With 2017 rapidly drawing to a close, it is timely to reflect upon the year that has been and then look ahead to see where our buildings and cities are headed.
In 2017, the ongoing 21st century theme of fear finally manifested itself in our built environment. Our federal politicians fenced themselves off from the public, implementing a ring of steel around Canberra’s Parliament House. Despite the outcry of the public, and despite an incident free and defiant 15 fence free years since September 11 2001, the politicians defaced our nations building.
This defensive mindset has also manifested on the streets of our cities. Due to the actions of a madman in January, concrete bollards popped up overnight to discourage vehicles being used as weapons. Urban design it seems must now take these threats into account, but we need it to be done in a way which doesn’t become self-fulfilling. Like everything else in our built environment, high quality design is absolutely key. If all we ‘design’ is concrete barriers, then we all we do is turn our streets into our own prison.
In 2017 this conflict between cars and people once again became the front line between competing utopias. On the one side is the utopia of the medium density city with public and active transport. On the other is the car dependant city where fringe suburban living can be supported by ever growing tollroads.
In Victoria, the state politics of urbanism became more and more bizarre. Labor of 2017 appeared to morph onto the Liberal government of 2014 and visa versa. There was a time when almost the worst thing a politician could do is look like a hypocrite. However the hypocrites have now discovered that there is safety in numbers. If the alternative side is just as hypocritical, there is no risk of losing votes over it.
So despite looking hypocritical, and despite a strongly worded report from Victoria’s leading transport and planning experts, and despite the position that got them elected in the first place, the Andrews Labor Government signed away $6.7 Billion dollars for the West Gate Tunnel project. By comparison, the election promise was for a $500 Million Western Distributor that was specifically for taking trucks to the port.
Here is what the experts thought:
While we acknowledge the congestion issues on the West Gate Bridge, international and local evidence overwhelmingly shows that building new or expanded roads are only ever short-term solutions. The purported travel time savings and reductions in congestion will not materialise because of induced demand, which attracts users to new road capacity and away from other modes, and we will very soon be stuck in traffic once more. Instead what is needed in an increasingly automobile-saturated city are significant and continuous improvements to public transport integration that draws travellers away from cars – both in Melbourne’s west, and across the entire metropolitan area. The WGTP thus constitutes an expensive strategic mistake.
Report by: Ian Woodcock, Sophie Sturup, John Stone, Nathan Pittman, Crystal Legacy, Jago Dodson
Many of the issues that were found with the disastrous East West Link project are also present in the West Gate Tunnel misadventure. Environmental impacts, dubious and non-transparent traffic modelling, restricting urban renewal precincts and damaging local communities are all factors in this project. On top of this, the strategy of funneling more vehicle traffic into Melbourne’s CBD runs completely against the Melbourne City Council’s long instituted policy of reducing the number of vehicles in the CBD. There are no new car parks being built, indeed carparks are being taken out in order to allow the growth of pedestrian traffic and to increase street trees which are a vital response to the urban heat island effect.
This West Gate Tunnel project would have been a bad one regardless of when it was built, but in 2017, knowing what we know now, it is a particularly bad call. The reason it is such a bad call can be found prominently in Infrastructure Victoria’s 30 year strategy, released just 12 months ago. We are likely on the precipice of the largest shake up of city transport since the implementation of freeways in the 1950’s
It’s not all about driverless vehicles, but we think this technology is likely to have the most profound effect on the way Victorians travel. We have commissioned modelling that suggests driverless vehicles and/or transport pricing could dwarf the effect of any single major transport project.
Infrastructure Victoria, despite having world leading experts in automated vehicles, is uncertain if we will need any more freeways at all once this technology arrives. We could very well see almost our entire vehicle fleet transfer to electric automated vehicles within just a few years. This speed of change is likely to be similar to the uptake of smart phones. With this change it is commonly predicted that our roads will gain a substantial increase in capacity and efficiency. So for Infrastructure Victoria the wise course of action is to plan for where these road may go if needed, but hold off until we actually know that they will be needed.
What 2017 has shown us is that the 1950’s style auto-centric thinking is now endemic across State level politicians in both Victoria and New South Wales. North of the Murray River, Greater Sydney is being sliced apart in order to deliver West Connex, a seemly ever expanding project which has begun construction despite the lack of a design of where and how it will finish. Once the expanded exercise is complete, it may well cost around $80 Billion dollars, around 2 thirds the cost of what a high speed rail connection would have cost between Melbourne and Sydney. This is truly staggering expenditure.
Meanwhile at Liberal headquarters in Melbourne, Matthew Guy came out with another ridiculous policy of grade separating roads across Melbourne. This policy has only negative impact. There is no upside. Transport experts have pointed out that there would be no time savings, as traffic would merely queue at the very next intersection. The financial cost of this proposal is completely unknown, there is no business case and the resulting impact upon the built environment would be inhospitable for pedestrians and cyclists.
So with all this political road mania, there is perhaps one benefit. The fallacy that there is not enough money to spend on projects is completely exposed. Billions can be spent without business cases, without proven benefits and without even common sense. So if you gave $10 Billion dollars to planning, transport and infrastructure experts, to crack the most pressing issue, where would it go? Fortunately we need not look any further than Infrastructure Victoria’s 30 Year plan.
If we had to nominate the top three most important actions for government to take in the short to medium term, we would choose:
1 Increasing densities in established areas and around employment centres to make better use of existing infrastructure.
2 Introducing a comprehensive and fair transport network pricing regime to manage demands on the network.
3 Investing in social housing and other forms of affordable housing for vulnerable Victorians to significantly increase supply.
Infrastructure Victoria 30 Year Strategy
Of the top 3 priorities from Infrastructure Victoria, only one of these is a project which actually requires substantial taxpayer funds. That priority is affordable housing. This is the most critical issue facing Australian cities today. Infrastructure Victoria estimates that 75,000 to 100,000 at-risk households do not have access to affordable housing in Victoria. This crisis expands across all Australian cities. The lack of affordable housing costs our society enormously in a variety of different political portfolios. Inadequate housing is directly linked with poorer health outcomes and costs, poorer education and justice outcomes as well as reduced workforce participation.
The question then for our politicians is why new toll-roads are given billions or even tens of billions of dollars, whilst affordable housing, which should be our highest priority, is given barely a fraction of this. In Sydney this choice is even more obvious. The government there is trying to suggest it needs to sell the highly significant Sirius building in order to fund housing, yet it can fork out $3 billion to rebuild stadiums without any such sacrifice.
Where is the unilateral government announcement that it will spend $3 Billion or $6.7 Billion or $80 Billion on affordable housing? No, what we get is policy tweaks, bluster and the claim that there is no money.
Whilst our politicians continue to sell out our cities, there is some good news to leave 2017 on. Nightingale Housing, the architecture profession’s reaction against poor quality, unaffordable and unsustainable housing continues to go from strength to strength. Without any assistance from State Government, Nightingale Housing has announced that it will be producing a whole precinct of well-designed buildings and spaces. Seven award winning architects will complete seven new sustainable apartment projects by 2020. This marks a new phase in Nightingale’s influence over housing and offers the hope of the low carbon, livable future which we need desperately need in our 21st century cities.
Architecture is for everyone
Thanks for reading. Thanks also to all those who have been interviewed or contributed to this website in 2017. The Red+Black Architect will be back in 2018.
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