Australian cities are not the only ones struggling to maintain a good quality of life for their residents as populations grow. WSP’s global director of property and buildings Tom Smith was in Sydney last week as part of a series of briefings to share some insights into how his home-town of London has handled its growing pains. He and the company’s Australia and New Zealand president and chief executive officer Guy Templeton shared some insights with The Fifth Estate.
According to Smith, London’s approach to railway stations is a good place to start to think about how to change the notion of city building and placemaking.
Ten or 15 years ago, railway stations in London were run down. But now they’re vibrant meeting places, you “you wouldn’t think twice” about for inviting clients or colleagues alike.
Instead of an unpleasant place to pass through as quickly as possible, they’re “absolute destinations”, with offices and residential complexes above and plenty of cafes and restaurants for dwell time that boost retail spending.
There’s a sustainability angle too because there is less need to use cars.
Smith says there are signs that Australia is going the same way.
Australia and New Zealand president and chief executive for the company Guy Templeton, says that in work with Melbourne and Sydney metros there’s often more people from the company’s property and building groups working on the projects than rail engineers because the focus in on “creating fantastic stations that are good places to be in.”
“The opportunities to reactivate and reinvigorate these places is immense,” Templeton says.
All cities have a hierarchy of needs
London is no different from any other city that’s competing against other cities for investment and talent, Smith says.
“And the only way you can attract talent into a city is to have great housing, great social infrastructure, education, mobility and jobs.
“Then you need the fun things to do, such as art galleries and sports, to spend the money you earn.”
He says there’s a hierarchy of needs for cities, starting with housing and followed by mobility, jobs, then entertainment and culture.
We also need affordable housing
But getting this balance right is not easy, with recent studies find that in 10 years the people who run London – the policemen, nurses and teachers – won’t be able to afford to live in London because it is too expensive.
This is where there’s a push to create more housing. But Smith says you need to be careful about how you go about densifying cities.
This is because the word “densification” tends to conjure up images of high rise, Bladerunner type towers, and isolation and loneliness.
“Those images are quite scary for people… So we need to create a different type of language for how we create housing.
“And densification doesn’t necessarily mean 30–40 storeys,” with mid-rise a good option for achieving densification without sacrificing too much amenity, he says.
There’s areas in London that have been developed with super high-rise residential apartments and with lots of cafes and restaurants, he says, but they are still completely soulless because people use the apartments as investments and they are often empty.
“There’s no real community, it’s not an active community.”
“How do you build communities that allow for diversity with millennials, police and nurses and other key workers, people from different cultural backgrounds?”
When it comes to getting a good proportion of social and affordable housing in the mix, Templeton says the Nordic countries are generally leaders in this space. In Copenhagen, for example, it’s now mandatory for 20 per cent of all developments to have an affordable element.
How can funding models help improve development?
Smith says that although there’s plenty of finance available to fund these places and infrastructure, getting the mechanism right is the challenge.
He’s observed some interesting innovations though, such as the model used for the Hudson Yards redevelopment in New York that’s similar to tax increment financing.
Something else Smith has noticed in the UK is pension funds investing in new communities and infrastructure because they are looking for long term investments.
“We live in a low interest rate economy – the returns on bonds and gilts is quite low – so real estate has become an attractive investment.”
In Australia, Templeton says ,there is always controversy around who pays for what, but at least there’s “a fairly well funded system.”
Things like road user pricing and road use in general are big issues in Australia, Templeton says, but there are simultaneously good opportunities to improve liveability.
Although there are signs that Australian cities are interested in taking cars off the road and putting in more walkways, cycleways, and dedicated bus routes, there are “probably cities around the world that are more advanced than we are”.
How can Australia improve its track record on liveability?
There’s two things Templeton believes Australian city-shapers should be doing more of.
One is engaging with the community early – with younger people as well as the current generation.
And the other is engage more with Indigenous people to try and reflect local indigenous heritage and needs in the urban environment.