Strategic Futurists; Value Systems Specialists


Cities of the Future: a view from Perth

Monday 19 November 2012

What does a City tell you of itself, by how it shows itself? There's much to be learnt by noting the small yet 'obvious' signs of life in any city you visit, that reveal to a certain extent, it's 'true self'. I'll mention a few cities here but will focus on my most recent visit where I've just spent about a week in Perth, my first 'longish' visit for quite sometime. First the obvious signs. There's LOTS of 'tall shoes' here that seem to be almost compulsory across the board, regardless of age or dress code, time of day or location. It is as if the wearers are reflecting the reach for the sky of many of the taller buildings of the city.

Second, there's a lot of empty stubby bottles lying around on the ground. Little pockets of four or five discarded perhaps as people walked by rather than settled in. Having walked around a few suburbs in my time here, I can also say that I saw them pretty much everywhere. This 'enjoy and dispose of' mentality is somewhat worrying if it is a pervasive undercurrent of mindset. In fact I'm pretty sure I now know one of the more popular brands of beer in Perth based on how many I have seen tossed onto the grass verges.

Third, public transport seems to work. Well. Sure it can be hard to tell with only a few trips and the understanding comes much easier when you watch how the locals approach things. The Ferry was easy to use, tickets simple to buy; the trains ran on time, were well patronised and the buses were great, even with the occasional difficulty with the swipe card. You could at least buy a single trip or day pass without the ridiculous requirement to buy a permanent card as seen in Melbourne's recent shambolic attitude to public transport users.

Perth is a 'wide' place. This differs from Melbourne which is 'spread widely' or Sydney which is 'spread tightly'. The streets of Perth seem to have a feeling of openness, allowing that pervasive sunshine to reach into the pores of the ground upon which you walk. And it's warm, even for a Brisbane born lad there's no sign of cooling, which perhaps explains the hard not to notice numbers of individuals who seem to shuffle along with no noticeable sense of purpose. To me, they seem 'lost' but not in a locational sense. Perhaps Perth's wideness made them stand out to my eye more that they would have in a more compacted setting?

There's much to compare in Perth to Islamabad, Pakistan where I was last year. A wide, hot place with a core of large buildings. Of course you'd need to take away the sub machine guns and add in more public transport infrastructure for the comparison to be operationally similar, and that general feeling of wideness and heat is experientially very close. I found Islamabad to hold a sense of calmness when I was there. Perth seems not so much calm but rather 'relaxed though sharper' to the senses. There's an energy on the street that is very different from other cities in Australia.

I sense that Melbourne is slowly bleeding from its social fabric and cohesiveness as it grapples with a choking car class ever stressed by more time in traffic trying to get to work from far flung suburbs. It seems that Melbourne is ignoring hybrid developments choosing either or options for living – you live in a high-rise in the city OR you have your own home. Melbourne lacks the sensible, stylishly, people centred designs of a five story apartment blocks clustered into hip, and or functional and or enticing inner suburb locations. It's flattening its spread ever wider and now faces the consequence of a public transport approach that is bordering on the embarrassing – that there's still no train to the airport highlights a failing of political responsibility. And as for the outer suburbs...

Perth is growing too. But what will become of its self, the Perth we see? Given the apparent wealth pouring into the city, I am surprised at the 'nothingness' of many of its taller buildings. Dr.Anita Kelleher says that Perth seems to be embracing the 3B's of construction - 'Big, Beige & Boring'. Others may disagree – perhaps suggesting that what with the reflective glass, some of them are definitely 'Blue', and you get the idea. I'm not an architect so take this with a grain of salt but 'normal and bland' would describe most of them – they do not seem to invite the community of Perth to them, so are they representative of Perth proper?. And despite the reach for the sky platform shoes of many of its citizenry, I don't think the issue is height of buildings, it's their facades, their shape. At street level the more interesting buildings seem shut out by shanty styled overhangs of street advertising. Surely shade and protection could find a cleverer, more intimate way to be provided that adds to rather than detracts from the streetscape?

Like Brisbane which is rushing headlong into high story building locations right in the heart of future environmental disasters, Perth could take some clues from both Vancouver and Stockholm because it shares situational settings.

