Creating places for people

An Urban Design Protocol for Australian Cities

I stood in the plaza at the rear of the Sydney Town Hall last week, contemplating how delicately a pedestrian bridge to the brutalist-inspired 1970s Town Hall House addition had been rammed into the existing nineteenth century sandstone building.

A few days prior, I’d pondered, with some panic, the logic behind the installation of obtrusive railing to prevent pedestrians from tripping over some new plumbing-related mounds on a footpath in Rushcutters Bay. Relatively tucked away it may be, but nevertheless it’s difficult to see it as anything but an embarrassment for an affluent suburb in a major city in one of the planet’s most urbanised nations. And an affront to any pedestrian who comes across it.

Why the widely recognised beauty and nuances of Sydney’s natural environment are not easily translated and incorporated into imaginings and construction of the city’s urban environments is curious. Speculation about why points to many factors – car dominance, management issues, lack of financial investment, liability concerns, and insufficient public fluency with things architectural, urban, and landscape-design related. The phenomenon afflicts many Australian cities.

On 30 November 2011, the Australian Government’s Department of Infrastructure and Transport launched the first ever Australian Urban Design Protocol. Titled Creating Places for People, the protocol is a direct response to a call by leaders at the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) for a higher standard of urban design and architecture in Australian cities. Good call!

An associated media release from the office of the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, describes the protocol as “a new tool to improve the quality and useability of our public spaces and city buildings – a plain-English ‘how-to’ guide and check list for decision makers and professionals whose work affects the built environment as well as members of the public who care about the design of their local community.”

Importantly, the protocol defines urban design as both an outcome (based on the pillars of productivity, sustainability, and liveability) and a process (based on the pillars of leadership and design excellence). To quote the protocol document:

“Although urban design is often delivered as a specific ‘project’, it is in fact a long-term process that continues to evolve over time. It is this layering of building and infrastructure types, natural ecosystems, communities and cultures that gives places their unique characteristics and identities.”

Developers and councils, take note!

The principles, desired outcomes, and attributes of good urban design and spaces are spelled out in an extremely straightforward language that one hopes will be interpreted sensibly and sensitively by decision makers. The aim was to make the protocol digestible by everyone – not muddied by obscure terms. Explained Minister Albanese during the protocol’s launch:

“The planners among you will be disappointed if you were hoping to hear about permeability, legibility and way-finding. Instead you will read descriptions such as ‘It feels comfortable to walk through,’ ‘You feel safe and secure,’ and ‘It is a place you want to visit, experience or live in.’”

How was it developed? The Department of Infrastructure and Transport’s Major Cities Unit assembled an editorial board of around fifty people, which included State Government Architects, representatives of State planning departments, representatives from the Australian Local Government Association and each of the capital cities, the Heart Foundation, Preventative Health Taskforce, peak industry and professional bodies, and academics. Contributions also came from members of the public via a public consultation process and workshops around the country. The process took two years.

Congratulations to Sara Stace (Director, National Urban Policy) and team at the Major Cities Unit for their work on the protocol. Sara explained to me some of the challenges involved:

“We tried to provide a visually strong framework that would make sense to anyone reading the document. It was surpisingly difficult to keep the jargon out. With an editorial board of fifty professionals, and feedback from public consultations, we had a lot of great suggestions. But they often used languge that could only be comprehended by other professionals. I kept applying the ‘mum’ test: ‘Could my mum understand this, and would she want to visit such a place?’ I’d like to think we’ve succeeded to a large extent.”

The principles of the protocol have been adopted by a number of organisations – government, professional, and private. View them on the protocol’s website.

Another interesting read is the State of Australian Cities 2011 report, released in October by the Major Cities Unit. It presents findings on population, productivity, sustainability, liveability, and governance for Australia’s eighteen largest cities. The report can be downloaded here.

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