Sunday, 18 September 2011

Footpaths and desire lines

I always find it amazing that as planners and urban designers we are often responsible for the growth and management of places that house thousands or tens-of-thousands of people, and yet the issues which cause us the most grief are the detailed design issues - issues which shouldn't be issues where competing interests are seen as more important than common sense. One which has irked me for a while is footpaths, and the way they are designed in Perth's surburbia. Here's an example:

Note what happens when footpaths meet other streets - they bend away. Here's a perfect example, made even worse when you realise that the western side of the street is linear parkland:

Compare this to the way footpaths were dealt with in the 1950s and 1960s:


What would possess today's designers (the consulting engineers and the local government engineers who sign off on the designs) to configure their footpaths like obstacle courses? Certainly not Liveable Neighbourhoods, Western Australia's policy on subdivsion. Of the 18 or so provisions relating to footpaths and intersections, only one considers both; it says:

"On wider streets, pavements should be narrowed by kerb extensions at intersections to keep pedestrian crossing distances to a minimum and control turning vehicle speeds, while allowing for safe passage by cyclists."

This provision is almost redundant, given new streets are designed for minimal carriageway widths. And it certainly doesn't explain the footpath deviations. So why are the footpaths deviated? The answer lies with the engineers who design these subdivisions, and their perceptions of safety. Some answers I have been able to obtain include:

  • as pedestrian crossing distances are minimised by placing the crossing point outside of the intersection, crossing is safer because of the lesser distance to cross,
  • drivers approaching the intersection can see pedestrians clearer if they are not in the intersection, and
  • (my favourite) the rear sweep of trucks turning the corner will RUN OVER AND KILL pedestrians waiting to cross at the intersection!

There are no guidelines or standards that support the engineers' perspective, but rather their training which supports minimising vehicle v pedestrian conflicts. Their solutions do not take into account how these detours affect pedestrians. Planners will tell you that such designs discourage people from making trips by foot, and able-bodied people will ignore the detour and cross in a straight line. It is also inconsistent with design guidelines for crime prevention, which encourage pedestrian routes with clear sightlines (not possible if the footpath deviates up every side street).

As neither the planning requirements nor engineering standards and guidelines address the matter, discussions can only happen at the ideology level, and when neither party can present a strong enough argument to sway the other party, the party with the approval powers wins out. In Perth, this is the local government engineer who approves the subdivisional works.

It does not have to be like this. The Scottish Government's Designing Streets requires designers to take into account pedestrian desire lines:

I think its about time that Western Australia pays attention to common sense design and puts an end to designs that punish pedestrians.


After being caught up in life and other things for a while now, I've just started to get back into urban design. Has anyone else noticed that most planning blogs are based in North America? There's a few good ones like Old Urbanist and A Town Square, and strangely enough quite a few sites about railroads! But not many about Perth, who's input is limited to the satirical The Worst of Perth and an architecture blog. I think it's time to revisit urban design and planning in Perth!

Part of this is motivated by the state government's review of the Residential Design Codes, which amount to status quo with few useful improvements and retention of the poorly worded provisions. That, on top of the state government's current instructions to subdivide at all costs, means that despite all the rhetoric Perth will not be changing much in the short term.

Time permitting, I will hopefully be able to write about pointless front setbacks, narrow streets, density, trams, porches, apartments, and any other topic that crosses my mind.

But not railroads.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Is Tokyo a slum?

slum /slŭm/ n. A heavily populated area characterised by substandard housing and squalor.

By definition, Tokyo is heavily populated. It does not, however, have substandard housing or squalor. Japan's economy has ensured that its residents have a high standard of living. For these reasons, no one in their right mind would call Tokyo a slum city.

