Charlestown Square

Sustainable communities–it’s the catchphrase on everyone’s lips as 2010 draws to a close.  Companies are using it in their annual reports, developers are embracing it, the federal government has put out a policy paper on it and now the Green Building Council is not only developing a tool for it, but plans to include the concept in all its Green Star tools. But what does it mean? Does it herald a fundamental shift in the way we think about cities? Or is there a whiff of spin and greenwash about the whole conversation?

A bit of both actually. Leading companies, property developers and governments are very conscious of the growing emphasis on the social aspects of building design and urban development and they are keen to get kudos for embracing it. But in the process they are undertaking developments that enhance local communities by providing better transport and infrastructure, boosting employment and constructing buildings that people actually enjoy being in.

The title of Danish architect Jan Gehl’s latest book Cities for People sums up the new mood. In Sydney last week launching his book, Professor Gehl has been a major influence on city planning around the globe, including Copenhagen, London, New York and many of Australia’s capital cities. He says they should be designed to be experienced at walking pace, not from cars, buses or trains.

Hosting the launch at Sydney town Hall, Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore said Jan Gehl had successfully helped reclaim and redesign city spaces around the world by transforming them into lively, safe and sustainable places where people want to be.

“His inspiring and revolutionary thinking is behind our Sustainable Sydney 2030 plans which have the potential to completely change the face of our city into a green, global and connected gateway to Australia,” Moore said.

Gehl’s book, and his philosophy is about reclaiming cities and turning them into places where people engage with each other and with the built space.

This concept of people power is springing up around the world – in Copenhagen car-free plazas are well established; in South Korea’s capital, Seoul, a massive six lane freeway and overpasses, once a symbol of modernisation and progress, have been ripped up and replaced with a pedestrian plaza complete with natural stream; in New York Broadway and Times Square have been made car –free and turned over to pedestrians.

This philosophy is also increasingly evident in building design. German architect Christoph Ingenhoven, who collaborated with Australian firm Architectus to design DEXUS’ 1 Bligh Street tower in Sydney, is well known for designing buildings that encourage people to interact, both inside and outside the building.

At 1 Bligh Street this was done through an open design inside the building and by creating a public ground floor plaza, which is designed as a meeting place for workers, with a living green wall and broad steps which double as seating.

More companies are promoting what their building upgrade is doing for their staff and the surrounding locality rather than just how much energy it is saving them. And rather than just whacking in a shopping centre or housing development in the middle of suburbia, developers are beginning to address social problems such as youth unemployment and social disengagement, linking developments to transport networks and other infrastructure.

It’s not that the concept is new – after all it’s the age-old concept of the town square – it just has different drivers. And it’s certainly not all altruistic. The movement has been given impetus by growing evidence that happier, healthier people are more productive. Add to that a looming war for talent and there is ample commercial incentive for looking beyond purely environmental concerns.

Bill Dowzer

An exemplar project for social sustainability in regional Australia is the Bendigo Bank headquarters. According to Bill Dowzer, principal of architects for the building, Bligh Voller Nield, the bank could have chosen to build new headquarters more cost effectively in Melbourne or on a greenfields site. Instead it opted to support the Bendigo community where it has its roots. The building received a 5 Star Green Star rating but would have been rated higher in the city, says Dowzer.

“If it had been in Melbourne it would probably have got a 6 Star,” says Dowzer. “That’s because there are a whole lot of factors that contribute to the ratings, such as the quality of the surrounding infrastructure, which disadvantage regional cities such as Bendigo.

“It means that projects in regional towns have to work much harder to get a five or six star rating.”

But this it was the project’s impact on the town and the community involvement in the whole process that was its real achievement. It is an aspect Dowzer would like to see included in sustainability ratings.

The project boosted local employment both during and after construction, improved local infrastructure and regenerated the town centre. It brought a much needed boost to a regional community weighed down by drought – local trades were employed to construct the building, local people worked in the building and local businesses were boosted by increased trade in the town centre. People in the town also felt great pride in the building.

Green Star to award points for social sustainability
Romilly Madew, chief executive of the Green Building Council of Australia, acknowledges Green Star has fallen short in recognising the value of regional developments and social sustainability.

