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Futures Thinking Master Class with David Sim

Last week the VPA was fortunate to host world leading expert and internationally renowned architect David Sim. David is Partner and Creative Director of Danish Firm Gehl Architects & Designers. Gehl are leaders in people focussed urban design, having transformed cities including Melbourne, into some of the world’s most liveable. David is currently in Melbourne consulting on projects in the Western Geelong Growth Area.

Thank you to the Ramsey Property Group who bought David to Melbourne where he is working on some of their projects for supporting this event.

David – a self-described ‘urbanist optimist’ and ‘pragmatic idealist’ – conducted a master class working breakfast at the VPA as part of our Futures Thinking thought leadership series.

David is a proponent of what he calls the ‘Soft City’ of the future. He makes the point that much urban planning in recent decades has focussed on reorganising human activity into silos, to separate people and things and by doing do reduce the risk of conflict. David says that we should instead be looking at how potentially conflicting aspects of everyday existence can be brought together and connected to deliver a better quality of life.

He says a ‘Soft City’ is a counterpoint to a ‘Smart City’. Rather than looking at new technologies to solve the problems of increasing urbanisation we should look to simple, small-scale, low-tech, low-cost, human-centred, gentle solutions that make urban life easier, more attractive and more comfortable. David says ‘softer’ is smarter.

David shared with us what he believed were some important elements of a ‘Soft City’:

  • Natural light, chairs and tables in public spaces
  • Children’s playgrounds in public spaces to make mums lives easier and provide passive surveillance
  • Continuous pedestrian movements along streets
  • Conversational cycling allowing for spontaneous stopping at local businesses
  • Greening courtyards wherever possible.

He also says that while density, congestion and climate are seen as major problems by many citizens of big cities, they also offer opportunities. He argues that high density doesn’t mean high rise and can be achieved in most places with no more than four storeys with a mix of services and retail on the ground floor from shops to ballet schools, and dentists to wine bars.

His advice on congestion and how to deal with it was particularly germane for Melbourne with the Suburban Rail Loop now underway. He says that development should be neighbourhood oriented not transit oriented. Transit oriented development could result in high rise developments over new railways stations like some planned for new rail stations in Sydney. David says the lack of neighbourhood that comes with such developments mean that people have to travel somewhere else to find neighbourhood and that our objective should be to get people to stay close to where they live when they get home from work.

David also encouraged us to work with our climate, and embrace opportunities to adapt our urban settings, just as they have in Switzerland with the introduction of wild swimming in their lakes and rivers during the hotter months. He implored us to change our view that there is no such thing as bad weather, but rather just bad clothes. If we adapt our soft elements and behaviours, we can live better with our climate challenges.

Some of the points made by our Master Class participants were;

  • Inflexibility of our planning system preventing some of these outcomes, that is a lack of flexibility in decision making meaning it is harder to do things a little differently
  • The negative legacy that the high-rise Housing Commission towers in Melbourne has created for the prospect of high-density housing
  • Appearance of a cycle of government and industry both looking to each other to innovate and lead by example that is instead resulting in neither pushing the envelope
  • Locking up our middle ring suburbs through zoning choices meaning increasing density at all is a major issue – this does not mean high rise but the missing middle
  • Developers driven by the economic necessity of maximising yield on prime renewal sites
  • The VPA plays an important role in facilitating these sorts of outcomes but is limited to activity in designated precincts.

David concluded by challenging our guests to have a transparent front-end conversation with community, show the benefits of development for existing residents not just new ones. Use Lego to engage kids and open up vacant sites early with temporary uses for some quick wins with communities. He says, by doing this you flip the system on its head, getting an early consensus enabling government to have confidence they are delivering what the community want and enabling reduction in re-prosecuting of issues at the end of the process.

As Melbourne and indeed Victoria continue to grow, the time is right to learn from our international counterparts who are often further along the growth journey than we find ourselves. David’s insights from his work around the globe were incredibly relevant to the current issues the government, industry and local government stakeholders in the room deal with daily.

We highly recommend David Sims book ‘Soft City – Building Density for Everyday Life’, Island Press 2019’.

We would also like to thank the Ramsey Property Group who bought David to Melbourne where he is working on some of their projects for supporting this event.

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