How important is place creation?
It’s about understanding the people and the place, the culture and the natural setting. We try to convey the message to our clients to give equal emphasis to the human habitat as the natural habitat. The whole notion of beginning with the neighbourhood unit is the foundation for shaping the human habitat. Then we engage with the community, before we start to actually commence the design process.
In interviews conducted several years ago by Delfin (now Lend Lease) the top three characteristics people valued in the places they lived were; the early provision of community facilities, diversity of housing and mature landscaping. Over the past 20 years Roberts Day has promoted a ‘4th dimension’- walkable neighbourhoods. People are just craving a sense of place and a sense of belonging. The timeless neighbourhoods of Europe are comprised of an interconnected network streets, with diversity of housing, and building codes that place houses close to the street.
We often refer to the ‘postcard test’. Is there a contemporary place in Australia that’s been shaped in the last 30, 40 years that you would feel at ease capturing as a postcard and sending it home? There’s not many…which is sad.
How do you engage with the community when there’s almost no community there yet?
We look to create ‘visioning and design forums’, essentially bringing together the people that we believe represent the community. In new greenfield development it could involve the councillors, residents in similar or adjacent areas, the state government etc. It’s very collaborative and can run from one to six days. There are a lot of community values presented to listen to and capture, so we find the forum the best method to do this. Adopting this approach gives everyone ownership of the process. You can’t do it on every job but we’re trying to promote this process wherever we can. In emerging urban growth areas a reference panel is often assembled which may take a few months assembling, but it’s true representation of community, not just a vocal minority.
How do you capture stakeholders opinions in the master plan?
The best way to do it is real time, for three days, working pretty intensively, almost around the clock, but by the end of the forum you have captured something on paper that represents the interests of a much broader cross section of the community.
When setting the place vision, are you initially focusing on physical form, or aspirational goals such a walkable community?
We always come back to the fundamentals – compact, mixed use, walkable and connected. The buildings are crucial to all of these considerations; the disposition of the buildings, bringing buildings close to the street, car parking to the rear, active frontages to the ground floors of buildings and the spaces between the buildings. The mixed use nature of buildings is also important…too often the developer will propose the location of standalone uses…‘the shopping centre goes there, medium density here, the school there’…and generally the result is that residents are compelled to drive everywhere because it is segregated and spread out, whereas if you could bring those uses together, people would be more likely to walk or cycle than always opting for the car.
Continuous pathways are also so important in the community, for physical and mental health. Physical health is such a big issue in North America and Australia, where our kids are getting more and more overweight because they are simply cocooned in cars and are driven everywhere. Less than 12% of kids now walk to school. Twenty years ago, 60% walked. This is effecting learning and overall health. Its simple things like being able to walk along the river, or having walking paths that loop and provide an experience along the way with meaningful destinations which foster walking.
What considerations do you think are critical in creating new masterplanned communities?
Any design concept must respect place. Often, in a natural setting, there are some natural or cultural elements that could to be reflected in the plan. It might be a river, lake, hills or a reference to local history and heritage. We always look for that local context in any place we’re shaping.
Compact, connected, mixed-use and walkable are the fundamental elements to consider. In terms of compact communities, diversity of housing is fundamental so that people of all ages and incomes can afford to live there…this adds to the vibrancy of a place also.
There needs to be consideration of people’s health and well-being. There are strong economic arguments that support the understanding that the built environment has a significant impact on people’s individual health and well-being.
In terms of the layout, we’re strong advocates of the local neighbourhood unit. In all of our travels around the globe, we’ve never found a vessel that delivers community more effectively than the neighbourhood unit – a well-defined edge to the neighbourhood and a discernible centre and a focus on creating a setting where all the daily needs are within walking distance – often simply a 5-10 minute walk. Neighbourhood. It is now evident through the walking App ‘Walkscore’ that there is economic value in creating walkable places. It’s about giving people a choice, independence of movement and being in an environment where they don’t have to have rely on the car. A walkscore of 70 points is the threshold for not needing to have their own car.
An interconnected network of streets is important. It doesn’t have to be grid. No single street carries all the heavy traffic, and greater consideration of what we call the small streets, rear lanes, to service a diverse mix of housing.
We just need to think a little bit more creatively about these interim solutions to help deliver better community infrastructure.
How do you ensure the vision of the masterplanning becomes a legacy passed on to other consultant team members after your engagement finishes?
There should be a vision keeper, someone that’s there for the duration. You need this continuity of thought and someone to believe in the concept, that way the ongoing team is continually reminded of the key message that you want to create something of lasting value.
How do you ensure that message gets through during the design phase?
We maintain the integrity of the masterplan, by sitting with the planner and design team. You’ve got to be patient, and you’ve got to put that time in with the client, council, and the State Government assessing the plan. It’s a matter of convincing the client that it’s worth their while to create a place that’s got character.
When staging a development, one of the things we always recommend is that you build both sides of the street. You might not be able to build the whole street, but always have the uses mirroring each other. Another fundamental flaw that planners make is that we to change the use in the middle of the street so it might have commercial one side and residential on the other. It really should change at the rear so that you’ve got the same uses facing each other.
Do you ever get involved in the activation phase?
We do, however I think that activating place is something that’s always in the forefront of our minds from the inception of the design phase. It’s often the smaller increments, or the smaller gestures that are really important rather than grand buildings. A lot of its programming.
We see the primary school as the foundation for the community. We’ve got to work harder to embed schools into new communities from day one. In Ellenbrook we established an interim school using 6 houses in the heart of the first village, so that kids walked to school from day one. After two-and-a-half years they built the actual Primary School, then converted the temporary space back to houses. It meant mum and dad didn’t have to drive their kids to a more distant school. The school also provided the catalyst for community to bonds to form.
We also used this ‘interim’ arrangement with offices, as in many new communities it is often too premature for a lot of the commercial/retail to be sustainable so it’s an ideal way to establish local amenity from the outset.
If you could change one thing about the way we currently create communities what would it be?
It’s thinking about shaping places that become cherished human habitats. As an example, compare downtown Sydney to downtown Melbourne – why do we feel so frustrated walking around Sydney? It probably has something to do with the fact that in Sydney, pedestrian’s spend 50% of their time waiting at traffic lights while cars spend 20% of their time…it’s the reverse in Melbourne. That’s one of the reasons Melbourne feels so inviting to walk around. SGS recently completed a survey and found there’s $1 billion worth of benefit as a result of people being able to connect and move around the city with ease.