This is going to change, says Madew, with plans to add a social sustainability category to Green Star.

“When Green Star was developed 10 years ago it was all about the environment. People looked at cities as if from a plane – from above rather than at street level. Nobody thought about people enough. But now we’re looking from street level and the whole issue of community and social sustainability has really picked up,” says Madew.

One of the most significant signs of this shift for the GBCA is that last week at its annual general meeting the Council changed the wording in its constitution so that “environmental” became “sustainability”. It is indicative of big changes to come. The Green Star Communities tool, which will be launched in pilot form next year, is just the beginning.

As part of its Green Star – Communities the GBCA has developed five principles for sustainable communities – liveability, economic prosperity, environmental responsibility, design excellence and governance.

Through working on the Communities tool, says Madew, the GBCA has been forced to look at the wider view of sustainability and to acknowledge that its Green Star tools need to be updated to include social factors. Additionally, Green Building Councils in developing countries such as South Africa have lobbied hard for inclusion of socio-economic factors to the rating tools.

“The work we’re doing on Green Star Communities is reflective of industry attitudes and behaviour,” says Madew.

“Green Star currently has only one category that is really about people and that is indoor environment quality. Through the World Green Building Council there is going to be an international category developed that will include economic and social factors of sustainability. This will be added as an extra category and will be incorporated into our other tools,” says Madew.

The new category is still two years off, says Madew, but the change is already happening out there in the industry. Companies are thinking about how the work environment affects their staff health, morale and productivity and property developers and government are considering how new developments can improve community interaction and quality of life.

“The release of the urban planning policy paper by the federal government this week is indicative of the fundamental change in approach from an urban planning and policy perspective. It is happening across all levels from COAG, the Major Cities Unit, the Green Star Communities and ASBEC Cities Report which I chair,” says Madew.

She cites industry initiatives such as the Better Working Environments project at One Shelley Street in Sydney as evidence of growing commitment to social sustainability. A joint study between Macquarie Bank, University of NSW, Multiplex and University of Technology Sydney, the project is investigating the long term benefits to those who work in green buildings, including improved productivity and wellbeing, using One Shelley Street as a case study.

The government’s recently released urban policy discussion paper, Our Cities – building a productive, sustainable and liveable future, also reviews options for managing growth and sustainability including real alternatives in transport to reduce dependence on cars, greater diversity of lifestyle choices, improved accessibility and affordability and less carbon dependent ways of living. (see our story on this https://thefifthestate.com.au/archives/18804).

Addressing socio-economic disadvantage
Creating sustainable communities through planning is something Norman Disney & Young director, Darrel Williams knows well. Several years in Manchester overseeing large-scale sustainable development projects gave him a good sense of what matters in communities where money is tight, jobs are scarce and energy costs are high. And it’s definitely not the latest in green technology.

“In the UK carbon reduction legislation is driving sustainable development and the carbon debate is taken very seriously. At the same time a lot of people in the North West are dealing with poverty and often don’t have enough to pay their fuel bills.
“So while people need to deliver carbon reduction in developments, they also need to apply a social overlay and help improve the economic sustainability of the community,” says Williams.

NDY was commissioned by UK developer, ASK Developments to work on First Street, a 760,000 square metre mixed-use development expected to play an integral part in Manchester’s urban regeneration.

While a number of technologies such as borehole cooling, biomass, photo voltaic and solar thermal have been incorporated into the project, there has been an emphasis on passive design features for each of the buildings. Europe’s largest living green walls are a prominent feature, along with an 18m wide, 300 metre-long, tree-lined boulevarde.

The water harvesting strategy for the site will lead to significant reductions in potable water consumption and outflow to the sewer.

As a sustainable development, a much broader agenda than CO2 emissions has been addressed – the indoor environment, quality employment, community enhancement, waste and pollution also form part of the overall strategy.

Now that Williams is back in Australia heading up the Perth office for NDY he is keen to apply the same principles to developments here. While Perth and much of Australia does not have the socio-economic issues of Manchester, he sees a growing awareness of social factors in urban development here.

“People are becoming more and more aware of how they can put something back into local communities. We’re working with a number of property trusts and banks where they are looking to sponsor projects that help boost the building trades. It is now above and beyond creating green buildings,” says Williams.

