City & Country: Cover Story: Regenerating a city

Brisbane’s massive floods in 2011 have prompted the city to seriously rethink how to adapt its architecture to potential climate change hazards

THE sun rises early in Brisbane. At 6am, it is as bright as Malaysia at 8am. Queen Street, which lies in the heart of the city, comes alive around that time. It is one of the busiest streets in Brisbane, yet the pedestrians outnumber the cars and buses that travel down the largely one-way street.

In the past 25 years or so, a number of challenges such as climate change, rising oil prices and the financial crises have prompted the 200-year-old city to embrace the principles of sustainability, liveability and affordability. This resulted in pedestrianised areas as well as the reliance on buses, trains and ferries to get around.

Located in Australia’s southeast state of Queensland, Brisbane has greatly transformed itself over the years. The idyll city’s evolving economy has paved the way for its redevelopment and transformation.

For the next stage of its growth, Brisbane is preparing to transform itself into an inviting and vibrant place, bolstered by a thriving tourism sector and smart, value-added businesses. These goals are outlined in its Draft Brisbane City Centre Master Plan 2013. Brisbane will be developed in the context of its various unique identities, as a “new world city”, a river city and a subtropical city, through the following areas: economic development, built form, public realm, social and cultural, and transport.

Amid all this, the city seeks to preserve some of its historical buildings — including the refurbished Treasury building in the heart of the city that now houses a casino, hotel, bars and nightclubs — and maintain its characteristic local architecture, such as its “tin and timber” buildings in the suburbs.

The largely suburban city has relatively high density for an Australian city. An estimated 1.1 million people live in an area of 1,340.3 sq km. The population is set to grow more than 8% to 1.27 million by 2031. Brisbane’s city council estimates that this population growth will fuel a dramatic growth in the city centre.

The city centre will need about 50 more office and apartment towers to cater for demand from this new population, while public transport usage will rise 80% as more people commute to the city centre and the number of pedestrian strips grows.

“There’s a debate on whether there is too much housing in Brisbane or not, and whether we should build more offices,” says urban designer John Byrne. A fellow at the Planning Institute of Australia and the Australian Institute of Architects, as well as an adjunct professor in urban design and architecture at Queensland University of Technology, he was a speaker at the World Class Sustainable Cities Conference (WCSC) this year.

In late October, a group of senior bureaucrats with the Petaling Jaya and Subang Jaya municipal councils, as well as the Kuala Lumpur city council, town planners, architects and real estate developers, visited Brisbane as part of a technical visit after the WCSC.

The trip was organised by the Real Estate and Housing Developers’ Association Wilayah Persekutuan (KL) branch, the Malaysian Institute of Planners and the Malaysian Institute of Architects. Some of the highlights of the trip included a meeting with representatives from the city council, state government, architects and developers tasked with the redevelopment of key parcels of land and creating new infrastructure and facilities.

The ABC building in South Bank is an example of the higher quality of architecture of the area compared with Brisbane’s city centre as developers compete to build there

Redevelopment potential
As Brisbane is over two centuries old, it is no surprise that it has seen redevelopment over the years. Some notable regeneration projects are the Roma Street and South Bank Parklands.

Roma Street Parkland was formerly an orphanage before it was turned into a railway goods yard. The site was finally gazetted as a park in 1877. Now, the park is a tranquil haven flanked by apartments on one side.

“The adjacent land was sold to private developers with caveats on the design. Limits include density, the façade and direction of the buildings. There are also different levels of housing here — from student accommodation to more expensive homes,” explains Byrne.

The entire site is ringed by bus routes. The park is maintained by 30 full-time staff and assisted by 100 volunteers. Remarkably, there are only two staff in the security team — one monitors the CCTVs while the other patrols the park. There are 60 points of duress with intercommunication systems.

Meanwhile, South Bank Parklands, which lies on the southern banks of Brisbane River, was built on the site that housed the previous World Expo 88 — the biggest Bicentennial celebration that marked two centuries since the first British convict ships landed on Australian shores. The site had to be rejuvenated when visitations declined. While there were initial plans to redevelop the 42ha site into a purely-commercial area, locals lobbied to keep the riverside a public space. The result was a 17ha public space within the commercial zone.

To spearhead the redevelopment and management of the site, the Queensland Government set up a statutory corporation called South Bank Corporation under the South Bank Corporation Act 1989.

