With Perth suburbs sprawling 150 km in length along the WA coast line, I cannot help but wonder how we can make these existing suburbs more sustainable? With this question in mind I recently attended a public lecture by David Gordon organised by the Institute of Advanced Studies at UWA. The topic was Sustainable Suburbs? – Best Practice from Canada Coast to Coast. David Gordon is professor and director at the School of Urban & Regional Planning, Queen’s University, Ontario.

We have become reasonably familiar with Canada in recent months when The West Australian published a series comparing the Perth with Vancouver on Canada’s West coast. This series may have given the impression that both countries are distinctly different, but as Gordon pointed out, the similarities are strong between Canada and Australia. Both countries are amongst the most urbanised in the world with the majority of the population living in cities in car dependent suburbs. According to Gordon’s research, in Vancouver, 78% of the population live in suburban areas, 16% in the so-called active core and 6% exurban. In Perth, 13% live in the active core and 71% in auto suburbs.

Gordon took a packed lecture theatre on a very quick trip across Canada showing infill development projects in suburbs. All were inspiring examples of intensification in existing areas. Most were redevelopments of brown field sites, along wide streets or near public transport, particularly light rail. Other opportunities included old shopping centres. The advantage of these locations according to Gordon is the ability to keep existing neighbourhoods intact; infill in older suburbs is challenging and difficult.

All projects contributed in one way or another to creating cities that are more compact. There was a mixture of townhouses and apartments, and only few single detached homes. “Big ideas” included minimum zoning instead of maximum zoning, lower speeds, maximum block sizes, community facilities and the requirement for developers to showcase how future intensification can be achieved.

In general, the projects showcased making strong links between the built form and public health, for instance by recognising the importance of certain facilities to be within 400m or 800m distance walking or cycling distance. Gordon regarded sustainable design a good fit between urban design and the public realm.

In relation to transport, some Canadian cities have chosen a bus rapid system (BRT), others light rail (LRT). Gordon said that in relation to transport 500,000 people is the breaking point beyond which buses do not work anymore and light rail is the best option. It was interesting to hear that Ottawa is looking at converting part of its rapid bus system to light rail. Gordon confirmed that converting a BRT to an LRT is possible, but costly. While many cities often start out with a BRT, they find that it has no impact on the urban structure (it does not attract developers), and people (particularly the rich) simply prefer trains.

Gordon recommended using economics to solve some of the transport issues. He said you only needed to look at current subsidies for roads, parking and sprawling suburb infrastructure. If you removed those and invested in other areas you would create a different outcome.

Some important messages I took away from this lecture is the need for infill development to focus on brown field sites, along wide main roads, vacant land and old shopping centres, but to leave most of the existing suburbs intact. And also that light rail, considering the size of Perth is the best choice over a bus rapid system. Gordon will be taking a closer look at Perth in the coming month.

Eugenie Stockmann, Green Gurus

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