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Resource: Green Urbanism Down Under

Australia and America share many cultural similarities. Among them: roots in Great Britain, a "New World" legacy of both optimism and exploitation, and a car-centric culture. But while Australia has become a trailblazer on the path to sustainable urban development, the United States still has much to learn. Sustainable Communities expert Timothy Beatley (see bio below), who has previously chronicled sustainable urban development in Europe in the book Green Urbanism, now turns an eye toward Australia and the lessons it can share with the United States in his 2009 release, Green Urbanism Down Under. The dense book, which Beatley wrote in collaboration with Australian sustainability expert Peter Newman, is packed with case studies of innovative policy-making, community solutions to preservation, cutting-edge green building, and much more. Below is an excerpt from the book, which Beatley, Newman and publisher Island Press agreed to share with the Worldchanging audience.


By Timothy Beatley with Peter Newman

Green Transport and Land Use

Australian cities are, much like American cities, sprawling in their land use patterns and highly car dependent. Home-to-work trips in Brisbane, for instance, are made about 92 percent by car and only 8 percent by transit and other means. The present lord mayor, Campbell Newman, a member of the liberal party (Republican), is committed to building a series of five to seven auto tunnels designed to free up road traffic in the city center; however, most other mayors in Australia’s major cities are trying to build up other transportation modes rather than infrastructure for car use.

There are differences between Australian and U.S. government control of land use. Australian metropolitan areas have a history of regional planning coupled with a generally stronger government planning system and framework that has resulted in a more compact urban form. These impressive regional and state planning efforts (discussed in more detail in chapter 6), which have gained in strength and emphasis on sustainability, are an important part of the story, along with a jurisdictional geography of relatively large state boundaries (that completely encompass metro areas). Newman and Kenworthy’s global cities database suggests that Australian city-regions use about half the transport fuel of U.S. city-regions on a per capita basis (Newman and Kenworthy, 1999).

While public transit use in Australia’s cities is closer to that of American cities than of European cities, in Sydney, Perth, and Melbourne major commitments have been made to strengthening “centres” and investing in the rail and bus services that make these cities transit oriented.

In Perth, this sprawling capital city is attempting—with a regional plan (Network City) and major new extensions of its rail system—to reduce dependence on private cars. Significant progress was made during the 1990s, when rail ridership grew from 8 million riders per year to 31 million per year (1991 to 2001), and that number increased to 47 million by 2005 (new metro rail)—a result of a $400 million rail investment (Kenworthy, Murray-Leach, and Townsend, 2005). The latest chapter is the seventyfour-kilometer extension of Perth’s rail system to Mandurah to the south, which was completed in December 2007 and is expected to double the patronage again. This would mean that a city was able to go from almost no rail to around 100 million passenger trips per year in around fifteen years. The journey-to-work data between 2001 and 2006 show that Perth increased its use of rail by 44 percent and its use of cars by just 15 percent. Few cities in recent years have done anything quite as spectacular as this, and the possibilities for U.S. cities are clear because Perth is very like many U.S. cities in its commitment to car-based developments in its recent redirections.

These investments have been referred to as “transformative sustainable infrastructure”:

Perth’s new rail system which has been built with substantial political input over the past fifteen years, is quite transformative. It has cost $2 billion and has given the city a 180 km modern electric rail system with 72 stations; it was built without a cent of federal funds, though the Freeway it passes down was funded almost entirely from federal coffers. This railway has been justified over many elections as a way of oil proofing the city. (Newman, 2005, p. 14)

The story of Perth’s recommitment to rail is an interesting one because it tells us something about the role of civic society in Australia’s green urbanism. The state government closed the rail line in 1979, but a strong civic movement emerged that set a new vision of what could be achieved. This has largely happened as the issues were made part of each political agenda over the past twenty-five years (Newman, 2002).

Some fantastic examples of emerging transit villages and transitoriented development (TOD) can be cited from the development in and around Perth’s rail system. Subi-Centro is one of the best examples, and most promising models, of transit-oriented development in Australia. This eighty-hectare former industrial site in the city of Subiaco has been transformed into a compact, walkable, relatively dense new urban neighborhood, with an underground Transperth rail station as its key mobility feature. The project created housing for two thousand new residents, three to four thousand jobs, and eighty thousand square meters of commercial retail.

Directly above and adjacent to the station is Subi-Square, a mixed-use complex of office, shops, restaurants, and a full-service grocery store. A neighborhood commons, children’s play area, and promenade are all within a few minutes’ walk of new homes as well as close to Subiaco’s existing (and fairly vibrant) commercial district.

The urban design guidelines of Subi-Centro have been rewarded in the marketplace, as prices have risen and demand for units is strong. The amenities and quality of life are impressive here. The planning instruments employed to bring about Subi-Centro are worth noting. An act of parliament created in 1994 the Subiaco Redevelopment Agency and (importantly) exempted it from local planning conditions and requirements. The national government’s Building Better Cities program helped fund the sinking of the rail station, allowing more compact and intensive use of the land above and around the station.

One measure of the success of the TOD neighborhood is the value of private investment here. From a state investment of $130 million AUD, $500 million AUD has been spent by the private sector. The Subiaco Redevelopment Authority (SRA) also developed an impressive set of urban design guidelines to ensure that a quality urban form results. Elements of these guidelines include the following:

* A form-based guideline ensures a visually coherent development although each building is different. The resulting medium-density urban form is now being called New Perth style. It is strongly urban in character, with buildings on the front property line creating a Brooklyn, New York, feel on the street (buildings close to the sidewalks with little or no setback); all garaging is at the rear, creating a more walkable feel to the street.
* A Housing Diversity Policy was adopted by the SRA in 2002, which sets the target of 10 to 15 percent of new housing (on SRA land releases) as affordable—for example, social housing or special needs housing (Subiaco Redevelopment Agency, n.d.).
* An extensive network of cycleways and pedestrian footpaths, as well as extensive public spaces, is also required. The popularity of Subi-Centro is testified to by the range of other developments modeling themselves on this project, including new suburbs on the new southern railway.

