Newcastle – A City for People
Last night The Design Partnership’s planning team attended Newcastle – A City for People, a city forum organised by business improvement association Newcastle NOW. Here we present a summary of the evening.
The event was hosted by Deputy Chair of Newcastle NOW Debera Mckenzie. In attendance were Tim Owen MP, who made a brief opening speech, and Penny Sharpe MP. The evening’s speakers, in order of appearance, were:
Josephine Wing – Manager, Centres and Urban Renewal Branch, Department of Planning and Infrastructure
Judy Jaeger – Director, Future City, City of Newcastle
Jan Gehl – Professor of Urban Design and Urban Design Consultant, Gehl Architects
Michelle Daley – Senior Manager, Active Living, Heart Foundation NSW
Gilbert Rochecouste – Founder and Managing Director, Village Well
Josephine and Judy gave us some edited highlights of the Newcastle Urban Renewal Strategy and City Centre Masterplan.
Next, Jan provided us with a hugely entertaining 45-minute introduction to creating cities for people. He graduated as an architect in 1960, at the height of modernism’s car-focused masterplanned cities. His epiphany came when his psychologist wife asked him, “Why aren’t architects interested in people?” Since then, his mission has been to create pedestrian-friendly and bike-friendly cities that are great places to live, work and play in. “All cities have a traffic department,” says Jan, “But none have a pedestrian department.” He called for a return to the good old days, where cities were expanded by adding small units at a good human scale.
Jan demonstrated how most city planning is done at the “city plan scale” (best viewed from an aeroplane) or “site plan scale” (best viewed from a helicopter), but that we should focus on “people scale” – how the city looks at eye level, traveling at 5km/h. In a brilliant sideswipe at Oscar Niemeyer, he referred to “The Brasilia Syndrome”, pithily observing that “everybody should have a helicopter to enjoy Brasilia.” He went on to lament the rise of “fly-in, fly-out, same-day starchitects” who are too focused on form. As an aside, he made a rather droll comment on how artists’ impressions of new development are always “crawling with happy people” (just as they are in the Newcastle Urban Renewal Strategy!).
Fifty years after the new paradigms of modernism and the car invasion, Jan says that in 2010 a new paradigm was born – the desire for lively, attractive, safe, sustainable, healthy cities. A large part of achieving such cities is the privileging of pedestrian and bicycle traffic over vehicle traffic. The public are often very sceptical of such schemes, but they do adapt. Copenhagen’s main street was pedestrianised in 1962, and over a period of thirty years, the city’s traffic engineer removed 2-3% of car parking spaces each year. Everybody just got used to it. Now, pavements and bicycle tracks extend across side streets, so that pedestrians and cyclists no longer cross the road; instead, cars must wait to cross the pavement.
Jan has a few common-sense ideas about fostering a bicycle culture in cities. First, he believes that everyone should be able to cycle, including children and the elderly. The young and old will slow down the lycra warriors who think they’re competing in the Tour de France, he says. He also believes that helmets should not be compulsory, as making them a legal requirement will reduce participation in the cycling culture. Jan ended his talk with a few examples of cities that are making changes. Most striking was New York, which has dramatically increased pedestrian and cyclist space along Broadway and in other areas. If New York can do it, says Gehl, anyone can.
After a short break for refreshment, Michelle spoke about the economic and health benefits of creating better cities for pedestrians and cyclists. Over half of Australians don’t do the recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, and if we could make walking and cycling a part of everyday life, we could easily meet this target. And, contrary to expectations, studies have shown that people arriving on foot or by bike spend more money in city centres. In terms of urban space, for every car space that generates $27 per hour in consumer spending, six bicycle spaces can generate $97 per hour. Ideas like these are gaining ground, and the state government will release its first ever State Walking Strategy in 2013.
Finally, the effervescent Gilbert Rochecouste spoke about his placemaking work and provided us with a number of ideas on how we can make Newcastle “an eco spiritual cultural creative hub”. The question we must ask, he says, is “how do we create cities that really nourish life?” Gilbert has been involved in Melbourne’s many night markets, and this is something that can easily translate to Newcastle, given the success of local produce and craft markets. Gilbert emphasised the need to not overdesign laneways and other urban spaces – traders should be able to be creative and put their own stamp on their neighbourhoods and be true to the spirit of the place. In Newcastle, we should “let the grit and the history speak for itself”. Placemaking, says Gilbert, is not about sweeping changes; it’s about good leadership, seed funding, and hundreds of “small wins”. What we need most of all though, he says, is more “quirky, funky, whimsical fun!”
At the end of the evening, Newcastle NOW announced that they have engaged Jan Gehl to provide $100,000 worth of urban design consultancy services. This is great news for Newcastle, a fantastic city that deserves the best urban design outcomes possible.