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What did the great philosopher Socrates ponder on? Along with how to be a good person and how to design the perfect society, high on the list for this ancient sage was the importance of urban design.

“By far the greatest and most admirable form of wisdom,” he wrote, “is that needed to plan and beautify cities and human communities.”

These days, that timeless wisdom is more valid than ever. Australia’s population is growing, with almost 24 million of us today predicted to grow to as much as 37 million 30 years from now.

We’re also moving into the cities in increasing numbers, with Melbourne and Sydney edging ever closer to five million people each and their populations predicted to explode by up to 80 per cent by 2050. Other cities like Brisbane and Perth are also forecast to have skyrocketing populations, as will our regional cities like Geelong, Wollongong and Newcastle.

As the numbers grow, our cities are becoming denser in every sense of the word: more densely populated and more densely developed. Density is here to stay, but density done badly makes all our lives worse.

It doesn’t take the wisdom of Socrates to see that overcrowded housing, a lack of public space, urban sprawl, traffic congestion and poor access to facilities like schools and hospitals are not going to make for a pleasant experience for the combined 16 million people who will call Sydney and Melbourne home in 2050.

Density is often talked about in the context of inappropriate development, and therefore has been seen as a threatening word, one which imperils quality of life of existing residents. Poor planning and inadequate community engagement has often triggered objections to infill development in suburbs, for example.

The good news? The application of best practice urban design principles can avoid these problems, harnessing the increasing vibrancy, energy and diversity of our cities in a way that also preserves Australia’s world-famous quality of life. Community objections can then turn into community acclaim. Around Australia, initiatives such as Sydney’s Darling Quarter and the Youth Activity Precinct in Geelong are already demonstrating best practice urban design.

Creating places for people is a set of guidelines to help professionals like planners, architects and builders use best practice urban design to achieve the best possible cities. These guidelines are not meant to be proscriptive, but instead list factors to take note of when designing urban places, which can be adapted to each specific local context.

Good urban design, where buildings, infrastructure and services operate in harmony, can enhance our sense of place and our identities, providing spaces for people to meet, interact and form community links. Strong communities are more resilient to the challenges of our uncertain world, from terrorism to climate change.

People aren’t static in the way they occupy our urban spaces. The movement of people from home to work to leisure activities is crucial, so obviously transport needs to be part of any urban design. This means that well designed cities are well connected cities.

Obviously well connected cities make it easy to get to work and access services, but there are other benefits too. Cities that let us walk or cycle instead of condemning us to travel by car can help us to lead more healthy lives, with lower rates of obesity and chronic disease. Good design can even improve our mental health, with spaces that are experienced as vibrant, comfortable and safe lowering our rates of stress and depression.

Design also needs to take leadership and governance into account. Development shouldn’t finish when the keys are handed over to occupants. Good design takes account of the long-term picture. How will ongoing decision making be structured within a precinct?

Well-designed cities pay dividends to the economy. We’re all richer when we’re not wasting money on expensive transport to badly located facilities and paying to power inefficient buildings. A city where workplaces and services are accessible is one where companies will want to locate their workforces, providing jobs into the future.

As well as improving our financial fortunes, the increased sustainability from measures like energy efficiency will also improve environmental outcomes for everyone. Well planned cities mean less air pollution, fewer carbon emissions and less waste at a time when growing populations make environmental issues more pressing than ever.

Anyone who’s ever watched an episode of Grand Designs knows you wouldn’t try to build your dream house without an architect. It may cost money, but the investment in good design will pay off.

It’s the same with our cities. Good urban design is going to require investment and the involvement of governments at all levels.

If Australia can commit to the investment we need to make good urban design a reality in all our communities, we will reap the rewards for our economy, our health and our quality of life. Without this investment, increasing numbers of Australians will be condemned to a nightmare future of queues, traffic jams, painful commutes and chronic disease. Let’s make our cities better, by design.

 
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