However, Tokyo has been compared to another place that does have the 'slum' label often associated with it. Dharavi is a district of Mumbai which according to Wikipedia is the one of the largest slums in the world, and often features in popular culture such as the film Slumdog Millionaire. The planning firm Ubanology, who has one of its offices located in Dharavi, has investigated similarities between the urban forms of Dharavi and Tokyo, and prepared for Dharavi what it calls the "Tokyo model". Urbanology argues that until the 1960s, much of the housing in Tokyo was basic, built to satisfy the need for housing following the large-scale destruction of Tokyo in 1945. Of course the government was focusing on meeting residents' basic needs, and so little attention was paid to the overall structure of the neighbourhoods.

In this respect, Dharavi is very similar. The government of Dharavi and Mumbai struggles to meet basic health requirements, let alone dictate the urban form of Dharavi. And so Dharavi, like Tokyo before it, has grown quite organically.

This is probably best illustrated by the following pictures:

These images, taken from, are photomontages, taken from typical cityscapes. Tokyo is on the left, and Dharavi on the right. They perfectly illustrate the similarities between the urban forms of these two cities.

Urbanology argue that the Tokyo model explains the urban form over much of Asia; and, furthermore, that it is an urban typology worthy of implementation in its own right, as opposed to the western high-rise and car-centric typologies which are often inappropriately imposed over these cities.

Looking at urban development in Asia in this manner, it also calls into question exactly what a 'slum' is. And in this respect, rather than viewing areas as 'slums', is it more appropriate to consider such areas as 'transitionary' areas, looking for government to provide basic services knowing that in the future the housing found in these areas will be improved as the local economies improve? Surely this is a much better solution than viewing 'slums' as an eyesore and bringing in the bulldozers.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Is Tokyo ugly?

By circumstance, I have found myself in Tokyo for a two month period. What surprised me most about Tokyo is that the city is generally built upon a network of small streets, laneways and footways. Most of the streets are wide enough only to allow cars to travel in one direction, which drive at speeds low enough to avoid power poles, cyclists and pedestrians, abundant on every street.

Tokyo is also a dense city, and small restaurants and shops of every description can be found along some of Tokyo's back streets. Apartment building are scattered throughout the urban framework. The single-use districts so common in post-war districts of Australian (and American) cities are much less prevalent in Tokyo.

All of this makes Tokyo a fun, liveable city, due to its walkable streets and activity on every corner, and it can certainly be compared to some of the great cities in the post-war world such as London and Paris.
Tokyo does, however, have an unfortunate reputation: it is known as an ugly city. See, for example, this forum. To understand why, it helps to understand its background. Today's agglomeration of over 35 million people (including 13 million in Tokyo prefecture) begun from a base of close to 1.4 million people in 1889, and grew rapidly. By 1935, the population had grown to 6.36 million, comparable to the populations of London and New York. The population growth is even more amazing considering the significant damage done to the city in the 1923 (the Great Kanto earthquake) and 1945 (American bombing of the city).

Development controls over the city were basic (compared to planning controls implemented in Australia and America) and comprise an urban growth boundary and plot ratio limits. The government didn't otherwise interfere in how the city was to be rebuilt, after all one of the key priorities was to rebuild the city. The structure of the city was largely unchanged, with the main changes being the construction of a few main roads. The buildings constructed largely did not conform to any particular architectural style, and they all differed in height, width, setback, materials, colours, etc. The lack of architectural uniformity (such as that found in parts of London and Paris) is perhaps one of the reasons why Tokyo is known as an 'ugly' city.
There is more to the story that just architecture. In the late 1950s, Tokyo began construction of an elevated expressway system, being constructed mainly over existing highways and waterways, and here it is useful using London as an example. Charing Cross was once the location from where all distances in England were measured. This symbolic location was beautified over the 20th Century by the erection of a statue, and later the development of the adjoining Trafalgar Square, reflecting the importance of the Cross. In Tokyo, Nihombashi (literally 'Japan bridge') performed the same role as the location where all distances in Japan were measured; the bridge was improved in 1911. Visitors to Nihombashi today are greeted by an expressway just meters above the bridge (in fact the light poles in the centre of the bridge go up in between the expressway). There have been talks about undergrounding this section of expressway for hundreds of billions of yen.

