DESIGN | Concrete is not streetscaping

Posted on 13/01/2012

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Recently my mother received a letter from the Council explaining that footpath improvements and streetscaping works would be happening at nights along Gympie and Albany Creek Roads, at the central intersection in Aspley. These works have already commenced, though I am yet to see any signs of streetscaping. All I’ve seen so far is new concrete (as below), and rest assured there is a lot of concrete and not a lot of trees and grass defining this suburban experience. It’s not what I would consider streetscaping if, for example, there was any intention of promoting walkability and high design values in suburban business environments, or a ‘sense of place’. Instead, this kind of approach detracts from businesses, the centre and the community, especially as the sun beats down on the pale glaring surface.

There are contradictions at play – on the one hand there is an expectation that people will live in higher densities on transit corridors (and this area will benefit from rapid bus transit in the next decade or so) but on the other there is no commensurate commitment to place making and urban design. The local area plan indicates that the main roads where these ‘streetscaping’ is underway should be developed and treated as boulevards and enhance local amenity (see Book of Boulevard Precedents). Let’s also point out that not one tree has been planted along these roads, with the exception of those planted outside MacDonalds when it was redeveloped, in the ten years or so of that plan. So what is the point of the local area plan? It’s mistaken on at least one issue, it promises a community facility on privately owned land (a bus station and mobile library don’t count) and it affirms low density.

Streetscaping is one way of creating coherence in otherwise ad hoc and poorly developed suburban areas, like Aspley, which have been subjected to ever increasing road widenings and traffic increases for decades. The term boulevard evokes images of a wide street or road (a thoroughfare) that is framed by buildings and trees (as below and this is not a particularly good example, just slightly better). It’s a way of treating or dealing with the problem of wide transit corridors because a boulevard can also valorise the pedestrian experience. While Gympie Road is a major transit corridor, there is a need to recognise that there are communities and businesses around it. The Project for Public Spaces Streets as Places initiative notes that efficient vehicle movement is prioritised over social and community needs: ” this single-minded focus has had crippling social, community, and environmental impacts, without adequately addressing congestion and cost.”

I read the National Urban Design Protocol recently. My concern about some of the big and broad policy initiatives is the way in which they are interpreted or applied locally both for new and retrofitted developments – the line of sight approach can sometimes mean diffusion at the local level or the affimation of hierachies. Retrofitting, I believe, needs to be part of maintenance and governance in established areas. So fixing a cracked and unevent footpath in a suburban centre on a corridor should have a higher purpose. It should mean a retrofitted footpath rather than more of the same.

Design and street layout aren’t the only considerations. I’ve just been reading about a report titled Retrofitting the Suburbs to Increase Walking. It found that “while traditional urban design elements such as inwardly focused street geometry may encourage walking, our results suggest that a more critical factor is the concentration of business activity in a compact commercial center.” The authors note that this is not without its problems given that the business concentration is greater than suburban neighbourhoods can sustain. Centres on transit corridors, however, should be able to sustain some increased residential density (and this is planned for Aspley). It’s tasty food for thought as the centre and shopping centre show their age, facing the real possibility of redevelopment, especially as several shopfronts remain empty.

In the centre, two shops were empty for most of last year, after a well intentioned fruit, veg and coffee venture failed. That failed and refitted store left a legacy of timber framed windows and doors. It’s an addition that changes the look and feel, adds warmth and welcome. In the last few months, the shops were gutted with renewed efforts for leasing. They are not moving in a hurry. It’s one of those situations where the property owners would be better off leasing it for next to nothing to encourage a co-working, cultural or social use. On several occasions I have considered using the space to host a community speakout type event or to somehow bring it into use for the Enabling Suburbs project, so that issues like the Council’s approach to ‘streetscaping’ can be scrutinised and negotiated.

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Posted in: design, suburbia