Unless we love our cities, we will not care enough to make them the sustainable places that urban planning professionals know they must be, says Larry Beasley, formerly an urban planner with the Canadian city of Vancouver, who is credited with dramatically reshaping Vancouver’s inner city, revitalisation its neighbourhoods, and preserving its heritage.
A keynote speaker at the recent Green Cities conference in Melbourne, Beasley challenged planners to “reinvent” our suburbs.
“In the suburbs built since the war, the sustainability lens doesn’t help very much,” Beasley told the conference participants. “These suburbs sprawl, they hit the environment hard, they are very short on services and these services are very expensive to deliver. They don’t support public transit without a vast subsidy and they are quite often socially exclusive, many would even say one-dimensional.”
But people like them, Beasley says. They choose to live in them, despite the downsides, because they want the benefits.
“They want the privacy, independence and self-sufficiency they feel, the spaciousness and human scale, the absence of towers,” he says. “They want the safety, especially for their children, and that image of neighbourhood rootedness.
“And who could blame them.”
Vancouver, under Beasley’s influence, has worked hard to increase the density of its inner city by “lavishly landscaping” the public spaces, and imposing design rules that promote social diversity, especially attracting families back to the urban heart. Its preferred built form is high-rise – unlike many cities that are moving from low-rise towards medium-rise.
Density is not for everyone
But Beasley admits planners have come up with few solutions to improve existing suburbs so that they are more sustainable, or to build new suburbs improve sustainability.
“We have to reinvent suburbia both in the consumer image, but also in the image of responsible urbanism. This is the biggest issue in the developed world for the next generation. And we have few solutions in our repertoire right now.”
Beasley proposes looking at pre-war neighbourhoods for inspiration, those built between 1900 and 1930.
“One template, in particular, has potential in retrofitting suburbs and in building new suburbs. It is a place that is filled with solutions that planners, for one, have been overlooking for a long time.”
“I am talking about the pre-war streetcar neighbourhoods that were built between 1900 and 1930, which exist in every single Western city.”
“These suburbs have a lot going for them,” he says. They are charming and beautiful and also come together as a cohesive whole. When polled, most people aspire to live in this kind of neighbourhood – single houses on single blocks, a commercial high street at the end of a public transport route, and offices and apartments above the shops. Back utility lanes keep the commercial streets uncluttered.
“There is always a local park and often some other attractive, smaller green spaces and the streets are lined with lovely big trees,” Beasley says. “There are a lot of private gardens and lots of private gardeners – people who are growing food near their home. There is almost always a local community centre and school, and other community services.”
“The surprising feature of these suburbs is that they have often increased in density over the years to reach the ideal walkability metric of 100 [dwellings] per hectare,” Beasley says.
Additional housing has been tucked away, sometimes in laneways, or in-house conversions, or from infill development. The streets are very narrow, with parking on one or two sides.
“The neighbourhood doesn’t shun the car, but doesn’t let the standards of the car dominate every other consideration,” he says. “Without anyone really trying very much, the density and social diversity have increased, while the predominately one and two storey scale has been maintained,” he says.
Of course, the housing in such neighbourhoods fails many modern tests, such as Green Star ratings and accessibility, and some suffer traffic and parking problems. Often, the house prices are higher than average.
Let’s not get nostalgic
“I am talking more about inspiration, not a ready-to-wear model,” Beasley says.
The features of these neighbourhoods that can be used for retrofitting and future suburban models, Beasley says, are as follows:
Seven transferable design qualities
1. The prevailing human scale that people just naturally like.
2. Gentle and incremental densification.
3. An organic diversity that is set to the preference of the neighbourhood, not to a theoretical model.
4. Plenty of pleasant and useful places.
5. A natural balance of transit: walkable, with good permeability and connectivity; and workable for public transport, cycling and for the car.
6. Minimum standards for lot and house sizes are reduced so space is not wasted, and patterns are tight enough that public services can be delivered cost-effectively.
7. Lastly, they are lush with landscaping and diverse architecture. This gives them the charm and character that really appeal to consumers.
The Perth suburb of Subiaco is a world-class model of “brilliant neighbourhood design” that brings together all these principles and qualities. “In my opinion, the Subiaco model could redefine suburbs, not only in Australia but in many parts of the world because it offers than gentle urbanism that people want while supplying that responsible urbanism that people need,” Beasley says.
Beasley outlined three crucial moves by cities to foster a fondness for urban design in our communities, promising that these would not undermine developers’ profits; instead, in most cases, such changes would improve opportunities for developers:
The path to suburban reinvention
1. Reform zoning to encourage and require design excellent, and deny approval to design that is mundane, insensitive or imported.
Zoning reform has to allow discretionary flexibility to encourage progressive, creative design ideas, and build a natural platform for collaboration among city builders, based on their own interests by making those interests parallel.
2. Manage great design by bringing those with the necessary expertise, experience, taste and design prowess in-house: the civic architects who can speak to the private architects. Go further, and appoint an advisory urban design panel so that the communities “natural and indigenous design experts” can be brought to all the questions of design in the city on a day to day basis. Peer review is the cheapest and most cost-effective way to build up a city’s design standards and demand for design from the community.
3. Root out the bankrupt formulas that are shaping our modern cities, especially in the suburbs, that are very damaging roadblocks to a more progressive urban design. In particular, outdated street and road standards, obsolete subdivision standards, insensitive corporate architectural formulas, and all kinds of single interest rules. These rules most manifest in our suburbs, which were created after the rules were invented. Instead, meld current interests with interests for liveability and sociability and sustainability.
Beasley stresses he is not talking about deregulation. “For real excellence, there has to be planning and regulation, but it has to support collaboration.”
Not deregulation – but the experiential test
Nor is his approach about a “top-down agenda”, but about strong consultation with the community both as citizens, but also as consumers.
“It is those consumer drives that will do a lot more in shaping our cities than all of the civil laws and policies put together,” Beasley says.
If city planners follow these three guiding changes, they will set up the conditions for collaboration because the urban planning will meet more than environmental and economic tests – it will meet the experiential test: the test of love, of the soul, of the “wow factor”.
“Because you cannot deliver the kind of places that consumers want or retrofit our existing places unless we all work together.”