Whether it’s sprawling suburbs or dense city living, the design of our neighbourhoods, our towns and our cities have a profound influence on our lifestyles and how we engage with our surroundings. (Will we walk to get a coffee or do we have to hop in our car? Do we feel safe walking our streets at night?) But for many of us, the way our streets and blocks are laid out is just something we simply acquiesce to, without realising that perhaps they could be changed for the better, and even more, that we can help drive that change.
How to best design a new neighbourhood or makeover an existing one is a question urban planners work hard to address. The Urban Design Alliance of Queensland (UDAL), a not-for-profit think tank that promotes sustainable design, brings together architects, urban designers, planners and other professionals to advocate and collaborate on ideas to create better designs for our cities and towns. UDAL encourages everyone to get involved in the design of their communities.
Caroline Stalker, a director at the architecture firm Architectus and honorary life fellow of UDAL, recently sat down with me to discuss a project she’s been working on in the tropical North Queensland city of Cairns that illustrates some of the key urban design concepts UDAL promotes. She reminds us that in order for us to stay connected with our environment we should start by being aware of it.
“Design is so fascinating because it deals with this bit of people’s lives that often aren’t consciously dealt with by most people. A lot of it’s about habits and patterns and things you don’t think of and the thinking that ‘things are the way they are because they’re just that way.’ And in design you have to be able to think, ‘Well, maybe it doesn’t have to be that way, maybe we could think about it differently’. Just because it’s always been one way doesn’t mean it’s the best way of doing it.”
Many of the designs Stalker is working on in Cairns (and elsewhere) centre around making the city more pedestrian-friendly, greener, cleaner and happier—all of which are ideas that are gaining traction in places across the globe.
You describe Cairns’ past development as pragmatic, sprawling urbanism, spread out, overly dispersed and disaggregated. Many of the city’s destination spots are disconnected from each other and sit on the fringe of the city. What is wrong with this picture and how do you think it should be changed?
The way that Cairns has developed over the last century has gone the way of many Australian cities, in that when we started to become more and more reliant on the automobile, our cities started to spread out because we could live far away from one another. We didn’t need to live and work within walking distance of those two functions and we didn’t need to live within walking distance of the shops. Cairns’ city council is quite conscious of that and has been looking at initiatives to try and redress that over a longer period of time. They’re really trying to get more public transport happening so that different parts of the city connect more effectively to one another. The work we’re involved in is about ensuring that the city centre retains its focus as the primary centre of Cairns, rather than getting very diluted by all of the development on the fringe.
Cairns is considered a Torrid Zone. Can you illustrate what a city in that kind of climate looks like?
Cairns is a fantastic place. You get off the plane in Cairns in summer and it’s just so beautifully blue and so intensely green and the light is so yellow and when it rains it just buckets down. You can’t believe how much rain there is. And the heat in the summer in the middle of the day is just very pumping. It just makes your head throb and so the idea that it’s a torrid place really matches your experience in summer. But then they also get these cyclones and this wild weather, which is really torrid as well. But the definition of the torrid zone, the Aristotelian definition, is a zone of the planet that was too—in his terms—too intense, too torrid for people to inhabit, but of course that’s not the case.
What does it mean then when you approach a design project like this, being in that kind of environment?
Well two things.: One is that we need to listen very carefully to the place and understand all the challenges that those conditions bring. The other thing is we need to partner very closely with people who live and work there all the time, and that really helps us all develop a collective understanding of how to create a better city centre in these conditions of climatic extremes. Our master plan is all about making people-friendly public spaces in the city centre, but in a way that deals very effectively with the torrid climate.
As you mentioned, before we relied on air conditioning and cars, it was crucial our streets and neighborhoods were designed for pedestrians, making it easy to walk from place to place. Why is it important to bring back that kind of design in Cairns and elsewhere?
There are a number of different drivers: The more our cities spread, the more natural resources we gobble up. And as our population grows, instead of spreading all the time, we should think about consolidating and using the land that we have already more intelligently. I think during the 50s and 60s, when we were developing our models of urbanism in Australia, it seemed that there was this endless supply of land, endless supply of resources, endless supply of oil, and we all know now that those resources are more finite. And around the world, as the population grows, cities are saying we really need to look at how we can make more compact cities. There are lots of benefits that come from making more compact cities, in that it makes it more economically viable to put more services where people can get to them more quickly. It helps promote local employment, so you don’t have lots of people coming from the outer suburbs in their cars into one place in the city, on long commutes. And that reduces pollution.
So there are a whole lot of different benefits involved in helping our cities be less sprawling. I guess when people hear people like me say ‘compact cities’ they think that we want to put everyone in lots of flats and make a concrete jungle. The trick is, and this is where you need really good design and really good design thinking, is how you can do that and how you can help people live in more efficiently organized cities, but still give them all of the things that they love: their backyards and their relationship to nature and lots of planting and lots of nature and landscape spaces so that there really isn’t this sense of we are living in this concrete jungle. Queenslanders love being outdoors and being in nature, so it’s terribly important that when we do start to think about more compact cities we make sure that the living places we make still offer Queenslanders those benefits and the things that we love about our lifestyle now.
