Things we have seen & heard

Melbourne Conversations & C40 Cities

Sustainable Communities: Collaborating, Planning, Delivering.

This year Melbourne played host to the C40 Cities workshop, a group of I’m guessing forty international cities that are concerned with climate change and the broader questions of sustainability. We were told that C40 was developed to act where other leadership groups such as the UN summit failed. The idea was to bring together willing participants to enact change – Rather than waiting for the bigger wheels to turn.

As you might imagine, between five local and international guests, with former ABC journalist Peter Mares presenting, there were plenty of interesting facts and ideas being bandied around. These were a few…

• Melbourne is a better place to live than Sydney. Fact! Rated the world’s most liveable city, time and time again. Sorry Sydney.

• Currently 50% of the world’s population live in cities. 80% of the world CO2 is being produced by cities. 50% of that CO2 comes from our buildings.

• Livability does not correspond with sustainability. I can’t recall the exact figure but it if everyone in the world enjoyed the quality of life that urban Australians do, then we would need something like another 2.5 Earth’s worth of productive land. Then when you look to China and India’s burgeoning middle class, all of who are going to expect the sort of lifestyle qualities that we enjoy, it’s a scary thought.

• If your principles do not cost you anything, then they’re probably not worth much.

We make up a small percentage of the worlds population however we are one of the highest per capita consumers and polluters! The onus must be on us to make changes and lead the way in sustainable living. Whether you believe in climate change or not, these are startling facts that tell us at the very least, we are over consuming and over polluting.

The most interesting and inflammatory speaker of the night was, I believe, Professor Jan Gehl from Denmark. Prof Gehl is long term planning and architectural visionary who played the crowd beautifully with his wisdom and humour. Gehl voiced his hope for a change in the planning paradigm, which encouraged residents to use their muscles instead of their cars.

There is a direct correlation between the cities rated as ‘Most livable’ and the way those cities cater to pedestrians and cyclists. The best cities to live in are those who are more accessible at a 5 km per hour “Human Scale”, rather than a 60km per hour “Car Scale”. Here is an example of community action to make Mexico’s streets more people friendly.

Much of the discussion centered on the basic planning issues that Melbourne faces in the future as it spreads unabated. I had never considered some of the most salient points that were made. Think about this for a moment…. if you only build one type of house in a given suburb, how can you expect to stay in a community as you life changes?

Some new suburbs are almost entirely constructed of large-scale family homes on the outskirts of Melbourne (“Bird Shit Architecture” Jan Gehl). The homes have no public transport links because the number of commuters per hectare will never make it viable. These suburbs do not have necessary infrastructure in place for an aging population and we must acknowledge that as people’s lives change, their needs change. When they empty nest, they want to downsize. If there are only 30 square homes being built in those areas, the empty nesters have to move away from their immediate community.

While some would jump at the chance to move around as their life changes, there are plenty of people who would like nothing more than to spend their lives within spitting distance of their nearest and dearest. So the question is, if the suburb is made up a monoculture of family homes, where do you live when it’s time to down size? Away from that particular suburb, I’d imagine. Away from close extended family and away from close social networks that have been formed over generations.

Higher density living in and around our cities has been recognized as the solution to many of our social, economic and environmental problems. But if the solution is so evident, then why is there no change? It seems to me that the market place is defining our planning rather than our legislators. Professor Billie Giles-Cortes, Director of the Mccaughey Centre for Vic health had plenty to say on the topic. Our suburbs need a certain number of houses per hectare in order to make public transport viable. Currently our new suburbs are not providing anywhere near the required housing numbers that make public transport viable.

These are planning issues, which strike at the root of the problems. Without public transport, people drive to work. When they drive from door to door, they do not get exercise, they pollute our air, cause congestion, stress and more. The net result is a generally overweight, unhappy, unhealthy population that spends a large percentage of their wage on their vehicles.

Consider the alternative for a moment. Vibrant communities to the north & west of Melbourne who commute into work, arriving refreshed and rested instead of frazzled; a population who walks or rides a bicycle to the public transport of their choice. Professor Giles-Cortes sees it as an investment in social capital – in the happiness, vibrancy and welfare of our inhabitants. Good planning is not just a bureaucratic issue; it’s a health issue.

For me, it was an enlightening lecture to attend. It made me realise just how much more there is to creating a sustainable city, more than I had thought about. Sustainable planning will lead to more than just fresher air, it will create a happier, healthier, safer community and so long as that planning is approached sensibly, we have much to look forward to in Melbourne. So reconsider the use of your car, the size of your backyard, buy a bicycle and look forward to a happier future! Melbourne conversations continue at BMW edge.

Click here to watch the Melbourne Conversations and C40 Cities presentation.