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Monday Melbourne: CVII, January 2006
Russell Degnan

After Australia Day, does summer wane. January 2006

Melbourne 30th January, 2006 19:13:35   [#] [3 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CVI, January 2006
Russell Degnan

Rod Laver Arena. Taken January 2006

Melbourne 24th January, 2006 12:08:13   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CV, January 2006
Russell Degnan

Queens College. Taken November 2005

Melbourne 17th January, 2006 23:18:17   [#] [0 comments] 

Oil price vulnerability
Russell Degnan

A little while ago, LaborFirst Blog linked to an interesting article on how vulnerable different parts of Australia's major cities are to rising oil prices. The first part of the paper is worth reading as a primer on why oil prices are expected to rise, and current transport patterns. Although, it should be added, there are several controversial topics glossed over with little comment.

The second part concerns locational disadvantage, and more partcularly, the way increases in the price of oil (and therefore) will dispoportionally affect people in the outer suburbs.

To measure this, the authors took a composite of three measures: socio-economic index for areas (SEIFA); household motor vehicle ownership; and car-dependence for work journeys. The map for Melbourne being produced below.

There are two specific problems distorting the measure that I can see. The first is that the SEIFA figures (50%) swamp the car-dependency variables. This means there are patches of vulnerable low-income people in the inner city who really aren't, and patches of invulnerable people in the outer-suburbs who really are -- particularly the Doncaster corridor. It would make more sense to multiply the income and car-based variables, emphasising that the two act on each other, rather than separately.

The second problem concerns the measurement of car-dependency. Both the number of cars per household, and the journey-to-work data are affected by income (with rich people being more likely to have them). Many people who could take public transport and are not vulnerable to oil prices, do not, for time, or other reasons. A better measure -- though still inadequate -- would be the number of jobs that could be reached by public transport within an hour, although this can be difficult to measure.

In a broader sense, the study suffers from how it defines locational disadvantage as a problem. Earlier in the paper, it used this definition by Burnley:

To the extent that people move to outer suburbia to obtain affordable housing, such pricing trends may be socially inequitable unless strong policies to relocate employment and to develop public transport are pursued in tandem.

But reversing this as an issue causes different problems. More services and employment in the suburbs will draw richer people towards them and onto larger lots on the urban rim. If this is at the expense of the inner city, such as in the United States, it won't necessarily equalize service provision nor reduce car dependency. Similar problems occur when public transport is extended further out, as it allows people to find even cheaper land further out again.

Economically, the differential between inner and outer suburban transport costs is less at the moment than the differential to other things that affect the decision to buy a house -- land size, proximity to services. As the transport differential increases with higher oil prices, land will become cheaper in the outer suburbs, negating it. This will cause pain for people who bought housing on the basis of previous conditions, but eventually people will do what they always have done: buy the best housing they can afford in the place they can best afford it.

We can conclude then, that the long term effect of oil price increases will be higher house prices in the inner suburbs as demand for places with cheaper travel increases. It also provides an opportunity for planners, to pursue policies for less car dependency and urban consolidation, in line with (as opposed to against) market forces. And the problem then, as always, is the provision of infrastructure to help make people make sensible choices.

Planning 17th January, 2006 17:04:27   [#] [0 comments] 

Canberra and Sydney: a Character Study
Russell Degnan

We are often given to describe cities as if they were people: Melbourne is sombre but relaxed; London, cosmopolitan and inventive; Paris, a grandiose show-off. But what does this mean really? That it invokes that mood in its visitors, or in its inhabitants; or that its inhabitants create that mood for themselves? If it is, at least in part, the built form that creates these responses in people then we need to ask what properties they give spaces, that they create such different effects.

Canberra and Sydney are two cities that provoke substantially different moods, as well as being as differently planned as any two places can be. Our national capital is generally derided as boring and left at that. Perhaps it is hard to define a mood in a place often devoid of people. By contrast, Sydney is wanton and harried. The harbour sparkles and invites a gaze but like the congested, shadowing streets is busy. The parks offer refuge but even these are full of movement and events, or workers out for a run at lunch.

