A Vision for Sustainable Cities And The Need for Change
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A Vision for Sustainable Cities And The Need for Change

They are where most of us reside but our cities will have to get greener to meet future needs

By Robyn Willis
Mon, Oct 23, 2023 4:29pmGrey Clock 5 min

It’s remarkable how quickly notions of sustainability have gone mainstream in a few short years. From the rapid uptake of renewable power sources to the growth of the circular economy, there’s now a widespread acceptance that the earth’s resources are finite and will require more sophisticated management strategies if we wish to continue to enjoy a high quality of life.

For our built environment, sustainability in Australia has begun to move beyond the actions of individual motivated homeowners to discussions about how entire cities can and should perform to better support not just the people who live there but the entire ecosystem.

Earlier this year, Adrian McGregor, co-founder of globally recognised multi-disciplinary landscape architecture firm McGregor Coxall, released a new book, Biourbanism, a magnum opus dedicated to creating better cities for a sustainable future. McGregor says the problems we’re having now are of our own making.

“The environmental crisis is a design crisis,” he says. “We’re making a lot of poor decisions about the design of cities. Fundamentally cities are our creation and we’re not getting them right. In developed countries, there’s no reason why we should be getting these things so badly wrong.”

In his book, he argues that for too long, we have worked on the assumption that cities are somehow separate from the rest of the environment instead of being an integral part of it. Indeed, their impact is felt well beyond city fringes, with 75 percent of greenhouse gas emissions derived from cities. As countries around the world begin to feel the impact of extreme weather events, he says we need to shift to a decarbonised city model as quickly as possible.

“Those that move the fastest will be the most resilient to increasingly extreme weather events,” he says.

Along with planning for office blocks and high and low density residential releases, he says it’s crucial that ‘green’ and ‘blue’ infrastructure (landscape and water) are considered as an inherent element in design.

Shannon Foster is a D’harawal Eora Knowledge Keeper, founder of Bangawarra and lecturer at the School of Architecture at UTS. She says the balance in cities needs to fundamentally shift if they are to be sustainable places to live.

“We don’t like to talk about ‘green corridors’ because there should be ‘grey corridors’ — predominantly green space that humans can move through as well,” she says. “Not that we are going for the ‘I Am Legend’ look, but we are looking for ways we can allow for spaces to thrive.”

She points to water management in urban areas, particularly storm water, which is often considered a problem to be solved.

“It’s all about how to get it off site,” she says. “But water gives us life so how is it a problem?”

In recent years the notion of ‘sponge cities’ has gained traction among urban planners around the world as a way to mitigate flooding. It relies on sufficient green spaces, including floodable parks and wetlands within cities to manage the water onsite. The payoff is to reduce dependence on pipeline infrastructure used to redirect high volumes of water which is costly to repair and maintain.

It’s not a new concept to Indigenous knowledge keepers.

“Everything begins from country,” Foster says. “We overlap beautifully with sustainability because we are looking at country, plants and water Author of Biourbanism Adrian McGregor (above) and Indigenous knowledge keeper Shannon Foster (below).

and air are protected and sustainably managed.”

NSW chapter president, Australian Institute of Architects, Adam Haddow, says while sustainability will look different for each of the thousands of cities around the world, they all need to work harder than they do now.

“We don’t want lazy cities,” Haddow says.

“Sustainability is different for every city because every city has a different measure of what might be sustainable for site.

“Regional Victoria might be different to NSW or the NT in their ability to engage with and capture water or solar or wind. The thing that is consistent across all the cities is the question: how do we make better use of what we have?”

That includes the existing built environment, he says.

“We should consider every building as heritage,” he says. “We have made a lot of mistakes in the history of our cities and it’s about ensuring we don’t make them again by demolishing to rebuild.”

Demolishing and starting again would add to the carbon load and negative environmental impact. Haddow says there’s a better, less invasive way to approach it.

“If you think about it in medical terms, we should be focusing on urban acupuncture rather than urban surgery,” he says.

Haddow is part of a growing movement in planning and architecture circles in support of the 15-minute city, a concept where everything residents need on a daily basis, such as the office, school and shops is within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. Critics says it confines residents to Hunger Games-style districts that embed inequalities rather than eliminating them. Regardless, it relies on a higher density living and working model than currently exists in most Australian cities.

“We are still one of the least dense places in the world, and we have forgotten about the middle type of living environment — lower density projects up to six storeys,” he says.

For Fred Holt at Danish firm 3XN and lead architect on the award-winning Quay Quarter Tower, it’s about diminishing the reliance and role of motor vehicles to move about the city.

