Always keep an eye out for best-practice European urban planning lessons for Australia.
There are quite a few German words that don’t translate into English but are just so very helpful when expressing yourself.
The political discourse is richer when you know the word verschlimmbessern(the process of making something worse while trying to improve it) and any discussion of reality TV must include the term fremdschamen (feeling embarrassed on someone else’s behalf). In the world of urban planning there is another word that is so typically German that the English language doesn’t have a word for it: fahrradstrasse.
The term translates to bicycle-road. These roads are much more than simple bicycle paths. They are roads that have been optimised for bicycle traffic. Cars are allowed on these bicycle-roads (just as bicycles are allowed on car-roads) but have less rights than cyclists on these roads. For example, cyclists always have right-of-way and cars must drive painstakingly slowly, which ensures that cyclists are drawn away from nearby car-roads. This improves overall traffic flow, makes cycling safer and is less annoying for motorists. In practice this means such roads are a delight when you are on a bike but extremely annoying when you are behind the wheel. The fahrradstrasse is a great urban planning tool to direct bicycle and car traffic in certain ways.
The super-sized cousin of the German fahrradstrasse lives in Barcelona. The Catalan term superilles translates to superblocks and was the urban planning answer to persistent traffic and environmental problems Barcelona faced. Large parts of Barcelona were built in the grid pattern that is also common in the US and here in Australia. As Barcelona is one of the few Spanish cities that consistently grew its population base over the past decades, it experienced massive traffic problems and was choked by air pollution. This meant the city consistently failed EU air quality targets and it was forced to act.
Local planners turned nine city blocks into a single superblock. The four roads within the superblock only serve local transportation needs. A 10km/h speed limit and narrowed roads make the area unattractive for cars. Residents can still park locally while through-traffic was redirected to the four roads surrounding the superblock.
Within the superblock the widened, pedestrian footpaths allowed local cafes to offer generous outdoor seating areas, cycling and walking became more attractive and made the area safer for children who roam the streets in larger numbers now. Noise and air pollution were reduced too, which made the EU and doctors happy.
Australian tourists in Berlin, Paris and many other sizeable European cities will have noticed that most buildings in the inner city have the same height, and blocks tend to have similar dimensions.
The standard building height of 23 metres from ground level to rain gutter and the size of inner courtyards are the result of historical fire regulations. Firefighters didn’t have access to longer ladders, which were all wooden back in the day, and courtyards had to be spacious enough for a horse-drawn firetruck to be able to turn and leave the premise after a fire was put out.
As is the case in Australia today, landowners in these European cities wanted to maximise their profits, despite being restricted by the 23m height and the spacious inner courtyards.
The resulting residential blocks, often referred to as Euroblocks, were dense but not as dense as the skyscraper villages in Asian megacities. When walking through Berlin you perceive the city to be of human scale. There are plenty of eyes on the street as Jane Jacobs would like to say. This ensures that crime is low. There aren’t enough people to make the sidewalks feel crowded but enough people to make investment in public transport financially viable for government.
As Melbourne and Sydney both added more than 100,000 residents last year we discuss how and where we should house everyone. Melbourne and Sydney continue to sprawl on the urban fringe and build large towers in the inner city and alongside our transport corridors.
The Euroblock concept could provide a middle ground for the future development of our largest Australian cities. The endless urban sprawl leads to ever-increasing commuting times and the additional traffic clogs up the road network. Well-designed superblocks of several European-style houses can provide a village-like atmosphere in high density. A housing project marketed as Parisian or Berlinesque will certainly resonate with Aussie buyers and renters.
With more and more traffic being channelled through suburban roads in Australia the introduction of the occasional fahrradstrasse could help to direct traffic away from small residential streets and back to the main roads.
Maybe a self-imposed 23m limit could be beneficial for Australian developers to build sizeable but not super-sized residential developments in the inner suburbs of our largest cities.
This is less an argument about the benefits of the fahrradstrasse, superblocks or Euroblocks but an argument in favour of keeping an eye out for international best-practice in urban planning. Local governments and the Australian property sector must be bold and risk importing international best-practices.
The success of the superblocks in Barcelona already drew the attention of some of Australia’s most influential urban planners. Earlier this year the City of Melbourne published its 2018 transport discussion paper, City Space. It suggested superblocks might be a viable option in Melbourne to make streets in the central business district safer, greener, more inclusive and more vibrant.
We focus too often on futuristic innovations in urban planning. It might be more cost-effective to select the best tried and proven ideas from abroad and import them to Australia.