Timothy Beatley is Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia. His books include Resilient Cities (Island Press, 2008), Native to Nowhere (Island Press, 2005), and Ecology of Place (Island Press, 1997).

Peter Newman is professor of sustainability at Curtin University in Western Australia. He is the author of Resilient Cities (Island Press, 2008) and Cities as Sustainable Ecosystems (Island Press, 2007).

From Green Urbanism Down Under by Timothy Beatley with Peter Newman.
Copyright © 2009 Island Press. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Photo credit: travellingred, CC license.

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While the comments about Brisbane's Lord Mayor Newman building a series of tunnels are correct, the inference that he is not looking at boosting other means of transportation is inaccurate.
He is actually boosting the current bus fleet by over 50% over the next 4 years (from 900 to 1400), which in any city is a massive increase in public transport infrastructure. He has also installed air-conditioning in the current bus fleet (a necessity for our climate) which has seen bus patronage outstrip rail patronage (a rare occurance not seen since the 60's).
The trains in our city are controlled by the higher governing body, the QLD State Government (which is controlled by the Labor Party, or the Democrats in American speak), which has not done anything to increase rail patronage in the last 20 years, which is also supported by freely available figures.
That being said the rest of the article was a good read, although I felt the need to set the record straight.

Posted by: PK from Brisbane on 28 Jan 09

"Australia has become a trailblazer on the path to sustainable urban development" - that surprised me, as I'm from Sydney which is horrible in terms of transport and not great in planning - even compared to many American cities. (There's been increased density in parts, but good planning means more than letting developers put up multi-storey blocks near train stations - this is just a part of the story.)

The kind of change that Peter Newman has championed is not just sustainable - it makes for a much better city to live in. This is one reason I go against the stereotype for a Sydneysider, and readily admit that Melbourne is a much nicer city to live in, for the majority of people who can't live by the beach or harbour.

Question/request: Are there good open licensed resources on urban planning and transport principles? (Open licensed meaning public domain, or Creative Commons BY or BY-SA). It'd be great to add more to our urban planning pages on Appropedia.

Posted by: Chriswaterguy on 30 Jan 09

"Australia has become a trailblazer on the path to sustainable urban development" - yes that line also suprised me. Seems more like we're finally starting to make some efforts to catch up with the real trailblazers in parts of Europe, Asia and South America, rather than being trailblazers ourselves. Although Australia can lay claim to originating the permaculture movement in it's modern form. The Beatley & Newman book does look interesting though.

Another Australian thinker on sustainability worth checking out is Mark Diesondorf - his book "Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy" is a really wide-ranging but also practical guide for how Australia could transition to a renewable-energy powered society.

Posted by: Patrick from Adelaide on 30 Jan 09

I wouldnt be looking to Australian cities for examples of sustainable city planning, in my opinion. I live now in Australia and notice that most people live in houses rather than well built apartments. The result is that land that could comfortably house 20 families houses 4 or 5 families. Where do all of the people live? Well, usually a long way from their place of work or study. I would look to Berlin for an example of how inner city living can be planned sustainable. There, people live in well planned apartments, bike tracks are extensive and separated from traffic, public transport is fast and extensive, and city parks and gardens are everywhere. I think the idea of having your own house is unnecessary. To live close to your work, it is better to build medium rise apartments (5 levels) with regulated standards for building. But this is just my opinion having lived in both Berlin and Melbourne.

Posted by: david on 30 Jan 09

David commented: "I live now in Australia and notice that most people live in houses rather than well built apartments."

Partly true - there are many more apartments these days, but some of them have been found to use no less energy than houses, thanks in part to daft regulations (such as a council requirement to install clothes driers if there is no clothes line - rather than requiring the clotheslines).

There are still some advantages to apartments - the transport advantages that you mention - but energy used by housing is of key importance in tackling energy efficiency.

Posted by: Chriswaterguy on 31 Jan 09

This book review talks about Australia being a leader. This is not the case and must be a selective list of minor achievements. I have lived in Australia for 61 years and I am continually distressed to see ever more investment in infrastructure for cars and a piddling investment in public transport. Interstate transport is predominantly road not rail. Low efforts in sustainable energy, huge commitment to coal fired power stations, low uptake of hybrid vehicles, denial of climate change is widespread.
despite huge potential for wind and solar power we cling to coal for 80% of power generation. We will only commit to a 5% CO2 reduction by 2020. The list goes on and on. Australia is many years behind in the game of world changing.
Perhaps the book was written by a PR spin company because the way you praise it seems like not the Australia I live in.

Posted by: david booth on 31 Jan 09

By odd coincidence I just finished reading an article in today's Independent entitled "Parched Australia faces Collapse as Climate Change Kicks in"

I know Worldchanging is all about our Bright Green Future and that Beatley and Newman are serious cheerleaders for the cause, but the solutions they offer are too slow, too timid, ultimately will not stop the heat, the drought, and the withering of life on that continent or ours either. So let's get all Bright Green and radical for a change. Not Smart cars, just no cars. Instead of vibrant mixed-use communities, let's plant lots of trees and food crops. Yes, I know we need to operate within existing political realities -- but, see above -- the political realities are starting to bite us in our transit oriented developments.

Posted by: Cathy Tuttle on 1 Feb 09

I live in Perth. The new rail is universally loved, and was long overdue. Sadly, the state govt that championed it has recently been replaced with a regressive, conservative party known for its anti-green stance and climate change skepticism.

Posted by: g james on 4 Feb 09

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