Urbanist Ludo Campbell-Reid, who took a job at one of Melbourne’s fastest growing municipalities last year, likens his profession to city “doctors”.
Cities are either unhealthy or healthy: some are vibrant and exciting, and others are dull as ditch water.
Campbell-Reid, who notched up an enviable reputation in his last job with a deep involvement in Auckland’s revitalisation for over a decade, has now taken on possibly an even bigger career defining role.
This is with Wyndham City Council in Melbourne’s west. The challenge there, he says, is turning a rapidly growing municipality with more than 90 per cent of its land area dominated by detached housing into a “city in the west”.
So where to start?
First, Campbell-Reid says, skilled urbanists can diagnose a city’s ills and prescribe treatments. Some cities, he says, are in need of open-heart surgery (such as a new public transport system) and others need only a spot of “Botox” (tactical urbanism).
And much like the human body, the former Auckland Design Champion told The Fifth Estate, the city is a complex, interrelated system. Healing the city takes a crossdisciplinarity approach that sees requires environment professionals to be freed from their siloes.
Cities, he says, have suffered from the tendency to deal with complexity by erecting professional siloes, with things like transport, planning and design delivered in separately from one another.
The result is often loneliness, obesity, social disconnectedness and other common symptoms seen in many of the world’s urban populations.
Turning Auckland around
Before taking the Wyndham City Council job, Campbell-Reid spent 13 years at the Auckland operating table.
Interestingly, the city wasn’t always so prone to car dependency and sprawl. He says its issues started when the tramcars were ripped up in the 50s and replaced with motorways.
Then, for about 50 years, cars dominated planning. That was until people started to recognise the mistakes that had been made. Campbell-Reid spent over a decade working with other experts to inject people-centric planning back into the city, which included infusing M?ori culture into the planning process through an ongoing co-design program.
Auckland pursued an extensive, electric bus network with density built up around public transport system. The city not only doubled its public transport patronage, but obesity and loneliness were reduced.
This didn’t happen overnight, he stresses. It took legislation, tax, money, political leadership, partnerships, skills and vision.
“There’s no Holy Grail.”
Preventing gangrenous growth
Campbell-Reid draws on the human body analogy to explain the problems in Australian cities. He says many have “gangrenous” growth areas that don’t have the support systems to survive, with monocentric planning systems delivering liveable urban centres to the detriment of the city fringe
Allowing sprawl to occur for decades means huge amounts of energy is wasted driving and commuting.
Covid has thrown a lifeline to these outer growth areas. It might see the suburbs and the inner city rebalanced, and the emergence of truly “polycentric cities”.
“Ultimately, what I believe needs to happen is there needs to be an outer ring of precincts that recognise the post-Covid world. There’s an opportunity now to build back better.
“Covid has shone a light on how much better our cities can be how much quieter, how much more sustainable, less polluted, more local, more walkable.
“We can go back to how it used to be, very, very quickly, or make a plan for a polycentric Melbourne which sees the region working in concert with the centre.”
A “city in the west”
The Wyndham City Council’s challenge is turning the rapidly growing municipality, which includes Laverton, Werribee and Point Cook, area into a “city in the west”.
After a year of research, his prognosis is a lack of suitable and affordable housing, transportation and employment choice, with single family homes making up over 90 per cent of the area’s new urban development.
This has been driven by the state government’s land release program to build affordable homes through its Precinct Structure Plans (PSPs), essentially master plans for growth areas.
“I get the agenda, but there’s a big difference between affordable housing and affordable living.
“The number one issue in Wyndham is transportation, and so if you continue to build more of the same housing estates with more of the same types of houses with very little public transport or infrastructure, or worse, infrastructure that comes a long time after the houses are built, you enable the auto-dependency because people have no other option.”
The fix, he believes, is “putting the urban in the suburban”.
Bringing urban built form to suburban locations – a “downtown” of sorts – provides spots for people to “do urban things”, such as go for coffee, shop and work.
While recognising that there’s demand for single family homes and that more will need to be built, he says there still needs to be housing choice.
“We don’t have enough townhouses, or apartments. We have a lot of suburban places but not enough urban places.”
His vision is similar to the 20 minute neighbourhood principle, which is gaining global traction, including in Victoria. And while there’s now talk of one-minute cities where good amenity is on the doorstep, he says the 20-minute city is more realistic for these high growth areas.
“You can’t jump from the sublime to the ridiculous.”
Getting jobs to the area
Attracting employment is also key. One way to do that is with an anchor tenant, say by “cheekily” offering the area to Qantas as its home base, which the council has recently done.
“If you think about the home of aviation in Australia, it’s the RAF airbase in Point Cook. So we suggested to dear Alan Joyce ‘it’s time to come back to your spiritual home’.”
Key to building a city in the west will involve bringing other levels of government along, as well as private sector partners.
“We’re going to have to engage federal governments and state governments because to be frank, they are the larger more impactful player in this space because they manage the rail and the buses and the housing release through PSPs.”
We need good examples for density
The other key ingredient is exemplar projects. In the case of density, the absence of good examples means “density becomes a bad word”.
“When in fact density is the solution for growth areas … it’s our destiny, it’s the thing that’s going to pay for local services, and local jobs and vibrancy and pay for the park and pay for the cycleways, if you want all these things you need money.”
Ideally you also want to welcome a variety of people from different cultures, and at night as well as during the day.
These are some of the early ideas under consideration that will be presented to the community this year. The council is also reviewing the Wyndham 2040 plan, a community consultation exercise first undertaken five years ago.
What an urbanist does
Both specialists and generalists, urbanists are able to leverage a working knowledge of economics, human psychology, planning, architecture and more to create a functioning city. Cambell-Reid says.
But the profession needs to “explain ourselves more, and engage”. While urban planning is both “art and science”, the profession has failed to communicate the field’s value and complexity.
The result is that “everyone seems to think they know how to manage transport systems.”
“It’s systems-thinking that isn’t fully understood.”
Putting people first
Human psychology is notably absent from a lot of urban planning and development. A pertinent example is designing cities for moving cars, not people. And while Campbell Reid is not “anti-car” and sees the private vehicle as “an important part of mobility”, he also recognises cars are top killers of pedestrians, major greenhouse gas emitters, and lead to people walking less.
While public transport is important in human centric transport policy, there are other ways to achieve desirable outcomes such as implementing a blanket speed limit of 30 km an hour.
This can transform the economic potential of a place by allowing pedestrians to safety cross the road at any point rather than just at the lights.