Walkability squandered

southA typical Carlton North green median strip

We consider ourselves very lucky to live in Carlton North. Walkscore ranks its walkability in the top 20 of Melbourne’s 346 suburbs, awarding it 88 out of 100 total points. The Walkscore summary states that “most errands can be accomplished on foot” while residents “can walk to an average of 7 restaurants, bars and coffess shops within 5 minutes.”

Empirically, we experience excellent access to public transport, bicycle networks, parks, recreation, entertainment, shops and schools. Almost every day to day activity we undertake, including work, shopping, dining, socialising and exercising is accessible within a 5km radius. We truly live a post-car lifestyle: mobility has been replaced with proximity, and the 1.5 hour return trip of the average Melbourne commuter has been replaced by higher productivity and more time with family.

parks mapCarlton North parks map

Parks in Carlton North are represented at a variety of scales:

  • Out our front door is a green median strip, providing immediate access to lawn area. We and our neighbours use it regularly for activities that would otherwise take place in private back gardens. We use it for picnics, playtime, garage sales, yoga and sunbathing.
  • Within a 5 minute walk is Curtain Square, a small, intimate park well designed for families. It incorporates play equipment, basketball courts, shade trees, a gazebo, park benches and lawn areas.
  • Within a 10 minute walk is Princes Park, one of Melbourne’s more significant parks. It has a 3.2km circumference perfect for running, large ovals for sports activities, a bowls club and Visy Park, home of the Carlton Football Club. Ovals and lawn areas are used during the day by nearby Princes Hill Secondary College and during the evening by private sports leagues.
  • Also within a 10 minute walk is the Capital City Trail, a busy walking, running and cycling trail which feeds into the Merri Creek Reserve. For many kilometres in both directions, the trail and creek connect Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs, parks, sporting ovals, golf clubs and Collingwood Children’s Farm.

streets mapCarlton North streets map

Local streets also possess most of the qualities identified by the Grattan Institute in their 2012 report, Social Cities, necessary for social connectedness and personal wellbeing. Author Jane-Frances Kelly encourages readers to think of streets like rooms in a house, with some streets (highways) like corridors: “places for moving through rather than staying”; and others (local streets) like living rooms: “places for sitting and socialising”. The City of Yarra has done well to design the local streets of Carlton North like a connected series of communal living rooms:

  • Strategic road closures and speed limiting devices restrict car access to non-local traffic, while permitting free access to pedestrians and cyclists. Frequent dead-ends, intersections and roundabouts reduce vehicles to non-threatening speeds.
  • A dense housing fabric provides varied and engaging streetscapes, augmented by well-maintained green spaces and street trees.
  • Shallow street setbacks enhance opportunities for interaction with neighbours.
  • Dense commercial fabrics like the Rathdowne Street Village offer a diversity of commercial, civic, health and hospitality uses at a variety of scales, encouraging social activity and communal living. Small businesses are run by local owners whom residents can get to know, “fostering recognition and connection.”
  • Family-centric programmes like schools and childcare centres are embedded into the residential fabric, increasing intra-suburb pedestrian activity and establishing strong connections between children and their local environment.

It is estimated that around 50% of car-based cities like Melbourne are given over to car-related infrastructure, of which streets form a major part. It is a good thing that our local streets are designed to inhibit vehicular activity and promote pedestrian activity, as all that land area not only facilitates mobility, but also significantly contributes to residents’ safety, health and sense of community. The Social Cities report makes reference to Donald Appleyard’s pioneering work on streets, where he showed that residents in “a street with light traffic flow had three times more friends living in the street than residents on a street with heavy traffic flow”.

It should come as no surprise to us then that we are on good terms with a number of our immediate neighbours. Nor should it be a surprise that many of the owners of the shops and cafes along Rathdowne Street know us by face, name and order. We attend playgroups at the local library, Italian classes in a nearby church, have our clothes drycleaned at the local milkbar and buy our bread from the local bakeries – all activities we undertake on foot.

Whether by coincidence or mutual recognition of the qualities outlined above, there are also six households of family and close friends living within a 10 minute walk of our house, four of which are actually on the same street. The residents of one of these households are in fact the inspiration for this article, but not because they embody the attitudes of a healthy, social city. Rather, they embody the opposite: when they visit our house, or go out for dinner on Rathdowne Street, both journeys of less than 1km, they do not walk, they do not cycle, they drive.

Why, in the name of all things good and true, do they drive?

It might be suggested that for busy professionals, working long days and enduring further hours of commuting each week, time has been transformed into a scarce commodity. When a lawyer charges out her time during the week in 6 minute intervals, or a banker works a 70 hour week, it could even be considered natural that the precious little time left must be treasured, streamlined and maximised. Why should they waste the 10 minutes it takes to walk to our house, when they can instead drive and take only 3 minutes?

Simon Knott from The Architects on Triple R recently discussed a study related to the State Government’s new planning reforms, part of whose agenda it is to encourage the 20 minute city. Providing opposition to Matthew Guy’s rhetoric surrounding the reforms, who believes that disseminated workplaces will establish a localised workforce and shorter commutes, the study discovered the remarkable truth that for journeys of less than 1km, 50% of Melburnians will still opt to drive. In other words, there is such an engrained reliance on the car, it supplants even walkable journeys. Our friends, despite living in one of Melbourne’s most walkable cities, provide us with firsthand proof of this distressing statistic.

What can we do?

We would very much like to confiscate the keys to our friends’ car each weekend, though we suspect this will not make much difference to the broader attitudes of most Melburnians.

Dreaming as large as we possibly can, we would love to see a major paradigm shift in the infrastructure investment practices of our State and Federal Governments. As mentioned only last week, it is long past time for investment in roads to be replaced with investment in public transport. Every call for a new or wider road makes us shake our heads in dismay. The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics has estimated that congestion costs Australian $9.4b annually: when will the decision makers learn that building more roads does not reduce congestion, it increases the number of cars on the road?

At the grass roots level too, there are ever more opportunities for positive engagement in our streets that will enhance their pedestrian-friendliness and living room qualities:

  • Since 2005, San Francisco design firm Rebar has been running PARK(ing) Day, “an annual open-source global event where citizens, artists and activists collaborate to temporarily transform metered parking spaces into temporary public places.” Sydney is running their second PARK(ing) Day event this year, though Melbourne has yet to take up the mantle.
  • Renew Newcastle is a not-for-profit organisation established in 2012 “to find short and medium term uses for buildings in Newcastle’s CBD that are currently vacant, disused, or awaiting redevelopment.” So successful has this organisation been that it has now been expanded into a national initiative.
  • The Social Cities report outlines a raft of further ideas for social connection in cities, including the installation of more interactive equipment in under-utilised parks; the commissioning of public and community art; the promotion of active and mixed-use streetscapes; community gardens; sharing household resources; and the proliferation of hyper-local websites.

For our part, we will continue to enjoy our walkable suburb and try, weekend after weekend, to encourage our friends to leave their car at home.


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