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How a pandemic will shape communities

With the COVID-19 crisis changing the way we live our lives every day, it’s sometimes difficult to see further than 24 hours ahead. But in light of the deep societal challenges it poses, leading urban planner Mike Day says the pandemic could see the way we develop our communities change entirely to embrace more compact, connected, mixed-use, liveable neighbourhoods.

COVID-19 is challenging many conventions within urban development across the globe.

While the pandemic is seeing Australians adopt unprecedented social distancing measures, potential lockdowns require residents to live, work, learn, and shop for daily needs and undertake passive recreational activities within their own neighbourhoods.

The crisis will spur governments, urban planners and developers to think more seriously about creating more healthy, resilient, self-sufficient, attainable and liveable communities in 2021 and beyond.

Globally, since the beginning of 2020, we have witnessed a significant reduction in carbon emission levels in China and the United States due to limited numbers of people commuting to work in cars.

Moreover, employees of an array of businesses are rapidly becoming proficient in video conferencing from home.

This has effectively reduced congestion and removed the need for the debilitating daily commute. Residents now have time in the morning and the evening to walk, run and cycle in and around their neighbourhoods.

Two instructive, institutional recreational amenities – Melbourne’s ‘Tan Track’, the 3.8km uninterrupted recreational trail around the Royal Botanical Gardens, and the walking and cycling Capital City Trail along the Yarra River, both of which prohibit access by cars and bikes – have become a mecca for walking and jogging since the pandemic.

Most of the master-planned communities in Australia that have recently been approved or under construction follow the conventional suburban model of the 1970-1990s in which residential areas are beyond walking distance of shops, jobs and open space areas.

But I believe Australia needs to undergo a complete rethink of community design – one that is aligned with timeless urbanist principles to enable our planners and urban developers to shape and deliver transit-based, mixed-use, walkable urban neighbourhoods.

The issue we see in many Australian cities, especially in the outer suburbs, is the frequent emergence of monocultural suburban housing developments that are not connected or walkable.

Many of these areas have limited public transit connections to remote business centres, which compels residents to use a car to get around; and residents have sparse green spaces to share across expansive suburbs.

RobertsDay’s celebrated new town, Ellenbrook, on Perth’s north-eastern fringe is one of the best examples of a self-sufficient and livable community.

Ellenbrook is Australia’s most awarded new town, with more than 30 state and national awards, including the 2015 FIABCI World Prix d’Excellence Award from the International Real Estate Federation for the World’s Best Masterplanned Community. 

It is a master-planned community that will ultimately deliver 11,500 dwellings, around 8,000 jobs, and be home to more than 30,000 people when the last phase – Ellenbrook Town Centre – is complete by around 2025.

One of the largest and fastest growing new town developments in Australia, Ellenbrook has spearheaded reforms on many fronts.

Its structuring and design of mixed-use and connected neighbourhoods is designed to support local identity, walking/cycling and a genuine sense of place and community.

Its town centre successfully assimilates an open-air, main street mixed-use strip with an enclosed shopping centre environment.

Each neighbourhood has its own discernable civic centre and community hub, a well-defined edge, and contains spaces and services that provide residents’ daily needs within talking distance, providing independence of movement while helping residents stay connected.

Australia needs to focus on the importance of creating new neighbourhoods in our urban growth areas where essential services – schools, shops, and workplaces – are provided early in the life of these ventures, easily reached from home on foot or by bike, and where the aim is not only to provide housing affordability but also attainable and over liveability.

Nearly all Australian suburban neighbourhoods prioritise vehicles over pedestrians.

As the cost of owning and running cars in the growth areas of our capital cities is beginning to exceed the cost of housing, ‘liveability’ – rather than ‘affordability’ – has become the new catch cry.

In self-sufficient cherished inner-city neighbourhoods of our capital cities, where there are often mixed-use developments, such as townhouses and residential apartments, serviced by trams or trains and built above shops, residents can leave their homes to get their groceries on a daily basis – without relying on the car.

Coupled with this increased level of walkability is the need to provide a diverse range of civic spaces and parks, which give these communities a unique sense of, intimacy, identity and soul.

In light of the deep societal challenges posed by the coronavirus, I predict more mixed-use developments will emerge to create self-contained communities built around pedestrians, cyclists, and ‘light’ modes of public transport, such as e-bikes, trackless trams, and small scale electric buses.

Australians in their teens and 20s, in particular, will drive the demand for more compact, connected, mixed-use, liveable neighbourhoods that have these characteristics.

