9-11 May 2023
ICC Sydney

Where is the shade? Better planning of open and public spaces will enhance our cities liveability in the face of growth

Apr 20, 2016 Landscape & Urban

Without rethinking the way we create, repurpose and use the streets and our existing open space, and in turn reflecting this in planning and policy change, we will never realise the full suite of benefits that we stand to gain from greening our cities.

Written by Jon Shinkfield, Landscape Architect, REALMStudios

The positive impacts of greening Australian cities extend well beyond creating a more handsome city – its contributions to the health of residents and workers, to ecologies and surrounding environments, and to our street economies are all major positive impacts that greener cities stand to deliver.

Open space in our cities accounts for between 40 and 45 per cent of a city footprint. Our streets account for between 30 to 35 per cent of the city footprint, meaning at best 10 per cent of a city is made up of useable open space. Changes to city planning and how we think about space and its use could increase the useable open space exponentially leading to a suite of positive impacts on a city and its residents. Removing parked cars from our streets is one example of how space can be created and be productively repurposed for pedestrian and economic benefit.

Despite the consensus that came from several government ministers at the recent Living Cities Workshop in Canberra about the positive impacts of greening cities, including reducing health costs, reducing energy costs, increased street economy, increased sense of community and social equity and the significant environmental benefits.

Higher density cities make for increased opportunity and potentially amenity, especially in cities like Melbourne and Sydney where populations are set to grow at exponential rates through to 2050.  Though higher density living is sometimes seen as a threat to the Australian quality of life and our love of open space, it’s not density that is the issue, rather its inadequate governance and policy. Some of the densest cities in the world are also the most desirable – just look at Amsterdam, New York City and Paris, to name a few. Adequately planning for open space and infrastructure plays a big part in what makes these cities desirable.

Urban sprawl has always been a factor for the growing Australian city and cities globally. What we are now seeing in Australia is a new density on the edges that represents an in-between state of development – these areas are no longer peri-urban. As our cities have continued to sprawl and increase in density we have seen the loss of the “great Australian backyard” – an icon that is hard to find even on the fringes of our cities as houses get bigger and blocks of land get smaller. But this loss isn’t something that particularly needs to be mourned if adequate policy and planning for useable and well planned public and open space and streetscape provides the amenity and resources that communities are looking for.

In the inner city one only has to look to Melbourne to see how growth is exploding along linear transport corridors outward from the city resulting in long lines of medium density housing. This contributes to more population and vehicles in local areas leading to increased congestion. This development approach is also fundamentally lacking in providing adequate amenity in the form of useable recreation areas and areas for food production, such as community gardens.

How many trams do you have to miss because they are over capacity before you don’t catch the tram anymore? How many times do you ride your bike into vulnerable territory because the bike lane diminishes to 300mm or drops out before you don’t ride your bike anymore? Who wants to live in an inner or middle ring environment that is gridlocked every morning, evening and weekend, and that suffers from noise and air pollution as a result? Who wants to hear the traffic all night on the arterial roads that are packed? Who wants to live in an area that is lifeless and without good recreation facilites? Where are we allowing for adequate amenity where increased development is occurring? And where we are allowing for it, are we allowing for the right type of amenity that will be actually be used by the community that surrounds it?

We need to think differently about how we create and use open space

The great Australian backyard is now a political imaginary place. For most Australians it is non-existent. The new backyard is the street and the park, places which make provision for friendship, engagement, play, productivity, forest and ecologies. What is required is a re-crafting of the public realm which will recreate this urban frontier and make it more amenable to the new style of living in our cities.

The Australian tradition of trees in grass for streets and parks is outmoded and creates open spaces that are unused and uncared for. We need to provide green, verdant, productive places that are also socially rich and this amenity can be included in our existing streetscapes by thinking about how we use space differently.

In order to enhance and maintain liveability in Australian cities we don’t have to forego our love of space, rather we need to think about how we are currently using the space we have and whether it is an ideal and effective use. We need to:

  1. Rethink the streets as:
    • Movement conduits for people – remove the parked car.
    • Meeting places and places to sit and recreate
    • Pedestrian conduits and create pedestrian prioritised pavements that are wide enough, safe enough and shaded
    • Treed shaded places, which will also reduce the urban heat island effect, reduce energy use in buildings, reduce heat stress and increase property values
    • Water catchment resources that will capture stormwater for tree growth and other non-potable needs.
  2. Rethink our parks as:
    • intergenerational social engagement places by providing amenity that we identify with, which could include rotating pop-up structures and events
    • forested places for shade and ecologies
    • places of water catchment and reuse to keep them green and verdant
    • productive places that can foster food-production growing opportunities in the form of community gardens.
  3. Rethink our new urban form by:
    • providing urban green at upper levels and potential food producing and ecological zones
    • maintaining winter sunlight to at least one side of the street by considering sun angles to maintain sun in winter and shade in summer.
    • providing usable communal space as part of every development.

Greening our cities and creating more open space does not require an expansion of a city footprint or necessarily compromising planning and development. Through prioritising people and considering the requirements for amenity in particular areas we can reconsider how existing space is used and create more social and productive open spaces.      

Jon Shinkfield will be giving a seminar Asleep at the wheel – Melbourne; the not so liveable city at this year’s DesignBUILD, held at Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre, 4-6 May 2016. To register to attend the free event visit: https://designbuildexpo.com.au/ 

Jon Shinkfield

Up until 2006 Jon was a founding partner of Sydney based design practice PSB (Pittendrigh Shinkfield Bruce); from 2007 to 2009 he occupied the role of Principal at EDAW in a shared role for Global Design Direction, and then from 2009 to 2012 was the Director of Design and Planning at AECOM Melbourne. In 2013 Jon was offered the role as Senior Research Fellow at Monash University as part of the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities and at the same time formed the new practice REALMstudios with Damien Pericles in Perth and Chris Yandle in Sydney.

Jon’s projects are framed by a deep interest in the relationship between water, people and place and a consideration of consumption and production, cultural response and spatial legibility, where he sees projects through a landscape architectural and urban design lens and where practice is informed by theory and theory by practice.

Once again Jon combines theory and practice but now with an increased focus on city making projects and a legible response to livability through design.


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