URBAN PLANNING: More than 120 years ago, English reformer Ebenezer Howard conceived of an ideal settlement plan for people to live in nature within a self-contained city.  At a time when city life often meant industrial filth and social degradation, the promise was instantly appealing and the first towns at Letchworth and Welwyn were built. 

Boosted by mass car ownership, the idea spread around the world and evolved into town planning lore: the metropolitan area as a large scale diagram with a functional hierarchy of centres connected by efficient transport networks and land uses separated by green.

Many planning ideas have come and gone, but the utopian Garden City and its offshoot, the Garden Suburb, has proved to be the most enduring concept. Letchworth’s marketing slogan, “Health of the country, comforts of the town” has been the sales pitch for new suburbs ever since. 

Although the filthy factories and slums have long gone, the residual fear of urbanism and belief in open space (the more the better) is deeply entrenched in the Australian psyche. 

And so the Garden City continues to dominate our planning visions. Districts designated for single uses separated by acres of open space optimistically coloured an English shade of green. 

Centres straddling nature reserves with development dispersed around the sides: the Arcadian inversion of the ancient city form. Masterplans trumpeting the hectares of open space as the trade-off for high density development on wide arterial roads. 

At the scale of actual places, apartment buildings set in a plaza or park without a street in sight are the press release image for demonstrating “liveability”.  It is a clever play on our association of higher buildings within established centres offering transport and service choices, coupled with the allure of large open spaces.

In this vision, there are only three types of public space: wide and fast roads, pedestrianised spaces and parkland. The humble street in all its infinite variations and delights, the bones of real cities for millennia, is missing.

If the big scale planning is Garden City, this type of urban design feels like modernism all over again updated with green roofs and better graphics. 

In a Western Sydney summer, are gigantic paved plazas really where people want to hang out?  What happened to all of Jane Jacobs’, William Whyte’s and Jan Gehl’s evidence for street based, human scaled cities?

Popular places in our established cities show us the way in our climate – the classic 20 metre wide street edged by fine-grained frontages under shady awnings; the bustling intimacy and chaos of places like Spice Alley; modestly sized, frequent and carefully managed city parks. 

Planners and designers are by nature forward looking, optimistic and imaginative. But while our industry is good at marketing and awarding individual projects, it lacks an honest appraisal of lived outcomes at an aggregated scale. Without feedback, failed utopianism risks repeating itself. 

So what can we learn from the recent past of new towns and suburbs?  What has worked well and what hasn’t? The design quality of buildings may have improved, but what have we learnt at the scale of the neighbourhood and district?

A random sample of recent NSW planning strategies and design guidelines shows about 70 per cent of images are pre-war high streets or civic places not created by modern planning, 20 per cent nature or parks and 10 per cent are mainly inner-city projects. Yet despite the rhetoric for compact mixed use urbanism, active transport and open space as the cornerstones of liveability, most Australians spend most of their time in car dependent, suburban settlements.  There is a gap between the urbanism promised and what is delivered, with no accountability for the difference. 

Since the 1990s, the greenfield principles for transit oriented neighbourhoods with mid-rise, fine-grained, walkable town centres have been understood but unrealised.  Not one multi-ownership, public street-based town centre has been built in NSW in 40 years.

Regional and outer metropolitan growth continues as car dependent, broad scale segregated uses – housing estates, business parks, shopping malls and bulky goods complexes continue??? Dressing these development models up in new words like innovation hubs, homemaker centres and technology precincts’ does not change the outcomes.

Lots of town centres and suburbs have been built, but no towns. Apartment buildings with a neighbourhood retail mall, plaza and oversized parkland is not a town centre. 

It is just the same suburban formula as the last 40 years but with higher buildings. If most of the workers, services and retail superstores are in sprawling business parks, if childcare is in suburban back lots, if leisure centres are in the next suburb surrounded by car parks, if the pub is a lifestyle facility at the motorway junction, then that “town centre” is just a stage set.

No matter how pretty the main street, new centres will not evolve into towns while owned by single corporations and activities are dispersed in car dependent regions.

Decades of greenfield development have shown that higher net densities (that is, building intensity) are not enough to create the promised vibrancy, mobility choices and social experiences. Chronically low gross densities caused by excessive open space and road reserves dilute activity, sever neighbourhoods and bake in car dependency.

Residential densities are increasing in new areas, but not the activity densities or diversity of land ownership that underpin genuinely sustainable and richly textured neighbourhoods that adapt over time. 

Listing buzzwords, focusing on details or assuming the advantages of a 19th century urban structure does not address the delivery realities and infrastructure conventions of Australian suburbanisation. 

Post-implementation research from our own backyard would be a stronger evidence base for decision making than relying on modelling, conjecture and international case studies.

Our industry has a vital responsibility to deliver the very best in town planning, urban design and infrastructure in greenfield development over the next few decades. Now is the time to examine the lived realities of the recent past at all scales – streets, neighbourhoods and districts, and diagnose how, why and when that gap emerges between rhetoric and outcomes.  Jargon and graphics change and may feel like a new frontier, but the lure of utopian visions is old.  The evidence for what works is right before our eyes if we choose to see it.

Tanya Vincent is an urban designer with Transport for NSW. She has 25 years experience across industry sectors and is a Churchill Fellow. Any opinions in this article are her own and do not represent the views of TfNSW.

Spinifex is an opinion column open to all our readers. We require 700+ words on issues related to sustainability especially in the built environment and in business. For a more detailed brief please send an email to editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

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  1. My work/ research at the intersection of disability and the built environment leads me to say: Rob Imrie (geographer, sociologist, urban planner) observed that “western cities are characterized by a design apartheid where building form and design are inscribed with the values of an ‘able-bodied’ society” — a somewhat inevitable consequence of both the charity (disability) model’s invisible segregation of people with disability and Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City ideals. As similar ‘garden city’ diagrams and the diagram in this article show, Howard, one of the most influential theorists of urban development, segregated people with disability and other ‘others’ by placing institutional ‘Convalescent Homes’, ‘Asylums for Blind and Deaf’, and ‘Farms for Epileptics‘ amongst ‘Fruit Farms’, ‘Forests’, and ‘Cow Pastures’, well away and isolated from city life.

  2. So appreciate Tanya’s comments on the liveability formula. Most families wish for walking space to smaller shops, eateries overlooking a park where the kids can play, and space for dogs to run. These simple activities not only bring families but communities together. The bigger retail shops are utilitarian and places to spend as little time as possible.