Moderator.Our next speaker is Professor Peter Newman, who is Director of Sustainability in the West Australian Department of Premier and Cabinet. He has been with Murdoch University since 1974, and is today its Professor of City Policy. He has had a stint as an elected councillor with the city of Fremantle. In Perth he is well known for his work in the rebuilding of the city’s rail system. Peter is a visiting Professor with the University of Pennsylvania, and his book, Sustainability and cities: overcoming automobile dependence, was launched at the White House in 1999. Peter speaks to us today on ‘Eco-cities in the suburbs: redefining growth’.
Professor Peter Newman
This is a very important conference. I think it is a critical step to have local communities, or localities, able to express their uniqueness and for this to be incorporated into an overall plan, recognising the context and constraints of wider common issues.
I was going to start with some pictures of New York and the Twin Towers, because the wider context for cities is suddenly one of feeling very vulnerable. We have this sense that on September 11 we were all caught up in the crisis and so share New York’s feelings of vulnerability.
Cities have to constantly remake themselves. If they don’t, they slowly die. And cities do die. New York has received a real blow and people are starting to reflect on what it means. We all need to do this. All cities have to recognise the need to remake themselves without oil.
The production peak in world oil has been reached. It is the hidden message behind the Twin Towers collapse. Almost all the world’s remaining oil is in the Middle East. All of the production rates for oil in the North Sea, Norway, Venezuela, Canada, Alaska and other sources, have peaked and are now on a downward trend. Gradually oil is becoming less available so that the world is becoming more and more dependent on Middle Eastern oil. We in Australian cities are using Middle Eastern oil.
It is the same in cities like New York, and the reality is you cannot keep going to war in order to make that oil available. It is not sustainable. We have to remake our cities so they are less dependent on oil, less dependent on private car use.
Dirk expressed this view in his presentation and our research group at Murdoch University has been saying this since the 70s. But many decision-makers keep pushing this problem aside. Hopefully, after this event, we will stop pretending the problem is not serious and put the search for real solutions at the top of our agenda.
No city or local community can say we have a unique character and lifestyle, we need oil, and we are going to go to war just to see that it keeps coming to us. It makes a mockery of the uniqueness idea.
No city can say we are unique and we need to make lots of greenhouse gases. No one can claim we are unique and need to pollute the air and water, or we need to keep out poor people and those who are different. Nobody can justify positions like that.
But we can say we want to keep the beauty and liveability of our city. We want to pass on something of this to our children. In simple terms, we want our particular sense of place to be looked after as Barry O’Keefe has outlined. This is the essence of sustainability—reconciling these very real global concerns and constraints with the local need to create something of quality and beauty.
Now, I study cities with my research group at Murdoch University, and I occasionally take time out to work with State Governments—which I am doing at the moment. Our long term research on cities reveals that all cities are facing this dilemma—reconciling global pressures with local needs. But I also believe in and work at the grass-roots level and participating in local decision-making processes.
I was an elected Councillor in Fremantle and it is interesting that for us the issue was not too much growth too quickly, as seems to be the case in Sydney, but the opposite—too little growth, we were dying. In some ways, too much growth is a better problem than dying. In the town of Fremantle we had a 12 per cent decline in population over a 5 year period in the 70’s, the entire industrial base had disappeared because of the decline of the Port as an employer. The old industrial character of Fremantle was changing. We had to remake ourselves.
Now, we remade ourselves by enhancing the heritage character of our area. No one believed this could be a basis for economic development. They can now see it is. We asserted our localness, our unique character, and made its preservation the focus for our future—and it worked. We have just experienced an extraordinary growth period and now we have to cope with the growth and manage growth in a way so that it does not destroy what we value and have fought so hard to protect. We do not want any development unless it actually improves the character of the city. So we have had nearly 5,000 extra houses built in Fremantle, but controlled in a way to enhance heritage values, not lose them.
