01/10/2009 - 00:00

A city struggling to find the right balance

01/10/2009 - 00:00

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We need to regard our city as a human ecological system whose health is measured in terms of behaviour and social outcomes.

WE are living in changing times and as far as Perth is concerned, things are far from 'business as usual'.

In a recent lecture, world-leading botanist Stephen Hopper sounded some clear warnings for urban and regional Western Australia. According to Professor Hopper, the southern part of our state has some of the highest levels of biodiversity to be found anywhere in the world. His great concern, however, is the impact that urban development is having on this wonderfully rich natural environment.

His warning makes us realise that Perth should never have developed as the continuous urban environment we now have - suburban expansion should have been broken regularly by continuous natural belts of vegetation running from the coast to the hills. These undeveloped vegetation belts would have provided abundant natural habitats for our native flora and fauna, as well as a wonderful visual amenity for us all to enjoy.

There would be few of us who would not understand this need to preserve our natural environment. Most of us have studied some kind of geographical or botanical science at high school and we understand some of the fundamentals of a healthy ecosystem.

We can look at a wetland area or deforested rural property and immediately recognise some of the signs that the natural conditions are not healthy. The trees may be dying, the water polluted, wildlife virtually non-existent. We all know, for example, that the behaviour of frogs is one sign of a natural ecosystem's health. Even if we do not have the formal education, our instincts usually guide us.

Strangely, however, we do not seem to regard ourselves as actually being part of this ecosystem. We live in it, we use it, but we don't see ourselves as part of it. We don't feel part of its fragility. We feel confident that our scientific and technological advancements will protect us while we dominate our environment. We almost live a surreal existence.

We are blind to any social and behavioural damage we may be imposing upon ourselves. Most of us have little or no real understanding of our social environment, which is equally as fragile as our physical environment. The time has come for us all to learn to regard our city as a human ecological system whose health is measured in terms of behaviour and social health.

Understanding our social health is critical to our survival as the world becomes increasingly urbanised. The share of the world's population living in cities increased from 3 per cent in 1800 to 14 per cent in 1900, and to 30 per cent by 1950.

Since 1950 it has increased to more than 50 per cent, and in most developed countries 75 per cent of people live in cities. We cannot ignore the fact that we are rapidly surrounding ourselves with man-made mechanised environments and we must learn to understand the social consequences involved.

In 2008, a major worldwide study of more than 27,000 people was undertaken to identify the key factors associated with happiness in our urban environments. It was called the 'Place and Happiness' survey. The most important outcome of this comprehensive study shows that providing basic needs, such as schools, safe streets and infrastructure is not all a community needs. For us to assume that physical beauty, amenities and cultural offerings should only come when a community is rich and well off was proved to be very wrong.

The study also revealed that the level of tolerance for and acceptance of minority groups and senior citizens was a highly desirable characteristic of a happy urban environment.

There are generic indicators to help us evaluate our human ecological system. One collection of indicators I often use to describe the health of a city or town includes the following: comfort and security; employment; meaningful participation; personal relationships; cultural expression; connectedness; physical health; positiveness; and personal growth.

Each one of these I regard as a non-negotiable requirement for all people. Without any one of these an individual or their family will suffer, and many do. The ability for people to achieve these essential needs is directly affected by the area of the city in which they live and their life status. There will be a significantly different effect between those living in the CBD and those in outer suburban areas.

As a resident you should ask yourself how you rate your neighbourhood using these indicators. In many inner, well-off suburbs, residents would probably rate each characteristic highly. However, I am sure that in many of the outer suburban areas residents would say their neighbourhood failed in several ways.

So how would Perth rate in terms of overall community satisfaction and happiness? Suburban Perth, in most ways, emulates the American approach to city planning, where huge tracts of single, mass-produced houses spread across the land punctuated only occasionally by monster shopping centres accessible only by car.

Ask yourself whether this type of urban monotony satisfies the needs people have for connectedness, cultural expression, development of personal relationships or meaningful participation. This type of environment promotes anonymity and exclusion. To connect further than your immediate neighbours is not easy.

If you live in a well balanced, happy family home surrounded by similar people all employed and relatively well educated, then life in our suburbs is probably reasonably good. If not, then our suburban structure could make your life a misery.

One of the areas of our urban ecosystem that appears well out of balance is the city centre. More than 60,000 people work in the CBD, yet only about 400 of those live in the area. Those who do live in the CBD are mainly the few who can afford expensive apartments. There are not many, if any, new housing opportunities in the CBD for our senior citizens or for people who really need to live in the city. Central Perth has become an enclave for the wealthy.

Cultural offering was a high-ranking community desire in the 'Place and Happiness' survey. Naturally we want to express our culture, so the way we respond is to build bigger theatre venues. The assumption is that big venues equal more culture. There is a complete misunderstanding here. The real need, as demonstrated all over the world, is to invest in the people who provide our cultural offering. It is always easy to build things because there is an instant tangible result. It is very difficult to take the long-term view and invest in society because the results are neither certain nor immediately visible.

The way forward for Perth is for the community to insist that all future planning is done with input from a broader professional base, including people trained in the social sciences, our artists, and our residents. The Australian Institute of Urban Studies is holding a forum in October to seek opinions on suitable urban research topics required to help guide Perth's future growth.

n Linley Lutton is an award-winning urban designer, social geographer and architect who heads his own Perth-based practice, URBANIX

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