Monday, May 31, 2010

AG Ideas Inspiration - Theo Jansen

At the recent AG Ideas conference held in Melbourne, I was lucky enough to listen to sculptor Theo Jansen, who creates "new forms of life" from electrical tubing.

These objects, powered by wind, are smart enough to be able to sense when they are about to be swallowed by a wave or if they are heading into soft, unwalkable sand. No high tech computer gadgets or electronics, only bits of electrical tubing and the weather.

The key quote from Theo's presentation? "The walls between art and engineering exist only in our minds"

I guess this just reinforced for me that design is everywhere - physics can become art and vice versa. This also tied in to a conversation we had here at THG about the difference between urban design in Australia and internationally. THG's head Urban Designer, Craig Baynham believes that internationally, space is what drives design whereas in Australia, design is driven by process and box ticking. It's a bit philosophical, but if Theo Jansen's work is anything to go by, it is possible to create a living, breathing creature out of nothing more than a pile of sticks - which means there is hope for us yet.

If you would like to see some examples of Theo's work, check him out on youtube here, here and here.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Favouring Private Transportation: Turning Cities into One Giant Parking Lot.

Did you know that many U.S. states have approximately 3.5 more parking spaces than cars?

Lindale Plaza, Cedar Rapids, USA.

Lindale Plaza Figure Ground Diagram, Cedar Rapids, USA.

According to a new regional survey from Treehugger, the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin together have 1,260 square kilometers of paved parking lots, or 5% of urban land use. That's about 2.5 parking spaces per car, but that's not even counting street parking, private parkings, and parking structures. If you add all of this together, you get about 3 to 3.5 parkings per car and a higher percentage of urban land use.

Ample parking spaces may seem like a good thing until you consider the negative effects of all that pavement. Previous research has shown that pavement makes cities hotter in the summer, increases run-off, decreases water reaching local aquifers and even warms up rainwater before it reaches streams -- to the detriment of aquatic wildlife.

Jacksonville CBD, USA.

Looking at these examples of cities in the US, you might think our CBDs use land far more efficiently than can be seen in these images, but in fact, Canberra's CBD is just as bad! And when you consider that only 7.9% of people in Canberra use public transport to work or study (ABS, 2006), the substantial amount of parking lots within the CBD is unfortunately warranted. In Sydney, 26.3% of people use public transport to work.

Canberra, ACT.

The concepts of New Urbanism tell us how to make cities that are more fun to live in and that are better for the environment. This would also means fewer parking lots, since more of the places you need to travel to would be close to your home. Future development should seek to revive the city planning of an era when cities were designed around human beings instead of automobiles. If we give surface parking lots back to the people and transform them into urban public spaces - we would not only encourage more people to use public transport to get into the CBD, it would ensure more sustainable cities, as well as a better environment to enjoy while on our lunch breaks!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Liveability in Mackay - 59th annual Urban Local Government Association of Queensland (ULGA) Conference

THG's Richard Katter is in Mackay this week for the 59th annual Urban Local Government Association of Queensland (ULGA) Conference. He and THG MD, Tim Connolly, are presenting on the components of liveability and how we might make measuring it simpler through a Liveability Index. This is what he had to say:

"Tim our MD and I presented a paper today at the Qld Urban Local Government Conference in the beautiful Mackay, the first time we have discussed our affiliation with American based 'Partners for Livable Communities' in the public domain. We've partnered with some other Queensland based organisations to bring this group here to Australia because we see the issue of liveability as being integral to addressing the issues we have facing our state, not least of all, population growth and how we manage it.

Yesterday at the conference, Euan Moreton of Synergies Economic Consulting, our partner in developing a tool to measure and benchmark liveability, spoke at the conference about liveability as a complex multidimensional concept, identifying the eight key elements that make it up. This tied in nicely with our presentation today where Tim spoke about the key considerations of liveability and I discussed the need to develop an index to measure this complex concept and the possible indicators under each of the eight elements.

The conference was a great opportunity for us to let the civic leaders of our states urban areas know that we, through Partners for Livable Communities, have the tools to enable their community to become more livable in the future".

How would you define liveability in your state, town or neighbourhood? What do you think are the key elements of creating special places to live, work and play? Please comment below, we'd love to hear your thoughts.

If you would like to hear more about liveability, go to the THG website and sign up for our monthly In The Know emails.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

TODs: Economical and Social, Can They Be Environmentally Sensitive Too?

