Smart Urban Futures conference wrap

28 Mar 2019

It’s a sell-out!  Two hundred people packed the Angliss Conference Centre to see speakers from the USA, UK, Queensland and Victoria at the sixth annual Smart Urban Futures conference in Melbourne last week.

And if you own a home in a walkable neighbourhood, real estate analyst Jodie Walker from Secret Agent had good news. She said while Melbourne house prices have hit a downturn, “walkability has a protective effect in a falling market.”

Lynn Richards, CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, said a third of people in the USA can’t or don’t drive.  “Why are we building cities that don’t work for them?” She suggested any new multi-storey car parking building should be designed to allow conversion into future apartments. Her challenge to Australian councils was – where will your car free zones be?  She also emphasised the importance of good design, saying “It’s got to be beautiful. No-one wants to walk in a really ugly place.” See a video of Lynn's talk.

Greg Vann from Ethos Urban in Brisbane talked about the communication of urban planning, using concepts that are easy to relate to (like the diagram illustrating that for every dollar you spend on walking, society pays one cent, whereas for every dollar you spend on driving, society pays $9.20).

The session on women and public spaces explored issues like street harassment and steps that councils are taking to make streets safer for everyone.  Amanda Collins talked about the City of Ballarat’s Right to the Night project, which is already delivering improvements like regular PSO patrols of a bus stop where women felt unsafe.

The frustration of young women was summed up in a quote from Madrid. “‘I don’t want a perfect city either; the only thing that I want is that guys stop taking the liberty of commenting on me and saying things to me. All I want is for them to treat you normally, like a human being, and that’s all.”

Dongho Chang, City Traffic Engineer for Seattle, outlined the amazing work they are doing to build streets for people.  He emphasised the need to move beyond traditional transport planning focused on level of service and delay for vehicles, to ‘mode share’ targets focusing on moving people in more sustainable, space-efficient ways.

That call was supported by Australian transport planning expert William McDougall, who pointed out that Victoria has no overarching transport strategy, even though it is required by the Transport Integration Act.  In its absence, cost benefit analysis for major projects has become politicised, with overly-optimistic business cases fudged and misused.

Dr Francesca McLean from Arup outlined their work with Victoria Walks to build The Economic Case for Investment in Walking.  She noted walking projects can return up to $13 in benefits for every dollar spent.

Consultant David Mepham and Julie Miller Markoff, Co-Founder of BHive, focused on sustaining local businesses through urban design and new business models. As David said, “if you spend a dollar on Amazon, it’s gone. It’s a one-way trip. If you spend that dollar on main street it circulates around the local economy.” 

David suggested we challenge assumptions of what is normal – “billions of dollars of land value are given away for free parking. Why do we have free car parking and not free public transport?”

Paul Roberts, Director of Turnberry in the UK, gave us a history of new town development and compared this (largely unfavourably) with the development of new suburbs in Australia today.  He pointed out that walkable communities have measurable characteristics, and we could perhaps legislate to require them, as Germany has done.

Jeremy McLeod from Breathe Architecture and Max Shifman from Intrapac Property provided an industry perspective on the challenges of building liveable, walkable, sustainable development.  Jeremy noted that “form follows finance” – finance providers find ‘business as usual’ very profitable, so stepping outside the norm can be hard to fund.

Both Paul Roberts and Max Shifman confirmed the need for developers to effectively subsidise retail development in new suburbs if they are to work sustainably.

And the last word goes to Lynn Richards – “we absolutely need to embrace a sustainable future. It is a moral imperative in 2019.”

View the conference presentations on the MAV site

View the conference program