“There is always opportunity to go to other parts of the city but the idea of a sustainable city is to limit the dependence on vehicles, especially those that produce pollution,” he says. “So having a connected city is about connected precincts that are self sustaining but also having ease of transportation between various precincts.”

It’s also getting more out of the space you’re in, he says, so that they stay activated for longer.

“In the Quay Quarter Tower and Quay Quarter Laneways precinct, the idea was to create an 18-hour precinct where you could play and work within the same proximity or neighbourhood as a sustainable model for urban planning.”

His colleague, architect Dan Cruddace, led the Quay Quarter Tower project for the Australian firm, BVN. Now at 3XN, he says there’s one city he thinks of as a good model for sustainable living.

“When I was in Copenhagen, everyone cycles there, from the children to people in their 90s,” he says. “It’s a way of life. The air is clean, the streets are safe, the infrastructure is in place.

“Everything is set up correctly.”

For McGregor, there are cities around the world that have elements of sustainable living about them that we could learn from.

“I love London because of how hard it has worked over the past 20 years to enhance walkability and to increase pedestrian space which underpins that tremendous public transport system,” he says. “Singapore is really progressive in terms of urban greening. Even cities like Hong Kong are really interesting for their walkability and their density and the way they manage vertical urban activity.”

Inevitably, the commitment to sustainable cities comes down to cost. That, says McGregor, depends on where value is placed.

“Economics is the lever behind all change, it has to be,” he says.

“What sits behind all of it is giving natural capital value. When I met David Suzuki years ago, he said modern economics doesn’t give a value to natural capital. You can use your resources for free — it will cost you nothing.

“Until that is given a value in any manufacturing process or construction process, then the model is completely flawed.”

Ultimately, cities are habitat for humans, which is where their success or failure rests, says Holt.

“There is a movement towards understanding that we have a finite amount of resources and the most sustainable building or city is the one that already exists,” he says. “It’s important to not only look at a sustainable city as one focused on reducing carbon but places that are sustainable socially.

“The most sustainable place is one where people want to be and they want to be there for a long period of time, over generations.”

The future is already here.


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Wild cities and concrete corridors: How AI is reimagining the landscape

A new AI-driven account by leading landscape architect Jon Hazelwood pushes the boundaries on the role of ‘complex nature’ in the future of our cities

By Robyn Willis
Wed, Dec 6, 2023 2 min

Drifts of ground cover plants and wildflowers along the steps of the Sydney Opera House, traffic obscured by meadow-like planting and kangaroos pausing on city streets.

This is the way our cities could be, as imagined by landscape architect Jon Hazelwood, principal at multi-disciplinary architectural firm Hassell. He has been exploring the possibilities of rewilding urban spaces using AI for his Instagram account, Naturopolis_ai with visually arresting outcomes.

“It took me a few weeks to get interesting results,” he said. “I really like the ephemeral nature of the images — you will never see it again and none of those plants are real. 

“The AI engine makes an approximation of a grevillea.”

Hazelwood chose some of the most iconic locations in Australia, including the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, as well as international cities such as Paris and London, to demonstrate the impact of untamed green spaces on streetscapes, plazas and public space.

He said he hopes to provoke a conversation about the artificial separation between our cities and the broader environment, exploring ways to break down the barriers and promote biodiversity.

“A lot of the planning (for public spaces) is very limited,” Hazelwood said. “There are 110,000 species of plants in Australia and we probably use about 12 in our (public) planting schemes. 

“Often it’s for practical reasons because they’re tough and drought tolerant — but it’s not the whole story.”

Hazelwood pointed to the work of UK landscape architect Prof Nigel Dunnett, who has championed wild garden design in urban spaces. He has drawn interest in recent years for his work transforming the brutalist apartment block at the Barbican in London into a meadow-like environment with diverse plantings of grasses and perennials.

Hazelwood said it is this kind of ‘complex nature’ that is required for cities to thrive into the future, but it can be hard to convince planners and developers of the benefits.

“We have been doing a lot of work on how we get complex nature because complexity of species drives biodiversity,” he said. 

“But when we try to propose the space the questions are: how are we going to maintain it? Where is the lawn?

“A lot of our work is demonstrating you can get those things and still provide a complex environment.” 

At the moment, Hassell together with the University of Melbourne is trialling options at the Hills Showground Metro Station in Sydney, where the remaining ground level planting has been replaced with more than 100 different species of plants and flowers to encourage diversity without the need for regular maintenance. But more needs to be done, Hazelwood said.

“It needs bottom-up change,” he said. ““There is work being done at government level around nature positive cities, but equally there needs to be changes in the range of plants that nurseries grow, and in the way our city landscapes are maintained and managed.”

And there’s no AI option for that. 


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