30/07/2009 - 00:00

Prix d’Amour cops Boomtown’s wrath

30/07/2009 - 00:00


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In any democracy, ideas have, in the first instance, to deliver what the people want

IS the short life of Rose Hancock's palatial Prix d'Amour an allegory for Perth?

That is certainly the suggestion of University of Western Australia professor of landscape architecture, Richard Weller, who has tackled the future development of our state's capital city in a 453-page book that ends with a photo-essay of the demolition of Prix d'Amour, the Mosman Park fixture which was either a landmark or eyesore, or both, depending on who was viewing it.

Whether you found the construction of Prix d'Amour amusingly over the top or disgustingly indulgent will shape your view of which act was more wasteful - the mansion's construction or, 16 years later, its demolition.

Professor Weller equates the whole tragic farce to a celebrity version of our own urban lifestyles and the infrastructure that supports them.

In fact, he takes the allegory even further in pointing out that, just as Prix d'Amour sought to reflect a culture of even more excess - that of the slave-dependent plantation wealth of the deep south in pre-Civil War America - so too are modern Perth suburbanites attempting to be their mini-lords of the manor, hidden behind facades and rolling lawns as they consume resources unavailable to the underprivileged elsewhere.

In his book, Boomtown 2050: Scenarios for a Rapidly Growing City, Professor Weller presents a case that WA's massive wealth has created an urban building binge that is reckless and unsustainable, offering a number of alternatives which have the potential to divide opinion as much as Prix d'Amour did.

Before putting in my two cents' worth on the subject, I have to say that the book marries a heavy subject matter with modern magazine graphics in a way that have made architects and town planners increasingly good communicators of ideas.

This is a thought-provoking book that would do nicely on the coffee tables of one of those suburban houses the good professor is clearly not fond of.

Its pictures and headlines make it easy to consume and, while I didn't read it word for word, I believe I absorbed the arguments articulated in it.

In essence, Professor Weller tells us that the way we accommodate people has to change as we race towards the possibility of more than 4 million people living in WA before 2056.

He believes we need to have housing that is more efficient, transport that is less energy intensive, and more land devoted to food production within the city limits. In other words we have to be less spacious.

The first third of the book is devoted to the kind of statistical shame file that would make Al Gore proud.

However, unlike many who fear the sustainability of our lifestyles, Boomtown 2050 doesn't suggest that we stop the population tide.

Instead it offers a range of urban styles that use higher density in diverse ways to put more people within the existing boundaries of the metropolitan area.

These include mini-food focused suburbs, ecologically sustainable villages and variants of high-rise along existing transport corridors, by the coast, on or near the river and surrounding the existing central business district.

Some of these concepts have already got traction. Developments that reflect Professor Weller's thinking are already unfolding in nodes along the north-south rail link, but this is relatively limited compared to the scale and commitment he has in mind.

The trouble with taking grander ideas of planning utopia from theory to practice is making them work when what people really want is suburbia.

Professor Weller acknowledges that there are those who like sprawl, or spacious suburbs as he puts it.

Take this quote that he has highlighted, presumably from a letter to The West Australian: "All the bush that is destroyed to make more and more houses for Perth is heartbreaking. I consider myself partially responsible because I live in Butler where it was bush until quite recently. I hope the state government will find a solution before it's too late."

I believe this attitude is typical. There are solutions available now. Living in a flat or apartment is a reasonable option but, like this letter writer, most people think someone else should do it.

But it's more than that.

The same people who don't want sprawl also protest at the slightest hint of a four-storey building. Unfortunately, The Not In My Back Yard set is dominant in Perth.

There is plenty of demand for high-rise living as property developers know, but you can't build them, except in the inner-city where the upwardly mobile and retirees are happy to live on top of one another.

Even there, there's a lot of resistance. A great example is the Perth Waterfront development mooted by former premier Alan Carpenter. Professor Weller praises that proposal, which aimed to create a lot of high-rise living space to ensure the precinct's ongoing vibrancy.

But it appears the world has moved on since Boomtown 2050 went to the printers. Mr Carpenter's project - often referred to as 'Dubaiesque' - has since been jettisoned by new Premier Colin Barnett, who reckons voters want something more low rise.

In closing, I agree that unmanaged sprawl can be wasteful and inefficient.

But that is what people want. Using cities such as London or Paris as examples of what works flies in the face of my experience. I have numerous friends who have left those kinds of dense urban centres to return to Perth to get some space. That is especially the case for those with children.

If we are going to change Perth it's going to take real examples on a smaller scale to show it can work.

And those examples will only occur if developers believe people want them, otherwise that is just as wasteful as building another Prix d'Amour.


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