Clear messages from the 7th International Urban Design Conference
Photo: copyright AECOM / Robb Williamson.
The reality of going to most conferences is that you listen for 80 percent of the time to things that you are already aware of (which might be interesting, but aren’t necessarily teaching you anything), 10 percent of the time feeling really bored and/or irritated by someone who just has it wrong, and the remaining 10 percent of the time feeling properly inspired and excited.
And so it might have been at the 7th International Urban Design Conference earlier this month in Adelaide. Something that felt different during these two days of talks, however, was a confluence of both new material and consistent themes. This gave me a stronger sense of progress (or at least the recognised need for change) than I’ve felt in the urban planning/design arena in Australia over at least the last few years.
It’s not that the material was always mind-bogglingly new or innovative. It was more that the thematic consistency – supported by some genuinely engaging use of real data and hard facts – gave a strong impression of something that can’t be ignored forever.
So what were these engaging themes, looming challenges and progressive ideas? Here are a few.
Our health as humans is being more defined and influenced by urban planning and design than by the health system. As we pour inordinate quantities of money into hospitals, cures, treatments and drugs, we completely ignore this fact. Scary, yes, but also exciting in that we have at hand a largely untouched set of opportunities to improve health through environmental design. We just have to enact them.
We keep planning for the past, and it’s doing us no favours. Humans have an awful trait that pervades almost everything we do – when seeking to understand what the future holds, we tend to look at the immediate past and then extrapolate it out. So if house prices have risen rapidly for the last ten years, we assume they will continue to rise rapidly for the next ten. If cars have been the dominant mode of transport for the last 30 years, we assume they will remain so for the next 30. One speaker described our assumption that net migration would continue to grow rapidly in the future as deeply flawed. If jobs in the resources sector evaporate further, and university education costs a lot more, the motivators for migration to Australia are likely to shrink dramatically. The tendency to look backwards for insights into the future is remarkably dumb, but we do it all the time. There is hope, however; smart people can do increasingly amazing things with data to understand more accurately what is likely to happen in the future. Given we can also define the future by our actions now, leadership and long-term thinking can go a long way.
Our aging population means more than the need for more nursing homes. It’s also going to leave our workforce severely depleted. An extraordinary proportion of our workforce is 40 years or older, and isn’t being replaced fast enough. This will have impacts across the economy, and not least in how we manage and develop our urban environment. We spend a disproportionate amount of time worrying about where to house ‘young families’, but the real challenge may come in where the growing population of empty nesters, single older people and the elderly will live.
The funding for the infrastructure we need won’t all come from the same sources it has in the past (government). The capacity and commitment of both federal and state government to fund key infrastructure items, particularly those that don’t make for a high-profile ‘announceable’, is diminished. But the need for critical infrastructure to support the ongoing evolution and progress of our cities is not. As AECOM’s Joe Langley presented, there are mechanisms that allow the tangible private sector value created by new public infrastructure (such as higher land values) to be captured and used to fund that infrastructure.
So while the above points paint a picture of drastic changes, ‘wicked problems’ and generational shifts, the conference also highlighted some pretty exciting evolutions in practice. From genuine community-led planning (yes, consultation that actually influences outcomes!), sustainability and health planning working in partnership, planning practice that allows discretion to produce values-driven outcomes rather than checklist planning, and demographers actually being listened to, there’s a lot of good stuff going on.
The location of the conference in Adelaide, too, is a good sign. Adelaide has continued to blossom despite some long-held prejudices and misconceptions. The CBD has a spring in its step – new cafes, shops, bars and restaurants are supported by strategic public realm interventions. The Adelaide Oval redevelopment has injected new life north of the city and the award-winning South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute building on North Terrace promises to be the lynchpin of a newly enlivened health and knowledge precinct.
The 80-10-10 rule of conferences might continue to be the norm, but the 7th International Urban Design Conference in Adelaide demonstrated that there’s a lot to be excited about in urban design and the built environment in general. But ideas are one thing – putting them into practice to make every project as good as it can be is real the challenge that we all need to get to work on.
Peter Steele is a senior consultant, sustainability and climate change, based in AECOM’s Melbourne office, and presented ‘Precinct Planning for Sustainability: The Armstrong Creek Experience’ at this month’s International Urban Design Conference.