While urban cities the world over are becoming more liveable with a focus on public space, it seems Australian neighbourhoods are being left behind.

Earlier this month, for instance, Hamburg, Germany unveiled a Green Network Plan which aims to completely eliminate cars over the next 20 years, encouraging people to walk and cycle through the city.

In Australian capital cities, strategies are being implemented to ensure cities are designed for people rather than cars. However, many suburban neighbourhoods are lacking the design attention they need to become more walkable and dense, and to include collaborative areas.

Transformation of Terrace St, Toowong

Transformation of Terrace St, Toowong, showing the communal seating and improved greenery of the footway.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) predicts that by 2030, six out of every 10 people will live in a city, a number that will increase to seven out of 10 people by 2050. Despite this, cities will not be affordable or suitable for everyone, highlighting the need to focus more on how to improve public space in suburbs so neighbourhoods can experience urban opportunities in their front yards.

In a bid to challenge the built environment and encourage residents to rediscover spaces in their neighbourhoods, the 7 Senses Foundation launched a national day entitled 7 Senses Street Day.

The event was held late last year and called for residential precincts to be transformed into usable and inspiring spaces where people are prioritised.

The event reignited the discussion of implementing landscape design that is inclusive and caters for “all abilities and wellness.” It also demonstrated the opportunity to retrofit neighbourhoods and offer spaces that encourage social interaction and “cultivate activity and play,” all the while engaging the seven senses, the groundwork on which the 7 Senses Foundation was built.

“There are numerous designers and community advocates who have championed for our residential streets to become less of a traffic channel and more of a place where neighbours connect and children can ride their bikes,” explained Tobias Volbert, co-founder of the 7 Senses Foundation and landscape architect and lead designer at inclusive playground firm Playscape. “Despite these efforts, we continue to place cars over people in our residential precincts.”

Transformation of Alma Rd, Clayfield

Transformation of Alma Rd, Clayfield, showing the hubs slowing traffic and creating safer street with more space for community gathering.

Volbert and co-founder Linda Cupitt, a non-for-profit specialist and manager, defines the seven human senses that should direct street design as: sight, smell, touch, hearing, taste, vestibular (sense of balance) and proprioception (sense of body awareness in space).

In as little as six weeks, 7 Senses Street Day came to life with initiatives across the country taking place. In Brisbane, architectural firm Guymer Bailey and Playscape collaborated to transform their local streets. Footpaths were transformed into mini golf courses, herb-planting stations served those with green thumbs and finger painting on walls entertained the creative minds.

Smaller events such as Sydney’s Edible Kids Gardens also took place. For that project, a busy residential road was transformed into a gardenscape with planting. Street parking was reclaimed for pedestrian-friendly activities and there was a ‘pop-up’ tyre playground equipment and edible planting hubs.

In Darwin, a family placed herb seeds in an envelope and delivered them to their neighbours, while children on the Sunshine Coast decorated their footpaths with chalk creations.

Painting wall at Terrace St, Toowoong

Painting wall at Terrace St, Toowoong

Hobart took a theatrical approach to the day with circus acts animating a street to provide fire and bubbles for anyone lucky enough to walk past.

Beyond the social and aesthetic benefits of these initiatives, design has the ability to directly impact human safety and health. The 7 Senses Foundation outlined four significant community benefits sensory-driven design can provide:

1. It promotes liveability and activity by increasing safety and providing communal spaces within the street.

2. It responds and adapts to the local climate and environment by providing flexible design that can respond to the unique features of each street and environment.

3. It excels in meeting inclusion and accessibility objectives and policies for young and old, as well as the growing rates of non-physical and neuro disability.

4. It provides high value return, including improved housing valuations, for minimal additional outlay when compared to traditional design.

Smelling hub at Terrace St, Toowong, proving that sensory planting doesn’t need much space.

Smelling hub at Terrace St, Toowong, proving that sensory planting doesn’t need much space.

The foundation revealed that in a 2009 report, one in six Australians live with a disability that restricts and impairs their ability to participate in daily activities, education or employment. By 2030, this figure is expected to be at least one in four.

“Current built environment design requires ‘accessibility’, ensuring that the two to three per cent of the population using mobility aids have equal access,” Volbert said. “But little is done to enhance the sensory experience for those with disability, especially neurological disorders such as autism, cerebral palsy and a range of mental health illnesses.”

People with visual impairments who have to rely on their non-visual senses are consistently challenged by streetscape features, car traffic and navigation through streets and paths where surfaces may be uneven. It is important that inclusive design ensures these spaces are suitable for everyone, which includes separate bike lanes.

Alma Road residents

Alma Road residents were encouraged to come out to the street and meet.

Furthermore, landscape design in neighbourhoods has many physical benefits such as  encouraging physical activity, social interaction and – where greenery is involved – providing spaces that are healthy.

Results from a state of play report by Milo released in March 2012 revealed that 47 per cent of a child’s free time was spent wrapped up in digital technology such as television, games and social media.

Offering adequate spaces for outdoor play and interaction could also help combat the 65 per cent of young Australians predicted to be overweight or obese by the year 2020.

Ultimately, the 7 Senses Foundation is seemingly asking the question many neighbourhood residents are: why should cities have all the fun?

The opportunity to create productive and inspiring residential neighbourhoods for all walks of life is available for anyone looking to do so.