What’s Old is New Again

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-By Jaime McKee

In a nation facing unprecedented population growth, increasing urbanisation (and with it, suburbanisation), and the ever-present spectre of climate change, clever solutions are needed to address these disparate issues in a comprehensive and holistic way. While advances in technology, developments in housing and transit infrastructure, and investment in the construction industry certainly play their part in ensuring a sustainable future for Australia, perhaps some solutions need not be so novel. Some solutions – in place, in one way or another, since humans first came together to form communities – truly start at the ground level.

From the village green, to the town square, to the high street, safe and functional places for pedestrians have long formed a significant part of any livable city. Old World towns, of course, were originally designed with foot traffic alone in mind, and the urban landscapes of many European cities still reflect this. Similarly, countries which have yet to experience a boom in car culture are often among the most pedestrian-friendly, with market stalls lining the crowd-filled streets of the town centre. But while modern Australia, in many ways, has more in common with the United States than with Old World Europe, one area where it seems to hold onto its roots is in the value it places on pedestrian life. While other countries are seeing movements to “save pedestrian infrastructure”, and still others have never really developed any worth saving, foot-friendly malls, footpaths, and bridges here in Australia are par for the course.

Driven by Culture

Commonly known as “pedestrian malls”, dedicated pedestrian zones typically comprise just one street. Most often located at the core of the CBD, there is nary a major center in Australia that doesn’t feature at least one such mall. Many smaller cities and suburban centers also offer them. Constructed, for the most part, in the 1970s and 1980s, some examples include Canberra’s City Walk, Sydney’s Pitt Street Mall and Martin Place, Melbourne’s Bourke Street Mall and Acland Street, and the Queen Street and Brunswick Street Malls in Brisbane. Often situated adjacent to a transit station and near the high street, these pedestrian centres are often lined with local merchants, cafés, and restaurants, effectively turning a small section of the CBD into an intimate but efficient marketplace.

One observer, Jarrett Walker of HumanTransit.org, notes that the pedestrian mall “can be an element of forming a sense of small town in a big city neighborhood,” and certainly this desire reflects the Aussie sensibility. With an appreciation for both the outdoors and for community, Aussies, says Mr Walker, “like turning their shopping into a series of separate transactions with human beings… whether it’s a butcher, a baker, a fishmonger, or a specialist in fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Acland Street, located in the St Kilda suburb of Melbourne, represents a good realisation of this sensibility. With its many cafés, bakeries and street musicians, the area has “an intimate scale that brings pedestrians into close contact with its many [amenities], giving it the air of a bustling, linear party,” says Mr Walker. Patios and outdoor tables abound, and with its decorative checkerboard sidewalk, the plaza is reminiscent of classic pedestrian markets such as Glasgow’s Buchanan Street or the Strøget in Copenhagen.

Driven by Design

In areas such as Australia, where pedestrian malls tend to be newer creations rather than holdovers from centuries past, it can take thoughtful planning to bring such designs to fruition. In the early 1990s, Danish architect and urban design consultant Jan Gehl was invited to visit Melbourne, undertake a study, and provide recommendations on improvements to city streets and public space. Having taken much of Mr Gehl’s advice on developments such as sidewalk widening, tree planting, automobile restrictions, and public displays of art, today’s Melbourne reflects a very different vibe. Not only are the streets safer and more inviting for pedestrians, but greater walkability and the rise of the “café culture” have allowed small businesses to flourish. It is estimated that between 1994 and 2004, pedestrian traffic in Melbourne increased 39%.

But what of those aforementioned similarities with the United States? Australia, too, is an affluent, automobile-centred nation facing urban and suburban sprawl and a great deal of commuter traffic. Yet Australian planners, by and large, have built incrementally upon older towns – sprawling outwards, yes, but seldom retrofitting old town centers to serve cars rather than people. Foot-friendly developments, such as raised crosswalks, curb extensions, parking restrictions, median islands, and curbside fencing, have also continuously been built into the country’s infrastructure improvements. As stated in our Pedestrian Charter, published by the Pedestrian Council of Australia, “urban environments can be purposefully created to support and encourage walking.”

A number of innovative construction companies are undertaking just this sort of purposeful development. Moggill Constructions Pty Ltd was responsible for the 1997 construction of the Indooroopily Bikeway and Pedestrian Bridge, spanning the Brisbane River and providing pedestrians and cyclists with handrailing and lighting on a stunning bridge adjacent to the Heritage Listed Albert Bridge. And Adshel Infrastructure actually specialises in pedestrian-oriented projects. Responsible for pedestrian shelters and walkways, exterior solar and LED lighting, bus shelters and street furniture, Adshel draws on 30 years of experience to produce council, state government, and private projects across Australia and New Zealand.

Driven by Ecology

Of course, one of the strongest forces behind the modern move toward pedestrian infrastructure is environmental sustainability. Not only is walking – and more pointedly, not driving – healthy for those who partake, it is ultimately healthy for our cities. Pedestrian malls can greatly alleviate the need for vast swaths of asphalt parking lot, for idling at drive-through services, and, when paired with a comprehensive transit system, even for the initial drive to our shopping and dining destinations. Walkways, shelters, and supporting transit infrastructure can encourage walking by shielding pedestrians from the elements and from the dangers of traffic, and can even represent strong examples of ecological sustainability themselves: Adshel’s bus shelters, for example, utilise rooftop solar technology to power their lighting, and it is estimated that each shelter saves approximately 200 kg of CO2 emissions annually. With over 160 such shelters presently standing across Australia and New Zealand, such technologies are poised to make a tangible difference in our urban environments.

One blogger, Clarence Eckerson, Jr of StreetFilms.org, describes a walking journey through the streets of Melbourne: “Walking abounded,” he writes, “the streets were flowing with energy, the quality of public space [blew] my mind… For a city with nearly 4 million people, the streets feel much like the hustle and bustle of New York City but without the omnipresent danger and stress cars cause.” Such a glowing review is a testament to the success of Melbourne’s and other cities’ pedestrian-friendly initiatives. In Australia, such infrastructure is not merely the result of top-down planning decisions, but reflects our population’s desire for community and true livability. With such a winning formula in place, we are sure to see people-friendly planning continue to thrive well into the coming decades.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

November 21, 2018, 3:47 AM AEDT