Reshaping The Urban Design Process

How Australian officials built consensus for a move
away from sprawl and toward urban villages

One of the articles in Designing A Sustainable Future (IC#35)
Originally published in Spring 1993 on page 50
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

Wendy Morris, senior urban designer with the Victoria, Australia, government, has been a leading figure in efforts to get the various players in the development process to embrace alternatives to sprawl. She leads seminars and workshops on townscape improvements, urban revitalization, and suburban development alternatives. Wendy Morris can be reached at Urban Design Unit, Department of Planning and Development, P.O. Box 2240T, Melbourne, Victoria, 3001, Australia. Ph. 61 3 628 5469, fax 61 3 628 5705.

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Planning and Development.

Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city, has recently taken a new approach towards sustainable development, after some earlier set-backs. Policy steps taken in the late ’80s and early ’90s, which were meant to promote urban consolidation, conservation, and more efficient use of infrastructure, resulted in few changes in development patterns.

We found that to make real change in building patterns those who make design, permitting, and development decisions must be involved and retrained. The innovative design workshops developed to this end have proven to be a key step in Melbourne’s effort to ensure that virtually all new residential development takes some steps, however small, toward greater sustainability. The workshops also helped build consensus for other important initiatives toward sustainable design.


Of Victoria’s 4.3 million people, 3 million live in the sprawling city of Melbourne, so urban growth is a top concern of state officials. The Victorian Department of Planning initiated workshops, entitled "Shaping Urban Futures," in 1989 in order to focus the attention of the designers and builders on alternative development patterns.

The workshops typically start with a critique of current residential design practices by such international urban designers as Paul Murrain and James Kaufman. That is followed by a presentation of alternative approaches, a site briefing, and then work in small mixed-profession groups on a site design.

The experience allows participants to try out new skills, while debating key issues within a small group setting. By ensuring that senior developers, planning and engineering professionals, and local government officials are represented, the workshops have developed a high level of credibility.


The change in attitude generated through the workshops facilitated the introduction of new regulations for higher density, more cost-efficient housing development on Melbourne’s urban fringe. Workshop participants had seen for themselves that urban consolidation can result in desirable communities that offer housing diversity, convenient shopping, and other amenities.

These regulations, the Victorian Code for Residential Development (VicCode), are directed at achieving safe, stimulating, and sustainable communities by addressing the detailed design of development proposals. VicCode is performance-based rather than prescriptive, and thus rewards innovative design that meets the code’s objectives and performance criteria.

As a result of the code, designs for low-density, car-based, single-use residential developments are being replaced by more site-responsive, connected, walkable neighborhoods, with housing diversity and mixed-use potential.

Instead of a design process based on computer-generated standard lot sizes in hierarchical road layouts, the process is now likely to involve a team of urban designers, planners, engineers, surveyors, marketers, social planners, and environmental specialists.

VicCode addresses issues of isolation and safety to ensure that new suburbs better meet the needs of women (see page 52). It provides for environmental management of stormwater through on-site infiltration and retention systems, retains natural assets such as trees and valleys in public open space, and encourages street layouts that capitalize on views of features in and beyond the site.

Energy efficiency is addressed through principles for connective but low-speed street networks that minimize the amount of travel needed to conduct daily tasks. Lot size variation makes possible densities high enough to support public transport. Buildings open on to streets and open spaces to ensure walking and bicycling are safe, interesting, and efficient. Energy requirements are reduced through the form and solar orientation of houses.


In late 1991, the Victorian government began researching energy use and greenhouse gas emissions associated with different models of urban expansion: conventional low-density suburban sprawl, a VicCode development, and a transit-supportive, traditional urbanism model – each model progressively increasing street connectivity, housing density, and integrated land-use mix.

The preliminary results of the Greenhouse Neighbourhood Report, to be released in June 1993, demonstrate substantial energy savings per household moving from the sprawl model through to the traditional urbanism model, especially when the longevity of the urban form is considered.


The Greenhouse Neighbourhood Project confirmed that VicCode facilitates many of the changes needed to bring about more sustainable residential development on the urban fringe. However, the code does not address changes required to generate well-integrated mixed-use communities.

A new program – in essence, a sequel to the residential design workshops – is now underway to promote urban village style development. The work of Australian researchers Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy, who have been promoting higher density, interactive, transit-supportive, mixed-use nodes within the fabric of a city, provided the impetus for the Victorian Urban Villages Program.

