Perth city’s geographical footprint is significantly larger than that of Tokyo city’s, despite our population being a mere fraction of the Japanese capital’s. When looking for a job through search engines online, it’s not enough to have your region selected as simply “Perth” these days—If you live north of the Swan River, Rockingham or Mandurah may well feel like the eastern seaboard, or indeed, Tokyo. Public transport snakes slowly and expensively through the suburbs, often quite discriminately. Dining and cultural precincts, local businesses and diverse arts events often remain clustered around the city centre, despite our insistence on sprawling ever outwards. Not merely spreading, or distributing, but sprawling rather lazily, and as a result of poor planning.
The strain on our infrastructure and environment is getting ahead of us with each poorly planned development on the fringes. Ask anyone who grew up in the Perth hills, or the outer suburbs, how dependent they were on the car (likely mum or dad’s car, in the early days) as soon as they started going out, and how costly it could be to get themselves into the city for work, study or socialising. Ask them how much time was spent on bloated, congested roads, driving the total length of the country of Singapore (50 kilometres!) just to get to work.
Perth’s sprawl is all but an inevitability with the policies that incentivise it, with house and land packages that encourage excessive land clearing and thoughtless land use. The tedious time spent commuting in and out every day isn’t the only cost of an unrestrained urban sprawl. There is an environmental cost too, through our over-reliance on car use and the clearing of land and tree canopy cover. Given the importance of reducing climate change, this is a crucially important aspect of urban planning.
The Greens’ plan for ‘Sustainable cities, liveable neighbourhoods’ is for a connected, sustainable, prosperous and well-planned Perth. By investing in accessible and safe public transport that links the existing gaps in the network instead of focusing on the fringes, the dependence on car usage will ease, and the city’s carbon footprint will decrease.
Being able to access our public spaces for as much of the year as possible is important. Urban heat islands, where built environments, dense with concrete and lacking vegetation, are much hotter than surrounding areas, can cause cartoon-like heat ripples to radiate from the pavement outside businesses and on footpaths. If you or a loved one are elderly, or have a chronic illness or disability, you’ll know the reality of choosing against time spent in public spaces during extreme heat for safety. This makes our cities inaccessible to sections of the community, which is simply not on. Supporting local government councils to increase green spaces, parks and tree canopy cover makes neighbourhoods more attractive, but also has benefits for the environment. This will increase shade and reduce the effect of heat islands. Suddenly, blisteringly hot days are made more tolerable, and communities can equitably thrive for more days out of the year.
By creating a boundary around our current level of sprawl and encouraging sustainable, liveable in-filling of the current areas, The Greens will focus on creating vibrant, 20-minute walkable neighbourhoods. These neighbourhoods will see plentiful foot-traffic through local businesses, and accessible, community-oriented precincts. The COVID19 pandemic has impressed on us all the importance of our local economy, and access to our local spaces. Somehow, neighbourhoods not built around the car seem like a romantic fantasy to many of us—something reserved for those trips abroad to Tokyo or Rome. Walking to the local pub or café rather than driving; feeling safe after dark when going to or from public transport; not craning our necks to remember the names of interesting looking local businesses that we whiz by in our mum’s borrowed Jeep, vowing to “definitely visit later” when we’re not driving.
It doesn’t need to be a fantasy, it’s a reality that only requires smarter planning. Our current usage of suburban lots is shockingly inefficient and committed to outdated standards which preference absurdly oversized houses with huge footprints, and little diversity of dwelling choice. It’s not as simple as low, medium or high density, but smarter density. Building dwellings with a wide variety of people, lifestyles and ability levels in mind. Not being afraid to go smaller in footprint, but maximising space through design, and increasing green space and tree canopy density in yards. Smart planning includes environmental sustainability and protecting against extreme heat, a measure which will pass on a saving in power bills to individuals.
Perth is indeed more sprawling than Tokyo, Madrid or Hong Kong. However, we are a unique and diverse city that cannot be fairly compared to older, more densely populated cities in every regard—but we can learn from them. The Greens’ planning policies do just this without clinging to an arbitrary status quo about what Western Australian life should look like. As a city, we don’t need to be beholden to outdated standards that simply don’t serve us, that keep us further apart from one another by building boilerplate, bloated houses. We don’t need to be reliant on wasteful transportation, land clearing and infrastructure that is constantly scrambling to keep up with the sprawl. Lively, closer-knit communities where walking and public transport is safe and accessible, local businesses flourish and the environmental benefits are a perk, not an afterthought, are entirely possible. All we have to do is plan a little smarter.
This blog is derived from a presentation given to the Planning Institute of Australia (WA) on 22 February for the 2021 State Election.