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Interview: Rob Adams – small and clever can save our cities

Rob Adams

10 September 2009 – Favourites: Picture this: an apartment tower constructed entirely in a factory — right down to the base fit-out and even the defects’’ rectification. The walls built of new lightweight materials, pre-insulated. The whole thing shifted like Lego blocks and assembled on site, in Little Collins Street in the heart of Melbourne’s CBD.

No tight work regime of 7 am to 3 pm. Work shifts throughout the night, if you like. No more safety issues of tripping in dangerous construction sites, or ‘stop work’ because of bad weather.

Imagine the cost savings.

Rob Adams, director of design and culture at Melbourne City Council, reckons that this project, originated by leading architect Nonda Katsalidis, could pretty soon be one of many big changes in how we reshape the urban environment, driven by the pressures of climate change and population growth.

Another change could be a profusion of small, high-quality medium-density apartment blocks such as Adams has seen in inner city North Fitzroy, built for $1500 a square metre, way below normal prices for apartments and close to the cost of house and land packages.

It’s the simple idea that can have the most revolutionary impact, says Adams. “What you need to do is actually very little,” he says.

In the case of the Katsalidis project, it’s reconfiguring existing technologies into more creative and efficient solutions. With the North Fitzroy apartment blocks, it’s about being a small and nimble developer that is able to scour for the right site and negotiate the best contracts. “The big developers are battling to produce it for that [price] because they’ve got head office to look after,” says Adams.

And no matter how good the architecture, big projects generally end up looking heavy-handed and boring. Small is the secret of better cities, Adams says. “We’ve got to rediscover the small,” he says, meaning both the operator and the project itself.

These concepts are fundamental  to Adams and to the plan he and his team, along with the Victorian Department of Transport, has devised to work out how to deal with Melbourne’s population growth, which is expected to double in the next 20 to 30 years.

Known as “Transforming Australian Cities”, the plan last month drew accolades from the country’s leading planning professionals when it won an equal first prize in the prestigious Australia Award for Urban Design (see our posting ).

The win has cemented Adams as probably the closest thing Australia has to an urban planning guru. He’s bit of a maverick, too.

In the 1990s, when he was head of planning with Melbourne City Council, he engineered a spectacular turnaround of the city’s moribund CBD with Postcode 3000, a plan that injected 10,000 new dwellings into the CBD. Against all the odds, and warnings that Melburnians would never accept such dramatically different living arrangements, the plan worked and the city became a lively centre of activity.

Later on he raised eyebrows again when he commissioned a Zimbabwean architect, Mick Pearce, to use the principles of termite mounds to create one of the most unusual looking, and even provocative, sustainable buildings in Australia:  Melbourne City Council’s new six -star green home, CH2, completed in 2006.  Three years on, CH2 is still a major draw card for international visitors.

Now, it seems, Adams may be about to prove the cynics wrong again. With “Transforming Australian Cities”, Adams has makes the audacious suggestion that it will be possible to accommodate an additional 2.4 million people on a mere 6 per cent of potential redevelopment sites dotted along the city’s bus and tram routes.

The project touches a raw nerve for communities in all major Australian cities — a fear that accommodating ballooning populations will mean lowering standards of living.

The NSW Planning Minister, Kristina Keneally, has dubbed the development phobia that has evolved as the BANANA syndrome – build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone.

Adams is unconcerned. He’s knows all about naysayers. “When we started this [Postcode 3000] in the ’90s people said Australians wouldn’t live in cities; it wouldn’t work; nobody would buy it. I said, ‘have you tried it? Maybe if you give people the option…’

“Now they say [about his growth plan] we haven’t quite researched it enough. We need more time. Well, time’s over. We haven’t got time.

“The predictions are that our cities could double in next 20 to 30 years. Australia is a very desirable destination for a lot of people and will attract more migrants.” Among them will be climate change refugees as rising sea levels in the Pacific and elsewhere force people from their homelands, he says.

But, he says, the last thing we need to do is to keep spreading cities outwards, where building new homes requires new and very costly infrastructure. “The reality is that we won’t rebuild the infrastructure; it’s a physical impossibility.

“The challenge is similar to the one the universities had in the ’60s when the baby boomers arrived. In some cases we built new universities, but many that were in the cities were constrained in terms of how they could expand, so they did studies on how they were using their facilities and discovered that the lecture theatres, for instance, were being used 20 per cent of the time and the rest of the time they sat empty.”

What the universities did, says Adams, was reprogram their facilities and use them moreefficiently. Cities can do the same, he argues.

“We need to better understand the capacity and the capability of our exiting infrastructure and see if by maximising that existing infrastructure we can accommodate that growth. If you have already invested in it, you may as well take advantage of it.”

“It‘s not about rebuilding cities it’s about transforming them.”

Adams’s ideas are simple but potentially revolutionary. In the “Transforming Australian Cities” exercise, the team examined an astounding 1.5 million sites along Melbourne’s bus and tram corridors. It did not concern itself with rail transport because so much work has been done already been done on this.

The team used aprocess of elimination that included a number of factors including sites that had been recently developed, had heritage value or less than a six-metre frontage. Development would need to be between four and eight storeys and would need to have very high quality design at street level. “Design a good street and design a good city,” Adams says. It’s a “major piece of public space”.

Together with predetermined contributions for affordable housing, this would create a type of compact so developers could have certainty on the sorts of yields and returns they could expect.

Even more radical is the proposal that the remainder of the sites — some 94 per cent –would not be developed. Suburbs would be left alone to get do environmentally sustainable things like “collect solar energy and water, and grow food”, says Adams.

“By being specific about where development can go, the corollary is that other areas can be assured of being preserved from development,” he says. “That’s where you can start to calm down the community.”

If his plan is alarming people, it shouldn’t, says Adams. What should be of concern is the cost of locating more and more people on city fringes.

“[Research by] Griffith University has found that people on the fringe suffer real financial difficulties,” he says. “It’s fine for a house and land package to cost only $230,000 but does the customer realise they will spend 25 per cent of their income getting to and from work and getting the milk? People don’t think of this.”

Curtin University’s work shows that locating 1000 houses on a city fringe costs $300 million more over 50 years than the same number of houses in existing areas. “What they’re saying is that $85 million of that difference in cost is the hard infrastructure but the rest is the impost of people living in that area in terms of the lifestyle they’ve chosen and [things they] haven’t factored in: things like one-and-a-half hours [commuting] in a car instead of walking, and the issues of health and obesity.

“It’s not a choice to say to someone on the fringe ‘Here’s a house for $300,000’ unless you also ask them if they are happy to spend $20,000 a year to just to get to work. Then it becomes their choice.”

tperinotto@thefifthestate.com.au

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