Hot in the suburbs – Want more walkable streets? More trees please.

It’s February in Australia and summer temperatures are peaking. It’s hot outside on the streets and if you’re walking to work, or walking the dog, keeping your cool on these sweltering sultry days can be hard.

In Brisbane, the state’s sun-drenched capital, the aspiration to be a climate-responsive city has been embedded in the City’s corporate vision and planning instruments for well over a decade now (City Shape 2026 and Brisbane City Plan, 2014). Why is it then that the streets in some suburbs are becoming less and less pedestrian-friendly year on year?

Since Living in Brisbane 2010 made the connection between planning, design and climate with aspirations for “a city designed for subtropical living”, the vision for Brisbane’s transformation from low-density car-oriented city to liveable pedestrian-oriented urban form has focussed on greater housing density putting residents within easy walking distance of public transport, shopping and services. The subtropical streets would be framed by buildings and vegetation working together, and the citizens would enjoy a lively sense of community in these convivial outdoor spaces where walkability makes active transport an easy choice.

A decade on, our new denser housing may be walking distance to transport corridors – but how walkable is the journey? Where are the shaded pathways to and from where we live to where we spend at least some part of our days? Brisbane’s so-called ‘shadeways’ are AWOL in the city’s suburbs.

True, the design-led subtropical vision is recognisable in some of the city’s major public places where the spaces and pathways between buildings are replete with luxuriant and shady vegetation.

South Bank Arbour
The art of the subtropical walkway – South Bank Arbour

For example, the Arbour at South Bank Parklands that snakes its way from the Queensland Performing Arts Centre to Dock Street embodies the merging of design for climate and pedestrian connectivity, and delivers sheer joy. Flamboyant bouganvillea vine cloaks the curling tendrils of the Arbour’s steel superstructure. Its rampant tendencies pruned and trained, the foliage laps up the all-day sun, wraps us in shade and thrills us with its vivid crimson flowers. Not far away, at the State Library of Queensland forecourt, glossy evergreen fig trees cool the path between the Queensland Art Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art.

In some traditional leafy suburbs, private gardens complement street trees and continuous greenery evokes climatic comfort, while urban renewal precincts like Teneriffe / Newstead, and Bulimba, are gaining reputations as high-quality neighbourhoods where ‘naturalness’ contributes to perceptions of attractiveness.

Bulimba streetscape
A tree-lined street in Bulimba’s medium density urban renewal precinct

But who hasn’t tried to find respite from the sun’s blazing heat and glare in the skinny shadow of a power pole? Or trudged the hilly streets in the humid summers, grateful for the reprieve of any shred of shade? … For many Brisbane residents the idea of walking on humid summer days, even just for ten minutes for more to the bus stop, is not attractive, but is an unavoidable daily ordeal.

And consider exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR). Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Skin damage from UVR is cumulative, with irreversible damage occurring in around ten minutes. Yet this disease is one of the most preventable cancers and well-designed shade is one of the most effective strategies to guard against it.

What is it about streets, people, the need for shade, and overall walkability that we just don’t get?

On suburban streets, where low rise apartment towers are replacing single houses, the famous subtropical outdoor lifestyle is not much in evidence. Infill developments expand to fill the limits of their sites and are creating an overwhelming impression of barrenness in the adjacent streets and pathways. Frontages are dominated by hard surfaces and utilities hardware that leave little room for vegetation to survive let alone provide a shady green backdrop for street life.  Trees that once lined the footpaths pre-development are destroyed and not replaced. New plantings often consist of beds of palms and shrubs that on their own are not shade-giving, and contribute little social or environmental value.

Indooroopilly streetscape
Indooroopilly streetscape

The street edge is characterised by blank walls and is frequently broken up by voids created by central driveways of gargantuan proportions designed for the manoeuvring of large vehicles that may visit the site once a week (ie waste collection vehicles), the chances of the street evolving into an attractive tree-lined avenue are low. As new buildings with similar anti-social traits accumulate site-by-site, the street character that is produced is alienating, hot and uninviting as a pleasant walk to work. On streets where more and more people are living, the wasted opportunity to design for walkability and daily human interaction is mind-boggling. The room for improvement for new developments to contribute to streetscape image and amenity is massive.

Carl St balck box and black entryJPG
Hardware and voids define the shadeless street edge of an infill development in Brisbane
carl st louvre edge
Driveways and utilities cupboards dominate new streetscape character in Buranda

Our current urban systems for vehicle ownership and storage, and for managing (and encouraging) household waste with large bins and large vehicles, and for meeting energy needs, are partly responsible for compromising the quantity and quality of outdoor space available for establishing gardens and shady trees. But, these old systems are on the brink of major change with new technology about to change the energy, waste and car-driving landscape. If handled well, rethinking these systems through the lens of urban liveability could change the rules of engagement between trees and utilities; between utilities and buildings; and between buildings and streets. Solving these issues aspirationally, with living streets as the goal, is likely to require change to the rules of engagement between planning and building regulations as well.

Good streets start with people. We know that favourable physical, physiological and psychological conditions for pedestrians create attractive and vibrant places. We know what it takes to design out heat, glare and discomfort on suburban streets, and design in effective walking-friendliness. For suburban precedents we already have Brisbane’s own leafy suburbs and urban renewal precincts.

When it’s hot in the city there is no substitute for large shady canopy trees.

To find out more about subtropical urban design principles and strategies contact me.  Dr Rosemary Kennedy, SubTropical Cities Consultant. Services

GOMA and State Library shady walk copy
Shady fig trees line the pathway at the State Library of Queensland

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