Vancouver is an amazing place and just as I have done here in Perth, spent a couple of weeks in Vancouver last year with plenty of opportunity to just watch Vancouver in action. My wife and I were so impressed we investigated moving the family there – that thinking has not yet subsided.

Vancouver is 'split' by a harbour (like Perth is split by the river), and extends itself in two strips of city development either side of that harbour. The harbour is clearly wider than the Swan River yet the parallel remains. Vancouver looks onto both the harbour and Grouse Mountain and the range it is part of, and when it comes to development of new office towers, one of the considerations is to what extent a new multi storey building will block the view of that range to existing buildings.

Think about that idea for a moment and apply it to the Swan River. If too many people are impinged from having a view of the mountain range in Vancouver, changes to the building design will be called for. Think about the GoldCoast with its gargantuan towers perched right on the beach blocking a view of the sea to all those behind the building. Where Vancouver seeks to share the view, the GoldCoast has utterly failed as the developmental speed overtook the ability of a sense of city to be settled, before much of the Gold Coast took shape. Many say that compared to the swamplands upon which most of the GoldCoast has been built, it's far better. I generally agree and still...

What then of Perth City's future design? It already has some big wide parklands right on the water's edge (something Melbourne generally lacks due to the thinner nature of the Yarra, and something not seen in Sydney because, well, 'everyone' can typically see its fantastic harbour). Brisbane is already locking itself out of the asset that is the Brisbane River, though it is not too late. It has (like Melbourne) developed a cultural precinct on one side of the river that helps and is attempting to tap into the value of water views for the many, but I fear for my home town's future 'feel'.

Perth could seriously look at Stockholm which is really a city built on a series of islands. Despite its population, it has kept its buildings relatively short. Where Stockholm has islands, Perth has bends in the river. Where Swedes must venture indoors during the winters, Perth sees its people seek some refuge indoors. Where Swedes go ice-skating, citizens of Perth hit the water. The difference between the two is the approach to transportation. Swedes take the train, bus, walk, or ride. Cars (including taxis) are not quite so popular in the heart of the city. The transport infrastructure is excellent and for cyclists provides active bike sharing schemes, sufficient numbers of lock up locations, hire locations and good riding infrastructure.

These are things Perth could choose to develop, thus avoiding a future car gridlock that is now enveloping Melbourne. Melbourne also has a bike hire scheme somewhat surprisingly run by an automotive organisation that recently called for the closure of a bike lane in East Melbourne. Some say the lack of take-up of the bike scheme is directly related to the core business of the organisation running that scheme. For now I'm half happy to say that such an outcome is pure coincidence.

Interestingly enough, the Perth Zoo (which can I say did an absolutely fantastic job for the Asia Pacific Foresight Conference I was attending) has learnt a trick or two from one Swedish giant, IKEA. If you've ever been into an Ikea store you've probably experienced the difficulty of getting to where you want to go without following the one single pathway all around the entire store past every cup and candle holder, bed head and chest of drawers. There's no short cuts in the Perth Zoo, which when it's busy, makes the pedestrian journey like a shopping experience you just want to be over! Yes I know, they have development under way and still, there's a couple of VERY simple traffic shortcuts available I'd reckon.

Which brings me back to Perth and a potential approach to its future. I really like coming here because overall the people show they care about who they are and how they represent themselves. The place is wide, still relaxed and has almost enough cafes. The river is a massive asset somewhat untapped. I do hope that the signs of 'enjoy and discard' do not reflect an emerging social attitude of schoolies week. I wonder about the people who seem lost. I wonder about Perth's approach to its shape – there's an element of worrying about, maybe even a odd desire to imitate what the eastern cities have done or are doing. Other cities, whether in Australia or overseas may or may not be suitable models to consider. But whatever directions Perth seeks to take, perhaps a short story from Stockholm might be of value:

At the Sverige Museet (Swedish Museum) there is a huge statue of King Gustav who implored his people to, no matter what they did 'Vars Svensk' – 'BE Swedish!'

Perhaps that then is an idea. No matter what directions you choose to take, determine where you would like to go and Be Perth!

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