to be knit into the fabric of a community but into its psyche.

A fascinating example was the (re)creation of Centenary Square in Parramatta (previously Church Street Mall).  In a stimulating presentation Bruce Mills from Parramatta Council described the process used to fix this unused and unattractive but pivotal and historic urban space. The process included community consultation, stakeholder engagement and backing, commercial incentives and activation strategies but most interestingly a rebranding to change perception and provide a positive ‘first experience’. Now it is a very popular community space and meeting area.

centenary square, parramata

3 Greening

Not surprisingly ‘greening’ the city was a regular theme. It is estimated that by 2050 approximately 75% of people will live in cities, but the current dominance of hard surface affects health and reduces amenity. Green and blue (vegetation and water) infrastructure has been shown to improve key liveability criteria and was shown to have economic benefits. Projects like the High Line (and now the Low Line) in NYC and the Cheonggyecheon river park in Seoul actually increased trade. Green infrastructure improves climate by reducing the increased temperatures associated with cities, increases urban ecology and biodiversity, promotes food production and provides opportunities for water management. Yvonne Lynch from Melbourne City Council showed how green areas could be dramatically increased without affecting traffic flow or parking by clever use of space. Others suggested requisitioning unused space, estimated to be about 30% in cities.

Korea-Seoul-Cheonggyecheon-2008-01

Interestingly, density, the traditional enemy of green, was not vilified but seen as a way of actually improving the availability of green spaces by allowing for more open (green) space and encouraging walkability and less reliance on vehicle transport.  Jen Thompson from the Heart Institute described activity as the ‘wonder drug’ for many ailments and more walkable neighbourhoods with green and attractive streets were needed in a healthy city.

The conference was stimulating and well run. In keeping with its public participation theme, the organisers scheduled a significant portion of the program for audience feedback and participation. A risky initiative that paid off giving the conference a great sense of communal purpose.  While there were differing opinions, it was heartening to see that there was broad agreement about what was wrong, what was needed and practical suggestions about how to make change.

The final word perhaps comes from Gavin Turrell again. He emphasised that the evidence for improving liveability in cities is so overwhelming that we don’t have to just do something, we really can’t afford to do nothing.

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