Brisbane, like many cities around the world, was designed around cars and I believe this has caused a dependency on cars, negatively impacting health and the environment. Addressing this creates an opportunity to live closer, establish better pedestrian hubs and better public transport – creating a more sustainable lifestyle. After travelling to the US in January 2016, I discovered that Australia is doing better than other cities around the world but I believe Brisbane has a huge potential to establish a sustainable lifestyle while creating an identity as an Australian city.
The Problem : Car-Oriented Cities
In general, car-oriented cities have been linked to health risks such as obesity, pollution and car crashes. ‘Obesogenic environments’ is a new-ish term referring to the imposed lifestyle and an increased risk of becoming obese – such as driving leading to walking less. While it is widely known today that there is a direct correlation between inactivity and obesity, this lifestyle can lead to further health issues including diabetes and heart diseases (The National, 2015). The pollution from cars has been linked to an increased risk of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer (Environment and Human Health Inc, 2006). Car crashes are a common killer in today’s society. In his Ted Talk titled The Walkable City, Jeff Speck summarised, “It’s not whether you’re in the city or not; it’s how your city was designed. Was it designed for cars or for people? Because if it was designed for cars, it’s very good at smashing them into each other.” The culture established by today’s car-oriented cities has serious health impacts, stemming from the imposed lifestyle, air-pollution and risk of car crashes.
The Opportunity : the Walkable City
This problem has an obvious solution – the Walkable City. As James Kunstler summarised in his Ted Talk The ghastly tradgedy of the suburbs, “We’re going to have to downscale, rescale and resize virtually everything [in the United States] and we can’t start soon enough to do it. We’re going to have to live closer to where we work. We’re going to have to live closer to each other. We’re going to have to grow more food closer to where we live.” While Kunstler is specifically referring to America, the problem – and solution – is much the same. Living closer, better public hubs and better public transport can begin establish a more sustainable lifestyle.
The crux of the solution would be to live closer to local shopping areas, schools and work while making them more accessible and convenient, encouraging walking, cycling or taking public transport rather than driving. The University of Queensland (UQ), for example, should be a place where this lifestyle is most valuable to help relieve financial and time stresses on students. The university, like the city, is compressed against the river and some roads nearby are very steep, making living within walking distance more limited, in high demand and therefore more expensive. There are few full-time students whose Centrelink payments alone will cover rent in this area. This tends to mean that students will either live at home (this could mean an hour or more by public transport away from the university) or rent a share house in a nearby suburb, such as Toowong or Taringa. The government is aiding students in many ways, but a structural change, such as providing affordable and appropriate housing within a walkable distance to the university would benefit students, the university and the local community. While this is a straightforward example, I think it could be applied to the greater city where the most affordable properties are isolated and will often result in being more reliant on vehicular transport. As a student, particularly an architecture student, it would’ve been valuable to have more affordable and accessible housing and shops immediately adjacent to the university to encourage a healthy, balanced and more sustainable lifestyle.
There are few very successful pedestrian hubs around Brisbane, such as South Bank Parklands. How landscapes can transform suburban business district appeal and add real estate value by PDT Architects (Nathan Clausen, 2015) found that, if it doesn’t meet minimum contemporary standards, people are more likely to travel further to get what they need. PDT summarised, “Think for example of an area that offers no tree cover for shade, that offers no seating (apart from maybe a lone concrete bus seat), that features industrial grade street lighting and little more than concrete and bitumen. It’s an almost alien environment for human beings. […] the community today have a heightened awareness of the value of ‘place’ and will avoid these sorts of redundant urban environments if they can. They are more mobile and less concerned about supporting their ‘local’ business centre if it simply doesn’t meet contemporary standards.” This idea of place corresponds with observations found in William Whyte’s The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, filmed in New York during 1988. Sitting spaces, water, trees, food triangulation and a relationship to the street are key to creating a successful pedestrian hubs. (I wrote an article using Whyte’s findings on South Bank Parklands, Brisbane – view it here) In the UQ example, there are some local businesses along Sir Fred Schonell Drive that are fairly central to a lot of student accommodation, but their quality is lacking and there are bigger chain businesses nearby. The Hawken Drive shops are quite successful, providing shopping, food and a post office. Considering the number of students that should be living in this area, the majority must be going to further centres such as Toowong Village, Indooroopilly Shopping Centre and even to the Queen Street Mall.