This involved looking deeper into practices such as offsite fabrication, which may be great for the environment because it reduces energy use, but it is not so great for the building trades.

“Some things like pre-fabrication are certainly good for the environment but we do run the risk of losing the trades. There could be a push to have more onsite work for some projects, particularly in economically disadvantaged communities. It’s something that people aren’t necessarily thinking about but when you raise it they start to realise the implications,” says Williams.

Tier One and Tier Two building companies are leading in this regard, says Williams, and are good indicators of social trends. Bovis, for example has an ambitious campaign to put its entire workforce through a sustainability skills program, including a one day workshop on what sustainability means and how they can live their lives more sustainably, says Williams.

“They’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do and because they know it  gives them a business advantage – it’s what people want.

“Workplace training must give people the big picture. It’s not enough for builders to have a green skills set, people need to understand why they are doing these things – why it’s important to have low VOC [volatile organic compounds] paints.

“Construction companies can make an enormous difference through the supply chain – for example, we’re working on a school which is located next to a brick manufacturer and so we’re using the local bricks for the project,” says Williams.
NDY is also talking to architects about how housing for indigenous communities can be improved.

Williams believes that one reason social sustainability is gaining traction is that it is more tangible than climate change.

“People have trouble with concepts that are abstract and distant. Regenerating local communities and seeing immediate results is easier to grasp and instantly rewarding.  And it can be as simple as thinking about skills training, buying materials and goods from companies that adopt good practices and supporting local businesses.

“These things are relatively new in property development but they are powerful.  If setting up a canteen, for example, in a building a company can choose to use sustainable suppliers – Free Trade and organic and local. They can talk about why they’ve done this.”

Getting beyond buildings
Rosemary Kirkby, head of communities with GPT, says the whole conversation about what buildings are has fundamentally changed, both when building owners engage with tenants and when new developments are being planned.

“There is a groundswell of community expectation. Demographic issues mean that the war for talent is going to be a pressing concern in the near future so companies are thinking hard about what makes an attractive place to work. And it goes further than that. It is no longer just environmental – it is so much broader than that. It is about what makes a business and a community sustainable. The property industry now has to think about whether it’s got the definition of what a premium building is,” says Kirkby.

“Having a premium building or development is about what it feels like for tenants to be in and what it feels like around the building when you walk out of the building at night. Are the plazas filled with people enjoying the space?

“We have to understand what people want from a building and its broader context? It is about getting the base building right but also about its engagement with the wider city. Are we providing a good experience?”

Planning projects such as the National Australia Bank building at Docklands in Melbourne required thinking about what the site would be like in 10 years time.

GPT’s new Charlestown Square shopping centre development in the Hunter region was an example of how an existing retail asset could be transformed so that it re-connected to the community and wider region.

The centre, which opened in late November, involved a six year consultation process with the local community to ensure it provided relevant services. It aims to reduce the centre’s impact on the environment by 30 per cent compared to a typical shopping centre of the same size and has pioneered innovative technologies such as a solar thermal cooling plant and co-generation. But the social factors were just as important says Kirkby.

“We have created a hybrid of the original with the focus ultimately about improving the health and wellbeing of the community,” she says.

GPT has incorporated a new lawn bowling club, football fields and a childcare facility into the development. A new youth and community centre, called ‘The Place’, will also be delivered in partnership with Lake Macquarie City Council in early 2011.

A similar approach was used for GPT’s revamp of the Melbourne Central shopping centre when the Daimaru department store was redeveloped in 2005. The design, by architects Ashton Raggatt McDougall, aimed to allow in more natural light and ventilation. The centre is currently being further developed to improve entries so that there is increased connection with the city pedestrian grid.

“Melbourne Central was a regional centre with no real connection to its users or to the external area. It was revamped so that the people who live and work there – the innovators and early adopters – would be attracted to it. It needed to be connected to the streets outside it and to be naturally ventilated. It has now become a well used and liked space and has also benefited the commercial businesses beyond it,” says Kirkby.

‘What we are now seeing is a much greater dependency of environmental and social factors. This will become increasingly important and those developers who understand this will do well.”

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au