Can you describe what you refer to as “The Great Tropical Living Room?”
That was an idea about turning the streets of the city centre of Cairns from hostile, hot places for cars, to living spaces for people coming into the city. And to do that, we really need to make a lot more shading places. Cairns has very wide streets, nearly twice as wide as Brisbane streets. So in the summer you get a lot of radiant heat from those very wide streets. One of the ideas was just to plant the median strips with masses of big shady tropical trees so that the actual asphalt of the streets would become cool and that would reduce the radiant heat. The other side of that was just encouraging more planting and shade on the footpaths and more seating on the footpaths so that people would feel more inclined to be out on the footpaths in the more extreme months, as well as in the lovely benign times that they have up there.
What about lighting? Are there areas that would be improved by having improved lighting for safety reasons?
Absolutely, and in the city centre the lighting is not consistent during the evening. What we did in the master plan was try to combine that with festive lighting so that it wasn’t just about making bright, white spaces that were safe. We really wanted to bring the element of the great cultural hub that Cairns is into the lighting for the city as well, so that it was festive and it celebrated the fact that it’s an art hub for North Queensland up there. So there were a number of ideas about lovely lanterns and colored lights and marking different places of the city in different ways with different lighting treatments.
Is it realistic to plan design that encourages people to get around by foot and by bike in places that are incredibly hot and humid?
We took that as our challenge—to create a more sociable public environment throughout the city centre by cooling the city centre a lot, and the shade trees will have an enormous impact. They’re so big that they actually capture little tanks of air and keep cool tanks of air around them. They’re very, very effective because they have such a broad spread. So the giant fig trees in the median strips will really make the city centre a lot greener and a lot cooler. And then we also took that to the higher levels within the building: We are really keen to encourage the use of green walls and upper level terraces with planting.
So when people are walking along, do you envision them just walking along from shady place to shady place?
Yes, in constant shade. It’s similarly making sure that all of the streets are very densely planted so there’s lots of shade. The road carriages are planted so that there’s lot of shade and there’s awnings, big deep awnings, along the buildings so that you can be out of the rain when it’s pouring down and out of the sun.
You’ve touched on this, but can you explain further how the urban design of a town can affect its ambient temperature and perhaps work to reduce it?
Well, I guess it comes back to that point about how just taking heat, direct sun, out of surfaces will reduce its ambient temperature. So the shade trees in the roads that I was talking about earlier. By stopping the sun from actually heating up those roads in the first place, they will not become radiant heat sources. Those dark asphalt surfaces absorb the heat and then pump it out during the day. So by stopping the sun from getting on the surfaces, it reduces the ambient temperature of that street. And it’s the same on the footpaths. You don’t let the sun get on it in the first place and you keep it several degrees cooler. They’re the killer times in the afternoon when the sun’s been on the street all day and then it just starts to pound heat back and it just gets really overwhelming. It’s called the urban heat island effect. It is a known and studied phenomenon, particularly in tropical cities, where heat islands can be made within cities, because they collect so much sun and absorb so much sun and puts heat back out into the city, which can make city urban areas in tropical realms hotter than outside urban realms. So you really need that shade and nature to counteract that effect.
Lastly, how do you think the design of our streets, our blocks, our neighbourhoods, of our cities impact our quality of life and how we feel when we’re in these spaces?
There are a few different layers. If you make cities where people do not feel welcome to be out in them, you make cities that aren’t safe and you make cities where people don’t identify with or have a sense of social opportunity in their city. If they don’t see other people in public spaces, they’ll think that they’re unsafe, hostile places for humans to be and you create an entirely negative culture about that city. Cities where people are welcomed into the public realm through good design, through design that supports human activity in the public realm, makes cities that are safer and happier, where there’s just an improved and increased community wellbeing—and there’s been a lot of studies that support that.
Investing in urban design and the public realm really can make for a happier population and a better sense of identification with the place.
Then there are the economic benefits: So cities where there are great places in the public realm, great urban spaces, lovely places to be in the city, will attract more people. They’re places that people want to visit. They attract tourism. When people are outside in the city, retail shops do better. There are a whole lot of economic spin offs from having a great public realm, which is about really inviting people to come into the city and use it in a variety of ways, including spending money. So there are good economic benefits and good social benefits.
It’s a kind of a mark of a successful society, really, that understands that it’s what we share that binds us together. The urban realm is loaded with symbolic value, social value, economic value. That’s why it’s so important to do it well!
The Cairns master plan is a 10 to 15 year project. While a couple elements of the plan are currently underway, the rest may take years to come to fruition.
For information on how to become a UDAL member, click here.