If you go to Fremantle today, you would say it is a heritage town. It has not lost its character. We did not adopt a high-rise approach to redevelopment. We do have some high-rise, but it is of a high quality. We now have more people and more businesses as well. We did not start at a point that stated higher density is fundamentally going to destroy us and building types of that kind are going to be banned.
In many cases these building types are needed to enhance our community. For example, it is very clear that older people who want to have a part in Fremantle just as in any community, like to live in houses that have just one level and no stairs. A single detached house is like that and individual apartments in high-rise buildings can be like that because you can make large apartments that are all on the one level. But it is very hard to make town houses like that. So many medium density buildings are anti older people because they have a lot of stairs. And because many cannot drive cars, they need to be close to facilities. So you cannot say high-rise is going to always be anti human.
What I am finding in our work is that all cities are reurbanising very rapidly. It is not just Sydney where there is this pressure to redevelop and go back to the areas where the first wave of development has passed. This is happening everywhere, and some people are saying that it is happening because Government is forcing it to happen. I have heard this said today.
Let me say that Perth is going through the exact opposite to what the State Government tried to push in the 90s. In 1992 the State Government announced that it would make land on the urban fringe available for new development, so they increased the amount of available urban land by 40 per cent. Anyone who wanted land rezoned could have it. Urban sprawl, here we come! They also said they were not going to have any controls over any local government in terms of density. You do what you want. No controls. That is what we had in the 90s.
What happened? Reurbanisation has grown from 15 per cent of development to 50 per cent. The outer suburbs have increased in value by an average of one per cent per annum during that period. The inner suburbs have increased by eight per cent on average per annum. There is enormous momentum behind this push back to the city, towards central locations, towards redevelopment rather than urban fringe development.
There are large areas of Perth’s fringe that are in negative equity. This means the value of the land and house is now worth less than the purchasing price. These areas are becoming the slums of the future. In many ways they already are. Now this did not happen because of the policies of a despotic central government, pushing developers and developments back into the inner areas.
So what caused this reurbanisation? There are some clear factors that are occurring around the world. Firstly, the desire for an ‘urban lifestyle’ is a very human thing. There is a lot of culture associated with urbanity, and that can be high culture, like opera houses and art galleries, or just plain cinemas. Or it can be youth culture—which is very urban these days. If you look at ‘Rave’ (ABC TV), you’ll find the images that young people are using to relate to their environment are very urban. There is a desire to be close to inner city services.
There is also an economic cause. We are going to hear about the economy later and how it relates to this [Sutherland Shire] and other similar areas. But all the recent economic development based around the so-called ‘knowledge economy’ and the ‘service economy’, is going to central and inner city areas, not to outer and middle ring areas. It is not going to shopping centres in fringe suburbs. Tele-working is not happening. Economic life requires face-to-face interactions. People need to meet with one another. Professionals need to be able to share and work together, and the places where they are locating are close to these meetings areas. Inner city neighbourhoods were designed around centres that are walkable. This is where the coffee shop culture was developed. This is where a lot of work takes place and small offices and businesses are part of this new culture. They are right in the centre of it, and people want to live close to where they work in this new economy.
Another factor is demography. We are ageing very rapidly and there are now only one in five households, or 20 per cent, with father, mother and children in them. That is pretty remarkable because in the post war period, most households were ‘normal’ and we’ve come to see that as an ideal. Developers helped to cultivate that market of the ordinary house in the suburbs.
But now 80 per cent of households no longer are ‘normal’, so there is indeed a major rationale for having a wide range of housing types—not just the kind for rearing children. The ‘empty nesters’ rule! But also the ‘never nesters’ and the ‘delay nesters’—all people who make-up our local community.
My dad was always against in-fill and re-urbanisation and he used to say ‘You’re on the wrong track’ and when the developers came and said they were going to build five units next door and replace the old house, he was really angry about it. However, when the five units were developed, one of his closest friends moved into one of them. After a while he thought it wasn’t so bad. He would not have had that opportunity without that change in housing type. So the human side of that was played out in terms of a value that was important for all of the people in that area.