Figure 1: the Pedestrian Hubs and Car Parks of Brisbane
Similarly, there are pedestrian friendly ‘hubs’ around Brisbane city, such as South Bank and Queen Street Mall, that are well used and fairly pleasant to navigate, but these are disjunct from one another (see Figure 1). Although it isn’t very far, with no shade or drinking fountains, the Victoria Bridge is not very walkable – especially on a hot day. With the Australian weather as harsh as it is, I’m particularly surprised by the lack of water fountains and shading. Here is our opportunity to give Brisbane (and other Australian cities) an identity as Australian by addressing the weather. A more walkable city would change the architecture/urban planning of Brisbane and demand better pedestrian access. If there were less people driving to work, some of the large carparks around Brisbane could be reclaimed. The streets could be smaller allowing for larger footpaths, bicycle paths and planting including a diversity of edible gardens, shading and local vegetation. Ideally, this opportunity should apply to the suburbs as much as it does the city to revive the local communities and encourage people to drive less and walk, cycle and take public transport more.
In the UQ example, for those living particularly far away, it is often more convenient and cheaper to drive (risking the traffic and parking) rather than to take public transport. At UQ specifically, we’re limited to just buses (limited by traffic congestion) and ferries (although reliable, often take more time). For example, a student living in Manly could take an hour by train with a bus transfer, or could drive for 35-55 minutes.
Figure 2: Mode of Transport to Work for Australians by State
This graph was created with data from the 2011 Australian Census. Responses were allowed to include up to three methods of travel to work for employed people 15 years and over.
Similarly, the 2011 Census found that the overwhelming majority of people across Australia that work in and around the city drive to work (as a single person in each car) (see Figure 2) – causing the city to need large carparks and large streets to deal with congestion. Busways, ferries and trains can move independently to congestion but, if the majority of people drive this infrastructure becomes redundant. Hence, the root of the problem is more about the lifestyle surrounding the car-oriented lifestyle than the infrastructure available. Rod Harding, Brisbane’s Labor Lord Mayor hopeful, recently pitched a plan to reintroduce the light rail to Brisbane, connecting UQ St Lucia, West End, Brisbane City, Fortitude Valley and Newstead (Atfield, 2016). This seems like a potential aid to some of the congestion, particularly around the university. This could just end up increasing the already high transport fares. To connect the university with further suburbs, I would’ve expected the light rail to connect with a train station like Roma or Central to increase its connectivity. It has become too easy to drive and part of the solution will, eventually, be to make public transport easier, quicker and more reliable – but we need to start with the car-oriented lifestyle.
A sustainable lifestyle would begin with addressing the ability to live close to work and school, better local pedestrian friendly hubs and lastly, better public transport. Addressing the problems surrounding the car-oriented, unwalkable and un-Australian city could provide an interesting and unique city typology, improving the health and quality of life.
Los Angeles and the U.S.
Compared to Los Angeles, the walkability of Brisbane is very good. After travelling to the U.S. in January 2016, we found it near impossible to see the sights of Los Angeles without a car. Interestingly, after a bit of research, it turns out L.A. is a lot more like Brisbane than I first realised (Quince, 2006). L.A. also had trams but chose to remove them in favour of cars, and like Brisbane, is now struggling to manage the congestion. I found L.A. to be a ‘city without a heart’ – missing the inner pedestrian friendly hubs. ArchDaily described, “The phrase ‘L.A.’ is loosely used to refer to a collection of small yet distinct cities across the Los Angeles basin that grew together over time.” (Musca, 2016) We noticed in a lot of places that shops had virtually no windows or ‘front’, alienating the street. As summarised by Whyte, “Ironically, 20 miles away at Disneyland, people pay good money to enjoy a replica of a good old fashioned street – with shops, windows and doors at street level.” With architecture like this I can’t blame L.A. for being so reliant on cars. Interestingly, an article by City Lab found that 86% of American millennials surveyed expressed interest in a city that offered the opportunity to work and live without relying on a car (Flint, 2014). Perhaps the future will see more a sustainable lifestyle?
