With the GBCA officially launching their new Green Star – Communities PILOT rating tool last week, questions are once again arising surrounding sustainable communities – and rightly so.
The human race is living beyond its means, with the impacts of that behaviour evident in human-induced climate change, soil degradation, depleting resources, food scarcity, loss of biodiversity, species extinction and more.
Australians are certainly not innocent in terms of this behaviour. If everyone consumed the Earth’s resources the way Australians do, it would take the resources of more than three planet Earths to support humankind. Should the country continue to follow a ‘business as usual’ model of living, by the time Australia reaches its predicted population of 35 million, the situation will be even worse. There has never been a more important time to act than now.
The way Australians – and humans in general – live has a huge impact on our global footprint. If communities can be developed in such a way that provides for everyday needs, it will mean a reduction in travel needs and less reliance on fossil fuels. If dwellings are built as efficiently as possible, it will lead to reduced energy and water use. If communities are designed to be socially diverse, people will be able to age in place, seek support from those around them and generally be more resilient to change. If we more care is taken to protect biodiversity, the health of the planet with be better sustained for all living things.
There is a growing awareness that this is how humanity has to live and that society must rise to the challenge for the sake of all.
Questions arise as to whether sustainable communities can solve these problems and, for that matter, what exactly a ‘sustainable community’ entails.
There are various definitions floating around. Some suggest a sustainable community is one that caters to the current population’s daily needs such as shelter, employment and social interaction while others look further forward, saying sustainable communities do not compromise the needs of future generations.
Much of the focus on creating so-called ‘sustainable communities’ has been on the built form, such as the concept of 5 star houses. However, a suburb of 5 star houses does not make a sustainable community. Other initiatives, such as reducing water and energy use or generating power on-site can contribute to sustainability, but these too are only part of the equation. Access to public transport, services and community infrastructure are all necessary ingredients too.
What has really been lacking in the concept of sustainable communities to date is the very notion of ‘community’. Successful communities are those that are diverse in terms of age, income, gender, race, religion, dwelling type and mix of uses. Many places that claim to be ‘sustainable communities’ fail to actually achieve this diversity, relying instead on the ‘community centre’ with its programme of activities to create this sense of community.
The missing social sustainability aspects of our new communities results in places that can be mono-cultural but, more significantly, they become places with limited flexibility to change and evolve over time as the needs of the population change.
Despite all the rhetoric, Australia is largely lacking in good examples of truly sustainable new communities. Places like Subiaco in WA come close due to their mixed uses, good public transport, higher density housing and diverse dwelling types, access to employment and retail.
Good things have been said about Springfield in QLD, though the housing lacks the necessary diversity to develop a socially balanced community. University Hill in Melbourne is a good example of a place where retail and employment were the initial drivers of the development. University Hill has a diverse dwelling mix with apartments, townhouses, heritage conversion and detached homes and, very importantly, responds to its context with a site-specific design response.
We also need to learn the lessons from our existing older suburbs to see how they have evolved over time, how their urban form helps or hinders this evolution, and why a diverse population makes for a more interesting and thriving place.