Given its strategic location just opposite the city centre, the site was redeveloped into commercial areas called Grey Street and Little Stanley, which features a mall and shops with al fresco ethnic dining. Closer to the river bank is The Parklands, a bougainvillea-lined path that winds its way around a manmade beach. Vestiges of the World Expo 88 remain in structures built specially for the celebrations, such as an old Nepali temple.

Due to the strategic location of the site, the developers were very competitive and this resulted in better architecture and urban planning in the area, says Byrne.

Despite moving into the future, Brisbane is still mindful of preserving its architectural heritage. This is a former Treasury building that is being transformed into a casino and hotel. Another has already been refurbished into a casino and hotel with bars and nightclubs

The pursuit of knowledge
Boggo Hill EcoSciences Precinct is a 500,000 sq m building that caters for 1,000 scientists from four state agencies and six divisions under the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. The scientists come from various fields of study, including chemistry, microbiology and entomology.

The first thing you notice when you step into the building is the buzz. “It is noisier here than in most labs, but that is a good thing because it shows that the researchers are sharing knowledge and intellectual property,” says Byrne.

A hallmark of this building is its open design and shared spaces, which was not only intended to cut construction and operating costs but also to foster more collaboration and discussion among the different departments, effectively dismantling the “silo mentality” that comes from working in their own groups.

“This allows cross-disciplinary discussions that lead to new ideas and possible new breakthroughs,” Byrne explains.

The entire project cost A$270 million and was delivered ahead of schedule in 2010. This was possible thanks to the very thorough consultative process involving the scientists, government agencies and contractors. The resulting brief, which outlined details from the size of the rooms to the position of the exhaust pipes, sped up the construction and lowered costs.

There were minor challenges in getting the scientists to accept the new design. Besides a lack of parking space that most researchers, who were previously based outside the city, were used to, they had to get accustomed to the shared environment. However, the researchers soon became used to these arrangements. “They were also out most of the year, so we in fact allocated more space for storing their equipment,” says Byrne.

This similar sense of openness is seen at Kelvin Grove Urban Village, Brisbane’s creative precinct that houses one of Queensland University of Technology’s campuses. The university’s blocks are interspersed with the commercial buildings and homes — a mix of social housing and heritage-listed homes from the 1960s — in this precinct, which is the opposite of a typical university’s isolated design.

The design helps stimulate the residents and students in the area by fulfilling the needs that neuroscience studies have identified, such as relatedness, expression, leading the pack, interpersonal connection, processes and hope for the future, explains Byrne.

“This urban village design recalls the great universities in Europe and the US, which are in the cities where students and staff roam between classes,” he says.

However, this open design is not without its challenges. For starters, security and maintenance is an issue. “These are complicated by the fact that there are no boundaries. So, does the university’s maintenance take on the role of the city council?”

Fighting prejudice with design
Brisbane features some of the best designed social housing in Australia. Good design is used not just to improve the beauty and functionality of these buildings, but also to dismantle arguments against having social housing in neighbourhoods dominated by private homes.

“Private house owners don’t want public housing coming up in their neighbourhood. They used to say it was because these houses were ugly and would bring down the values of their homes. Now, with well-designed public housing, they’ll have to come out and say that they don’t like living with these people,” says Byrne.

Brisbane Common Ground is one such well-designed public home. This project caters for the homeless and those with low income. The 14-storey apartment block on Hope Street, a commercial part of town, has a concierge, computer room and retail space at the ground floor. Tenants may access their units through key cards.

The building has a 6-star Building Energy Rating Scheme rating. Some sustainable features include solar panels, motion detector sensors and timers to reduce energy use, and a cross-ventilation system that eliminates the need for air conditioning. Meanwhile, the basement holds 130,000 litres of rainwater for washing and watering plants.

The units comprise studios and one-bedroom types. They are fully furnished and have appliances such as washing machines and dryers. These facilities are provided so that residents do not hang their laundry to dry outside and make the façade unsightly. In addition, tenants are encouraged to grow plants on the balcony for aesthetic purposes, and as a form of therapy.

Besides its thoughtful and beautiful design, what sets this social housing project apart is its management, which is responsible for the well-being of the building and its occupants. Common Ground also provides assistance to tenants to overcome underlying problems that may lead to homelessness, such as mental illness, substance abuse, family breakdown and unemployment. There are no parking bays, while bicycles can be stored at the balcony.

Meanwhile, support services to help tenants get back on their feet include healthcare, counselling, vocational training, provision of living skills, and training and employment opportunities. The development cost over A$46 million and was funded under the A$5.6 billion Social Housing Initiative, while maintenance over the next three years is expected to cost A$3.5 million.

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 9, 2013.

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