The other aspect of this is summed up nicely in a story about Shirley Strickland, an Olympic gold medalist who was a local Councillor in Melville (Perth) for many years. When I started talking about the importance of redeveloping areas, she was strongly against this. ‘Melville is a nice area and it isn’t something we want here’, she said. But she has changed her opinion, and the reason she changed was because her children grew up and she wanted to develop units at the back of her place, so they could live there. She was able to do this and her family live there now. But the problem is that Council now forbids this. Hundreds of people are now contacting her and asking for help. They are saying, ‘I just want to put my elderly mother in a unit at the back, and now we are not allowed to do it.’ So there are some human rights issues here too. These people in Melville are now considering taking legal action against the Council for dezoning their area.
The final factor is the reaction to car dependence and oil vulnerability. Ecological issues raise so many problems with the car, and there are social problems as well.
We hear so much about the importance of a sense of community, of safety and a sense of place. Community needs walkability. It needs accidental interactions. It needs public transport to attract people to Centres and make them livable. What we found in our research is that unless you have a density of about 30 people per hectare, this sense of community and walkability doesn’t happen. In the end, the problem with Gungahlin (Canberra) is not its design it is the density. It has 15 people per hectare maximum and they never get out of their cars because it is too far to walk to anywhere.
Another important factor is safety. ‘Slums are dense and unsafe’, that’s what some people say. But are slums and their associated problems really caused by higher densities?
Our research group has done an intense study on this topic. We found there is no evidence to link density and crime. None! Ironically, denser areas can be safer because there is the potential for more ‘eyes on the street’ and the advantage of many people around you.
Crime is related to poverty, not density.
Some very low density areas, suburbs on the fringe that are in decline, are filled with crime. This refutes the high density development and crime myth.
Finally, the sense of place and the need to walk. There is now evidence that we are undermining our kids’ mental health and development as well as their physical health. Obesity is a problem for children because they do not walk enough. We are ruining them because we drive them to school. Kids need to walk in an area to develop a sense of place, and the psychological studies are showing that unless children are given that opportunity they are slow to develop a sense of place. They dont develop the ability to relate to ordinary people they have not been introduced to. They get this ‘stranger danger’ fear. To walk through an area is very important for their social and psychological development. Mayer Hilman talks about the problem in terms of creating ‘battery hen kids’, rather than ‘free range kids’.
Cars and the fear of public streets are damaging psychological health in children. So there is a need for a sense of place, but cars and low density does not necessarily allow us to develop that, so please, don’t see increases in density as automatically destroying your community’s safety and sense of place. Density per se is not the problem, it is usually the excess of motor vehicle usage when certain types of development are allowed to occur.
I must acknowledge my friend Michelle who told me the problem is that there is ‘dumb reurbanisation’ and ‘smart reurbanisation’. There is so much dumb reurbanisation that it causes us to react to it.
‘Dumb reurbanisation is poorly designed tower blocks, with no heritage qualities, sitting on huge plinths of car parking with their great gaping garage mouths that don’t relate to the street. It is when governments don’t provide adequate and frequent public transport services to support these new developments and hence they generate unbearable levels of road congestion for communities.
‘Smart’ reurbanisation is where heritage and design guidelines are enforced and high quality public transport services are provided to reduce our need for car use. You put car parking around the back, you never allow it to eat into the street frontage of buildings where pedestrians, shops and small businesses are located. Cars and big blank facades kill off this human interaction.
The preservation of greenspaces is also important. Where a tree is removed, three must replace it. It is easy enough to do. Developers have to stick to rules. Why not have rules like these? Development must be oriented in a way that reduces parking, not increases it. It must be walking oriented and the public transport must be constantly increased to cope with the extra numbers of people. If additional public transport is not provided, then liveability will not increase and the point of reurbanisation will be lost.
Other infrastructure issues play a part in reurbanisation too. Water, waste and energy services can be developed in clever and innovative ways as part of these developments. ISTP’s web site contains stories and photos that show how these things are happening in Europe. I’m happy to talk about it further, but I will leave it there.