Street parties to plan better suburbs

battery point lounge room in the street 5 Sept 2015

FIVE street parties are happening this weekend in Hobart and they’re more than just fun local outings. They also signal new ways of thinking about our city, part of a move by Hobart City Council to harness the desire for more people-friendly local neighbourhoods.

The street parties are a way to plan by doing – involving community action to improve the livability of our suburbs.

Neighbourhoods are like the city’s lounge rooms, places where we socialise, spend money, make regular visits, walk dogs and raise children.

More than thoroughfares for cars and trucks, our local main streets should be places where we can meet, sit, chat, shop, walk and cycle safely.

In response to a petition from residents and traders in New Town asking for a makeover of their main street, Hobart council agreed to revamp some local shopping areas, after a decade or more of neglect. After years of focus on the CBD, our suburban shopping hubs are finally getting some attention.

This is bigger than Hobart. Around the world, there’s a movement to reinvent and revitalise neighbourhoods, to make cities more sustainable and socially connected.

Many cities, from Melbourne to Portland in the US, are designing with the idea of “20 minute neighbourhoods”, where housing is in walking or cycling distance of social, cultural, shopping, recreational and health facilities. Where people have access to open space and places they can gather. Where people are within a 20-minute walk from a public transport hub that can whisk them to jobs and education.

While the drivers for this movement are many, the need to make cities more active is central to tackling growing rates of obesity. Evidence shows more walkable cities correlate with healthier Body Mass Index on a local population level.

Public health experts focus on the need for vibrant community hubs to tackle the challenges of loneliness and mental illness. This is particularly important for an ageing population as older people tend to stay closer to local neighbourhoods.

Less car-dependent cities are environmentally better. Research from the US-based Urban Land Institute shows compact, walkable urban areas can cut greenhouse emissions by up to 36 per cent.

Property values are also a driver for change. Real estate gurus advise that “walkable development” is the new market. If you don’t have a development within walking distance to a lively local neighbourhood, it’s not “hot”.

Local shops and services that create an interesting main street where people want to linger, rather than just a convenience shopping strip, can make a difference to the sustainability of small businesses.

These are some the challenges facing many cities, and yet revitalising our neighbourhoods is not just about tackling problems. There is something universal about a desire for a welcoming main street where you can walk about and feel connected.

This is why it is important local communities are involved in the design of streets, which brings me back to what makes this weekend’s street parties so interesting.

I spent a lot of time during my election campaign for council talking to people about new ideas for the main streets of South Hobart, Lenah Valley, New Town and Battery Point. The common theme I heard was people want their neighbourhood to be more people-friendly, with wider footpaths, safer crossings, places to sit, street trees, community arts installations and notice boards.

The street parties were proposed by council’s consultants to encourage citizens to lead neighbourhood building that uses short-term, low-cost experimentation to drive long-term change.

Urban design experts have come to the conclusion the old way of developing street designs is ineffective. Most plans designed in isolation from the community are not implemented. One reason is budget limitations, but a lack of understanding of user-experience, and a lack of community engagement in the development of plans, is just as important. Local governments around the world are realising a small investment in community participation has a big impact on policy outcomes.

If this weekend’s street parties can lead to new local interactions and community endorsed plans to revitalise their local neighbourhoods, we will have helped to create a change that will have many benefits well into the future.

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