It seems that nobody is happy about Fishermans Bend.
My first impression was that the design guidelines were quite good, but the public response has been scathing since the Strategic Framework Plan was released in late July. The usual old chestnuts of building height and transport provision dominate mainstream coverage of Australia’s biggest urban renewal project, just like they do whenever somebody tries to build above two storeys in suburbia. Occasionally a spectacular oversight breaks the monotony, in the worst way possible.
Still, the most interesting criticism I've heard so far is that this 'might be another Docklands'.
I suspect that the reason the response has been so generic and negative is that there isn't much to set Fishermans Bend apart in people's minds. Without anything distinct to latch on to, discussion naturally turns to standard worries about urban canyons and traffic jams.
This is a concern, because place identity matters. Rapid development without a clear identity is part of the reason Docklands sometimes still feels like a collection of towers, rather than a place.
I believe that the urban design standards advocated in the Strategic Framework Plan should give us a better built form than than in Docklands, if they're adhered to. But in terms of making Fishermans Bend unique and memorable, I think there's a big opportunity that is yet to be taken.
Instead of being remembered as Australia's biggest urban renewal project, Fishermans bend could become Australia's leafiest, lushest, and most sustainable suburb.
On an average year, 1.6 billion litres of rain will fall on Fishermans Bend. The drain at the end of every shower, and every tap, is a pretty steady source of water too. With 80,000 future residents taking showers each day, this greywater is a huge resource stream. It could be cleaned, and recycled, using natural systems of filtration through plants – while greening up the plants in buildings and open spaces.
Water Sensitive Urban Design isn’t a new idea, but this is a chance to do it at a vast scale, and reap accordingly vast benefits. Next time you're in Singapore, set aside a few hours to visit the Gardens by the Bay precinct to see how good this can look - if you can make your way through the crowds.
The greening driven by all this available water could be vertical, too. With good design, many of the new, tall buildings in Fishermans Bend could be covered in plants – like they’ve done at One Central Sydney, an apartment development blanketed in vertical gardens that not only looks fantastic, but also sold hundreds of apartments prior to construction. This aesthetic could be a nice counterpoint to the stark glass and steel of Docklands.
Rooftop greening doesn’t need to just be about beauty: it can also mean local production of food. Rooftop greenhouses, like they’ve got in Montreal and Brooklyn, operate at commercial scale and produce large quantities of food. These greenhouses could serve to cool and purify air for the residents of the buildings below them, too.
Going by current trends, the future 80,000 residents of Fishermans bend will produce around two tonnes of waste each, and around half of this will be organic. That’s 80,000 tonnes of organic waste, each year, going to landfill. Anything organic – whether it’s from the garbage bin or the toilet – can be used to produce natural gas (biogas). Biogas can be burnt in small, neighbourhood-scale gas systems to produce cheap heat and electricity (this is called ‘cogeneration’). Biogas use for cogeneration already happens in Denmark, and plans are in place for Sydney to go down the same path.
Even solar energy benefits from precinct-scale planning; locations best suited for large-scale solar generation (like they’ve got on the roof of the University of Queensland) could be identified, and height controls could ensure that these areas aren’t overshadowed. With 250 hectares to work with, the potential for panels is vast.
If we put all these ideas together, it becomes clear that, with the right combination of creativity and advanced technology, new suburbs can approach self-sufficiency, and in some cases become a source of resources instead of a sink. The devil is often in the detail with these things, but the potential is there – The thing is, planning for sustainability at the precinct scale requires serious government leadership; the current design guidelines for individual developments won't be enough.
Fortunately, tools to measure precinct-scale sustainability are already emerging globally, with the GBCA having recently released the ‘Green Star Communities’ tool, which takes the idea of star ratings beyond the usual focus of individual buildings. It also goes beyond environmental issues, with key parts of the tool focused on issues like liveability, governance, urban design and economic prosperity. It strikes me that these criteria could be helpful in guiding us away from the dire prediction of ‘another Docklands’.
It’s hard to create place from scratch, as the Docklands experience has shown, especially when it’s instantly compared to a CBD that’s over 150 years old. A true sense of place (or a ‘soul’ if you like) comes with age, but here at Fishermans Bend we have the opportunity to make a good start with memorable sustainability and aesthetic initiatives.
To its credit, the Strategic Framework Plan admits that it isn’t complete, and is clear there is plenty of scope for future review. With tower approvals already commencing in this area, I hope we see proactive, precinct-scale sustainability plans to seize the huge opportunities that the current plan isn't pursuing.
After all, the chance to develop a new suburb with a clear identity as Australia’s greenest, right in the heart of Melbourne, really is ‘once in a lifetime’ – as the pollies like to say.
Thami Croeser is a Town Planner at Tract Consultants and a Master of Urban Planning student at the University of Melbourne. Follow Thami on Twitter.
Lead image courtesy yarrariver.info.