Putting my life where my mouth is.

I’ve lived in Brisbane pretty much my whole life, and want to review two of my favorite places in town – Fortitude Valley and South Bank. I work in one and spend a lot of free time in the other.

They are a contrast in some ways – South Bank is almost completely new, built on the Brisbane 1988 Expo site over the last 25 years, while Fortitude Valley is one of Brisbane’s oldest places, whose basic structure and built form was set in place many moons ago. The Valley is daggy and edgy, South Bank is shiny and green.

So why do they both appeal to me as great parts of my home town? Despite their different ages and history, they have things in common that attract me. When I analyse them as a planner, I realise they share characteristics which make them work for me as a place to spend time in when I’m just being a Brisbanite.

They both have lots of people working, visiting and/or living there. They are what planners and urban designers call “high intensity, mixed use, 18-24 hour places”. So they have lots of things going on most of the time, often quite different activites and more than one happening at once – planning speak for this is “vitality” and who doesn’t love a dose of that? If urban planning documents are anything to go by, vitality competes with vibrancy as one of the most sought after (and poorly explained, but that’s another story) features of places. I guess it’s the vibe…

Other aspects that make them work for me as a place to like:

    1. Their roughly grid pattern of streets, which means you can find your way around (planning speak is legibility) and know where you are (wayfinding) whether on foot, bike or in a car. If you miss a turn, just use the next one!
    2. You can get around them all quite happily and easily on foot (P-speak: walkability) and there are lots of arcades, lanes or breaks between buildings that allow you to find your way easily to where you want to go (P-speak: connectivity)
    3. The buildings are generally medium rise, say 3-6 storeys, so there is still some relationship between someone on the street and what’s around them (planning speak is human scale. For why this works, see Jan Gehl’s latest book “Cities for People“)
    4. These buildings are placed right up to the footpath (P-speak: built to the street) so that the footpath adjoins the building with no setback or landscaping between them. This gives them a feeling of intensity and connection to the street.
    5. The streets are often about as wide as the height of the buildings on them and something about that makes them a comfortable setting to be in (P-speak: human scale – again, see Jan’s book for details)
    6. The streets often have street trees – my favorite! Me speak: it doesn’t matter what the question is, the answer is street trees. Have you ever seen a street that looks worse for having them?
    7. They are easy to get to, with lots of options – by car, bus, train, ferry (South Bank) and of course bike. (P-speak = accessible)
    8. You can see the city centre from most places in them, so the contrast with its height and dominance give them a context (P-speak: city frame) and a contrast that is both able to comfort and surprise as you move around (P-speak: fun, intrigue)
    9. They both have interesting streets with some street art and themed street furniture like seating, signage etc; and great public gathering/use areas, like the Brunswick Street and Chinatown malls in the valley, and well, the South Bank parklands (P-speak: public realm)
    10. The ground level of most of the buildings are used for things that are useful and interesting, like places to eat, shops and the like (P-speak: active street frontages)
    11. Because there are mostly lots of people around, they have lots of potential witnesses if bad stuff happens, so it mostly doesn’t (P-speak: casual surveillance, or eyes on the street). Well, at least outside the nightclub hours when behaviour can deteriorate with certain fuels added…

I spend a fair bit of my professional life advocating these planning and urban design concepts. And it seems that they work for me in my own life outside work. I’m like anyone else in that when I’m just being me, my basic human instincts respond favourably to well designed and planned places, which are mixed use, vibrant, human scale, legible, walkable, accessible, have a clear role in the city, a sense of fun and surprise, built to the street, active frontages with treed streets, casual surveillance and quality of public realm.

So it turns out that I’m putting my life where my mouth is. Who woulda thought it!

Discussion:

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  1. mary mealey says:

    We were just at Southbank yesterday recalling the history of its establishment and key decisions made by various governments. Foresight, leadership, and bipartisan support were key to its success. Now well loved and used, as you say Greg.

  2. Steve Thorne says:

    Can’t go wrong with those principles. They have served humans in all cultures for thousands of years. In that context the development in the west of the last 50 years must be viewed as an experiment that failed.

  3. Mike says:

    The Valley is also interesting because it has a big collection of 19th and early 20th century commercial buildings. Quite unusual in Queensland. Just look UP! Hopefully they won’t all get flattened in the future.

    I like that South Bank works well and is seen to work well even though some of the (early) buildings don’t work at all (i.e. along the section of Grey St that some bright spark tried to lift off the ground, now being rehabilitated by the convention centre extension). Something about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts…

  4. Greste Juris says:

    Cannot argue with your A to H Greg. But why is it so hard to do it?
    Juris

    • vanndemon says:

      Thanks Juris. Suspect it’s a lot to do with momentum and thought patterns that were established over 2-3 generations in the second half of the 20th century. Turning the Queen Mary around takes time and effort!

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