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Updates and events from MRCagney.

Opinion Piece: Murray West

Thu, April 7, 2016  |  Company news 

What characterises the urban environments that optimise mental and physical well-being, and why are they largely outlawed in our cities and towns?

Following the recent completion of the Hobart Local Retail Precincts Plan, MRCagney has sought to continually contribute to a growing community discussion surrounding the ongoing development of Hobart. Land use and transport matters are keys to building a quality liveable future for the city.

In this recent opinion piece in The Mercury, MRCagney’s Murray West discusses what makes a good urban village and how overly restrictive planning policy is preventing Hobart from recreating the best urban environments – the places communities truly value.

"It takes a village to raise a child, says the African proverb popularised by Hillary Clinton. In the 20 years since her speech spruiking the value of community that then- president Bill pledged to foster, the USA and Australia alike have continued to not build villages. Instead, suburbs have continued to grow.

That ‘village’ is the development pattern used here as a proxy for ‘community’ is telling. The connotation is of a place with a connected social fabric and access to a rich offering of goods and services, essential and otherwise, all of which is made possible by the mutual support afforded to us when we live in a consolidated community.

The changing form of Australia’s cities is a contentious issue, however I’d posit that ‘village’ – a versatile word applied to country townships and Manhattan neighbourhoods alike, is one descriptor that can garner some common support from those seeking quiet amenity and others the immediate vibrancy of the city. 

In other words, it’d be a good default development type to promote in our cities. 

We have planning schemes that allow us to dictate the direction our cities’ take, and right now, planning policy nationwide overwhelmingly favours detached housing and homogenous, low density, car dependent suburbs. It’s working too. Australia’s suburbs are sprawling, because that is what compliant development looks like.

You might think this is a no harm outcome, but the opposite is true. We are forcing people to make car trips to access almost everything. This is the prime driver for traffic congestions, but has implications for personal and community health as well as the economic productivity of the City.

Hobart’s ‘general residential’ zone – the typical place of residence for the population of Hobart - enforces building setbacks on all sides, 50% maximum site coverage and an 8.5 metre height limit. Effectively that means no terraces, no apartments - only houses. There is precious little allowance for mixed use too, so no urban villages, no shop-top housing, and no corner stores. This is a bleak picture for the suburbs where most of us live. We are not making communities, just places to keep people overnight before they go to work again. 

Of course some village type areas still exist in Hobart, but they persist in spite of offset planning policy, not because planning policy welcomes this type of development. For every jaded admonishment of inner city developers brazenly busting high limits, the counterpoint is this: from 2001 to 2011, 54% of all new dwellings in our four largest capital cities were provided in the outer suburbs. This is urban sprawl built with immaculate adherence to guideline, policy and code. 

Ostensibly this reflects our fundamental affection for back yards, privacy, greenery, and freedom from body corporate. Yet confusingly, we are not allowing the re-creation of some of our most valued urban places. Almost all of Australia’s most sought after suburbs are characterised by built forms shunned by our statutory planning regulations. The narrow streets and zero setbacks in Battery Point, the terraces and laneways of Melbourne’s leafy inner suburbs, shop-top housing and main-street shopping – these are not allowed in the contemporary planning schemes for many of our suburbs. These are Bad Places according to regulation. 

Granted, it’s naïve to ignore the intangible pull of established places with heritage and unique architecture, however there are other more fundamental reasons that these places are desirable and successful - diverse land use, appropriate density, and popular communal public space. These elements tend to create active, walkable, people orientated places that are best experienced on foot, not in a car, and this is what fosters mental and physical well-being, and the quality of life that people pay for. The perceived traffic problems in the City of Hobart are not caused by lack of road space, but by an abundance of sprawl.

Studies consistently highlight improved physical and mental health outcomes that correlate with living in walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods, while separating home, work, shops and services contributes to detrimental effects on health and well-being. 

The mechanism for this is clear and well understood. Separating land uses reduces walkability and increases car travel. This increased time spent alone in cars has a strong negative impact on wellbeing for the driver, and living in neighbourhoods with a more car commuters increases noise exposure and the prevalence of depressive symptoms. 

Conversely, increased land use diversity promotes walking - itself a positive influence on physical and mental well-being - and increases casual social interaction, which again has a positive impact on well being. When combined with higher density, we can create an environment where the majority of people have access to the goods and services they want and need within their own neighbourhood - a distinct ‘village’ quality.

Some hold not-unreasonable reservations regarding poorly implemented high-density development, but even moderate density fundamentally works by providing the people to support the shops, services and public transport we rely on to create sustainable settlement. 

Data from around the world indicates a threshold density of 35 people and jobs per hectare significantly reduces car dependence. This is not high-density, this is perfectly sympathetic development characterised by a diverse mix of compact mid- and occasional low-rise that begins to allow local traders and communities to prosper, and it should be permitted, invited even, across our cities.

This is the type of higher density development that makes us healthier and happier, and yet if a prospective home-buyer wants to buy into or develop these benefits in Hobart, they’ll find only the tiniest cluster of mixed-use zoned areas clinging to surviving main streets in places like Battery Point and North Hobart.

If we’re interested in planning for optimised community wellbeing in our cities – and we should be – we need to stop forcing the development of single use, low density, car dependent neighbourhoods. We built great villages in the past – they’re some of todays most valued places – and it doesn’t make sense to regulate against repeating that success. It takes a village to raise a child, but poor urban planning can raze a village."