Australia is dominated by flat-white urbanism. There must be better ways to create street life

Mmmm, caffeine. Image: Getty.

Iconic architectural pieces may attract large numbers of tourists but are not the only things that live in the memories of visitors to Australian cities. Everyday experiences also endure. In fact, eating is one of the top tourist activities.

It’s also where the money is spent. According to Tourism Research Australia’s Tourism Satellite Account 2015-16 report, tourists spend the largest percentage of their money – about 21 cents in every dollar – on takeaways, restaurant meals and beverages.

It isn’t just international tourists searching for memorable cafe and dining experiences – leisure-seekers from nearby suburbs or towns are too. According to Food Industry Foresight’s Coffee & Beverages In Australia annual tracking study, Australians drink about two coffees out per week. That equates to about 1.8 billion espresso-based coffees a year, costing A$7.3bn.

So that cafes, restaurants and bars remain competitive, the architecture becomes part of the attraction. This has led to some ubiquitous design signifiers: white subway tiles, reclaimed timber, austere pendant lighting, white anodised SHS steel and exposed brick.

Additionally, cafe names often echo a civic rhetoric – see Common Ground, Public House, New School Canteen.

Cafes, for example Fitzroy’s New School Canteen, often include a civic language in their names. Image: Google Streetview.

The replication of the cafe typology – each must have the right owner, the right coffee, and the right baristas, business name and interior designer – can be as tedious as the desire of city authorities to have a leisure landscape, a stadium, or an event to fill it.

Cities use these precincts and events as strategic tools to project an attractive image of themselves as they compete for tourist dollars, business investment, professional talent and the coveted high ranking in liveability indexes.

And Australia has many tourist leisurescapes under construction. There’s Darling Square, a A$3.4bn neighbourhood near Sydney’s Darling Harbour; Perth’s Elizabeth Quay, a mixed-use development of office, entertainment and residential buildings around a 2.7-hectare artificial river inlet; and the Gold Coast’s expanded cultural precinct of 16.9 hectares, with Stage 1 to be delivered in time for the 2018 Commonwealth Games. And each comes with those ubiquitous cafes.

Leveraging the lure of the cafe

Property developers have recognised how to leverage the popularity of this “flat white tourism”. A nearby “cappuccino” strip can increase land values. It also helps with marketing apartment buildings: the promise of a cafe that anchors a new development is enticing for home buyers and investors.

The Artist complex in Melbourne, designed by Rijavec Architecture, includes ground-level apartments alongside a corner cafe. Image: Google Streetview.

Local councils also see cafes as desirable. To maintain street life, planning regulations often require active, public-facing street fronts, rather than blank walls, car parks, gardens or fences. The aim is to accommodate activity that encourages pedestrian interaction and casual surveillance.

Paired with changing consumer habits (such as online and mall shopping), the result is that many high streets are now dominated by the cafe, a sort of “high street lite”. The cafe appears to be a market-driven solution to achieve an active street front in Australian cities. This is flat white urbanism.

Consider the alternatives

Australians are not just consuming coffee. In fact, people are not just passively consuming cultural or leisure activities (such as going to bands or watching sport). Australians are making, doing and playing; active participation is on the rise around the country.

For example, the Australia Council study Arts in Daily Life: Australian Participation in the Arts highlighted that about one in three Australians is involved in creating visual art or craft. The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ General Social Survey, 2014 shows that 31 per cent of Australians are also volunteering. This has put pressure on council services and raised questions about how councils can help enable community activity.

The availability of affordable and accessible space is a looming issue in major Australian cities. There is demand for more diverse uses at ground level – studios, live-work apartments, community rooms, kindergartens, ateliers, small-scale light industrial zones, education facilities.

But the desire among lessors for the maximum rental return means less profitable businesses or civic users can’t afford street-fronting leases.

A way to fund diverse activity

The concept of the developer contribution offers an opportunity to reimagine the ground plane of apartment buildings, to diversify away from look-alike cafes. The developer contribution is a percentage of a building budget that goes to community infrastructure (for the health, safety or wellbeing of the community).

Berlin’s many street-level artist workshops and studios attract visitors from far and wide. Image: La Citta Vita/flickr/creative commons.

At present, this money is generally channelled via council towards building libraries, multipurpose community centres, maternity health centres, sporting facilities or neighbourhood parks with play equipment. Cultural infrastructure seldom comes into the frame.


It is at the level of developer contribution that local councils can intervene. This could be through an ad-hoc process of negotiating more floors for the development in return for providing community space. Or it could be through rezoning, which is tied to developer contributions.

For example, developers could be granted a larger floor-area ratio through rezoning if they give a percentage of the building over to community use. This could include social housing.

A redefinition of what comprises community infrastructure could underpin this shift. This might extend to redefining public art contributions – developers are often required to provide a percentage of their project budget to public art. Would a subsidised artist studio be more valuable than a sculpture?

Urban policymakers have to be careful to maintain the uniqueness and distinctiveness of a place for both locals and tourists. Responding to the proliferation of cafes by creating incentives for, or regulating, other uses could be one way to diversify street life.

Then, cafes might not only give the appearance of a cultural scene, or of it being made somewhere nearby, or of it happening on the first floor. It is happening next door. This brings benefits to both the local and non-local coffee tourist.

Timothy Moore is a PhD Candidate at the Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article

The ConversationThe Conversation is co-publishing articles with Future West (Australian Urbanism), produced by the University of Western Australia’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts. These articles look towards the future of urbanism, taking Perth and Western Australia as its reference point. The newly released third issue is available here. You can read other articles in the ongoing series here.

 
 
 
 

What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.


Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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