The federal government recently announced a $75 billion allocation for infrastructure funding over the next decade, with a $1 billion National Housing Infrastructure Facility.
The Green Building Council of Australia rightly pointed out that “we need to build smart from the start.” This includes a proper emphasis on urban design – an often overlooked aspect that is marginal in cost but central in the delivery of ongoing value.
Urban design comprises all aspects of cities, suburbs and towns and encompasses developments of all types and sizes, including streets, shopping malls, urban infill projects, suburban housing developments, schools, hospitals, and transport and infrastructure networks. It is as much concerned with the details such as design, lighting or street furniture, as it is with the large-scale aspects like planning, zoning and building construction. Urban design involves many disciplines, including development, planning, architecture, engineering, landscaping, law and finance. It has a significant effect on the liveability of our cities.
As much an art as a science, urban design has an impact on all the occupiers, users and passers-by of a space or building. It connects us to other people and places and has a profound effect on the things we do, the ways we move around and engage with our surroundings and other people. Urban design can affect how we feel.
Numerous studies have assessed and described the impact that urban design has on people and their behaviour and interaction. A report published by the UK’s Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment (CABE), The Value of Good Design, draws together international research demonstrating the economic and social value generated by investment in well-designed urban developments. Collectively, the plethora of studies demonstrate the value of design in healthcare, education, business, housing, civic pride, cultural activity and crime prevention.
The many examples show that well-designed surroundings have increased house values and business output, allowed office workers to be more productive and students to achieve better results, reduced crime rates and vandalism, helped hospital patients to recover more quickly and made public spaces more popular and vibrant.
In Canada, a research project compared the before-and-after effects of developing a community garden in a neglected, vacant area in a crime-ridden neighbourhood. Crime incidents in the surrounding buildings immediately dropped. In the UK, a hospital cardiology ward with improved lighting, larger windows with better external views and other design improvements resulted in patients having lower pulse rates and blood pressure readings and shorter post-operative stays. In France, a study of two school building projects found that well-designed educational environments were more conducive to learning, increased the number of students progressing to senior grades and reduced vandalism.
Creating Places for People, an urban design protocol for Australian cities is a national reference for best practice urban design, developed with contributions from key government agencies, business and community stakeholders. The purpose of the protocol is to encourage excellence in urban design and it is a resource for anybody with an interest in the built environment, whether a government or industry practitioner or a member of the general public or a community group.
The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) is the custodian of the protocol. ASBEC’s Investing in Cities policy platform highlights the need for a renewed commitment to delivering best practice urban environments by adopting Creating Places for People’s principles for quality urban places, which can be applied to any project or location in any city, regional centre or rural town.
Based on five key pillars: productivity, sustainability, liveability, leadership and design excellence, the principles encourage the types of design aspects that have underpinned the CABE report ‘success stories’.
Good urban design enhances the natural environment and celebrates a place’s unique characteristics such as its heritage, culture and community. It improves the built environment visually, physically and functionally, and is built with sustainability, resilience and endurance in mind. A well-designed place is connected to surrounding areas and is easy to get around on foot or on a bicycle. This in turn encourages physical activity, social interaction and a healthy lifestyle, and brings with it all the benefits these things provide.
Quality developments provide a range of facilities and activities. They help businesses to thrive and provide the services that we need and enjoy, creating vibrant areas where a diverse mix of people can meet, interact, play and explore.
Good urban design creates places that are pleasant to be in. It makes our neighbourhoods and our homes feel safe, welcoming and comfortable, providing a setting to reduce our stress levels and enhance our sense of well-being.
The federal government must ensure that investment in infrastructure and community built environment projects deliver more than just bricks and mortar – it should deliver places that connect people to each other and to the space around them.