I am currently staying in Hasunuma, a district in Itabashi City in Tokyo's northwest. Hasunuma is fortunate in some respect: One subway stop to the south and visitors are greeted by one of Tokyo's tall, shadow-casting two-storey expressways; two stops to the north and the subway turns into an elevated railway, carving its way through rows and rows of flats, often just metres from the buildings. Hasunuma has largely retained its pre-war street network. Is it beautiful? It maintains the mis-match of architectural styles like elsewhere in Tokyo, with limited open space outside of sporting grounds. It would be a stretch to argue that Hasunuma is beautiful. But it certainly is liveable, and no doubt the residents of Hasunuma appreciate that.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Perth's small bars

Its been a couple of years - May 2007 to be precise - since small bars were introduced to Perth, and despite a slow uptake there is now a number of decent small bars up and running. Perth’s small bars, by definition, are limited to a maximum of 120 people and the sale of packaged liquor is not allowed.

The people at the WA liquor licensing like small bars - they have a high staff/patron ratio and are well managed, which means they do not cause the kind of alcohol-related harm to the community as a high concentration of taverns, nightclubs and bottle shops does (they have studied this, and apparently the density of liquor outlets in any one area has a positive correlation to alcohol-related harm in that area).

Its easy to see why people (other than liquor licensing officials) also like small bars - they are generally intimate and individualised, and finding a favourite bar can feel like a discovery - a local spot with personalised service and smiles. No lining up in rain behind bulky bouncers, line at the bar, no intense electro music (or lame 80s and 90s “popular” dance tunes), and less chance of getting glassed.

Perth’s small bars sit somewhere in between what you could expect to find in Melbourne or Sydney. Melbourne deregulated its liquor licensing a few years ago, which lead to not just a big increase in small bars but an increase in larger drinking holes and bottle shops, which has had a related increase in alcohol-related harm across the City. Melbourne is now trying to impose restrictions on these places which seems to have had the unintended consequence of destroying live-music venues. Sydney on the other hand is only now introducing small bars, and to have a couple of drinks at the moment will usually mean having a substantial meal at a restaurant, or heading to the nearest large tavern.

Here’s some of my favourite small bars in Perth:

399 Bar

*photo ruthlessly ripped from 399’s Facebook page

Located in the heart of Perth’s unofficial Asian strip (William Street), 399 Bar is a long, narrow bar with booth seating along one side, and the tiniest of courtyards out the back. 399 does not have a cocktail list, but will gladly make up any drink you can think of any many more you can’t. Mulled wine features in winter, as does their hot chocolate. They also do a mean coffee, which comes highly-recommended by the visionary Nat.

Ezra Pound

* launched their apparel at Ezra Pound last year. This is their photo.

To get to Ezra Pound you’ll need to traverse a narrow, sometimes smelly lane in Northbridge, or cross the potholed carpark from the train line (but don’t park there as it is ridiculously expensive). Once inside, Ezra Pound is a delight; abstract lighting and exposed brick walls are the theme. Beers come in brown paper bags. Outside is plenty of seating, and you can order pizzas from next door and enjoy them with your drinks. Ezra Pound deserves plenty of respekt.


*i don't know what this but it features on 1907's website. It looks interesting

If it’s cocktails you’re after look no further than 1907. Hidden away in a basement on little-known Queen Street, 1907 exudes über-coolness but will happily serve you exquisite drinks. The pink bar is a winner.


Restaurant in front, bar out back is how Clarences rolls. It has an easy-to-miss façade on the heart of Mount Lawley’s Beaufort Street strip, but those who find it will be pleasantly surprised with the rear courtyard which is perfects for downing an icey-cold cider. All highs no lows here.


