The spaces in between….

The design of the spaces between buildings is perhaps even more important than the design of the buildings themselves.  It was called 'civic design' when I was a boy and was seen as part of town planning; in those days they were very keen on axes (the virtual linear sort not the wood chopping kind), also flagpoles and formal flower gardens. Now its called 'urban design' and the growing landscape architecture profession has ensured that the design of what is now called the public realm has greatly improved our cities over the last twenty years.

The Department of Planning and Community Development has an explanation of "What is Urban Design ? on its website plus a nine page Urban Design Charter and the twelve Principles of Urban Design but be warned your eyes will glaze over by the time you've read all these words.

Good examples in Sydney are the Martin Place Precinct, Sydney Square (between the Town Hall and the Anglican cathedral) and the pedestrian areas at Circular Quay leading to the Opera House. 

In Melbourne the best urban intervention is without doubt the South Bank walkway joining Swanston and Flinders Streets; nothing to it really, yet it's made an enormous difference. Others are the City Square and the preservation of the lanes with some, like Hardware Lane, closed for lunchtime eating.  More recent examples are the new tram stops, the alterations to Swanston Street and the redevelopment of Lonsdale Street in Dandenong.

The design of places like Federation Square, or completely new areas like Docklands and Fishermans Bend are of a different scale and kind to those that simply improve our existing city areas and suburbs.  Architects are prone to rattle on in a broad philosophic way about larger scale urban design, of shaping the look of whole new areas of cities, and RMIT has just started a new post-graduate course in Urban Design to this end. These larger scale opportunities are relatively rare however because of the difficulty of amalgamating many smaller existing sites in different ownerships, and they usually suffer from not always wise political influence because of lobbying by developers and the lure of the potential profits to be made. 

In a way the more difficult, but less dramatic challenge of improving the suburbs we already have is more important, and what we need is more emphasis on improving the areas where most people live and work.  Sometimes only minor undramatic changes are all that is required but they usually involve trade-offs as they abut public roads and private properties. Except in special locations around railway stations, where densities will increase the most, the areas of change are there-fore limited and come with political and people problems that have to be resolved. But the quid pro quo is that quite small changes can sometimes bring about benefits that are out of all proportion to the size of the input.

The simplest change is planting more deciduous street trees to provide shade in summer and sun in winter.  This requires either wide footpaths or planting the trees in the street, both of which result in the loss of parking spaces.  However nothing makes a greater difference in urban environments than trees, and planting more trees has good council and public support but they are too often vandalised and need protection to survive some of our fellow citizens.

Footpaths in strip shopping centres are often not wide enough for desirable things like outside café tables, or to permit the increasing use of those motorized wheelchairs by some elderly people.  Removing the kerbside parking enables the footpath to be widened and not only creates the opportunity for café tables and trees, but also for irregular market stalls to leaven the retail mix, which can often be a good thing. 

It also creates the possibility of more attractive paving than black bitumen and furnishing the street with well designed street furniture like litter bins and seats.  Usually the only way of widening footpaths is to eliminate the kerbside parking.  Given the paranoia of shopkeepers about the nexus between parking and their profits, reducing the number of kerbside spaces normally creates pressure to replace the lost car spaces behind the shops. This is expensive as it involves acquiring land but is often seen as politically necessary.

A much better alternative increasingly employed in some places is for the Council to provide a small mini-bus that is free and circles the area stopping when it is hailed; it obviates the need for more parking and is seen as a better solution for an ageing population.  Completely closing streets to all traffic other than emergency vehicles, particularly in Melbourne with its rectilinear grid and trams in most major streets and shopping centres, is a limited option and in any case it's not always the best solution.  Without a bit of traffic bustle this can sometimes create spaces that can seem a bit empty.  This option IS a real possibility however in St Kilda's Acland Street because the 96 tram terminates there: click on the Publications tag and find 'Can Acland Street be Saved?'

