Three mega trends that will drive our renewed focus on cities

The appointment of a Federal Minister for Cities is timely and no doubt in the spirit of the change we are currently witnessing across our metropolitan centres. The shift to urbanisation in our cities is palpable. One of the most obvious examples is the closing of George Street, Sydney, to buses this month, with cars to follow in two weeks’ time, ahead of the construction of the light rail.

The recent extension of Adelaide’s light rail to Bowden and the announcement of its further metropolitan extension of the light rail (tram) system is another example of the urbanisation and the embracing of public transport by our communities.

And finally, the constant cry to the West Australian Government to get on with the MAX Light Rail Project and the recent Royal Automobile Club (RAC) published article - Expect delays: Why our maxed-out roads need rail - that strongly argues that Perth’s future and economic growth is being impacted and that it is expected to cost Perth more than $16 billion in congestion by 2031.

This is a visual (and audible) clue to the collective shift to mass transit in Australia’s cities. The response has been positive throughout the country. In truth, we had reached this tipping point a while back. The frustration for people spending lengthy time stuck in traffic in the downtown area has already led to a significant increase in pedestrian and cycling commuters. The population is ready for a new way of being with the city.

But urbanisation is not just about our CBDs. Previously-suburban areas are also transforming and changing to a more urban typology. We can see this as shopping centres become mixed-use precincts, and universities become part of the research and development industry. The latter is an example of what the research group Brookings Institution has coined Innovation Districts, a growing trend that sees clusters of urban activity, primarily based on common knowledge and networks, agglomerating and appropriating built forms and places that we commonly associate with urban centres – including, no less, a focus on good coffee. These clusters are occurring outside the traditional geography of the centralised city and, to use common parlance, are popping up from industrial parks to suburbia all the more contributing to our urban future.

Recently, Dr Stefan Hajkowicz, principal research scientist within CSIRO’s digital productivity division, was a guest in Hames Sharley’s Perth office and he defined seven megatrends that will shape the next two decades.

Hames Sharley’s assessment of the CSIRO’s work is that three of the seven CSIRO-identified trends will impact cities. Namely:

The Virtually Here trend, coupled with the Innovation Districts, will transform the city built form. Not since the pulling down of the fortified city walls has such a transformational change been introduced to city planning.

  • Virtually Here – the reshaping of retail and office precincts, city design and function, and labour markets as a result of increasingly powerful digital technology;
  • Great Expectations – changing consumer expectations regarding the provision and quality of services, experiences and social interaction; and
  • An Imperative to Innovate – accelerating technological advancement that’s creating new markets and extinguishing existing ones.

The Great Expectations trend will see societies demand quality service and increased social networks and experiences.

This will translate into quality urban design in the CBDs as well as in the emerging activity centres located in the metropolitan suburbs.

As professionals and developers, we will have to deliver more quality urban places and environments.

The Imperative to Innovate trend will produce more disruptive industries on a faster time scale so we will need to focus on the delivery of “timeless” places and built form.

Our design teams need to keep abreast of these evolving megatrends in order to become a strategic partner to our clients. And as Dr Hajkowicz states, “forewarned is forearmed” – get busy before that future arrives.

The new Ministry for Cities and the Built Environment has been a timely arrival. Cities are our “engine rooms” for success and the new Minister will have immediate challenges. Many in the professions and development industry will welcome this Federal Government initiative.

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