Why Aren’t We Building Places We Like? 1

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Monday, May 25th, 2015
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It’s an old debate – green space versus development.

Conservationists have continually questioned the urban construct, and continue to do so as we march our cities out beyond their borders, fundamentally changing our natural landscape in the process.

Often, all that remains in the wake of development is a tidy memorial to the landscape that was there, a carefully trimmed pocket park remembered in its best-dressed style. Gone are wilds of the rugged Australian landscape. Instead, we carefully order our residential aesthetic and dutifully deliver an exactly proportioned percentage of development land as prim and proper tributes to a British landscape or the sporting ovals that play out the suburban dream.

These highly ordered open spaces aren’t a bad thing, however. While our current norms in open space design may not do much to preserve our natural landscape, when it’s delivered well, it often becomes what we love most about our cities. We love our green space and public places, and only want more of them. As our cities evolve, delivering well placed and high quality open space will be perhaps our greatest challenge, not just in new growth areas, but also in the redevelopment of existing neighbourhoods.

Joni Mitchell’s wise words remind us that “you don’t know what you’ve got, ’til it’s gone,” but on the contrary, once we know what we want, will we seek it? We know that good quality green space and public realm is absolutely essential to the creation of liveable cities, but somehow our economic and planning systems don’t seem to drive the same conclusion most of the time.

In the past, the open space jewels in the crowns of our cities often came about through happy accidents or a fortuitous conversion of land. The green corridor through Melbourne’s inner north that was born out of a disused railway route now provides a recreational and cycling route that urban planners could only dream of conceiving for such a built up area today. Brisbane’s Southbank Parklands arose out of a near-derelict port and industrial area via the investment of Expo 88 to become highly valued and utilised public space that now defines the city’s character, but only through a persistent and coordinated approach delivered through the South Bank Corporation. Imagine instead what these areas would have become if the traditional ‘business case’ for piecemeal development won out and the land had been developed into houses, offices or roads?

An excellent study recently completed by Leanne Hodyl, the co-ordinator of city plans and policy at Melbourne City Council, revealed that planning policies in the Melbourne CBD could lead to hyper densification that will fundamentally neglect the need for public spaces that cities need. Comparing other major cities globally, each had found its own way to ensure their densest environments still deliver public open spaces to gain that local balance of land use and the resulting vibrancy we all seek.

Hyper-dense urban development possible under current planning policy in Melbourne with limited requirements for open space

Hyper-dense urban development possible under current planning policy in Melbourne with limited requirements for open space

As Australian cities grow, we need to re-think both our planning provisions and the underlying business model for development. The opportunistic delivery of green infrastructure to date has provided us with ever strengthening evidence that well-positioned open space assets punch well above their weight as a land use. Particularly in built up urban areas, green space becomes an ever more appreciated retreat for the growing population, also adding escalating value to the buildings that boast a view or close proximity to our parks or green corridors.

Strangely, however, our current economic models that we use to plan and deliver development tell us a different story. If you crunched the numbers to determine the best land use in an established urban area, an open space is pretty unlikely to come up trumps.

Inner Circle Railway Line Melbourne is a now a Linear Park.

Inner Circle Railway Line Melbourne is a now a linear park.

Roger Jones, professorial research fellow at the Victoria Institute of Strategic Economic Studies (VISES) at Victoria University, addressed the inherent problems in our economic approach to land development in his recent keynote at the Stormwater Victoria conference. He stressed that a large part of the problem is our inability to appreciate the total economic value of natural assets, and to instead favour tangible built form which we can easily put a price on.

Jones also pointed out that a standard business case typically applies a discount rate that decreases the value of benefits over time. While appropriate in commercial situations, this approach doesn’t reflect long-lived social and environmental values provided by green space that will often be just as valuable to future generations as they are to current generations. We now deeply appreciate past decisions to reserve public land in our cities despite short-term economic cases pointing to a different land use – in short, Jones reminds us that “no one ever regrets building a park.”

So as we now embark on the next evolution of our cities, it remains to be tested whether we will strive for the kind of places we know we want or whether we will get stuck in the confines of a flawed financial equation. Fast forward 50 years to when the major redevelopment projects of our cities have been delivered – Melbourne’s Fishermans Bend, Brisbane’s Kulrilpa Riverfront, Sydney’s Bays Precinct – will these include the open space successes that our future citizens will thank us for?

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  1. Warwick Savvas

    Thanks for this clear and thoughtful perspective on this issue.

    I agree that consideration of green space is not properly factored into the economics of our cities.

    The non financial benefits of green space, and costs of grey space need to be properly accounted for in the planning and design decisions about our cities.

    Articles like this help to distill these considerations.