Why not a department for pedestrians?

People must come first in cities, but our current focus is the opposite.

Moving vehicles around our cities efficiently seems to remain the primary objective of transport planning in Australia, and it continues to ruin our cities.

When we walk, we are programmed to maximise efficiency of movement, unless we are exercising towards a healthy outcome. We abhor walking backwards to go forwards. Walking the straightest line to our destination is called a desire line.  These are most evident in parks and gardens, and are often off the designated path.  The desire lines turn into what are termed “goat tracks” and are usually the result of poor design and planning.  They are where more people walk, naturally and instinctively.

Many cities identify their good bits – the visually appealing sites, natural features, built heritage, etc – and preserve these for their postcard views, for protection or “enhancement”. However, the fine grain of daily city life competes with the overall “love” for a place, with interconnected and often poorly planned streets and public spaces rarely recognised as having humanistic importance.

I’m talking about widths of footpaths, priority and timing of traffic signals to cross the street, other pedestrian crossings, slowing of traffic, bike share and parking, street trees for shade, equal and inclusive access for all, quality paving, welcoming lighting, seating, bins and other essential elements of a well-designed domain for the public.

Despite hero places such as Sydney’s glorious harbour, Adelaide’s Hills, Melbourne’s ordered grid, Canberra’s green belts and Hobart’s breathtaking Mt Wellington, the reality of the grit and grain of a place can often be quite different – horrible places that people dislike, ugly and unattractive, unsafe and dysfunctional, or a combination of all of these things. The forgotten access.

As architect Jan Gehl says:

“We have a department for roads, why not a department for pedestrians?”

He has a point.

Human factors play a large role in balancing the technical needs of a city – its roads, streets, drainage, transport, power, communications and water usually have priority over everything else, yet the very element cities depend on is people, for life and vitality.

Who hasn’t experienced the frustration of wanting to walk to the other side of the street, yet finding their route obstructed by by-laws, line markings, barriers, police issuing jaywalking fines, traffic and other people-unfriendly factors?

Strategies where cities put people first and inspire behaviour change – such as encouraging walking further than from the car park to the office – would be a good place to start making a change.

Accident statistics are often cited as a reason to “improve” roads to reduce the road toll, and sometimes pedestrian “improvements” are aimed genuinely at improving safety for people.  But what isn’t often addressed are the other factors – the consuming factors – to make places desirable, accessible and happy.

One of the greatest challenges is making the decision to make our cities places for walking first, driving second.  Communities are largely built on good walkability, with social, economic and environmental interactions creating the successful spaces we desire and protect.

In Adelaide, we are lucky to have a relatively flat city that means it is easy to walk longer distances at a comfortable walking, rolling, pushing or pulling pace. But the pedestrian planning often fails to make it easy.

Let’s take the tram stop in Victoria Square, one of our most aspirational city spaces.  The tram stop is anchored on the southern side of the intersection with Grote Street, with pedestrian access “controlled” via the traffic signals, which in turn are prioritised for cars.  This is the only formal access to the tram stop for pedestrians.

Yet the route to the Central Markets is counter-intuitive, requiring a northerly walk back to the intersection, crossing and heading south towards the main entry, using the footpath past the Hilton Hotel.

Anecdotal observations suggest that once people alight from the tram and the tram moves away, they instinctively step off the platform and walk through the traffic, avoiding the intersection and its pesky traffic signals, heading straight for the Central Market’s arcade entry.  Job done, that’s where I am going – bugger this traffic; bugger waiting for the pedestrian crossing.

So how can we solve this? Not easily, as perhaps the original design considered other movements more critical, and a southern crossing from the tram stop was not possible, desirable nor feasible with the current road layout and traffic lane design. However, the decision to place the stop at the intersection without pedestrian data analysis, modelling, scenario testing and design has locked in an awkward reality – perhaps more people are accessing the Central Market as opposed to other areas of Victoria Square, and now the route isn’t direct nor desirable, so people take more risks to access/alight the platform.

Problems like this then start to be addressed with silly solutions – fences, barriers, signs, bollards – rather than tackling the fundamental issue of “line of sight” to where people want to go.

A better method is to think about how people use our streets and spaces, and focus on improved modelling, scenarios, observations and calculations to design a better and more flexible result.  Setting the problem wider is a far better approach than solving one that is narrow and assumptive and limited in view.

Asking the community how they use their city is one thing, proving and analysing the evidence is another, and then coming up with more informed solutions is the outcome.

Creating well-designed spaces, walking strategies, way-finding signage and other initiatives are critical components of shaping our cities.  Making them functional, easy to use and simple to navigate is part-design, part-science, part-art, part-guesswork, part-listening and a lot of watching.

So next time you are here and want to go there, consider the opportunities as well as the realities and help the city broaden the conversation around creating better places for people.