*thanks to the defectors website

Defector is the closest thing Perth has to a roof-top bar. (Where is our roof-top bar Perth? We have great weather for it, bring it!). It sits high above The Flying Scotsman, one of Mount Lawley’s popular drinking holes. Old-school charm and great views over Perth city is what Defector brings to the table, as well as an overall great place to get a drink and sit in a dark cosy corner (or sitting on the balcony watching the peeps mill around on the street below).

Andaluz and Helvetica

Windswept St Georges Terrace is at the centre of Perth’s business-orientated area, but luckily there is some shelter to be had from the wind by heading down narrow Howard Street. Andaluz is a super-popular tapas bar with a tiny entrance. It’s fancy and its expensive, but is great if you can get in early and score a table. Its next-door neighbour Helvetica is a great alternative - it features some of Yok’s work. The only problem is that there are not more of these small bars in the centre of Perth - these ones fill up very quickly!

The Cabin

Not content with populating Perth’s inner domains, small bars are slowly infiltrating the suburbs. The Cabin looks out from the upper floor of a shop on Mount Hawthorn’s main street, and has been decorated just like your ski cabin at home with deer heads and natural wooden tables. The balcony gives another nice view over Perth; good spot for a first date.


Opposite the Luna SX Cinemas in Fremantle, X-Wray feels like its been transported from Kuta, Bali (minus the Cold Chisel). Which is strange as there’s nothing tropical about Freo’s climate.

Rockingham Wine Bar

Perth’s forgotten city makes an attempt to remind everyone that they are here too. The Wine Bar is a tiny establishment that has been around before the liquor licensing reforms were put into place and does a small bar with simple gusto. Overlooking Rockingham Beach there seems to be no better place to relax with a glass of red, except maybe with a glass of sangria at the Rústico Tapas Bar that has opened up next door.

I can only look forward to seeing more intimate small bars set up in the future - bring it!

Saturday, 23 January 2010

East Perth

As a true example of new-urbanist neighbourhood design, East Perth will always be at the top of any list of such places. Previously a run-down neighbourhood 2km east of the city centre, a redevelopment authority was set up (removing planning powers from the City of Perth) to transform the area into a mixed-use mecca that ticks all of the new urbanist design boxes. It has been done well - a range of different types of buildings of all ages have been retained, the street system updated and new buildings constructed to make for a diverse and interesting area.

The best feature of East Perth is Claisebrook Cove - a man-made cove following the path of a long-buried natural waterway. Around the Cove you will find terrace housing, a tavern, cafés, an art gallery, apartments and a hotel.

However, a walk around the area will soon reveal that it is a little too quiet. There seems to be little life on the streets. The cafés, although busy, are not bustling, the parks are enjoyed by few people. Nearby is a TAFE, train station, CAT bus, shops, offices, apartments, warehouses - in fact anything that fits within a definition of a mixed use neighbourhood. The place scores 77/100 on, a respectable figure. So it should be all accounts be busier.

East Perth has had at least 15 years to mature, so it is not on account of infancy. My guess is that density is the issue - and that the area is separated from a larger catchment area by a freeway to the north, river to the east and large sporting fields to the south. Jane Jacobs was known to advocate much higher residential densities than was being developed in New York in the 1950s, so perhaps we are underachieving in developing the kind of densities required to create active places.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Score your neighbourhood for walkability

The website Walk Score has for about a year now been calculating the walkability of American neighbourhoods. Now it is available for Australian cities, as i discovered by chance yesterday.

My place in Joondanna, in Perth's middle suburbs, scores a reasonable 60/100, despite being a good 10 minute walk from anything. But we are moving in a couple of weeks to Highgate in Perth's inner suburbs. As expected, it scores a much higher 85/100. Here's what the map looks like:
As you can see, it pulls a lot of information from Google maps including restaurants, schools, hardware stores, cinemas, and other destinations. Interestingly, it also provides results in kilometres (not miles).

It's a great tool for town planners everywhere, as well as house-hunting.

What does your neighbourhood score?