A new proposal which won first prize in the Hong Kong Boundary Crossing Facility International Design Ideas Competition has demonstrated that the environmental sustainability of a Transit Oriented Development (TOD) is just as important and critical as social and economic factors in successfully implementing community hubs for transport and activity.

While embracing the Triple Bottom Line (social, economical & environmental) is essential in the pursuit to provide successful, community-based urban design solutions centred around the concept of TODs, ensuring the design of these hubs is sustainable and environmentally sensitive is crucial, yet sometimes overlooked.

From Inhabitat:
“Under the Same Roof” is an exciting new design for the Hong Kong Boundary Crossings Facility that will be located on an artificial island in the Pearl River Delta in Hong Kong. The structure is a multi-story facility connecting bus terminals and roads with a sprawling roof covered in faceted panels that are semi-transparent to let natural daylight in, while an indoor winter garden serves as a meeting place and a spot to rest for weary travelers.

The indoor garden acts to replenish the air with fresh oxygen improving the air quality of the very busy transportation hub. Algae tubes located mounted on the roof utilize sunlight to create even more oxygen. Meanwhile natural ventilation is facilitated through the stack effect and operable panels to release air and exhaust.
Read more at here.

What Makes Good Information Design?

Finding the balance between graphic representation that is interesting, aswell as informative is always difficult, and sometimes time consuming. This image helps to clarify intent and suggests a criteria to use when developing information graphics. Sometimes the simplest of graphics can successfully demostrate a notion quicker and more accurately than spoken dialogue.

According to Information Is Beautiful:

The key components of a good infographic / data visualisation / piece of information design:

Information needs to be interesting (meaningful & relevant) and have integrity (accuracy, consistency).
Design needs to have form (beauty & structure) and function (it has to work and be easy to use).

In information design, it seems, if you have just two elements, you get something tolerable and cool:

i.e. integrity + form = eye candy
i.e. interestingness + function = experiment

But if you combine three elements without the fourth, things suddenly FAIL:

i.e. interesting subject, solid information, looks great, but is hard to use = useless.
i.e. amazing data, well designed, very easy to read but isn’t that interesting = boring.

Stitching LA Back Together

A massive proposal is on the table to create a 800m long urban park above a section of Highway 101 in downtown Los Angeles. Dubbed park 101, the proposal would create a roof and parkland over the 101 which currently cuts a trench through the downtown area and restricts pedestrian access to many important sites in the city.

The master plan also includes development to place some new signature buildings along the park as well as some additional mixed-use development, like retail and residential, to bring more than just business people to the downtown area.
Read more from Inhabitat here.

Anyone for Tightrope Bicycling?

With the advancement of technology at such a rate, we can begin to ask questions which have previously been regarded as too abstract and unfeasible to even consider. In terms of alternative sources of transport, Kolelinia Lab has asked the quesions:

Why do we drive vehicles that are about 20 times heavier than our bodies?

Why do we build expensive roads with heavy materials?

What if our vehicles are compact enough to carry them with us as a bag?

The lab has developed two concepts based on the same vision of creating a completely new weightless layer for transportation on a higher level. The two concepts are Kolelinia (a chairlift type senario) and Kolelinio (bicycling) which proposes a type of above street level bicycle/pedestrian lane supported by steel wires.

Is it possible to achieve a completely new level of transportation with minimum resources? This idea doesn’t isolate the bike stream from the streets, this only makes the connection for impossible zones between existing bike-lanes. It could be of bridge typology, a longer transportation line or a special designed and independent touristic line.

Would YOU use the Kolelinio or Kolenlinia for transportation?

See for more information about this concept.

Mexico's Solution for Affordable Housing

Mexico City has been growing so rapidly over the second half of the 20th century that it could not respond adequately to the mounting needs for housing and urban space.

For the general population in Mexico, housing is often unaffordable due to of economic conditions, construction costs and lack of financing. Despite these difficulties, companies such as Casas GEO and Constructora Cocoa are working to ensure that affordable options exist (housing priced between $13,000 and $30,000 depending on the number of bedrooms and the location). With construction projects in what is called the "social sector" or "low income" sector of home building in Mexico, these two companies are working to meet market demands.