Daniel Bennett is a registered landscape architect. He is currently the city design and transport strategy manager for Adelaide City Council and is a national board member and vice-president of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects.

This article was originally published in Adelaide’s Indaily 28 April, 2015 http://indaily.com.au/design/2015/04/28/why-not-a-department-for-pedestrians/

If a tree falls in Adelaide, does anyone hear?

In suburban Adelaide, when a tree falls it is heard.

And felt, and often blamed.  Chopped up, removed, mulched and forgotten forever.

Yet sometimes the poor old tree isn’t to blame. It is usually the end game in a long story often involving a plethora of actions, faults and events that date back to the minute the tree was planted in the ground.

It’s so easy to get emotive over trees when storms create havoc like they did last week.  I saw the damage and devastation in Hazelwood Park, and I must admit it brought a tear to my eye.

Unfortunately, the hysterical response is to call the tree lopper, close the parks, and get the trees out of our yard, out of our street, away from our parks and anywhere else there might be people … and that is after the event.

Emergency works are essential; so is safety, and preventing injury and death to people. The removal of dangerous limbs and trees is not the focus here – there is no argument with this premise.

However, we need to remember trees are living things. They filter our air, they create our breathable air; they need water, good soil and room to move, and they need a reasonable and stable climate to survive.  I think we tend to forget some basic premises about trees and why they are critical to our world – both in their normal places (forests, coasts, deserts, rainforests) and their adapted homes (our backyards, streets, highways, parks and public spaces).

Trees are also risky things. Like humans, they are affected by changes in climate and removal of support systems; they get sick when neglected or deprived of their basic needs.  This results in limb drop, leaf drop, falling over from destabilisation, and death.

As living things, trees are subject to the same forces as other living things.  In a week-long heatwave, imagine how you would feel if you stood outside in the sun, didn’t drink water for a few days, then got battered by 120km/h winds.

While this comparison seems a little hysterical, so is the call to water down our world-leading tree protection laws.  We need to remind ourselves of the suburban benefit of trees, acknowledging the risks and promoting good tree management practices.  In our parks, streets, public spaces and private gardens, we need to consider better and more informed design, which includes species selection and placement of trees.

Trees do many things in our society.  They provide shade, animal habitat and urban biodiversity; they also reduce the heat impact of development in urban areas (such as hot bitumen roads and rooves). Trees also help maintain and improve land values in residential streets, provide visual benefits (improving mental health), and create pleasant streets to walk in. In addition, they mitigate changes in our climate in the long term.

Occasionally, trees do create chaos: and as with humans, there are always many reasons why a tree might “fail”. When a falling limb or tree does cause our power to “fail”, it cops the blame. The onus is on society to reconnect the power, but there is less focus on the poor old tree being reconnected and cared for.

It is too easy to focus on the risks – which we do mostly to protect and insure ourselves. However, most councils have the task of mitigating tree risks, which is usually done via excellent reporting and management practices.  Picture your suburb, then add the number of streets, then the number of trees in streets and parks – now you can see the scale of the challenge of assessing and maintaining the “risk” of trees in public spaces.

Trees are also a signpost to the past: past planting decisions, past maintenance practices, past establishment practices and past species selection.  There are very few remnant trees in Adelaide, which means most trees have been planted by humans at some stage.

Instead of a reactionary change to the tree protection laws, the focus should be on improving the management and performance of our trees. For example, funding more undergrounding of powerlines, investing more in keeping our trees healthy via sound horticultural practices, improving services for more informed tree species selection, improving establishment practices and fostering better community ownership of our trees.

There is excellent research and field work on increasing a tree’s survival rate and establishment through capturing street stormwater, which also prevents street surface pollution from entering our creeks and rivers.  However, more research, testing and funding is needed in this area.

More collaborative work involving landscape architects, arborists, engineers, horticulturalists, the nursery industry, infrastructure providers, service authorities, risk managers and key authorities will help ensure that our future streets, parks and public spaces are more effectively designed to cater for the needs of trees. This will bring benefits in terms of our long-term sustainability and a healthy society.

Imagine our suburbs, parks and streets without trees.  It would be a sad city that doesn’t welcome these amazing, diverse, adaptable, beautiful and important trees.

Daniel Bennett is a registered landscape architect, and National Vice President of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects

This was originally published in Adelaide’s Indaily, 12 February, 2014, http://indaily.com.au/design/2014/02/12/tree-falls-adelaide-anybody-hear/

A greener Adelaide needs more than park lands

We rely too heavily on our beloved parklands to do the heavy lifting for a greener Adelaide.

If we are going to achieve the carbon-neutral city foreshadowed in the Governor’s speech in January, we will have to turn our attention inside the CBD for solutions.

