Urban development and change are constant partners and the associated problems and challenges are of a nature that cannot be solved neatly, once and for all. Urban environments reflect the rhythm of our daily life and mirror the progress, and the ups and downs of society.

As life changes, and demographics change, then cities have to reinvent themselves, this then also flows onto and impacts every aspect of the property market. Cities are at their core an everyday reflection of humanities needs and aspirations.

Cities and how they are planned and developed also reflects two cores aspects; they have a central emotional (social) connection and they have a rational (economic) side, urban areas, regardless of size have to work. Mostly they do work, but at times they don’t and they appear to be a mess.

Our urban environment, the buildings and places where we live, work and find enjoyment and sustain our souls, are all around us, and every day, 24/7 we interact with cities.

Cities are in turn affected and given form by buildings, structures that are both private and public and by urban infrastructure. Appreciating all of the dynamics involved takes a lifetime, but it’s worth considering every now and again some of the key qualities involved.

Urban development and design are naturally influenced by buildings, the physical surroundings. Buildings and places can be predictable or risky and they are always responding to technology. Technology like the motor car, which has so dramatically shaped today’s urban centres.

A new tech-driven age, sometimes called the 5th industrial revolution, is further re-shaping our cities.

Cities Respond so People Can Flourish

In a city, it’s not only the collection of buildings that shape cities, it is the public realm that establishes the relationships between buildings and the infrastructure around them. Many disciplines, professionals and layers of government are involved, including architects, developers, public policy, environmental planning, builders, planners, financiers and engineers.

It’s a multi-layered matrix, but it’s the citizens of cities (us) that make cities function and it’s why we are so emotionally attached to our urban environment, starting with how we value and are attached to our homes.

It’s been suggested that in the future that our cities will not be able to function in their current format with the expected and rapid rate of growth.

However, with more people living in cities there’s an opportunity for us to engage more deeply to keep them safe and interesting places. I’ve read some thought-provoking and yet simple ideas about how to help do this.

As cities change and evolve, and development takes place, there’s a need to make sure that all the needs of different groups are met. It’s also ideal if there’s activity at all times of the day and with varied reasons to use areas in the most productive way.

Urban must cater for all ages, for all residents alongside visitors and that requires suitable infrastructure, in particular transport to ensure easy and free access.

For any development to be a commercial success the same interconnections are vital.

Progress determines how a city functions and it need not be boring, or just tied to limited locations or a special event. I often reflect on how well Sydney worked during the 2000 Olympics, and yet today there’s a more distracted sense that our infrastructure is somehow failing us.

Putting special events and locations aside, it’s everyday needs that residents and those who work in urban areas are most concerned about. As a city like Sydney or Melbourne becomes on the one hand more widespread and in other areas population density skyrockets. The design of our built environment merits a lot of thought and it’s a big and urgent issue.

Step by Step

At a very basic level let’s start with the fact that the average person walks about 4.5 feet a second. For ideal urban design and as new neighbourhoods are established, this fact allows us to consider how best to make areas rewarding environments to live or work in or visit.

In older cities, when the pace of daily life was perhaps slower, a new view is opened with almost every step, neighbourhoods have more interest, more variety. Think of some of our inner suburbs and that variety is soon in evidence.

In a modern development if those same ideas and used the results can be more personal and not overwhelming, but with scale and large mixed-use projects this is not always easily achieved or, for economic reasons not even feasible.

However, by mixing scale and uses, in particular at ground level, the idea of the 4.5 second walk can be employed to help create more engaging individual developments and cities.

There’s also another aspect of urban design that needs to be considered as part of the planning criteria, and that’s the need to accommodate and maintain everyday utility services.

Every urban centre requires places to store raw materials, repair and house trains, taxis, buses, garbage trucks and public works vehicles. There’s also a need for power generation and distribution, garbage services, warehouses and industry.

It’s not always possible or desirable to push all of these essential services away from residential and commercial areas because they cannot be wished away in favour of genteel developments, cities have to function.

Sydney had this debate as the harbour lost much but not all, of its ‘working’ history.

Progress

As urban areas have grown so have individual lifestyles changed. Like the USA we used to get by with one bathroom, now half of all homes have two or more.

In the 1950’s cars were less common the ratio was 1:3 people, today many households have several cars sometimes more cars than residents.

Since the 1960’s our car miles have doubled, and we fly much more about a tenfold increase. Our homes are bigger and the amount of garbage we produce has jumped 60% since 1960. The question is, has all this and many other trends created better urban lives?

In his book Happy City, Charles Montgomery suggests a check list for a happy city, and while some points appear to run contrary to urban development reality, they are worth striving for. They include: a city should maximise joy and minimise hardship, make us healthier (not sick), create freedom to live, allow us to move freely and build our lives, give a degree of resilience against economic shock, provide fairness in the apportionment of space and services, build social bonds and create opportunity and celebrate our common fate.

So, we can all agree that there’s a lot of work to consider other than have the trains run on time!