The problem with low-income housing is that developers can only offer certain design modules which can be achieved under budget. In areas such as Ixtapaluca, Mexico, this means dull, alienating housing which is ultimately de-humanised. While this particular development (see images below) has provided a much needed affordable housing solution for now, work still needs to be done to give the community a 'soul' or an identity, or at least some distinctive qualities within the development so you don't forget which house is yours!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Reactive Design: Movement Patterns in Cities

Way-finding and efficiency within cities has always been an integral ingredient in urban design, but with the advancement in technology along with an improved appreciation for vibrancy and artistic expression within urban environments, we have the opportunity to start to explore different approaches for legibility within cities as well as capitalizing on the way public spaces and streets are being used by people and vehicles. Approaches which are more 'reactive' than 'proactive'.

Emphasising how people and vehicles use streets and other public spaces by physically recording movement patterns and tracks can demonstrate the complexity and importance of way-finding and spatial networks, and also create the opportunity to better plan an already established urban environment.

This can be achieved in the form of installation civic art (even though the image to the left of the Rosenthaler Platz intersection in Berlin was created by guerrilla street artists who dropped paint illegally onto the road from bicycles to create this effect) which would provide interest and excitement, or through more modern forms of data collection such as GPS navigation or mobile phone signals.

From analysing the way people or vehicles use a space, more efficient space usage can be developed without changing the way people currently use the space. For example, if King George Square in Brisbane was monitored for a day to see how people use the square, I would think that we would find that the majority of people use the space as a thoroughfare, rather than a urban square. This information could support the idea of a possible redesign to make maximum use of the space, while not adjusting the current movement patterns of people.

Land uses could change, interfaces with mixed-use facades could be more interactive and vibrant, public space could be safer and more inviting, vehicular transport could become more efficient, visitor way-finding within cities would be easier, etc.... all depending on how people use public spaces in cities already.

Could 'reactive urban design and planning' shape our cities into better places?

See more about the Berlin road paint operation at

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Density in Delhi - Lessons for Housing in South East Queensland

Stewart Brand of the Financial Review wrote a fascinating article called Density Integrity.

Did you know that according to the UN, over 1 billion people currently live in slums and this number is predicted to double in the next 25 years. But what can we learn about density from these types of cities?

According Brand, plenty.

Alleyways in squatter cities, for example, are a dense interplay of retail and services - one chair barber shops and three seat bars interspersed with the clothes racks and fruit tables. One proposal is to use these as a model for shopping areas. “Allow the informal sector to take over downtown areas after 6pm,” suggest Jamie Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil. “That will inject life into the city.”

Squatter cities are also unexpectedly green. They have a maximum density - 1 million people a square mile in some areas of Mumbai - and have minimal energy and material use. People get
around by foot, bicycle, rickshaw or the universal shared taxi.

In addition to this, some of the research I have been doing for my PhD on the subject of perceptions of housing density have indicated that, in the US at least, high density living is often inhabited by those in lower income brackets and as such, they can't afford to move away. One of the key factors in improving perceptions of density is that the more transitory the residents, the lower the sense of community. Thus, if residents are essentially 'stuck' in their neighbourhood, they will make as much effort as possible to ensure it is a nice place to live - thus improving the sense of community and therefore their perceptions of density.

While, as Brand says "fast growing cities are far from unmitigated good. They concentrate crime, pollution, disease and injustice as much as business, innovation, education and entertainment", it's interesting to think that density might not be such a dirty word after all.

Monday, May 3, 2010

AGIdeas Design Advantage - Designing for Women

"Shrink it and pink it" is the typical response to designing for women, according to Agnete Enga from Femme Den.

At the AGIdeas Business Breakfast, held in Melbourne last week, Agnete presented some pretty interesting facts. Women make 80% of all purchase decisions and have a purchasing power that represents a greater opportunity than China and India combined - yet women are considered a niche market. Additionally, in America, women have an income of approx $1 trillion, but a spending power of $2 trillion, which means she is not only spending her own money, but that of the household.

It's an interesting thing to think about in an industry (property) typically dominated by men - but who is really making the decisions? For women, the focus of their buying decisions is not the product itself, but the lifestyle it offers, whereas for men this is the opposite. For example, take the humble barbie. Men purchase a barbeque for the barbeque itself - with all the knobs, buttons and whistles. The result of the barbeque purchase is the associated lifestyle benefits - eating with friends and family and enjoying the outdoors. Women, on the other hand, primarily want the lifestyle benefits and see the barbeque as a way of getting these. It's back to the old benefits vs features argument in marketing.

So, how do we use this information in the property industry? Don't just assume she wants a bigger laundry.

Read more here.