The new Australian Dream

January 29, 2016

It can be argued that Australian metropolitan regions, like many cities around the world, exhibit a crisis of identity. At the current pace of development, inner cities will, within the next 50 years, have a surplus of mediocre multi-residential projects.

Article by Ian Nazareth. Above image: Polycentric cities, such as Canberra, have multiple centres that decentralise services with the aim to reduce congestion.

The ‘city’ is continually evolving in scale and structure, with a rapidly developing body of research from across a range of disciplines attempting to engage with these changeable scenarios, through design. Some projects of the built environment, in particular educational facilities, healthcare, cultural and public buildings, have greatly infl uenced our perception of contemporary cities and good urban design. Both public and private institutions invest in and benefit from the value of design, which is clearly shown in the high standards of workplaces and the civic realm in Australian cities.

Residential projects, irrespective of typology, are critical to the relationship of architecture and the city. As a result of the sheer volume of residential projects in our cities, houses occupy a pivotal position in urban architecture. Our cities are made up of so many examples of good planning and clever residential design, with the ability to solve problems, provoke thought and inspire, but unfortunately the majority of single family homes and multi-residential apartments are poorly designed and inefficient. Through examining the typology of the residence, we can better explore and understand the contemporary city.

Location, density and quality are the primary concerns surrounding the future of housing in Australia. We can assume that these criteria relate to metropolitan growth areas, the existing and proposed infrastructural networks and amenity.

The ‘city’ features prominently in all formats of public and political debate, however, neither attempt to discuss how these choices impact everyday life nor do they draw attention to the consequences of substandard design.

It can be argued that Australian metropolitan regions, like many cities around the world, exhibit a crisis of identity. They present the motives of a megacity, with the temperament of a regional town. This polarity presents many challenges to increasing urban density. Successive urban planning policies have looked to promote the model of a ‘polycentric city’, decongesting the central business district. However, these ideas have lacked clarity and, despite the rhetoric, there is still a deliberate attempt to develop new areas rather than concentrate development in well-serviced and established neighbourhoods. Melbourne is a prime example of this condition, with a sustained increase of its metropolitan area through the inclusion of land along its fringes.

Dating back to the early housing boom, Australian cities have favoured land ownership and single family detached houses. Without ever questioning the long-term viability or impact on the city, this development model has produced uncharacteristically low-density cities that continue to swell.

Subsequently, the discourse of urban housing in Australia is underdeveloped. The current federal government report, ‘State of Australian Cities’, confirms a disparity along economic grounds, as well as a direct relationship between density and income. While a range of issues contribute to this condition, we cannot ignore the urban and architectural implications. These relate to the typology of new developments and burden on infrastructure, having dramatic consequences in sprawling outer-urban areas. At this stage, it is deemed possible to accommodate the long-term growth of most metropolitan cities within existing urban areas, through medium-density projects.

Unfortunately, market forces dominate the discussion within Australian cities and influence most decisions. Real estate speculation, financial incentives, fluctuating interest rates, international investment etc. have triggered extraordinary dislocations in cities. The central business districts, inner-city and outer-urban areas have all been impacted by the churn of properties, with the contemporary city now expressed primarily by the precarious nature of real estate. Predictably, the quality of building stock within this model is optimised for a return on investment, which does not rate the needs of its users and residents highly.

Design disciplines the likes of architecture, have had only a limited opportunity to make an impact. Nonetheless, architects continue to express a deep concern for the future of the city. Much of this is pitched against the generic model of residential form. Architecture does not operate in a vacuum – it requires patronage to design and imagine more sustainable and efficient homes and hence cities. The design profession brings into consideration a wide range of issues and concerns, with a desire to make the ambition of the city more accessible. Well-informed clients and better planning decisions are key to realising the potentials of design and quality urban developments.

The state governments of Victoria and New South Wales are currently promoting the design of high-quality apartments through a range of initiatives, with many recent top-quality, high-density residential examples. These initiatives ask for a response to the urban context, building envelope, amenity, services, as well as environmental and social sustainability. Ultimately, how these policies are rolled out will determine their impact on the fabric of the city, however, they also run the risk of limiting innovation in design. Currently, the approval for building projects is fragmented into local councils and, with the absence of an inclusive strategic plan, our cities run the risk of being fractured and understood only by isolated urban and civic interventions.

Architecture cannot be overlooked, it offers a level of thought and consideration that is not possible in the volume home building industry or self-initiated design-build projects. Between the initial sketch and building, is the entire design process, where every detail is designed and redesigned to meet the expectations of its users, as well as present a creative integrity shared by clients and architects. Architecture’s repertoire is not just applied aesthetics, but also sensitivity for its context and empathy for its users. It takes on both material, environmental and contextual considerations and is committed to generating unique solutions, for the spaces in which we live.

Examining the barriers between residential and civic programs also enables more inclusive conversation with public and private urban projects. Cities need projects that move beyond mere visual links, acknowledging the role of residential projects in the city.

High-density residential projects should contribute to the cultural realm of the city – as a program and form these projects are inherently dynamic. Through shifting the narrative from housing as an ‘amenity’ in the city to an ‘armature’, it allows residential projects to be more influential.

At the current pace of development, inner cities will, within the next 50 years, have a surplus of mediocre multi-residential projects. It is essential to consider architecture’s role in the future of cities holistically, given a significant proportion is residential development of some description. Australian cities are uniquely placed to explore the potentials in medium and high-density residential projects.

While there are undoubtedly numerous exemplary residential projects, it is vital to qualify their contribution within the collective form of the city. This necessitates a strategic approach to urban housing, an active engagement in building processes and an interest in design principles that shape the city. Could this be the new Australian dream?

This article presents ongoing research into new structures and strategies for urban intensification, also discussed in ‘Catalytic Urban Housing’ written by Ian Nazareth for Architectural Review Asia Pacific 142.

  • Annie Cass January 29th, 2016 5:39 pm

    Yes, Ian, but how is this new Australian dream to be realized? My own view is that we need to radically update our city planning laws. This won’t happen on its own, because the status quo suits developers, and developers have an outsized say in how our urban environments are shaped.

    I think some simple measures are worth concentrating on and fighting for. Australians aren’t sold on urban density, associating any model except the suburban quarter-acre plot with cramped, soulless coffin boxes, but what would happen if planning authorities responded to traffic congestion and high oil prices by mandating that no family dwelling on less than an acre of land be built more than 500 metres from schools, shops, parks, public transport, a clinic and a library? Yes, that puts a lot of people within a square kilometre. No, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

    What if it was a legal requirement for houses, whether free-standing or in complexes, to be built with enough insulation to keep out street noise and maintain, without additional heating or cooling, a temperature range within ten degrees throughout the year? With orientation and glazing best suited to keep the house cool in summer and warm in winter? Designed to suit the climate, in other words. Houses designed for cheap energy are no longer appropriate, so why is it legal to build them?

    This is never going to happen while developers are allowed to build down to a price and pocket the profits, so we need to stop preaching to the converted and tell the house-buying public, again and again, and in detail, exactly what they’re missing out on, and how they could have it. Architects need to tell the average struggling mortgage payer that their services are not a luxury, and governments at all level need to legislate to ban the construction of any house that has not been properly designed, and of neighbourhoods that waste resources and isolate their inhabitants.

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