SYMPOSIUM | Healthy, sustainable suburbs

Posted on 22/09/2011

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Earlier this week, I attended an AHURI symposium on the the topic of ‘Healthy, Sustainable Suburbs’ which presented new research on issues of housing, greyfield redevelopment, health and household behaviour. I could only stay for the first presentation by Professor Peter Newton, who presented research exploring a new development model for housing regeneration in greyfield precincts.The other presentations were by Dr Winnifred Louis whose research addressed household attitudes and behaviours in relation to environmentally sustainable resource use, and Assoc. Professor Susan Thompson who spoke on the health impacts of housing.

Focusing on the middle suburbs of cities (7km to 14kms from the CBD), the model proposes packaging land for higher density development. So Aspley rates as a middle suburb when I’ve always thought about it as an outer suburb and that’s largely because so many of my inner urban friends and colleagues tend to make remarks about it being ‘so far away’ from the comfort of inner urban conceit. It makes sense when I think about the spread of the city. As Newton explains in an online article, ‘greyfields’ refers to “the ageing, occupied residential tracts of suburbs that are physically, technologically and environmentally obsolescent and which represent economically outdated, failing or undercapitalised real estate assets”. Greyfields is the fate of those mid to late 20th century greenfields over those decades of sprawl. I was particularly interested in his methodology which included intensive workshops using mindmapping to capture the rich thinking emerging from the group.

While I tend to agree with Newton’s ideas, I am concerned that the argument strips value out of those residential areas in ways that fail to recognise aspects of architectural and heritage value. An architect colleague, Jason Haigh (cloud-dwellers), is researching and writing about modern architecture in Brisbane’s post-war and middle suburbs, with an article due for publication in the near future. In recognising the architectural legacy of these buildings, many of which were designed by prominent architects of the day, he draws attention to demolitions and unsympathetic renovations. Often, the redevelopment projects of single blocks results in block splitting (two on one block) or the construction of much larger houses which can occupy the whole suburban block. Brisbane’s City Plan recognises that many post-war suburbs are poorly planned. It was interesting to note in Newton’s presentation that some medium density projects in Melbourne had been rejected on the grounds of local character. And this made me wonder how well or creatively these structures are designed and how land use, low rise and low density become matters of character. I’ve noted some concerns about the valorisation of character in Placing previously.

I’ve seen this kind of land packaging for redevelopment in Brisbane lately, especially in activity centres such as Chermside, but also in suburban hamlets like Stafford, which was originally known has ‘Happy Valley’. Local authorities are under pressure to accommodate population growth and it’s unlikely that the targets can be met through current approaches to greenfields and inner city ‘regeneration’. As Newton explained “Metropolitan planning strategies for Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane – designed to achieve more compact urban development – require that more than half of future new housing be constructed in established, middle-ring suburbs and the remainder in the traditional outer ‘greenfields’”.Therefore a range of strategies for long term and short term redevelopment are required, especially around infrastructure where there is capacity. The various metropolitan strategies tend to offer short to medium term outlooks, the long term remains sadly neglected. There is a need for innovation particularly in the effective use of existing infrastructure. However, the infill development in the middle ring has not been delivered effectively and needs to be implemented on a precinct scale.

These discussions can sometimes seem like a kind of wordspam where too many ideas of form – ie the tools or palette of planners and designers – become synonymous with sustainability e.g. zoning, density, regeneration. In fact, that was the nature of a discussion that I overheard prior to the commencement of the seminar. While I recognise, write about and work towards sustainability in our cities, I tend to prefer a focus on the aspiration and the vision and just see the planning tools as a means rather than an end. Those tools aren’t always fit for purpose. Contemporary urban issues are described by Newton as ‘wicked’ and for that reason a focus on impacts and results is warranted, rather than forms, which can tend to become one stop solutions. I could say social isolation and planning will give me density, I could say unemployment and a planning will give me zoning, I could say empty shops and planning will give me a SCIP, I could say cycling and planning will give me a yellow line painted on the road. And while that’s not wholly irrelevant because good planning makes a world of difference, it’s also not the whole story of the interplay of people, professions and place. An interdisciplinary exchange and some discourse analysis is essential. It’s too easy to characterise the divide as ‘garden city vs compact city’: binaries produce and construct in ways that erase difference. In simple binaries like this we lose the texture, the culture and the complexity. Binaries are dangerous and rhetorical. The discussion about suburbs and community aspirations is often derogatory and derisive these days. I find this escalates as poverty, disadvantage and ethnic diversity pools and coalesces in suburbs. All of these themes have rippled through this blog since I commenced it, seeking out tools and methods for changemaking and changescaping. Note that these middle suburbs are also targets for affordable and social housing. For residents, however, these words become the weapons with which their ‘way of life’ is assaulted. Finding a middle ground on a flat earth can be difficult, creating a space for conversation in the web of complaint is fraught.

As Paul Coonan from the Department of Communities said, neighbourhood planning is one way of structuring that conversation, but increasingly, as I found in a recent study on community attitudes to consultation and engagement, communities are sceptical of these processes. While they feel they are having a say, they don’t necessarily feel they are being listened to. That leaves me wondering about whether the change is really being negotiated. Newton proposed that community engagement was vital for the success of these kinds of projects, where local values can be quite stubborn. He said that it needed to happen much earlier in the process than at the proposal stage. It really is a strategic level proposition and this is consistent with the findings of a Productivity Commission report on urban development. The DA process is not the best point in planning in which to undertake extensive consultation. A message I hear most often these days is that consultation is integral to the success of policy and planning initiatives, and integral for governance. So there is a need to allocate more resources to this as well as equip and empower communities for these processes – as Newton proposes “pro-active community engagement of citizens as ‘partners’ in development, in both planning/design and finance aspects rather than the ‘placatory’ or ‘adversarial’ models of engagement that are currently employed with populations targeted for redevelopment”.

As I mull over Newton’s messages (the full report is available online), my mind drifts to my local area where there are opportunities for land packaging to deliver the kind of residential densities Newton proposes i.e. the 2 acres on Gympie Road, the sale of the shopping centre and the redevelopment proposal for the caravan park, all supported by the northern busway, and then the broadband pilot. These initiatives hug the suburban centre and highway, and can change the shape of the suburb as well as define a stronger relationship with the major activity centre of neighbouring Chermside. Consultation on most initiatives thus far has been minimal and is framed by the oppositional model that is embedded in the DA process. There is a need for better planning here otherwise these opportunities slip through our fingers. I raised this with all the local elected representatives and only heard back directly from one of them. While there is basic social infrastructure here, the area is designed for cars, and the people are car dependent. My neighbour, for example, drives to the shops which are within a 10 minute walk. Parts of the suburb do not have footpaths. Placemaking is negligible and piecemeal. While there are schools, childcare centres and sporting facilities and clubs, there is no library, cultural centre or community centre in the vicinity. Restitching the urban fabric and providing housing choice – through density – is not the same as restitching the social or cultural fabric.

As a postscript, some researchers in the audience made some comments about how they were working on aging in place projects that were exploring ways of using and adapting existing structures (houses) to cater to changing housing needs. This struck me as interesting because it would result in different configurations of buildings and their relationships within conjoined blocks and/or on the street. There is a view that adapting an existing building is more sustainable than demolition and new building. Plus there’s the work being done through the Adapturbia project.

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