Australian New Urbanism: A Guide to Projects

Edited by Ecologically Sustainable Design
Australian Council for New Urbanism, 2006, 114 pp. $35AUD (about $27US).

In population, Australia is one-fifteenth the size of the United States. Despite that, the land Down Under is adopting new urban principles and practices to an inordinate degree. New urbanists in North America, Europe, and elsewhere would do well to pick up a copy of Australian New Urbanism to find out what is happening there. The book highlights a wide array of infill projects, urban centers, new towns, extensions to cities and towns, transit-oriented developments, corridor plans, codes, and other forms of New Urbanism.
The plans look good. Many of them are on par with the best New Urbanism in the United States. Based only on the photographs in the book, the architecture is eclectic — less traditional than the work of many North American new urbanists — and sometimes lacks coherence. I suppose this indicates that Australians — like their counterparts in North America — face big challenges in getting the building industry and the architectural profession to support their plans.
The Australian history with New Urbanism goes back to the early days of the movement. According to the introductory essay, Wendy Morris and Chip Kaufman of Ecologically Sustainable Design were in attendance in 1991 when a group of leading urbanists decided at a charrette in Davis, California, to form the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). About 30 Australians are members of CNU, and a sizable, outspoken contingent makes the long journey to the annual Congress year after year. The Australian Council for New Urbanism (ACNU) held its first meeting in 2001 and a second in 2005.
Australia faces similar problems with sprawl that one encounters in the United States and Canada — and to a degree in the United Kingdom. “The New Urbanism emerged in the late 1980s along with allied movements as a reaction against suburban sprawl in the countries most affected by it: the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia,” the editors note.
The difference is that Australia has more proactive government planning programs than the US, they say. “Sprawl’s negative effects are less pronounced in Australia,” they note, because infrastructure is more thoroughly planned and cities grow in a more orderly fashion. “Some Australian states with relatively strong planning agencies have provided a strong basis for a transition toward New Urbanism over the last fifteen years, as public sector planners and designers have joined forces with forward-thinking politicians,” they write. Indeed, the plans presented in Australian New Urbanism seem to be better integrated contextually than many North American greenfield projects.
The editors say the Charter of the New Urbanism, CNU’s statement of principles and purpose, applies to both North America and Australia — and they reprint the Charter in this book. But the editors also offer a critique of the North American approach as it pertains to location of neighborhoods and urban centers. The Australian approach is to layout mixed-use neighborhoods so that they straddle an important thoroughfare. This approach takes advantage of what Ecologically Sustainable Design calls “the Movement Economy.” Planning “that isolates community or neighborhood centers away from the Movement Economy will deny such centers of crucial commercial (as well as public transport), which should also bring people to such centers.”
The editors claim that diagrams promoted by leading new urbanists Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company for two decades show “neighborhoods separated from the Movement Economy, which passes between them to serve the town center.” It is true that early US new urban plans sometimes placed town centers away from major thoroughfares. New urbanists in the US have learned not to do that, and plans in the last decade or so have generally connected mixed-use centers to primary thoroughfares. However, the critique is still valid to the extent that primary thoroughfares remain untamed and there is no easy way to span them. Centering a neighborhood on a primary thoroughfare in the US remains a dream that can generally only be achieved when state departments of transportation are reformed — an ongoing battle that CNU is waging with no immediate end in sight.
Australian New Urbanism offers insight into how an allied movement is tackling the issues of placemaking and sprawl in a different geographic and political context. Order through acnu@netspace.net.au.

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