I recently had the opportunity of presenting as a keynote speaker at the Planning Institute of Australia’s WA Conference. The topic for the conference was “Big State, Big Idea”. This gave me the opportunity to consider a number of the planning challenges we had been experiencing as we delivered significant community projects in Australia’s three fastest-growing states: Western Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and Queensland.

The sameness of Australian urban developments

Quadrupling growth rates

To define the pace of development, the Ripley project in Queensland is proposed to be a new community of 120,000 people within 25 years.

Its parent centre, Ipswich, is a city of 100,000 grown over 100 years.

Delivering Ripley at four times the speed of historical growth is a phenomenal challenge.

Of paramount interest to this design process is to understand why, despite different contexts and climatic conditions, our urban growth areas have a tendency to all look and feel the same.

I encapsulated my findings in the catchphrase: The Australian Sameness.

Measuring our progress

The Australian Sameness is intentionally a play on Robyn Boyd’s seminal text, The Australian Ugliness, first published in Australia 54 years ago. In his book, Boyd observed that while Australians had terrific technical competence in design, as a nation we managed to produce a design aesthetic and a suburbia, which was, well, ugly. However, he believed all was not lost. Boyd’s book was a call to arms to provide a design education that would resolve the ugliness he observed.

How is that design education coming along?

It is uncanny that some of the photography is Boyd’s original book, for example, the image of suburbia called “Arboraphobiaville,” bears a strong similarity to the suburbia documented in our current media.

Aesthetics is a tough argument. My observation would be that rather than producing ugly cities, in 2014, we are producing the same cities. We are creating an Australia of placelessness and with a lack of identity. This is a lost opportunity for a country world famous for being like no other.

So, why is this happening?

I believe ‘bigness’ is fundamental. We are experiencing and we anticipate significant population growth. Our instinct is that growth needs to be managed, and quickly! We need high-quality technical tools and solutions to achieve consistent and functional results under growth conditions.

In other words, we believe we need control. It is this response to the scale of the task, which has led us, I believe, to where we currently find ourselves: operating in a paradigm of sameness and using a “Recipe-for-Anywhere Australia”.

Top-down decisions: The same old recipe

The Recipe-for-Anywhere Australia involves a top-down approach to decision making.

The first step in the process – the current planning process– itself, promotes sameness through policy. With all the right intentions, policies are created for best-practice sustainability and built-form outcomes.

The problem is the policies, regardless of location, are more or less the same. This means we can create and deliver large and complex communities, town centres and activity centres with consistency in our fastest-growing regions. The result is an Australia that looks and feels same-same.

Add to this a reliance on textbook urbanism – where town squares, 400-metre “ped-sheds” and mixed-use buildings are mandated, as well as a focus on (kerb) detail rather than strategy – and we will create the same place over and over again.

The final step in the creation of Anywhere Australia is what I refer to as “Postcard Urbanism”. Upon realising that the policies, textbook answers and detail have created a place that looks and feels like every other development, designers (or the marketing department) reach for holiday snaps to decide what “theme” this place is going to have. This is not authentic.

Conclusion: Flip it

The opportunity lies with turning the process upside-down, to determine first what makes the place tick and why people want to be there, and then undertake good planning.

In a world of fast growth, the notion of difference should be embraced if we are to create communities that are true to their location and to the people who choose to belong to them.

Michelle Cramer, Urban Development Portfolio Leader

Michelle Cramer, Urban Development Portfolio Leader

Michelle Cramer is a director of Hames Sharley and leader of the Urban Development portfolio. A Harvard graduate, urban designer and architect, Michelle brings a national and global understanding of urban development and its application to the site in focus.

Michelle has worked on large-scale architectural, urban design and infrastructure projects across Australia, including the site of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, as well as strategic and conceptual master planning for urban developments, including complex mixed-use town centres, neighbourhoods and communities in the Middle East, Asia and the UK.

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