And that is an important difference. In a week in Canberra I never saw anyone running. Cycling, often, which is an activity preserved for the clinically insane in Sydney, but never running, for fitness or any other reason. Canberra comes across as a city where people make their own time. But that probably isn't the case.

The urban form prevents anyone from rushing in Canberra. Noone walks anywhere of any great distance. I tried it, and it is long, slow and tedious, akin to bush-walking in many places, like trudging across endless playing fields (or a paddock) in others. If you do walk anywhere, it is because it is close, like the local pubs in the older suburbs -- actually that is probably the only place you would walk to. Otherwise people drive, the distances between things, and the tedium associated with seeing noone else. precludes walking. The roads themselves are processions marked only by endless unindicated lane merging; too wide and slow to seem dangerous, most driving in Canberra seems like a trip to the country.

It is the weight of nearby humanity that makes them different. Canberra has only a few places (the Civic mall) where you can sit and watch people, so people don't, they return to someplace else. In Sydney you can't help but watch people, you can hardly escape them (at least in the central city), and so it isn't a city for meditation. Melbourne has a CBD almost as large as Sydney, but its parks are larger and further away, and its streets wider and more open. You can set your own pace. You can tell the rest of the city to shove off. You can't in Sydney, there are always eyes on you wondering what you are doing, or things happening to draw your attention. As Canberra has nothing to engage your brain in social activity, so in Sydney you can't escape it. And as the urban form of the central city makes everyone akin to the social pages of a glamour magazine, so the character of the city reflects that.

It wouldn't be right to say the character of a city is just about its places. It is also its economy, its climate, its cultural mix, and its self-awareness. But those things combine with places that carry the potential of the city's character. Even as Sydney's streets push people to the gentler margins of the CBD, those places allow certain activities that define the character of the city: drinking in a sun-drenched bar along the harbour edge; jogging through the undulating botanic gardens; promenading through Hyde Park; or an older image I get that still seems to fit, of a hat-wearing man reading a newspaper in a be-shadowed Wynyard Square.

But does the reverse apply? If Melbourne's cafe strips, or laneway bars be imported into Sydney, would they fit, subtly understated as in Melbourne, or look out of place? If anything, Sydney came to Melbourne in a few places; at Docklands, and in parts of Federation Square and Southbank. Docklands is still finding its niche, but it is clear already that it won't be the brash destination the promoters originally pushed. For climatic reasons, if nothing else, the cafes are sheltered with gas heaters at the ready; fewer people abound, moving slower; the mood is subdued.

We can conclude that the character of a city is an open vessel, filled by its inhabitants. But not all cities offer much to their inhabitants. Canberra really is boring, pretty at times, but it offers no social comfort to the citizen on the street. Sydney's citizens though, have shaped the city to its surroundings, which in turn shapes its citizens to it. And like any city worth visiting, it has a character all its own.

Urban Design 10th January, 2006 13:25:52   [#] [1 comment] 

Monday Melbourne: CIV, January 2006
Russell Degnan

Another feature from last week's Yarra walk: the bluestone paving on the river bed. Taken January 2006

Melbourne 9th January, 2006 19:25:26   [#] [0 comments] 

Postcards from the Lower Reaches of the Yarra
Russell Degnan

When I decided, on Thursday, to take advantage of the pleasant weather, and go for a little walk it wasn't actually my intention to saunter twenty-one kilometres. But once you start...

The first destination was Dight's Falls, which meant taking a route directly east across Parkville, Carlton, Fitzroy, Collingwood, and Abbotsford. This is familiar ground, so I contented myself with choosing the more pleasant routes until I got to Wellington Road. Here though, I became more cautious. The last time I went through that area the burnt out cars and unfriendly stares from local porch-sitters made me feel a little unwelcome. However, things are changing here too. Johnston Street still has lots of closed businesses and graffiti, but it is being replaced by cafes, furniture and jewellery stores. Gentrification has been slow getting there, but it has arrived.

The remaining walk down Johnson Street to the bridge is as unpleasant as you'd expect any motorway to be, so I was glad when I got to the river and could make my way to the falls.

