Opinion

Green Karma and the Brown Dogma

August 27, 2010

Tone Wheeler presents a sustainable vision of the future: a model of greater suburban density where the car is still king.

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Green architecture, in both regulatory tools and incentives such as Green Star, has increasingly focused on interiors: chilled beams, natural ventilation, non-outgassing materials and so on are the staples of sustainability. But what will green urban design look like, and our streets of the future?

The car is arguably the dominant invention of the 20th century: it liberated the working and middle classes, extending their reach multifold, changing both peoples’ lives and the shape of the city. Not just a radical change in personal travel, it became the number one design fetish, it was the star in movies (think Bullit), on TV (think Torque – so much better than Top Gear!), and it provided an alternative venue for sex. We fell in love with it despite the costs and the road carnage.

But for many the car spelled the end of urbanity in the 20th century; streets became roads, urban cores died, supplanted by shopping malls accessed by freeways and surrounded by carparks, and it gave rise to what is increasingly seen as the epitome of unsustainability: the suburb. Streets were rescaled for 60 kilometres per hour rather than walking and cycling pace; water, power and communication services had to be stretched over far greater distances to accommodate the low density; and individual houses were much more energy hungry than the terraces and apartments of the previous century.

McMansions and suburbia

The defining icon of the suburb is the huge house, which needs a complete makeover to be sustainable, but a green ‘McMansion’ is often seen as an oxymoron. The argument is that no matter how sophisticated the external fabric becomes, and how much solar technology is bolted on to the roof, the form of the freestanding house cannot deliver sustainability: the resulting low density wastes too much energy and water, and the outgassing from the cars required to get to and from it negates any gains made in individual houses.

Current responses to the dilemma go in two directions: redesign the suburb or retool the car. While architects see the former as the best way forward to sustainability, recent developments in transport design might offer a surprising alternative.

The ideal residential density

Finding out what residential density is most sustainable occupies the minds of many architects at present. At one end is suburbia with all the issues outlined above. At the other are high-rise towers, dense certainly, but often poorly performing in energy and water terms as they require foyer lights to be on 24/7, mechanical ventilation in the carpark and are usually fully air-conditioned to avoid the wind and acoustic issues associated with passive design. And there is little roof for water collection and use. Where on the bell curve is the best mix of housing density, transport distance and urban form? About 40 to 50 dwellings per hectare is an oft quoted figure – about five times the density of suburbia but five times less dense than high-rise development.

At this density the forms include terraces, townhouses with maisonettes, shop top housing and low rise apartments. One idea is “upside down, inside out, back to front” townhouses that were canvassed here. Often the forms go hand-in-hand with public transport systems: the so-called TOD, or transport oriented design.

Transport oriented design

In Sydney this is linked to the evolution of the ‘cities within cities’ approach championed by Sue Holliday, and developed by Chris Johnson in the regional plan to strengthen Parramatta, Penrith, Chatswood, Liverpool et al as urban growth centres. These will be cities in their own right, with medium and high-rise apartments within walking or cycling distance of the centre.

A different form is proposed in Melbourne, where Rob Adams has suggested that far greater density can be achieved along the high streets of that radially formed city. He mounts a persuasive argument that streets, as well as the buildings, are the key to future urban design and suggests that only six percent of the city fabric will need to be changed to three to five storey townhouses and apartments over shops and offices along tram and train lines, leaving the vast array of suburbs untouched. Density can be increased to maximise the efficient use of services, without the need for wholesale changes to the house form that Australians are so fond of.

In Perth, Peter Newman has developed the radial TOD even further with a freeway and integrated train line from the city centre to Mandurah offering the chance for hubs at every train station, although only the commuter carparks are there at present. This greenfield-planned approach is far easier to implement than a reworking of the existing fabric such as Adams proposes. An example of this resistance to the imposition of linear TOD can be seen on the north shore of Sydney, where Ku-Ring-Gai Council is at odds with the state government’s mandating urban consolidation along the existing highway and railway line (which already has several major centres at Hornsby, Gordon and Chatswood).

Proponents argue that these forms offer greater choice than the current ‘duo-culture’ of either single-family house or high-rise apartment. And with the change in form comes a change in street, reviving the ideas of a more cosmopolitan city that was championed in two seminal mid-century books: Edward Cullen’s The Concise Townscape and Bernard Rudofsky’s Streets for People (the latter most tellingly subtitled ‘A Primer for Americans’).

We can see that even in the most optimistic re-envisioning of the density of Australian cities much of suburbia will remain. So how will we achieve transport sustainability in those areas? Most answers begin and end with the need for public transport, even though it is rarely implemented, with a lack of government will to spend public money on these uneconomical ventures. Given increasing privatisation it may be better described as ‘shared’ transport, as distinct from individual transport. And this offers a key to how technology and organisation may make the need for ‘public’ transport irrelevant.

Green transport

Foremost will be the rise of alternative vehicles, principally electric cars. More than 50 models are currently in development and production around the world, although only one small company operates in Australia. Smaller, lighter, far more efficient but with all the luxuries of AC, media and airbag safety, they often require only half the parking area, shrinking the need for public parking or the mega home garage. Even smaller are the electric bikes; from battery assisted pedal power through to bikes the size of a Harley Davidson, but silent. Others such as Dean Kamen’s Segway offer a variety of transport options that don’t rely on a sealed two tonne unit carrying less than a tenth of its weight. But crucially, all these vehicles offer the freedom of the car without the need for carbon based fuels, particularly our dwindling, and increasingly expensive, peaked-out oil supplies.

The other challenge to public transport is a rethinking of private transport, epitomised by the rise in car sharing. Rather than owning a car, you hire one, either from a conventional hire company, or increasingly from enterprises that have cars stationed throughout the suburbs. You book online, swipe a card to start, and drive for an hour or a day and then repark it for the next customer.

The brown ‘dogma’ and the green ‘karma’

The brown ‘dogma’ has always been that suburbs will be unsustainable after the oil runs out, but that idea looks like it will be run over by the coming green ‘karma’; and it may well turn out to be easier to redesign the car and its usage patterns than to rebuild the suburb. Suburban streets will also benefit from slower, quieter vehicles that let the bikes and people back on to pedestrian-friendly streets. The Dutch call these streets ‘woonerfs” and they feature traffic calming elements, smaller cars, and more discreet car parking that promotes many of the values that were thought to be lost in the original suburban planning.

Tone Wheeler is a judge in the 2010 Boral Design Award. Entries close on 30 September – for more details, visit www.designaward.boral.com.au

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