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Community building: lessons for Australia

By Peter Katz - posted Tuesday, 15 May 2001

"New Urbanism in the New Millennium". I have travelled around the world speaking on this issue since 1994 (when "The New Urbanism" was published). One of my first talks was in Oregon, where a poll found that 70% of those surveyed said they hated sprawl and 70% said they hated density.

We hate density. We love our open spaces. It's almost a genetic pre-disposition. That same comment comes up whenever I travel around. In Wyoming I was told that people in Wyoming were different. They said: "We have this problem with density. New Urbanism certainly won't work here."

When I came to Australia, again I was pulled aside by a gentleman who said: "There's something you need to know about Australians. We are different from you Americans. We have this thing about open space. The idea of living densely doesn't work for us."


Your cities are in much better shape than ours. There are a lot of cities in America that are in real trouble. But we are both coming out of 50 years of suburban growth which has had an incredible impact on our lives.

The urban landscape is a reflection of human nature. We band together by human nature. It's human nature to seek the best environment for ourselves and our children. Where the costs are low and the benefits are high, that will be the option people will choose.

With new suburbs, at 30% build-out, they are very successful. The problem is we are discovering that at 70-80-90% build-out the suburbs can't work. Problems of congestion, social alienation, violence - the landscape can become brutal. The suburb that offered so many benefits is beginning to break down under the pressure of the numbers involved.

The problems are not going to go away and communities are going to explore new options: that's why the New Urbanism has evolved. New Urbanism communities have become very powerful as good places to live, places that are getting back to the way we used to live. It's about the underlying structure of how we put our lives together.

The real model for the New Urbanism is the old urbanism. San Francisco, for example. These places that we once dismissed as messy - we were tearing these places down and doing urban renewal. But they offer incredible diversity of uses: people living above stores and institutions. There's a grand and wonderful design that binds them all together. An old neighbourhood can provide the New Urbanism - creating new neighbourhoods or completing existing ones.

A neighbourhood should be of a finite size. A quarter of a mile from the centre to the edge or a five-minute walk from the centre to the edge. If it becomes bigger than that, people are tempted to get into their cars and then they won't stop at a quarter of a mile, they'll travel five miles to save money on a toothbrush.


Within that dotted line we have all the needs of daily life for one adult member of the household: daycare centre, shops, parks, recreation, public transport - assembled in a series of perimeter blocks. The streets don't have to be straight but they have to lead somewhere.

These new neighbourhoods tend to be places on the periphery where a lot of urban growth is taking place. It's about taking these places and re-designing them, with schools, grocery store, apartment blocks, houses - all together in a way that works. Schools within walking distance.

It's also at the centre of our metropolitan areas, the main streets, these great places that we once had in every town. Places of life and activity. It's the businesses and the people that make it exciting. Real public parks, real gathering places, not corporate plazas. Shopping centres re-connected to communities. Millions of dollars are spent to update shopping centres every five years, whereas we could be creating real community value, lasting value that doesn't just change with the next real estate trends.

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This is an edited version of a speech given to the Cities For The New Economy Leadership Summit at the Marriott Hotel, Surfers Paradise, 23-24 April 2001.

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About the Author

Peter Katz is a United States consultant and author of "The New Urbanism".

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