As the population density of Australia’s major cities continues to rise unabated, urban landscapes are set to undergo dramatic change and new measures will be needed to foster social engagement and proximity to nature amongst city dwellers.

According to Jon Shinkfield, director of architecture practice REALMstudios, one of the key changes that Australia’s major cities will soon witness is the increasing scarcity of the detached homes on quarter-acre blocks that have for decades embodied middle-class lifestyle and property aspirations.

“Australians have this romantic idea that they should be entitled to a quarter acre block and the house and the backyard where life will be just wonderful,” said Shinkfield, who will be a guest speaker at the 2016 DesignBuild Expo in Melbourne.

“But the reality is that people have very much reduced space around their dwellings now, or live in joined dwellings in the form of townhouses and apartments.”

The changing nature of urban housing translates to a tremendous reduction in access to the open, natural areas for recreation and social engagement that have for long typified life in Australian suburbs.

“Historically the backyard was the place for growing some vegetables, it was place for the kids to play, it was the place for safe exploration, and kids would connect with other kids in these places,” said Shinkfield. “Well we just don’t have that any more – there’s actually very little open space at all other than just the courtyard environment.”

In order to pick up the slack and provide Australian urbanites with the places to engage with nature and the community that were once furnished by their own backyards, Shinkfield advocates a dramatic re-configuration of space in urban areas.

“In the increased density model of cities, available open space and occupiable streetscapes will be central to our health and well-being,” he said. “ They could almost be described as the new backyard of in the minds of Australians, and very important to our city fabrics going forward as we become increasingly and more densely urbanized.”

The role of public parks could change to one of urban forests and communal green spaces, expanding the range of their roles and functions well beyond just serving as edifying nature patches.

“The open spaces that we have – the parks and such – need to be thought of in a multi-functional way, rather than in the limited way that we’ve thought about them historically,” said Shinkfield. “They need to become places of social engagement and multi-generational activity, which is what the backyard used to be.”

In order to make parks more appealing destinations for members of the public, it will be necessary to convert them in urban forests that act as convenient respites from the increasingly torrid weather brought about by global climate change.

“We’re seeing a shift in seasonal temperatures already – it’s March here in Melbourne and we’re still experiencing 39 or 40 degree days, with increased urban heat islands effects,” said Shinkfield.

“We need to actually be providing places with a different set of environmental considerations, but what they’re doing in many new communities is creating low grass open areas, with no water to maintain them and no concept of urban forest and shade to keep people comfortable. Where are our new public gardens in these new urban communities that we’re creating, given that we don’t have a gardens or backyards at home?”

Public parks will need more water to generate the right combination of design features and environmental effects that make for a cooler, more comfortable setting.

“Water is needed to create a canopy, because that can create cool, green grass areas, rather than the fried grass areas that are as dry as a bone and as hot as if you just put bitumen right across the park,” said Shinkfield.

“There is also whole bundle of research that is saying that moisture within the soil medium actually creates a cooling effect in the same way that the shade of a tree does. If you can put those two things together, water in the soil, and shade, you’ve got a significantly cooler environment – maybe five or six degrees cooler than otherwise.”

Improvements to water infrastructure – in particular drainage and stormwater systems – will play a critical role in the creation of the urban forests that will serve as communal backyards for new or revamped urban areas.

This is especially the case given that many of the upcoming urban areas in cities on the eastern seaboard are situated inland towards the west, where the climate tends to be hotter and more arid.

“There needs to be a different reuse of water that both comes out of the sky and is captured on all of the hard surfaces, whether it be roads or pavements,” said Shinkfield. “Rather than just sending it down to water drains and then out into the bays or rivers, we should use it on the way through so that it can create a better and greener outcome.

“There’s a whole raft of thinking around this at the moment – the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities at Monash University is doing an enormous amount of research into this.

“Because of the changing weather patterns, we’re getting more rain coming down faster but with less frequency. So we’re getting a significant amount of water delivered, but we need to work out how to hold it and use it, rather than just let it go and disappear.”