How to keep Brisbane liveable and friendly

Brisbane City Council is calling for the community to Help shape our city’s exciting next chapter.  https://yoursay.brisbane.qld.gov.au/plan-your-brisbane

Brisbane residents have already identified “green space” as critical to the successful future liveability of this city.  Taking this as our starting point, can we imagine a preferred future that is inclusive, connected and based on a clean energy economy, even as the population expands and ages?

  • What can our community be like in 20, 30, 40 years’ time?
  • Will the city be still liveable?
  • Or will it be hot and paved – and its inhabitants miserable and disconnected from each other?
  • What is our preferred future?

[Future Scenario 1]

What of the future if we don’t take climate-based landscape and lifestyle as our cue?

  • By 2040, despite city-wide visioning and regional planning in the early decades, haphazard patterns of development resulted and population growth, resource use and land development pressures stressed both ecological integrity and social fabric.
  • The supremacy of the private motor vehicle significantly shaped the urban form of South East Queensland during its most intensive period of population growth.
  • Congestion worsened as the city allowed private ownership of autonomous vehicles. The opportunity to reform spatial demand for car parking and roads was lost.
  • Governments of all levels took the path of least resistance and consumed historic parks to retrofit transport corridors in attempts to reduce traffic chaos.
  • Urbanisation was expansive rather than compact;
  • Growth was fastest at the cities’ margins, where the exurbs lured residents with larger and larger houses, and big-box shopping.
  • Development resisted containment by the urban footprint.  But far-flung suburbs and over-scaled houses were later abandoned as energy and transport costs soared.
  • Parks, public buildings, and playgrounds necessary for a highly developed social life in suburban community, were seen as expensive and inequitable when rapid expansion and speculation drove high land prices.
  • Open space failed to meet the increasing population’s outdoor recreational demands.
  • In the affluent first decades of the millennium, residents’ expectations of thermal comfort were influenced more and more by artificial environments and people sought to block out the vagaries of climate through technological means powered by fossil fuels.
  • Air-conditioning eventually became so pervasive that it was actually written into building codes as a requirement.
  • As a result, developers could utilise standardised designs that no longer needed to respond to the subtropical climate – year round monotony became the fate of residents. 
  • Ambient outdoor temperatures in the city increased even more than in the surrounding rural areas as more and more unshaded hard surfaces absorbed and re-radiated heat, and more and more heat-producing motors to run the fans to cool the refrigeration plant and computers produced more heat and more noise. We defaulted to the air-conditioner to at least make indoor spaces seem bearable all the more.
  • Community health has deteriorated as urban form became more and more alienating, and less and less walkable.
  • The gap between rich and poor is extreme – the city’s wealthiest citizens no longer inhabit the ground plane.
  • The noise of private air craft dominates life around the clock – not much birdsong is ever heard.
  • Some parts of the city are plagued by lack of sanitation infrastructure and an inability to meet demand for potable water.

In this scenario, the future city bears little connection to the once-benign climate and natural environment. This scenario seems extreme, but already exists in other cities globally.

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change* predictions of global warming play out in the coming decades, Brisbane’s current macro-climatic characteristics, which are generally pleasant, give or take the odd heat-wave, may be heavily aggravated by significant increases in average temperatures, and rain that either does not fall at all, or when it does, brings a destructive deluge whose affects are amplified by hard urban surfaces.

Then what is the future of the liveable friendly lifestyle we currently enjoy – where the line between indoors and outdoors often blurs?  Encounters of all kinds, business and pleasure, take place al fresco; walking cycling, relaxing, entertaining, indulging our penchant for spectating and playing sport, festivals, concerts under the stars – do we move these indoors to artificial environments?

What about imagining another future?

Model International Low Carbon City Shenzhen
One city’s vision of a green city of the future. Shenzhen’s proposed International Low Carbon City. Can it deliver its green promise from model to reality?

[Future Scenario 2]

Brisbane’s stunning transformation from sprawling metropolis to clean, green, compact and walkable city took a few decades but we made it.

By 2040,

  • An abundance of vegetation throughout the urban area is the distinctive mark of this mature, socially equitable, economically vibrant, ecologically healthy city.
  • The contribution that open space makes to the inhabitants’ quality of life, and the educational role of open space in providing models for responsible environmental behaviour was recognised through informed and visionary planning in 2018.
  • Vegetation has long been considered essential to clean healthy urban environments – not something devalued, discarded in value management exercises but integrated, considered first in decisions about what, where, why and how to build.
  • Riparian corridors and drainage corridors are rejuvenatedImpervious surfaces are minimized and instead of warm, contaminated water pouring into our waterways during a downpour, water is collected by buildings and streets, directed to shade ways of urban gardens, roof gardens, living walls, and avenues of street trees and allowed to percolate slowly into the aquifer, replenishing waterways naturally.
  • Instead of increasing conflict between the social role and the environmental role of urban open space, and continuing difficulties in achieving and maintaining open space linkages from the regional through to the neighbourhood/local scale, actual open space provisions including urban shadeways and networks of green set the benchmark for international cities.
  • These shade-ways are multi-directional and provide the natural pathways for people’s daily movement patterns to and from workplaces on foot or via a transport network.
  • Strain on energy and water resources is unknown.
  • Demand for water is related to necessity, and potable supplies meet demand with ease.
  • The city’s reputation for design of highest quality high-med density intergenerational communities is world-renowned.
  • Individual ownership of driverless cars was disallowed in a preemptive decision which reduced spatial demand for private and public parking space.
  • Large car parks, above, below or at surface level are long obsolete and were transformed effortlessly into other uses because of foresight in the second decade which saw reduced need for parking large private vehicles, and made sure that head heights and natural light and ventilation provisions made adaptation feasible.
  • Policies in the early decades which promoted compactness and densification, tailored for the subtropical condition by design, led to a profusion and confirmation of the very qualities, particularly in the public realm, the City Plan sought to confirm and create.

Is the proposition of a city which is literally green, too obvious?

People, not just buildings and infrastructure, make a city and their social and biophysical needs are significant. Liveable, friendly cities need outdoor places where people can share experiences and interact.

For every issue that this city confronts, careful attention to significant and meaningful vegetation can support better outcomes than solutions that do not value its role.

Trees and building-integrated vegetation can filter the air, absorb carbon emissions, improve urban hydrology, and provide biodiversity havens. Trees’ foliage and flowers contribute beauty and visual respite from glare and modern architecture’s shimmering surfaces. Tree shade supports walkable local journeys by providing relief from the sun’s direct heat and protection against UVR.  When trees cool immediate environs and pavements convection air currents  produce air movement felt as breeze on the skin. Trees and vegetation are integral to this system and water is essential to maintain these.

Visual relief in the shimmering city
Trees perform multiple services including bringing human scale and visual relief to the urban environment

At a time when cities around the world are increasingly looking and feeling the same, and similarly adding to mounting environmental crises, here in subtropical Brisbane we have the resources and the imagination to address the problems of the future city and produce new models for urbanism.  We just need the will and the leadership.

The design professions have an important part to play in creating the sustainable future we need to create. We have already developed practice-orientated ideas about “how to think about subtropical urbanism” as well as useful ideas for “how to do it”… See Subtropical Design in South East Queensland: A Handbook for planners, developers and decision-makers. Centre for Subtropical Design QUT, BCC & Qld Govt. 

If you are interested in designing your future and how to create a liveable and friendly city for future generations, we offer design review, advice and master-classes to clients in business, industry and government. Contact Rosemary Kennedy

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report

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