Paris and Europe
Amsterdam, Edinburgh, Munich, Venice, Florence and Paris are all reputed as being some of the more walkable cities in the world. Of these, I’ve only traveled to Paris (over ten years ago). I still remember the narrow streets and abundant explorations. We also travelled on the metro many times, but not once did we question ‘but what if we had a car?’ John Baxter’s book on the walkability of Paris, The Most Beautiful Walk in the World, described, of Parisians around Paris, “They know exactly when to pause as a bus roars by on what appears to be the wrong side of the road. They make abrupt turns into alleys, at the foot of which one glimpses the most interesting-looking little market. . . How do they know ? Well, this is their habitat, their quartier, as familiar to them as their own living room. Because that’s how Parisians regard the city—as an extension of their homes. The concept of public space doesn’t exist here. People don’t step out of their front door into their car, then drive across town to the office or some air-conditioned mall.” This beautiful description captures the rich culture and pedestrian friendly city of the Parisian’s sustainable lifestyle.
It is interesting to see where Australia, and specifically Brisbane, is in this conversation of sustainable lifestyles as compared to Europe and the United States – but I still think we should acknowledge the opportunities this problem presents. A sustainable lifestyle is achievable and could improve health and environmental impacts, but it needs to start with living closer to work and shops, better pedestrian hubs and finally, better public transport. I’d hope that somewhere in the future Brisbane could become a city that is iconically Australian and uniquely embraces this climate.
Atfield,Cameron, Brisbane election 2016: Labor’s light rail would link UQ and Newstead (Brisbane Times, 2016) http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/brisbane-election-2015-labors-light-rail-would-link-uq-and-newstead-20160221-gmzhkw.html
Clausen, Nathan, How landscapes can transform suburban business district appeal and add realestate value (PDT, 2015) http://pdt.com.au/think-tank/how-landscapes-can-transform-suburban-business-district-appeal-and-add-real-estate-value-blg-18
Environment and Human Health Inc, The Harmful effects of vehicle exhaust (2006) http://www.ehhi.org/reports/exhaust/summary.shtml
Flint, Anthony,What Millennials Want – And Why Cities are Right to Pay Them So Much Attention (City Lab, 2014) http://www.citylab.com/housing/2014/05/what-millennials-wantand-why-cities-are-right-pay-them-so-much-attention/9032/
Musca, Thomas, Making Sense of The Broad: A Milestome in the Revitalization of Downtown Los Angeles (Archdaily, 2016) http://www.archdaily.com/782487/making-sense-of-the-broad-a-milestone-in-the-revitalization-of-downtown-los-angeles?utm_campaign=trueAnthem:+Trending+Content&utm_content=56ceb80704d3014b4d2721d9&utm_medium=trueAnthem&utm_source=facebook
The National, How Cities are Making Us Sick (2015) https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1141&v=jQfC6mKTErg
Jeff Speck, TED Talk, The Walkable City (2013) http://www.ted.com/talks/jeff_speck_the_walkable_city
Kunstler, James, The ghastly tradgedy of the suburbs (Ted Talk 2004) https://www.ted.com/talks/james_howard_kunstler_dissects_suburbia
Quince, Annabelle, Trams: Los Angeles (ABC, 2006) http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/rearvision/trams-los-angeles/3348808
Whyte, William H. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1988) https://vimeo.com/111488563