Larry Beasley

Internationally renowned urban planner Larry Beasley kicked off the Green Cities conference today (Tuesday) with a keynote address on the need to rekindle our urban love affair for better functioning, sustainable cities.

Mr Beasley said Melbourne reminded him of Vancouver, the inner city of which he helped dramatically revitalise with such success it is now referred to as “the Vancouver model”.

He said the best thing for the audience to do to learn about great urbanism was to explore Melbourne.

“Everywhere I’ve tuned in the last 24 hours, I have seen innovation, I have seen interesting details,” Mr Beasley said. “It’s great city.”

However, he said, Melbourne was unfortunately not like most of the cities in the world.

“Most people around the world would tell you that the modern city is actually soulless,” he told the audience. “That it is heartless. They would go further and say it is brutal. And I think that is all too true for people all over the world. I bet you it’s true for many people in the room today.

“And the great irony of modern culture is the more that we have chosen city life – and over half of all human beings have chosen urban living – the less that city life has satisfied us.

“We have to fix this.”

A new model, with love

The Green Cities audience
The Green Cities audience

Beasley said there were many people around the world slowly putting into place a new urban model, however.

“All over the world there is growing recognition that this brutality must stop; that we have to imagine a different kind of city that really does – seriously and as a top priority – address human needs, and that puts the soul back into the city.

“Put another way… there’s a growing understanding that it is actually love that will be the prime force in the future evolution of successful 21st century cities.”

Mr Beasley said that the fundamental challenges of cities could only be responded to if citizens were solidly on side, however.

Citizens needed, he said, a strong enough personal affection for the cities so they would be loyal to it, and do their part to make the city thrive. Creating more sustainable, denser communities however was a challenge because density had been done so poorly in the past people were understandably wary.

“They think of density and mixed use as probably hitting them negatively. They think of diversity as unsafe. And transit is not even in most people’s vocabulary.”

One addition to the formula of smart growth that would foster people’s affection for the city was placemaking – bringing back that human touch.

“I call this experiential urbanism.”

A consumer focus and a physical, urban design focus were needed to achieve this. Design of cities has been sorely lacking, though.

The city “exploited as a commodity” had shaped how cities had grown, not thoughtful design, Mr Beasley said.

“Most of the contemporary city is not actually designed. It’s just laid out. Most of our buildings and spaces are not even designed by architects or landscape architects. We use artists only occasionally. Whole districts of our cities have never seen the touch of an urban designer. And it’s all very utilitarian.”

The “great prowess” of design needed to be brought back to excite people and lead them to invest in the city and live in it for a lifetime.

Reimagining suburbs

Larry Beasley
Larry Beasley

In the suburban context, as opposed to inner city living, densification was a challenge because people wanted the privacy, spaciousness, safety and neighbourhood that the suburban model provided.

However, there was a sustainable suburban template that could be used both in new suburbs and retrofitted into existing suburbs – pre-war streetcar neighbourhoods built between 1900 to 1930 – think some inner rung suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney.

These suburbs come together into a coherent wholes and feature an urban structure targeted around single blocks extending from a commercial high street. They have back utility lanes, tree-lined streets, local parks, local community cities, offices and apartments over shops, private gardens and private gardeners.

They have “real emotional value and real financial value,” Mr Beasley said.

“Without anyone really trying very much the density and the social diversity has increased while the predominately one and two storey scale has been maintained.”

The sustainable, walkable neighbourhood starts to work at densities of 100 units a hectare and greater, Mr Beasley said, and many of these neighbourhoods were now at this density.

It was an inspiration, not a takeaway model, but could be used to show that density could be done gently, that diversity could be integrated successfully, that suburbs could be lush and charming, and created with love.

While there was unfortunately not many examples of new developments integrating what Mr Beasley spoke of, there was in fact a good Australian example – Subiaco in WA.

“This to me is a very brilliant neighbourhood design that has been done in recent years. The Subiaco model could redefine suburbs not only here in Australia but in many parts of the world because it can offer that gentle urbanism people want while providing the responsible urbanism that people need in the future.”