Ideas on High Density Happiness from MPavilion

On 20 January 2016, I had the opportunity to attend the third and final discussion in a series on 'High Density Happiness.' The discussion was part of MPavilion, a four-month architecture and design event in Melbourne, Australia. Since its inception in 2014, a notable architect has been commissioned to design a pavilion for the Queen Victoria Gardens, which serves as a meeting place for a free program of talks, workshops and performances. 

People listening to the panel discussion underneath and beside the MPavilion 2015, designed by  AL_A , studio of Amanda Levete.

People listening to the panel discussion underneath and beside the MPavilion 2015, designed by AL_A, studio of Amanda Levete.

The interesting discussion, High Density Happiness: Urban Placemaking, focused on what makes a neighbourhood or city an appealing and attractive place to live, and how Melbourne can retain its status as the world's most liveable city. The panel included Laura Phillips, editor of Open Journal, Jeff Provan, founder and design director of Neometro, Simon Knott, of BKK Architects and Rachel Elliot-Jones of Assemble. The panelists, as well as a few audience members, raised some interesting ideas and questions which resonated, so I thought I would share, prior to the audio recording being made available on the MPavilion website. You can listen to the audio recording of the first panel discussion as part of this series, High Density Happiness: Building Communities.

High Density Happiness: Urban Placemaking

Placemaking imperatives

  • Residential developments must address and contribute to the public realm, however it is important that we mediate levels of privacy, designing housing as a private retreat from the city, to allow people to engage and dis-engage with public life.

  • Promoting a diversity of housing types allows for a greater assortment of people to enjoy a building and neighbourhood.

  • Developers, planners and architects need to ask: Would I be prepared to live in this development? Would I let my family member live here?

  • Considerations need to be broader than size and focus on the bigger picture feelings of quality and design. We need to raise living standards as many resident concerns are not size, but quality related.

  • The more a development gives back to the community, the more it gets back. Developments can exhibit generosity through small moves.

  • Apartments should be an oasis - welcoming their inhabitants and making them feel glad to be home

  • Discussions about apartment building design should be less focused on height and more about street level interaction. The street facade and treatment of streetscape is often an afterthought, left to the last minute. But how the ground floor activity and design fits with what building residents and the local community want or need is incredibly important. 

  • Developments should respond and contribute to local context. You can't just plonk a design anywhere. It is vital that the needs of the current and future demographic is considered.

A new development model

  • We need to change the approach to development which covers the site and maximises yield. There are some great examples of models that give back to the community, such as the Commons.

  • The majority of multi-storey developments in Victoria are not designed by architects. We have witnessed non-designers having the power over design elements which they are not trained or equipped to deal with. Such an approach has been more concerned with market issues rather than the longevity of living spaces. 

  • We need to better consider the implications of gentrification and displacement. Sometimes the diverse, artistic community which has made an area appealing is pushed out when they become 'trendy'. 

  • We need to consider the finished construction as the start of the development process, not the end, as this is where we see its actual contribution to the residents, street, neighbourhood and city. 

  • We have opportunities to incentivise new approaches to development, such as collective and affordable housing.

  • Car parking policy needs to be revitalised to reflect changing needs and attitudes. Reduced car parking is cost-effective to developers, reduces housing cost and contributes greater housing choice in market. There is opportunity for better bike storage and maintenance facilities in apartments. 

  • It is important to shift the role of government from an 'umpire' to leading good development outcomes. To aid this political donations from developers should be banned so that the State Government isn't subject to difficult pressures. To protect our assets (public transportation, public spaces, etc), we need good legislation and policy. Independent design review processes is beneficial as no sites are the same. Architects, landscape architects and designers should involved in large scale development and public participation must be encouraged to allow for community discussion and debate. 

MPavilion offers a great opportunity to engage the public in discussions on urban planning policy.

MPavilion offers a great opportunity to engage the public in discussions on urban planning policy.

City activation and place making videos

Yesterday, a friend and former co-worker who works in regional development and tourism sent me a message saying that she was looking for some interesting and inspiring videos about city activation, place making and collaborative processes in urban development. Her city has a spectacular setting on Australia's Great Barrier Reef and a magically perfect tropical climate which make it a major destination for tourists and a fabulous place which locals never want to leave. Increasingly, people are identifying the many opportunities to reinvigorate spaces within the central business district to complement the natural setting with other city experiences. 

It is incredibly exciting that the city is exploring opportunities to enhance the urban landscape, and in the process are looking around the world for ideas to generate some passion in their leaders. I have selected a few videos which I hope offer both interesting and motivating ideas for aspiring to create great spaces and inclusive and engaging processes in cities. If you have a little spare time each of these is worth a look. I would love to hear of any other great suggestions you have to share - just enter any  in the comments below. I hope to add some more suggestions when I have a little more time. 

Spare 15 - 20 minutes

How Public Spaces Make Cities Work
In this inspiring talk, Amanda Burden discusses the importance of public spaces in creating an enjoyable city life. She shares her experience of developing the High Line in New York as a great example of public space anchoring an area undergoing transformation, and she provides insight into some great ideas for strategic and integrated urban development which ensure people are connected with the places they live.  

Before I Die I Want To
Candy Chang has sprinkled countless cities around the world with little experiments, often on the sides of abandoned buildings, to engage people in their neighborhoods about life, memories and dreams. She shows the power of public spaces when people have a voice and share experiences with each other. 

The Walkable City
Jeff Speck explains how Portland, Oregon made a series of choices which shifted the city's priorities to make it more sustainable, walkable and bikeable - and in the process boosted economic development outcomes. This is a great example of a leaders setting an agenda to improve the city for all.   

Brilliant Designs to Fit More People in Every City
The vision for the future city, according to Kent Larson is a place for people, capitalizing on compact urban centers and shared use of spaces and vehicles. Technological innovation will play a role in creating micro cars, robotic walls for apartments to adapt spaces, apps to enable communities to 'personalise' the type of housing they demand and sensors to save energy consumption. A little out there, but inspiring for thinking beyond the status quo! 

Retrofitting Suburbia
Ellen Dunham-Jones offers opportunities for how cities can regenerate car-based suburban development as people-oriented spaces. 

My Architectural Philosophy? Bring the Community into the Process
This insightful talk by Alejandro Aravena discusses the importance of engaging with the community to find the right questions to ask and the right problems to solve in a complex example from Chile. 

Spare 60 minutes

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces
William H. Whyte discusses his observations of people's needs for public spaces in cities and what makes a utilized and vibrant space. A fantastic film to watch for anyone responsible for overseeing a public space or city activation design project.