Without Regions, There is no Sustainable City 4

Thursday, August 18th, 2016
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Much has been said about the need for a government focus on cities. Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) board director Jerry de Gryse and I have long discussed this increasing attention to the need to build sustainable, life-affirming cities.

The authors of a recent article in The Conversation titled ‘The urban’: a concept under stress in an inter-connected world noted the growing focus on ‘the urban’ and ‘cities’ in the current media and literature about the built environment.

de Gryse and I agreed that such a focus is justifiable, given the explosive growth of the population in cities in recent times, both in Australia and overseas. Resolution of the myriad issues that arise from increasing urban density and the need for ‘liveability’ infrastructure in support of city life are irrefutable concerns.

Nonetheless, the authors of The Conversation article question the conceptual categories of ‘urban’ and ‘cities’ and the limitations of a focus solely on them. They cite the inter-dependencies between cities and their surrounds. They note that the rural and the wild regions that bound cities are the source of urban residents’ food, raw materials, clean water and energy production and places for their inhabitants to recreate and commune with nature. Because of these inter-dependencies, a flourishing city life requires the competent management of the regions as much as it requires ‘green infrastructure’ and sustainable urban design. They conclude that without one (the regions), there is no other (the cities).

I could argue that de Gryse and I represent smaller cities, or bigger towns; I am from Adelaide (smaller city) and Jerry from Hobart (large town). Whilst these are not small settlements, they have attributes and concerns that are distinct from those of the growing megacities of the east coast (greater Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane) or Perth.

It is important, therefore, for our professions (landscape architecture, architecture, planning, and the like) to bring our skills in understanding the sense of place of the regions to the smaller towns, the farms and the remote landscapes that characterise much of our continent. Sustainable towns and agricultural production, considered land management and the retention of wild places are all critically within the purview of our concerns and deserve our attention to their unique values.

For example, in the recent AILA South Australian awards, Outerspace Landscape Architects won an Award of Excellence in the Communities Category for its creation of a distinctly ‘small town’ framework for the future of the townships of the District Council Grant. The master plans were underpinned by their authors’ immersion in the physical and cultural landscapes of the place. The landscape architects’ understanding of the specifics of the locale was further heightened by a deep level of engagement with the local communities.

The resulting design concepts are sympathetic to the place and realistic within the governance context of a small council. The awards jury noted that Outerspace had captured a vision that is shared by the locals and is unique to their place, thus ensuring the framework and master plans remain important touchstones for the future development of their towns.

At the organisational scale, AILA has recognised the value its members bring to the sustainability of regional Australia. ABS data indicates that 17.5 per cent of all landscape architects in the country live and practice in ‘regional’ Australia. A recent survey of AILA’s membership shows that 65 per cent of our regional members work in private practice.

In support of these members, AILA has established a Regional Working Group to identify the skills and mechanisms required to improve engagement in regional issues, to strengthen its ties with allied professionals, and to ensure its members are adequately trained to address the specific issues of the regions.

Small towns are not mini-cities, just as natural areas are not big parks and mine sites are not small quarries. Each of these, and other regional settings, has a distinct set of sustainability concerns that require nuanced, site-specific responses if they are to be successfully addressed.

The regions and our remote places are critical to planetary health and the success of ‘the urban’ in supporting human life. As professionals, we need to understand that cities and regions are intimately linked, but that each has its own unique concerns and opportunities. By providing for our members in the regions, AILA hopes to enhance the contribution of landscape architecture to the betterment of urban life.

To paraphrase John Donne, “no city is an island.”

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  1. John Bolton

    One of the interesting things about regions and in particular the larger regional cities, though not really related to the discussion above, is their potential to help overcome much of the dilemma that is facing the megacities of Sydney and Melbourne in terms of providing affordable housing and maybe, good access to employment. Regional cities such as Geelong, Ballarat, Woolongong and others have significant potential to provide access to good opportunities for employment and affordable housing. We must seize these opportunities.

  2. Barry B.

    Australia may benefit from pursuing the urban development strategy exemplified by Germany and certain parts of the US, with the development of a multitude of smaller towns and cities more diffusely scattered, rather than emulating the all or nothing model of a single megacity as embodied by the UK and France.

  3. Carl Germanos

    Alas Australian planning systems and economic structure creates or perhaps a path dependant core – peripheral settlement pattern – agglomerations of economics, urbanisation and localization phenomenon

  4. Helen Long

    I knew you must have been out there AILA . The missing link that may provide a evidenced framework for regional planning that identifys culture,resources and the social structure and provides alignment to current Government policy. Can't wait to read about 'small town' framework from Outerspace Lanscape Architecture.