Change & Collaboration: A Postcard from Melbourne


Change & Collaboration: A Postcard from Melbourne
by Robert Cooper

Last year, architects from CPG Singapore and Melbourne-based urban designers and landscape architects from CPG Australia collaborated on a project concerned with large scale urban change in central Sydney. This article looks at the shared experience of this work, picks up the ‘change and collaboration’ focus of the recent CPG Consultant’s Conference in Perth and suggests areas of common ground that could be developed to facilitate further collaboration.

It is easier to see the contrasts between Singapore and Australia than the links. Despite Australia’s size (10,000 times that of Singapore’s), its population is only about four times that of Singapore and 87% of Australians are concentrated in urban areas. Seventeen Australian cities deliver 80% of GDP and employ 75% of the workforce. Cultural, economic and political differences don’t alter the fact that we are both heavily urbanised nations.

The formal ‘settlement’ of Singapore in 1819 occurred at a similar time to that of Sydney (1788) and Melbourne (1835). Like Singapore, Australia’s cities began on the waterfront. The morphologies of Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Darwin all reflect this focus on sea access prior to the opening up of inland Australia. Since then, however, Singapore’s city-building innovation has concentrated on dealing with higher population densities and the constraints of limited land. Contrastingly, Australia’s energies have been spent on planning and building settlements that sprawl along the coast and inland, constrained only by extremes in topography and climate.

Australia’s residential development economics, its building industry and supply chain organisation have evolved to provide one or two storey dwellings on generous plots in newly created suburbs at the edges of its cities. In Melbourne, 2 bedroom suburban apartments 10 km from the city centre cost the same as bigger, new houses on 600m² of land in the current ‘growth areas’ 25km out. With government reluctant to intervene, price and market preference have traditionally favoured the new house, leading to suburb building far from employment, services and public transport, in turn creating relatively high energy consumption, traffic congestion, pollution and loss of agricultural land and habitat.

(Image 1: New park construction amongst low density housing in one of Melbourne’s growth areas, a market in which CPG Australia is very active (© Andrew Lloyd))

Australia’s population is forecast to grow by 40% to 2050 with Melbourne growing from 4 to 7 million. Australia’s cities are at the point at which they cannot simply double in size – a fundamental change in thinking about land use economics and urban design is required. The March 2010 report ‘The State of Australian Cities’ sets out the Federal Government’s strategy to achieve more compact, sustainable settlements that incorporate ‘world class design’. The responsible Parliamentary Secretary for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government has recently confirmed the intent to

– lead by managing example projects and to

– support and reward State and local government efforts.

The Singapore / Australia project in Sydney last year was about how to rationalise the port and industrial use of a large waterfront land area and to maximise its reuse for residential purposes. Although concerned with high level master planning, the project was politically sensitive and necessitated the production of imagery to convey design ideas. CPG Singapore’s experience in the design of water front sites and CPG Australia’s knowledge of local communities, technical requirements and precinct urban design proved to be an effective combination.

(Image 2: Sydney waterfront concept sketch by CPG Singapore)

Here in Melbourne, government pursues policies to increase development densities and employment in designated urban locations. It is logical to expect such areas to attract funding and efforts to assemble redevelopment parcels for higher rise mixed use development. A change of thinking has indeed occurred, to the extent that the discussion is no longer confined to government and strategy and there is constructive debate in the press and evidence in our streets.

Over the 3 years to June 2008, Melbourne grew by 212,000 people, over 70,000 of whom settled within 15km of the city centre. This is a sharp contrast to the 1970’s when this same area lost 150,000 people to the distant city fringes. In mid 1996 the central areas of Melbourne – the CBD, Docklands and Southbank – housed less than 4000 people. By mid 2008 this had risen to 30,000, a continuing if not sustainable trend.

Southbank is close to the CPG office. Its future has generated local media interest and the Draft Structure Plan released this month is a good local example of the new, integrated thinking about urban housing, employment, transport and amenity, to the extent that it advocates provision of building area by decking over the West Gate freeway interchange at the same time as managing high rise housing growth to ensure a balance with employment and other urban essentials.

(Images 3, 4 and 5: taken from City of Melbourne Draft Southbank Structure Plan 2010 – land creation and development facilitation images)

Architects, engineers and planners in CPG Singapore will be familiar with the design of the urban forms in the above images, if not with the political and cultural issues behind them: the opportunity for ‘green building’ is self evident. In Australia, CPG’s landscape architects, urban designers, planners and engineers have achieved recognition for locally appropriate, high quality design work in this area, having received:

– the national Urban Design Award for the Melbourne CBD Pedestrian and Traffic Study dealing with the sustainable integration of pedestrian and traffic activity

– Australian Institute of Landscape Architects and Stormwater Industries awards for water sensitive urban design work around the Victorian College of the Arts in Southbank

– Competition and Award wins for the West Gate Bridge Memorial Park that includes sculptural collaborations.

(Images 6, 7 and 8: Melbourne CBD Pedestrian and Traffic Study; Victorian College of the Arts; West Gate Bridge Memorial Park).

From my desk in Melbourne it is clear that CPG has the collective skills to participate in many aspects of the changes underway in Australian city-building. There are also opportunities to jointly take the experience of this collaboration into markets elsewhere. This blog is only one of the many ways in which we can explore possibilities but I hope it has helped to stimulate further ideas. I look forward to reading them.

Robert Cooper – Senior Principal (Landscape Architecture, Urban Design and Planning) – CPG Australia

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First posted on 11 May 2010

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