Medieval folk knew well the impact of urban design, or lack of it. In the Middle Ages, cities grew as population demanded, with little to no planning, and the result was filth, congestion and poor sanitation, contributing to a squalor that bred pestilence. Before anyone thought to practice more efficient urban planning, a third of Europe’s population had died from the Black Death.
You don’t need plague, or city-wide cataclysms like the Great Fire of Ancient Rome to demonstrate the importance of urban design.
You need only look at all of human technological progress, and how it has affected and been affected by the design of our cities.
It was the rise of cities, along with the invention of agriculture that marked our transition from a hunter-gatherer society, after all. Cities are, as Harvard economist Edward Glaeser calls them, humanity’s greatest invention.
Urban design is a discipline that combines science and art. A city is like a giant machine that needs to run smoothly for its economy to function optimally, but it also serves as a monument to the culture that built it.
Cities evolve to meet the requirements of society, with 20th century city design characterized by the need to accommodate motor vehicles, corporate culture, and international transport hubs accessible from land, sea and air. As one would imagine, the planning involved in urban design is immense in scope, incorporating elements such as:
- The overall infrastructure of the city, referred to as “Urban Structure”.
- The design of the street networks.
- The purpose of each district in the city, including business, residential, and recreational districts, etc.
- The incorporation of natural landscape, such as trees and rivers, etc., into the city design. This is sometimes referred to as “green infrastructure”.
- The scale of the buildings, the materials of which they’re composed, and their alignment, etc.
Challenges facing urban design in Australia
Australia has a rapidly increasing population, and a unique urban layout, with all its population centers situated on the coastline and separated by vast expanses of wilderness. This presents some unique challenges for urban designers.
It’s estimated that the population will have reached 62.2 million by 2101. Does it seem far off? Well, if anything requires long-term planning, its building cities.
The plan to transform smaller towns in New South Wales into cities to accommodate the future populace is not likely to go down well with denizens of quiet neighborhoods like Bulahdelah. But it will go down well with science-fiction fans, who envision all the cities on Australia’s east coast eventually merging into one, forming a sprawling metropolis reminiscent of Mega-City One from Judge Dredd.
Other noticeable issues facing Australian urban design include:
- Sustainability: According to CarbonNeutral.com, Australia has been pinpointed as one of the world’s biggest polluters, with carbon emissions per capita at four times the world average. Its outranked only by Bahrain, Bolivia, Brunei, Kuwait, and Qatar. As such, regulations are more stringent in Australia then elsewhere, with the impact of the Carbon Tax being an example. Better urban design allowed cities of the past to reduce squalor. Now it needs to help the cities of today battle pollution.
- Water supply: The challenges of being the world’s driest inhabited continent, combined with climate change, make efficient supply and transport of water an important consideration in the design of Australia’s cities.
- Public transport: Its infrastructure has long been a talking point. According to Wikipedia, Australian cities are built for motor vehicles, resulting in the second highest level of car ownership in the world. Incorporating better public transport infrastructure not only reduces road congestion, but also plays a role in addressing the issue of carbon emissions.
- Aging population: With one of the fastest growing aging populations in the world, (an estimated 20% of the population will be over the age of 65 by 2050), urban design in Australia has to pay special attention to the needs of the elderly.
- Obesity: Australia ranks 21st in the world in obesity, with 67.4% of its adults deemed overweight. This may seem an issue for dieticians rather than urban designers, but public health is a factor in urban design, and as a contributor to diabetes, heart disease and cancer, obesity is a 21st century public health concern. More public parks, more “green infrastructure”, as well as safer and better designed residential areas encourage a more active lifestyle, demonstrating that urban design can indeed play a role in combating obesity.
Health, science, business, and culture … there’s not an area where urban design doesn’t have influence. Those who pursue this discipline in Australia will face some unique challenges, but they’ll have a chance to make a difference in every walk of life.
Matthew Flax writes for Now Learning, an education portal that promotes higher education opportunities in Australia, such as urban design degrees and TAFE diplomas in public health.
License: Creative Commons image source