Most strip shopping centre footpaths are covered by fixed verandah awnings but there are better options that make the space more open and attractive.  You can see good examples of different types in St Kilda on the retail side of Fitzroy Street. In this case the footpaths are already wide enough and the major half between Grey Street and Acland Street (below) has a few bent trees and permanent awnings cover the wide footpaths with their café seating. 

Fitzroy St Di Stasio

The other half up past the venerable George Hotel on the Grey Street corner (below) doesn't have fixed roof type awnings, most of the cafes have roll out canvas blinds of one sort or the other.  The visual difference and feeling is enormous particularly in the winter months when the blinds are retracted.  The same broad footpath with its larger and less distorted deciduous plane trees and the retracted blinds lets in the sun and has a much more open, relaxed and stylish feel than the other end with its fixed roofs.

Fitzroy St top

I can't imagine that the more common 'fixed awning' situation could ever be changed, the disruption and cost would probably guarantee its rejection by shopkeepers and although changing the awning roofs would make streets more open and attractive, it probably wouldn't increase the turnover of the shops; it should be kept in mind when anything changes.  Another good option that can be seen in Mildura is footpaths covered by a trellis of deciduous grape vines

They are all simple things, but they can make a civilised improvement out of all proportion to the change.  Like everything in this world, these simple changes can be designed with wit and intelligence, or in a lumpen way. Unfortunately many good designers ignore this area of urban design as they don't see these small changes as a big enough design challenge.

One of my larger local public areas that's always singled out as needing attention is St Kilda Junction.  Council's current position is described as
'extensive detailed work with consultants on built form, community needs and infrastructure to be able to provide a comprehensive rationale for future height controls.' 

Ho hum, these may be worthy words but I take out my revolver when I hear the pretentious term 'built form' and building over this space, as has been suggested, is fraught with practical difficulties.  It would be both difficult and expensive to alter this traffic intersection, and it's not the sort of place that could be easily beautified (terrible word!). But the improvement of areas like this (and the Triangle) requires creative design input rather than more talk and more words. In instances like this, councils should simply commission a good designer to explore the design possibilities and options for informed discussion.

But we also need more active citizen involvement to suggest areas of desirable changes in their local areas.  You have to get out and walk, you know your area better than anyone else and opportunistic suggestions can sometimes help bring about miracles. I returned to Sydney in 1960 after working for six years overseas, and all those Italian piazze had made me ambitious to create better public places in my own city.  

A great piazza was proposed in front of James Barnet's sand-stone General Post Office in Sydney's Martin Place, an area  containing the cenotaph on a traffic island.  There had been boundary changes and three Commissioners were running the city until elections could be held, and they unceremoniously rejected the idea.  But Leo Port, one of the candidates for office persuaded his party to adopt the idea as an election pledge. They won and a piazza between George and Pitt Streets was adopted at their first meeting.  There was a three months trial to determine the effect on traffic (none!) and construction started on site within six months of the election. 

In the light of the dithering by Port Phillip Council about the design of the Triangle site, this all seems nothing short of miraculous; there was no 'vision statement', it was world away from the ponderous council decision making of today. Was this a real difference between Sydney and Melbourne culture, or just autre temps, autre moeurs?

The next stage of Martin Place revealed difficulties however, as street closures in NSW require the consent of the Minister for Lands and despite Council's wishes he refused to approve the second stage (between Pitt and Castlereagh Streets) because he didn't like the freestanding outdoors café that was proposed as part of the design. In the face of this political impasse, a waterfall and terrace were substituted for the cafe and ways were sought to avoid this problem in the future. 

The awkward geometry of the layout of many Sydney streets created by meandering bullock drays well before Governor Macquarie created the first formal town plan, had in many places left narrow footpaths and awkward, wider than required road areas so it was possible to resume parts of these streets to create small pedestrian places without actually closing the whole street. This avoided the need for Ministerial approval but also had the additional advantage that as these improve-ments were not large budget items they were simply funded out of the city engineer's annual roadwork budget without Vision Statements or any special fuss.  This simple and obvious idea (see below) has since spread everywhere but this was where it started; one of my more popular ideas!