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New urbanisation takes hold

AN ANSWER to urban sprawl and some of its perceived problems is starting to take a foothold in WA.

Terms such as smart growth, livable neighbourhood, sustainable communities, new urbanism and traditional neighbourhood development are among the buzz words now used in development and planning circles that purport to deal with society’s woes.

All these terms refer to the same ideas, although purist new urbanists would argue that some of the other terms refer to inferior hybrid ideas borrowed from new urbanism and traditional development methods.

To some, new urbanism has become a |religion, particularly in the US because of a belief it provides the answers to life’s problems.

Pollution, traffic congestion, housing affordability and crime are some of the issues addressed by NU. Others see commercial opportunities by playing on public security fears and nostalgia.

NU aims to bring back the best of the past by incorporating design features such as a front porch on a house so people can sit outside and talk to their neighbours.

In the US, NU has become a political issue pushed by the Congress of New Urbanists. The congress newsletter, New Urban News, notes who has been won over by the movement and who is opposed or sitting on the fence.

Perhaps the best ally of the movement, both in the US and in WA, has been the media as it talks up problems of pollution, urban sprawl and crime and seeks solutions to these issues.

New Urban News said: “general assignment reporters, who don’t carry a lot of ideological baggage and have never been indoctrinated with architectural dogma, relate to the common sense side of NU.

“The honeymoon with the media has lasted 10 years.”

US movie, The Truman Show, was filmed at Seaside, a new urbanist town.

The story is about a character who unknowingly spends his life trapped in a stage set town were his every move is broadcast 24 hours a day.

As one US critic put it, living in a NU community requires giving up identity,

freedom, and variety – and hence is analogous to the life of Truman Burbank, played by Jim Carrey.

In Perth, newer developments such as Ascot Waters, Ellenbrook, Joondalup, Subiaco and East Perth adopt parts of new urbanism and the idea of community.

NU suggests that the centre of each neighbourhood should be defined by a public space, and a civic and commercial centre, and should accommodate a range of household types and land uses.

Time Conti Sheffield principle Paul Conti said, within a new urbanist suburb, different house types were incorporated including single dwellings, multiple dwellings, apartments and units.

By making housing affordable for all, the community became more vibrant.

This is also the philosophy behind the WA Government’s New Living program which hopes to spread State housing evenly throughout the suburbs – not just in certain areas such as Balga or Armadale – and thereby remove some of the social problems.

Suburbs are designed to remove reliance on cars and separate vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Ascot Waters has adopted laneways and carports at the back of houses.

Mr Conti said people were no longer interested in big backyards so this was traded off for public open space.

NU takes a holistic approach which stretches from broad planning issues to the design of a house or street lighting.

Buildwise managing director Claude Giorgi said his company was incorporating NU ideas into its house plans.

“It’s bringing all the different disciplines together. It’s a whole new way of doing things,” Mr Giorgi said.

Mr Giorgi believes much of the progress of NU can be attributed to the foresight of the WA Government.

“What the Government has done is great. It is 10 or 15 years ahead of the market. Usually the market leads the Government but in this case the Government has set facilities in place,” Mr Giorgi said.

Recently, the WA Government released the second edition of Livable Neighbour-hoods which adopts many NU principles.

WA Planning Commission chairman Simon Holthouse said the policies aimed to make the suburbs more sustainable.

Urbanizma principal and Ministry of Planning Commission consultant Patric de Villiers is sceptical of NU’s ability to solve planning problems.

“While new urbanists are to be commended for putting urbanism back on the political agenda the tendency towards historic pastiche inherent in their approach to building design is difficult to not regard as retrogressive,” Mr de Villiers said.

Mr Conti said the danger of NU was that while there was a place for it, it was not the answer for everything and everyone.

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