The urban population of the planet will almost double over the next 40 years, a pattern that is to be mirrored by Australia’s capital cities. Far from being bad news, this is possibly the most undersold positive news around today.
Our cities, which accommodate over 80% of our population, drive 80% of our economy and are responsible for 75% of our greenhouse gases are the most urgent priority facing Australia today. Why then, does our Federal Government not see cities as their jurisdiction? Residents in our Australian capital cities are dividing into two distinct categories: those that live with ready access to the services they need for liveability and those, on the fringes, who are far removed from these services and pay dearly in time and money to conduct their daily lives. This divide is already becoming more pronounced resulting in social isolation, breakdowns and violence, a trend that is likely to increase if our cities are not repurposed.
The process of repurposing our cities will require a new paradigm, a mindset that moves from ‘big infrastructure’ solutions such as freeways, dams and power stations, towards cities as catchments, distributed energy and the re-timetabling of our roads and our social Infrastructure.
I first experienced this approach in the 1960s when the baby boomers hit the university system. Most universities responded by rapidly expanding their campuses at great expense. Cape Town University which I attended was constrained by national parks on the side of Table Mountain and as such was unable to expand. Instead it responded by analysing the utilisation it was achieving from its existing facilities. This analysis made several discoveries, including the finding that lecture theatres were only used for 17.5% of the academic day. By re-timetabling its facilities, it was over the next 30 years, able to treble its student numbers with a minimal building program. The only side effect that I could observe was that the campus became more vibrant with the academic day starting early and continuing well into the evening.
So if a university can successfully repurpose itself, why not a city?
In fact this is exactly what inner Melbourne has been doing for the last 30 years. The latest figures coming out of a 20-year longitudinal study, ‘Places for People’, combined with the city’s other data sets, show just how dramatic this repurposing has become. The most dramatic process of repurposing occurred in the early 1990s when ‘Postcode 3000’ was established as a program to meet the city’s target, set in 1985, of achieving 8000 new residential units by the year 2000. The property market crash of the late 1980s set the scene for residential development to occur through the repurposing of vacant commercial office buildings and the many heritage buildings that were only partly occupied in the 1990s. ‘Postcode 3000’ successfully articulated the advantages of central city living and put in place incentives to facilitate this opportunity. Contrary to industry and banking advice of the time the success of this program saw inner city apartments increase from 685 in 1985 to 29,000 by 2014, totally changing Melburnians’ perception of housing choices for the future.
A similar philosophy of repurposing can be applied to water security by viewing the city as a catchment. This approach has seen the City of Melbourne put in place the infrastructure necessary to both capture water and impregnate its soils in order to sustain its landscapes and cool the city in the face of the heat island impacts. The early stages of this strategy have to date enabled the city to secure 20% of the water capacity required to the city as a catchment. This approach has seen the City of Melbourne put in place the infrastructure necessary to both capture water and impregnate its soils in order to sustain its landscapes and cool the city in the face of the heat island impacts. The early stages of this strategy have to date enabled the city to secure 20% of the water capacity required to sustain its landscapes from recycled water, resulting in an annual saving of $650,000.
Improved water security has now been combined with the city’s ‘Urban Forest Strategy’, setting targets for increasing the tree canopy cover from 22% to 40% in the inner city over the next 30 years in an attempt to stabilise the inner city temperatures with the onset of climate change.
The rapid inner city population growth has put pressure on the need for greater open space. The ‘Open Space Strategy’ has seen the city convert over 45 ha of underutilised asphalt and other infrastructure. For example, a 540 m2 traffic island was recently converted into a 5000 m2 local park by incorporating underutilised road space in North Melbourne at a saving to the city of over $12 million. Birrarung Marr was the largest repurposing of disused rail land to form an 8 ha regional park besides the Yarra River.
A similar process is underway with the repurposing of existing commercial office buildings to meet the city’s zero net emissions strategy through the ‘1200 Buildings’ program. This program is helping finance the conversion of existing commercial building stock, repurposing them for a lower energy future.
These are some of the repurposing strategies the city is using to accommodate the increase in population from 30,000 in 1985 to over 120,000 today, without the addition of significant infrastructure. In fact, in many cases it has reduced the quantum of some infrastructure such as roads while achieving a better balance between different transport modes. The closure of Swanston Street in 1992 was dramatic, but equally dramatic has been the increase in bicycles from 1% of commuter journeys into the CBD in 2001 to 13% in 2014. During this period the central city has gone from being a dying centre into one of the world’s most liveable cities.
If the increasing social divide, as illustrated by the Griffiths University VAMPIRE study,1 is to be turned around then the metropolitan areas of our capital cities are going to need to reverse their spread and come back in on themselves through a process of repurposing if they are to have any prospect of producing liveable environments.
The study ’Transforming Australian Cities’ (May 2009) illustrates how Melbourne could repurpose its metropolitan area to accommodate an extra 4 million people while building on only 7.5% of the metropolitan land. Targeting land strategically around redevelopment sites, rail stations, tram and bus routes would save $440 billion in infrastructure costs over the next 50 years and would leave the existing suburbs in the main untouched. The suburbs, far from being overrun with medium density development could be left intact to become the new green wedges of the city, helping to catch and store rainfall, accommodate more trees and becoming the location for distributed energy systems in the form of rooftop photovoltaics. Far from a dream, this process is well under way and is merely the recognition of existing trends that are already being played out in our capital cities.
Just as ‘Postcode 3000’ recognised the start of a trend and facilitated its progress, so too do all levels of government need to recognise that Australian cities are already in the process of repurposing. If they are to become a financial, social and environmental success and meet the dual challenges of rapid growth and climate change, then we need to bring cities to the front of the national agemda. We need to take seriously the choreography of their success and not allow them to remain the victims of twentieth century thinking and solutions.
The institutions of government will need to act collectively rather than in the current silos of transport, land use, education and health. Universities will need to break down the outdated faculty structures and work from a platform of urban design before specialising in architecture, landscape architecture, planning, engineering and development. Our cities require a new paradigm, just as Cape Town University needed one back in the 1960s. We need an approach that will see our cities repurposed by getting more from less: a re-timetabling rather than the grand engineering projects of the twentieth century.
As challenging as this process of change may seem, if we can get it right and harness the rapid growth in our cities, our future is likely to be far better and more enjoyable than a business as usual scenario.
1. VAMPIRE – Vulnerability to mortgage and petrol prices