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Changing Times – Creating Walkable Communities from Post War Beginnings to COVID-19 and Beyond.


Following WW2, returning service men and women coming back to Australia were the reason we saw a population boom as many sought normality through starting a family and realising their dream of a ¾ acre block. Sprawling residential estates were established and the “normal standards” created, with the local park established primarily to service the offspring of  generation that was to become known as the baby boomers.

50 years on and we are still delivering the same local parks, large grassed areas with minimal embellishments – solely for the purpose of passive recreation, primarily designed for children between 5 -12 years old for apparently the same need as before.  However, the world has changed and the value of land has increased significantly; Denser typologies, household sizes and demographics in our suburbs have diversified;  A shift towards equality has seen both working parents not to mention the introduction of the SINKS, DINKS and self-funded retirees.  The existing approach of a single use per parcel of land – whether it be park, storm water, environment or road reserve no longer seems to match our need to design for more sustainable and efficient use of land. 

Enter 2020, which has brought a number of challenges, with the recent COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown placing even more pressure on our open space network, requiring us to ask the question: “Are we delivering communities that are robust and able to adapt to our quickly changing world?”

A number of these questions had already been raised in the latest draft of IPWEAQ’s (Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia, Queensland) “Street Design Manual - Walkable Communities".  It questions our current delivery model and its limited approach to park types and recreational opportunities, suggesting alternatives that are more efficient, offer better utilisation of land and reduce costs whilst meeting community expectations.   This approach is strongly aligned with that of the Planning Minister’s vision for creating healthier communities which is at the heart of creating more resilient communities to pandemics such as COVID-19.  Finally, public open space has become important again!

The IPWEAQ’s “Street Design Manual - Walkable Communities” Open Space section is underpinned by some basic new principles, these include:

  • Local parks can and should be a range of open space opportunities that provide access to all residents within the community.  The notion that all communities require the same needs, does not reflect the changes in our community.
  • Linear open space that provides walkways, tracks and other areas of recreation such as exercise equipment, and provides recreational and accessibility to greater numbers within the community.  These open spaces encourage healthy communities to get out and exercise through walking, jogging etc.
  • Open space should not have singular use over the land.  The new approach sees an efficient and effective use of our land through thoughtful and response design, allowing for open space to include areas of storm water detention, overland flow paths and the retention of environmental values.
  • Our communities are also including higher densities, this in turn requires us to think about urban spaces in a different manner in both size, spacing and levels of embellishment.

The Draft Street Design Manual seeks to align best practice thinking with the changing needs of our communities.  The question now is, before the report is finalised, does it go far enough in delivering communities that can adjust to the potential impacts that will inevitably be an outcome of this Pandemic? Or are we still planning for a single demographic from 70 years ago?

Written by Brent O’Neill, Director of Urban Design at Wolter Consulting Group.  Brent is a part of the Working Committee with IPWEAQ and a contributor to “Street Design Manual - Walkable Communities.”  The final version of this document is to be released mid this year, but you can find the draft document here.