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.

Weekend Wondering

“The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts”
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961

Sketch of Whistler by Drawntocities.com

Whistler is home to almost 10,000 residents, however, with a capacity to provide overnight accommodation to an additional 35,000 people, it regularly morphs into a village of strangers, hosting over 2 million visitors each year. On a recent visit to Whistler, I was intrigued by the strong sense of trust I observed amongst probable strangers. I found two indicators of trust, neither particularly unique of other alpine resorts, to be interesting and different to my city experience: people move at high speeds down the slopes trusting those surrounding them and people leave expensive gear unlocked outside trusting it will not be stolen. I began to think about how elements of good urban design and the sharing of space in Whistler play a role in fostering an unspoken confidence in human nature. The three qualities which Jane Jacobs asserted in her seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 were needed in a “city street equipped to handle strangers, and to make a safety asset, in itself, out of the presence of strangers” are successfully orchestrated in Whistler. Such streets exhibit a “clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space”; have “eyes upon the street” as a result of buildings being oriented to the street without blank walls; and support continuous sidewalk activity, “both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers” (Jacobs 1961).

Whistler by Drawntocities.com

Whilster's public spaces - its streets and squares - are defined by the private spaces of surrounding buildings. Buildings along the main pedestrian thoroughfares are of a moderate height of 3 to 4 levels. This human scale architecture allows sunlight to filter into the streets and squares and enables views of the surrounding mountain peaks and tree tops. The main pedestrian through link, Village Stroll, is wide, with narrower streets spoking off at the intersection of the squares, helping to lead people through the village. Higher architectural forms appear to be located on these less important pedestrian connections. 

Whistler Village by Drawntocities.com

The streets and squares are often demarcated from private space, by a subtle division with a ledge which also provides a small space for landscaping and doubles for informal public seating. Shop fronts are set back slightly from the pedestrian thoroughfare and are generally elevated above the street level by a few steps. This unfortunately impacts accessibility via wheelchairs or prams, however signifies a separation between the public realm of the street and the private realm. Nature is illuminated with large trees decorated with lighting at each of the public squares at night. While this creates an inviting atmosphere, it also provides a subtle form of lighting of public space to support safety at night. 

Whistler Streetscape by Drawntocities.com

Whistler's streets and plazas are lined with active street frontages which encourage interaction between people enjoying public and private spaces. Shops at the base of buildings have extensive windows which address the street and provide visual transparency. Many bars, restaurants and cafes are at street level and have patios, with outdoor seating and bright umbrellas, which extend into the street. Windows and balconies located on upper floors enable passive surveillance of these public spaces. These design elements contribute to a large number of eyes on the street. 

Whistler by Drawntocities.com

Private motorized vehicles have a limited place within Whistler Village, cars are excluded from pedestrian only streets and designated parking areas are located on the periphery of the village. By restricting the ability to drive within the village, more people are encouraged to walk.  When people move by foot, the likelihood of eye-contact or interaction is increased. The ephemeral face-to-face acknowledgements, awareness of surrounding people and lowered speed of movement changes the mood of a place. There is a higher level of passive surveillance, sense of personal safety, friendliness and calmness. Whistler’s public squares are centered at points of multiple street crossings, creating a greater likelihood of public usage and chance encounters. People are attracted to spaces where there are other people - and the removal of cars actively encourages people to get out and walk, fully enjoy the entirety of the street space for their leisure, whilst supporting a quieter and safer environment to relax. 

Whistler by Drawntocities.com

A continuity of shop fronts, bars and restaurants provides a point of visual and social interest for pedestrians. On rainy or snowy days, pedestrians are protected beneath the awnings of the shopfronts - although it should be noted that many of these protected walkways sadly preclude access via a wheelchair or pram due to several steps. Wide pedestrian only streets ensure people feel comfortable and uninterrupted in their movements. 

Whistler by Drawntocities.com

People have a sense of being amongst others - people watching gives a sense of being surrounded by a community - interactions occur between the windows and balconies of the private apartments above the street, the chairs and tables of the cafes, restaurants and bars, the ledges upon which people sit along the street edge, and the street itself.  The elements which originally struck me about sense of trust in Whistler are perhaps universal to many ski resorts, but it did intrigue me how people experience and behave in different types of spaces. 

Whistler by Drawntocities.com

In a typical city street, if you were to leave expensive private property unattended and unlocked, by the time you returned, it would probably be gone or vandalized. Yet atop the mountains and in the villages, countless people leave ski and snowboard gear outside while they go inside for a break. There is no guarantee that their property will be safe, yet the vast majority leave their gear outside without hesitation. For some curious reason, people trust thousands of strangers passing along to respect their property.  It could be that the design and use of spaces plays a role in this perception of safety and security. At Whilster, the places where people appear to feel comfortable leaving their gear, is generally on racks located in accessible and convenient destinations which have an extensive presence of people. They are designed to facilitate visibility - a restaurant or bar might have outdoor tables where people sit to easily keep an eye on their gear and windows enable visual connection from inside to the outside, making people passing by aware that they are being watched. 

Whistler by Drawntocities.com

While an average city street is designed with signage, signals, and road markings to communicate how people should move, either by foot or wheels, on the slopes there are only a few signs and rules. For the most part, the onus is on each skier or snowboarder to be aware of environmental conditions and surrounding activity. Most importantly they are alerted by signage to be mindful of people in front of them and to give way to others at trail intersections. Although different runs are categorized according to their difficulty, it is possible to find people of a mix of ages, abilities and experiences navigating down a section of the mountain at once. Space is shared in a way which empowers users with the responsibility to look out for one another. This is a space which is not extensively ordered - it is not governed like a street with designated areas for different types of movement, speed limits or devices to avoid people colliding with each other. And yet, those navigating down the slopes do so trusting those around them. 

Whistler urban design by Drawntocities.com

It is intriguing that at a ski resort we trust each other in different ways to in city streets. Atop the slopes, perhaps it is because everyone knows they are responsible for their own safety that we share space without excessive signage or separations common to city streets. Perhaps it is simply that people are on holiday, they are more relaxed and trusting of people being safety conscious and respectful of their property. Regardless, the urban design of Whistler encourages interaction between people enjoying the public and private realm through simple elements which sets a good example for other towns and cities.