Caroline Springs runners: “Clearly something is working”

23 August 2011 – A common theme in the London riots was that the young rioters felt no stake in the neighbourhood in which they lived and so had no compunction in trashing it.

The episode is an extreme example of how our engagement with the physical neighbourhood is shifting.

Alternative social networks – work, professional, specific-interest and cyberspace – provide a more powerful sense of belonging.

In extreme cases such as the “blackberry network” in London, these alternative networks can turn against the traditional neighbourhood, based on physical proximity.

Australia has not had the recent economic trauma that has beset the UK, and riots are not in immediate prospect.  But it should give us cause to reflect on how we might better design our neighbourhoods to give people a stronger sense of belonging.

A key issue is understanding the complex connections between the economic, environmental and social underpinnings of the neighbourhoods:  this is a discipline still in its infancy.

A nascent body of knowledge is emerging and the leading edge will be on display at the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives Thriving Neighbourhoods Conference

Much is still to be learned:  how we can design communities to be more productive, healthier, cohesive and sustainable.

In Australia, two contrasting approaches to community design are in evidence: one involves a shift to higher density living and the other to making the traditional suburban model work better and more sustainably.

For higher urban density, Victoria’s VicUrban, for example, has had considerable success with its apartment development, The Nicholson, in East Coburg, a suburb about 7.5 km from Melbourne.

The Nicholson combines residential and retail spaces to create a highly contained urban village.  The architect, Design Inc’s Rudy Darmawan describes the Nicholson as follows:

“With sustainability in mind, the Nicholson provides an open, light-filled environment designed for living and socialising.  The building is designed to breathe all year round, with green spaces a key focus.”

The Nicholson is already sold out, despite a difficult market.  It could become an exemplar of what US author David Owen described as Green Metropolis, in his book of that name.

Owen asserted that far from cities being concrete jungles and environmental scars, they represent the most sustainable human habitat.

He noted that the average urban New Yorker had a much lower average environmental footprint than nature-lovers living in semi-rural adjacent areas, who had to heat and cool large houses and commute long distances by car.

He put New York as the model for future sustainability because its residents lived “smaller and closer” and drove vehicles less.

But this is an incomplete picture. Many modern apartments, especially the high-rise ones, have lifts and permanently lit common areas.  It’s not just the energy use of the individual apartments that need to be considered.

Growth Area Authority’s Peter Seamer, who will speak at the conference, says that the sustainability and quality of life in suburban developments, such as in Caroline Springs in Melbourne’s outer west, is rapidly changing.

“The innovation, size and environmental sustainability of new housing in Melbourne’s newest suburbs is something not well understood by those whose only knowledge of, say, Caroline Springs, [by Lend Lease] is when they drive past it on the way to week-end retreats in Victoria’s western districts.  Large lots with buildings that are poor from an environmental point of view are in the middle ring suburbs, not our newest areas.” Mr Seamer said.

In fact, some fringe urban developments are breaking new ground.  Mr Seamer notes that Caroline Springs, for example, is thriving.  “Office blocks are rising in the community centre and local employment is growing.

“Nature is asserting itself through the local parks and community clubs, and amenities are growing strongly.

“The houses exhibit excellent energy efficiency. Levels of satisfaction found in community surveys are high and heading higher.  Clearly, something is working,” he says.

Anne Barker of City West Water and also a speaker at the conference, agrees.  Ms Barker is firmly behind the “greening the west” program.  Far from giving up on these arid suburbs, she is seeking to use extensive street planting and enhanced open spaces to improve the sustainability, quality of life and community health of the western suburbs.

The two approaches to community design are not mutually exclusive and indeed, a diversity of approaches is needed to reflect the needs and preferences of different communities.  There is not yet a single, ideal way of living.

Rather, we need to be studying different outcomes in both the short, medium and long term.  As Caroline Springs shows, first impressions may be misleading.  And we need to consider not just what each configuration has achieved in the past, but what can be achieved in the future.

Tony Arnel, Victoria’s Building Commissioner and Chair of both the Green Building Council of Australia and the World Green Building Council, who will deliver a keynote speech at the conference, recently released a report showing that many existing apartments in Australia are no better than the average suburban house when it comes to sustainability.

“The lifestyles of urban apartment dwellers tend to be high-consumption:  24-hour climate control, permanent lighting in common areas, regularly summoning lifts, lots of appliances, restaurant and take-away meals, week-end getaways to the country in cars and so on.  That adds up to a lot of greenhouse emissions,” Mr Arnel said.

However, he also noted:  “Poor performance of the apartments included in the existing studies does not reflect leading-edge green design and technology.  The results will be very different in high-performance green buildings.”

“There are many, relatively easy ways of saving energy in high-rise apartments.  Better design to reduce heating and cooling loads, intelligent controls that heat and cool only when the occupant is present, sensor lighting for common areas and changing occupant behaviour,” Mr Arnel added.

“Such approaches have already been demonstrated to dramatically reduce energy consumption in green commercial buildings.  They also increase occupant comfort and improve their health, well-being and productivity and increase the economic return to building owners.  We can apply this green thinking to get similar returns from apartments.”

So, there may be no single approach to neighbourhood design that is inherently superior.  Lifestyle is at least as important as physical design and a diversity of approaches will be needed to reflect the diversity of tastes in different populations.

This doesn’t mean complete laissez-faire but it does show that there is plenty of scope for diversity while pursuing a common goal of reducing greenhouse emissions and conserving resources.

Equally important as diversity of design and lifestyle will be strategies for community cohesion and inclusion.  The causes of the London riots may take some time to understand.  But they are a stark reminder of what can happen when the sense of community is lost.

Lindsay Bevege is managing director of Business Outlook and Evaluation which focuses on sustainable business strategies and public policy. He is a former head of public affairs with CSIRO and a diplomat.  The Thriving Neighbourhood conference is on October 25 and 26 at the St Kilda town hall, Melbourne.