With the re-anointing of Malcolm Turnbull as Australia’s political head following a razor-thin victory against Bill Shorten, the thoughts of developers and planners will inevitably turn to the implications of the election for urban growth.
Just several months prior to the federal election Turnbull unveiled an ambitious plan to transform Australia’s urban centres into “30 minute cities,” where all key services and facilities would lie within a half hour commute of domiciles.
At the launch of the plan Turnbull said that this would “ensure that your cities are designed so that wherever people live, they can reach within a reasonable time, 30 minutes, somewhere where they can work, somewhere to study, somewhere to recreate.”
According to Susan Thompson, Professor of Planning at UNSW and Head of the City Wellbeing Program, City Futures Research Centre, the creation of 30 minute cities affords opportunities for major health and environmental benefits, as well as profound challenges and cultural shifts.
The chief immediate benefit of the 30 minute city for residents themselves will be the improvements to their physical and mental wellbeing.
“Reduced commuting times make an enormous contribution to health,” said Thompson to Sourceable. “You’re sitting in the car for far less time so that means you have the opportunity to be more physically active.
“There’s the potential for people to be moving about more and spending extra time with family members and the community, because they don’t have to leave so early in the morning, nor get back so late that they’re removed from the communities where they actually live.
Thompson notes that the benefits of reduced commuting times extend to mental wellbeing in addition to physical health.
“If you have more time to do physical activity it helps to reduce depression and anxiety, positively impacting your mental health,” she said.
“We also often don’t think about the importance to mental health of being able to connect with loved ones and friends, as well as people we share something in common with.”
Another key benefit will be a reduction in the adverse environmental effects of urban communities.
“The bigger picture is environmental sustainability,” said Thompson. “If we can get more people out of cars, and prevent them from spending so much time on roads, then there’s less greenhouse gas emissions, and we’re contributing positively to the environment.”
The benefits of a 30 minute city may be demonstrable, but achieving Turnbull’s vision will involve major changes to the way urban centres are designed and operated.
While improvements to public transit will play a vital role in reducing traffic congestion and commuting times, another potentially cheaper and more convenient solution for established cities could be changing the structure of employment distribution.
“Retrofitting is much more difficult than starting from scratch,” said Thompson. “The placing of employment close to where people live is very important, and can facilitate a shorter commute.”
This does not necessarily entail the creation of secondary CBDs or polycentric urban design as Sydney is attempting to do with its overhaul of Parramatta. Siting employment closer to residential hubs can also be achieved via new technology that facilitates off-site working.
“We’ve got to look more at using technologies that enable people to work in shared facilities or commuter hubs, which are situated closer to their homes,” said Thompson.
“It’s not their place of employment per se, but because of all the technology that’s available they can just go to that centre and work for two or three days a week, without actually needing to be in the physical place where they’re officially employed.”
Another key challenge will be creating shared green spaces in the inevitably denser urban communities that the 30-minute city will entail, so that the health benefits accrued from shorter commutes aren’t dulled by isolation from nature.
“The 30 minute city demands a lot more attention to public spaces – in particular green spaces, natural areas, and park land,” said Thompson. “There’s a raft of evidence on how important green spaces are for our health, and as more of us live in apartments, these public areas become increasingly important.
“This is a health challenge that also involves a cultural shift, because Australians have alwayss been used to the cultural icon of the quarter acre block and private open space in the backyard.”
The disappearance of the private backyard in denser urban centres will involve a profound shift in the way urban planners view and design shared public areas.
“We’ve got to be designing fabulous public spaces that truly respond to diverse community needs – and not just public spaces like town squares or parks, but also paths, grass verges and streets themselves.
“It really is about how we can participate in a much more shared environment while living closer together.”