This program aims to encourage understanding of the links between energy efficiency, urban form, land-use mix, density, safety, community development, and public transport.

First, city officials identify and analyze existing mixed-use nodes within Melbourne that provide good examples of urban villages. These include many of the city’s most attractive and valued communities and are in parts of the city developed prior to the rigid zoning introduced in the early 1950s.

Secondly, multi-disciplinary design workshops explore reurbanization within a 400-meter radius of existing transit stops and along existing or planned rail transit routes on the urban fringe. A strategy for each village is developed that fosters appropriate mixed-uses and street characteristics. The site’s public spaces are reviewed with respect to accessibility, amenities, security, parking, and retail revitalization opportunities.

Finally, the program provides design and development assistance to owners and developers of demonstration sites within a 400-meter radius of transit stops.

The urban villages concept is generating strong interest, particularly from local government and the planning and design professions. This land development strategy counters declining public transport patronage and the resulting service cutbacks. Again the design workshop process provides a forum for presenting and debating new design principles and for preparing three-dimensional design solutions.


Recently, agencies from the state Department of Planning collaborated with the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) in building the first ACF Green Home to environmental specifications that reduce non-renewable energy use by up to two thirds and saves up to $500 in operation costs per year. The specifications also minimize water consumption and require the use of some recycled materials.

Designed for the mass home market, finance for houses built to the ACF Green Home Guidelines can be obtained on favorable terms through the ACF Green Bonds investment fund.

The ACF Green Bond fund was established jointly by ACF and a savings and loan institution so that environmentally committed investors can be assured that their money will be lent only for environmentally sound, financially beneficial purposes. It also has special taxation advantages to investors.


The success of these programs to date can be attributed to several factors: the willingness of a state bureaucracy to become involved at the detailed design level; the professional excitement, credibility, and contact with leading international design trends provided by the workshops; and the government’s willingness to establish processes for debate on the issues.

The workshops have helped break down adversarial relationships between the community, developers, and regulators. Instead, all now are involved in developing a shared vision of a future based on cooperation and the synergy of differently skilled professionals working together.

By emphasizing processes that benefit the developer, the community, and the environment, the Melbourne experience demonstrates the value of open communication and collaboration within a government that has clearly expressed a commitment to change.

For information on the ACF Green Home Guidelines and ACF Green Bonds write Australian Conservation Foundation, 340 Gore St, Fitzroy, Victoria, 3068, Australia. tel. 61 3 416 1166, fax 61 3 416 0767.

For the findings of the Greenhouse Neighbourhood Project write Energy Victoria, 167 Wellington Parade East, Melbourne, Victoria, 3002, Australia. tel. 61 3 651 7859, fax 61 3 651 7367.

Copies of the VicCode are available from the Bookshop, Department of Planning and Development, P.O. Box 2240T, Melbourne, Victoria, 3001, Australia. tel. 61 3 628 5111, fax 61 3 628 5705.

Each publication costs approximately $10 – $20.



Almost every aspect of the design and development of new suburban estates is done by men. That lack of balance has created problems because of the different ways men and women view neighborhoods. Men often see residential developments as places to get in and out of, to or from work, city or the beach. Women, even those who work outside the home, move about their neighborhoods on a daily basis – a short drive to drop kids off at play group, a quick trip to the store or to the neighborhood house for a meeting. Cul-de-sac, single-use development makes all these errands difficult and time consuming.

Personal safety is poorly addressed in such developments: great lengths of back fences line streets; public open space frequently lack abutting houses.

Women and children are the principal users of public transport on the urban fringe, yet little consideration is given to making the walk to and from it safe, efficient, comfortable, and interesting.

The increasing privatization of residential developments has also contributed to loneliness. For women at home, especially older women, views out to the street provide a window on the world. This is constrained by houses designed with garages dominating their frontage, lacking front rooms, porches, and verandas. When coupled with the low level of activity in the street, this can contribute to a real sense of isolation. The car-based hierarchical street networks make it difficult for neighbors to meet. Thus modern subdivisions build isolation and unrealistically stress the nuclear family unit.

Many of these designed-in social problems of the modern suburban development can be easily avoided, once they are recognized for what they are.

– WM

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