What can Australia learn about creating more sustainable, functional cities from the ancient Romans? A fair bit according to urban planner and history enthusiast Dr Shane Geha.
One lesson we can learn from the Romans, according to the managing director of EG Urban Planning Dr Shane Geha, is how to manage density.
He says endless urban sprawl is a “bad thing” for amenity, functionality and sustainability, using the infamous congestion in Los Angeles as an example of what rampant sprawl can do to a place.
Many think the apartment is a modern invention but the majority of Romans lived in blocks of grouped or separate buildings called insulae (“island” in Latin).
Usually not more than five storeys high, they were first constructed by Emperor Caesar Augustus and were made of brick covered with concrete, had running water and were insulated.
Due to safety issues and the additional flights of stairs, the highest apartments were the cheapest to rent. The residences above were reached by an interior common staircase, receiving light and air from the street and inner court.
Many lived above their shops on the ground floor, such as stone masons and shoe makers.
Geha says that these types of mixed use buildings are the most conducive method of creating a more sustainable urban model.
Unfortunately, mixed use planning is not prevalent today in Australia because single-use zoning is preferred. It’s a model imported from Ohio in the United States in the early 1900s.
Known as Euclidean zoning, in this system towns or communities are divided into areas according to specific and distinct land uses. It’s useful for counteracting the impact of noise from heavy machinery on residential areas, and so forth.
“It’s a bit like when children are fighting, you send them to their separate rooms and then peace will ensue.”
Australia has also inherited the British council municipality model.
He says this approach to urban planning works for cities of a certain size but when the population reaches more than five million, it becomes problematic. This is because at a certain scale, everything from dropping off dry cleaning to commuting to work requires a car journey.
“That’s the worst model for a city. It’s unsustainable but also dysfunctional – if you are sitting in two hours of traffic then you don’t have a good model.”
“But we’re still scared of it here in Australia.”
In Rome, the roads were built to accommodate the only form of mass transport: chariots. The compact city allowed the empire’s chariots to march to each border in less than a day.
Sustainable mass transport
Geha says density is the “friend of the city” and creates the option for sustainable mass transport.
There’s another lesson from the past to be learnt here: the role of rail. Geha says George Stephenson’s locomotive (called “Rocket) developed in 1829 changed the connectivity between people and the town.
“Although not the first steam locomotive, the Rocket was the first to bring together several innovations to produce the most advanced locomotive of its day.
“The locomotive reduced the reliance on individual modal trips and saw the transportation of hundreds of people from point A to point B in a shorter time frame.”
He says rail is the “classic example” of transit-oriented development, which is urban development that maximises the amount of residential, business and leisure space within walking distance of public transport.
“Rail is our biggest asset in terms of mass transit in any city by far. The most direct, most pleasant way to get to different parts of the city.”
The only problem with rail is that it doesn’t work in the low density model because if you aren’t within walking distance of the train station you may as well get in your car and drive the whole way.
The Romans also forged the way for centralised transport hubs.
In the centre of Rome there was the Golden Milestone (the Milliarium Aureum) that was built by the Emperor Caesar Augustus. Every road in Rome is measured relative to the monument and is said to start there so that “literally all roads lead to Rome.”
This is much the same as “all trains lead to Central station” in Sydney, for example.
Why we ended up in this mess despite the lessons of history
Geha says the reason Australia has ended up in a car dependent mess is because we had so much space to start off with.
“If you have a large desk and four items, you throw them anywhere, because you’ve got so much space. If you have a small desk and 16 items then you start thinking about it and stacking things up.
“We’ve had the historical thing of 7.7 million square kilometres of land and few occupants of that land.”
Although the Romans paved the way for density, Geha is an advocate for going taller than five storeys now we have the technology to do it safely He says Le Corbusier lauded density and the notion of height next to open space in Paris.
“Given the price of land and the densities we allow, the affordability of low density doesn’t work well with current land prices”.