The parklands provide 770 hectares of green space surrounding the CBD. But let us not forget that while they were identified as an integral part of Colonel Light’s plan for the City of Adelaide – as “the lungs of the city” – they were effectively clear-felled, with parts used as a  rubbish dump and others quarried, from the beginning of European settlement.

They were not managed well until much later in the 20th century.

Today, the actual area of remnant bushland ecology is estimated at less than 4 per cent.

Our parklands perform a critical role in air-conditioning the CBD by default, and their role can increase dramatically through small-step changes, such as planting more trees and encouraging the many creek ecosystems to regenerate.

But our city streets should be performing a far greater role than they currently do – environmentally, economically and socially – to shape a greener future.

And we need a design-led approach, considering different measures than we currently do, to make that happen.

Currently, more than 40 per cent of Adelaide’s CBD carbon emissions are from transport – both public and private. This is one of the more difficult problems to address, as people need to get around and into the city for many reasons: to live, work and play.

But with a change in approach, our city streets could be habitat-rich, species-rich environments, with a more productive biosphere, to offset those emissions.

The way we view open city spaces – within the laudable but limited lenses of heritage, availability, and the fact someone it planned it that way – needs to be widened.

We must change our mindset to consider environmental qualitative and performance measures as important.

These include:

– Total number of shade hours in summer
– Percentage heat reduction to pavements and buildings in summer
– Heating benefits in winter
– Connected shade (length) on our streets
– Reduced runoff into our creeks and rivers (especially the River Torrens)
– Percentage of rubbish collected at the source
– Improved air quality
– Reduced reliance on air conditioning
– Number of operable windows
– Improved economic outcomes (increased trade or retail opportunities)
– Improved walkability/cyclability
– Improved property values
– Improved amenity (the happiness factor); and
– The “hip” factor, and “desirability”, measured through engagement with people.

Green infrastructure in our cities – aimed at climate adaptation on a city-wide scale and led by design – can help us achieve these goals. It’s one of the more constructive and outcome-driven strategies to combat climate change and carbon reduction.

It offers integrated storm-water management, increased biodiversity, reduced urban heat island effects, cleaner water and soils, opportunities for renewable energy production, and increased habitat production.

It also comes with human benefits, such as better-quality open spaces, improved recreation, improved health outcomes, and connected shade and amenity.

The current paradigm, however, enforces the supply of utilities – gas, power, water, sewerage, internet cabline, drainage, telecommunications and other “services” – over the current greening of our streets, simply by demand, cost and availability of space, and traditional municipal management approaches.

Consider the poor old street tree.

Prior to anything being planted, especially in city streets, a long process has been navigated, often involving a plethora of actions, strategies and compromises.

Current risk-management approaches are even more acute for tight city streets: Pirie Street is without trees largely as a result of this.

There simply isn’t any “viable” room for living things in the ground.

Our streets of the future should consider green infrastructure like any other piece of essential infrastructure.

They will provide shade, pleasure, interest and something to sit under; they will collect seeds, leaves and mulch; provide habitat; cleanse our water and air; provide edible food, drainage, soil biota; enhance property values; reduce the need for expensive pipes and infrastructure, and make happier people.

Trees and do add significantly more value than their installation costs or asset value.

But this does not just apply to trees – the same and more can be measured for green roof and green wall initiatives, not to mention other carbon-abatement schemes.

Many residents have west-facing walls, for example.  A simple vine planted to climb the wall can reduce the internal temperature by up to 10 degrees on a hot day, and conversely in winter can assist in passively heating the house if the vine is deciduous.

From individuals to governments, there are pragmatic, achievable, workable, negotiable goals we can agree on to green our city, and with measurable outcomes.  We can do most of these now.  We can measure them now.

It need not require significant additional investment; it requires some adjustments on current expenditure to ensure taxpayers’ money is spent wisely and with real, measurable (including environmental) outcomes beyond just assessing elements such as “asset class”, “depreciation” and “insurance value”.

This is not a question of environmental values over economic and social values. It is one of addressing an imbalance, and asking ourselves how we can best adapt now to reflect the inevitable changes affecting Adelaide.  This includes projections in the Government’s 30-year plan for an extra 50,000 residents in the CBD.

It is real, it is here, and we can do something about it.  It needs to start now. We can all do our bit without too much fanfare, and when we do, we can all reap the benefits. And we can preserve our parklands the way they are and enjoy them for what we like, while the city can perform the role of a climate-adapted and carbon-neutral city.   The choice is before us.

Daniel Bennett is a registered landscape architect.  He is currently the city design and transport strategy manager for Adelaide City Council and is a national board member and vice-president of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects.  

This article was originally published in Adelaide’s Indaily, 9 April, 2015 http://indaily.com.au/design/2015/04/09/a-greener-adelaide-needs-more-than-parklands/