And what a glorious disappointment they are. It is a more significant spot to cite than visit: the place where the Yarra winds its way into the suburbs, the spot where the tides (now) stop and the water becomes fresh (though not clean), a former billabong and aboriginal burial site, the confluence of Merri Creek, the place of an old mill for which the falls are named, and now, an unnatural block of concrete, a depressingly boring park, and a noisy freeway to overlook it all.

The other bank is worse again. That part of Yarra Bend Park is one of the few places with reasonable amounts of remnant native vegetation in the inner area, and certainly one of the few that also includes some sort of view. Sure, said view takes in the slums of the inner city, and has almost every attractive building or feature obscured by housing commission towers, but even so the park's condition is a disgrace. Weeds are everywhere, the paths are collapsing under the strain of too many mountain bikes, it makes no use of what it has, and doesn't even dip into its potential.

With not much else to do that afternoon, I decided to walk back to the city along the river, obviously not entirely cognizant of the distances involved. The first part was easy enough, under Johnston Street bridge where the nightmen used to dump their loads, past the Children's Farm and St. Heliers, and across the pedestrian bridge to the stretch under Studley Park golf course. At this point, distracted by the fact that the brewery reeks of fermenting yeast, I almost stepped on a snake crossing in front of me. While I am sure there is no shortage of snakes in Melbourne, this is the closest I've ever seen one to the city, and I'd be just as happy if it stayed that way. The idea of one crawling through the gaping holes in the walls of my terrace abode to nestle on the furniture doesn't appeal.

After this brief flirtation with the dangers of the south-side of the river, I was happy to cross back to the miserable slums where no creature can survive for long. The little strip between the river and Victoria St. is a bit touristy. A couple of riverside cafes have set up shop to attract passing riders, the city's only commercial vineyard lies on the opposite bank and there is lots of new development. Fortunately, the developments are tasteful, and the walk is pleasant.

From the 1850s until the 1960s the next stretch of river had opposing banks as different as the residents they contained: Richmond's "dull, swampy, treeless flat" and Hawthorn's "charming and wooded heights". The cycling trail and new developments are more genteel now, although there is still a certain snobbishness about the houses on the other bank with their river frontages, even if you wonder why they wanted them when the Yarra ran like an open sewer. Other little things remind you how little the Yarra resembles what it was: the bluestone banks, the lack of native trees, and the straight lines and grassed banks, are all remnants of anti-flooding measures dating back to the 1850s.

Finally, at the South-Eastern arterial and the entrance to what's left of Gardiners Creek the Yarra and I turned back to the city. It was about this point I realised two things: I was bloody miles from the city; and there are no marked toilet blocks to be seen (the National Public Toilet Map shows several nearby but not sign-posted). The latter wasn't sufficiently resolved until I got to Birrarung Marr which is fairly poor. Not all cyclists like to do as the professionals and carry a bottle.

The more notable features along the Burnley banks are not necessarily good ones: the freeway, the increased pedestrian traffic, and substantial evidence of homeless people including a virtual encampment near the Burnley Wharves. The other side of the river may be a better walk in retrospect, including, as it does, Como House on other side of Herring Island, Melbourne High School, and the Botanic Gardens. However, you can see some nice bridges, such as the MacRobertson that also bridges the freeway, the Church Street Bridge and after a longish stretch where the trail literally hangs over the water, the always picturesque Morrell Bridge.

The remaining trail is familiar enough to be boring -- at least to me -- passing the tennis centre, the new parklands at Birrarung Marr, and finally, Federation Square and the boat-houses. It is an interesting, if long, walk, but probably a better bike-ride, since you can pedal through the boring bits and except for one or two bridge crossings that still include stair-cases, it is a flat and well made path that allows a bit of speed.

Tales of the City 7th January, 2006 20:44:11   [#] [4 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CIII, January 2006
Russell Degnan

In the reflection of the Hyatt: The T&G building. Taken January 2006

Melbourne 2nd January, 2006 23:54:30   [#] [0 comments] 


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