Here are the qualities that make up seven liveable ‘urbanised’ neighbourhoods in Australia’s metropolitan growth areas:

  1. The Village in Wellard, Perth
    A sustainable master-planned development situated only 30 minutes from Perth’s CBD, The Village has a diverse range of housing types to cater for the growing and varied demographic population mix in Perth, which is moving towards 3.5 million by 2050. With almost 30 hectares of natural bushland and wetlands, it provides a variety of landscaped parks, walking trails and nature retreats that encourage residents to walk and ride bikes as an alternative to driving. Wellard Station Train is central to the urban neighbourhood, and includes a K-12 Anglican community school and early learning centre. The Heart Foundation has produced an exceptional video of the preventative health benefits of living in The Village at Wellard and published their findings on the benefits of living in the Village. Liveable outer-suburban neighbourhoods must be connected with sustainable forms of transport – and The Village ticks this box.
  2. Lightsview in Adelaide
    A multi-award-winning master-planned property development by RenewalSA and Peet, Lightsview, which is forecast to be completed next year, is designed on the philosophy that where you live should be inspirational. It brings together a variety of housing options, from townhouses to apartments to studios, which are designed to maximise light and space. Residents also benefit from increased walkability, with extensive parks and reserves within 300m of every dwelling, tennis facilities, and bus routes to encourage residents to use public transport. Additionally, residents have childcare facilities and cafes and restaurants located within the neighbourhood, while shopping centres and schools are within walking and cycling distance.  
  3. Fitzgibbon Chase in Brisbane
    Designed by the Urban Land Development Authority/ Economic Development Queensland in consultation with Brisbane City Council, Fitzgibbon Chase is a vibrant, walkable, inclusive community that is set among natural bushland and centred around a multipurpose park. Its 1300 residents have everything they need from local schools, train station and bus routes just minutes away, shopping centres, health and fitness venues, cafes and local clubs – all with the goal of encouraging them to participate in their neighbourhood.
  4. Rouse Hill Town Centre in Sydney
    Rouse Hill Town Centre is located along Windsor Road in the Baulkham Hills Local Government Area, and developed by the GPT Group. The urban hub combines the traditional values and streetscape of a contemporary town centre with the latest, residential, business, shopping, dining and lifestyle choices, and has set a new standard for transit-based, sustainable, mixed-use developments. By integrating shops and cafes on the ground level of apartment buildings, residents are within walking distance of these services, and they have developed a sense of community from being closer together. Residents within the Rouse Hill Town Centre are also conveniently located between two metro stations – Tallawong and Rouse Hill – and a public school, both within 2km from the development. This is crucial to liveability.
  5. Laurimar in Doreen, Greater Melbourne
    I am firmly of the view that the most liveable neighbourhoods recognise walking as the privileged or preferred mode of transport. This is the concept behind Laurimar – a new Lendlease community in Doreen, 30km north of Melbourne’s CBD. Laurimar was designed with the intention that residents live within walking distance to the town centre – this includes a supermarket, medical precinct, bank, gym and day spa, post office, restaurants, cafes and wine bar, and other specialty stores. Laurimar Primary School and Laurimar Child Care and Early Learning Centre are also centrally located within the neighbourhood, enabling families to walk with their children to school, community facilities and shops. As a result, Laurimar evokes the friendliness and charm of Melbourne’s traditional ‘high streets’, while maintaining a community country feel. It also has 20km of walking, hike and bike trails.
  6. Harvest Edge, Atwell in Perth
    Harvest Edge is an award-winning urban neighbourhood set within Landcorp’s Harvest Lakes project – WA’s first large-scale Greensmart community. Bringing the benefits of city living to the suburbs, the defining challenge of this project was to bring the amenity of inner-city living to the southern suburbs of Perth. Rarely achieved in practice, a diverse range of townhouses, maisonettes and apartments were integrated into the existing suburban development. A short walk to both the Harvest Lakes town centre and the Success train station, Harvest Edge demonstrates how well-executed transit-oriented developments can be a community and commercial success in a greenfield setting. A core part of the project’s success was a unique alliance the State’s urban developer. It was built with a leading Perth townhouse and cottage home builder, and it focuses on the quality and diversity of parks and public spaces.
  7. Cockburn Central West in Perth
    The configuration of this mixed-use site containing 1100 dwellings, by Development WA, has been significantly influenced by the landscape. By embracing walkable urbanism and sustainable transport modes, the urban hub has been designed to foster liveability as residents will feel at home in a mixed-use urban setting encircled by the natural landscape. Residents have access to a public oval, parks and wetlands, with Cockburn Central West also home to the Fremantle Dockers Football Club. Shops, restaurants, cafes and businesses have been designed around the sporting hub. Designing buildings that frame and enhance quality public spaces, striving for design excellence and sustainable development – which Development WA is doing – is also an integral part of this new urban community.
  • Mike Day is Co-founder and Director of award-winning Australian urban planning and design practice RobertsDay and a Fellow of the Planning Institute of Australia.

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