The prevailing attitude against high-rise development could hold Perth back from becoming a truly liveable city.
LIKE many others in our fair city I have strong opinions on urban design, but I deeply resist the need to inflict that view on everyone, because the world is not black and white.
I live in what could be termed the inner city, in the western suburbs near Perth’s CBD, so I benefit from the history of my area, established before cars took over the streets and our city worked on an east-west axis following the river and railway line from Midland/Guildford to Fremantle.
We can easily walk to the shops, cafes, schools, railway station and bus routes. I can still drive to work because it is extremely convenient to do so.
If every suburb was like mine, I think Perth would be perfect. But that is not possible, because our modern city has evolved from when my area was established. More recently, the metropolitan area has shifted its axis to follow a freeway and the coastline.
The arrival of the motor car provided for larger, more specialist areas of commerce and industry such as the CBD, retail shopping centres and big industrial parks.
The result is that many Perth suburbs don’t work in the way mine does. They are more spread out and lack amenities that can be accessed without the need to jump in the car.
That wasn’t a problem, until recently, because there were so few of us that everywhere in Perth was accessible by car in half an hour, or thereabouts.
Times have changed and there is no doubt that congestion is a big issue. The car no longer gets us where we want quickly and easily. The answer isn’t necessarily public transport either, because that too is chockers during peak times.
Neither do I believe increasing density nearer the CBD is a simple solution. Many in established suburbs value their lifestyles and don’t want to see that compromised by squeezing more people into their areas.
So those wanting to live in or near the city have a problem if they didn’t get in early or don’t have a fortune.
I raise this because two separate speakers will be in Perth looking at this issue next month.
The RAC is hosting urban transport expert Paul Steely White as part of its ‘mobility series’, while a consortium of players led by the State Library and including Consult Australia, WritingWA and the Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority are hosting urban planner Jeff Speck (you can find out about one public event here http://www.writingwa.org/).
While it might seem odd, at first glance, for the state’s premier motoring organisation to be highlighting public transport and the need to improve things for pedestrians, there is a certain synergy. After all, the more people are off the roads the better is for the remaining road users.
I am in the middle of reading Mr Speck’s book Walkable City, which is clearly aimed at reaching the mainstream with a message that is well known in urban planning circles.
His book, thus far, covers a lot of expected ground such as the reduced impact on the environment and improved health due to a decreased reliance on cars. But I did note one appeal to the hip pocket – properties in walkable suburbs are worth more than those that aren’t.
This is a challenging concept because being able to walk to amenities is an element of lifestyle. I value the fact that I have a small supermarket about 450 metres from my house. Many would find that a step too far.
Walk Score ranks New York as its number one in its coverage of the US, Canada and Australia. I love New York and agree it is very walkable, but I have a young family and the cultural capital of the US is not for me.
Even Mr Speck, a resident of the US capital Washington DC, admitted in writing his book that he was considering buying a car again because a second child made the concept of going without much more difficult. He’ll have to reclaim the garage he turned into an office and pave over the vege patch that took over the driveway.
What I found interesting in Walkable City is a more deliberate attempt to broaden the argument about urban density. To date, in my view, most of this message has come in the form of lecturing by people who feel that everyone should sacrifice what they have to make the world a better place.
In the end, giving up things – like cars, space and privacy – are generally only sacrifices to those who value them. Typically, people leading the charge often have not sacrificed anything at all; they have found a lifestyle that suits them and now want everyone to do the same.
Walkable City still does that, but it at least attempts to be more than just a holier-than-thou view. However by showing that people in more dense suburbs might actually be more prosperous and healthy, it also appeals to the selfish gene within many of us.
I am interested as to how these experts find Perth (ranked 45th in the Walk Score site, and 5th in Australia), a place that is spread out and expensive to service with public transport, yet has a population that rails against high-rise developments.