Urban design luminary envisions eight new cities between Sydney and Melbourne

Urban planning and design expert Mike Day sat down with API Magazine to discuss the future of Australian housing developments, the impact of town planning on our lives, and the prospect of eight new cities emerging between Sydney and Melbourne.

Mike Day, Partner, Hatch RobertsDay
Mike Day, Partner, Hatch RobertsDay, says more thought needs to be put into the way urban areas are laid out.

As a youth growing up in the Kimberley region town of Kununurra and an avid reader and collector of National Geographic magazines, Mike Day developed a keen interest in learning about how cities were built and evolved.

The leading urban planner whose work has shaped urban renewal and new township projects across Australia, the UAE and Asia also credits a geography teacher in high school for fuelling his interest in the topic.

It was a West Australian trailblazing architect and Perth’s first female town planner, Margaret Feilman, however, who opened his eyes to the possibilities that continue to colour his design philosophy and belief in what the future of urban planning looks like - and needs to be.

“There’s a design culture that exists in WA and largely stems from Margaret’s influence, which isn't as prevalent on the east coast,” Mr Day told Australian Property Investor Magazine.

“Back when we’d just set up the RobertsDay urban design practice and she’d been retired for some years, I asked what appealed most about town planning over architecture and building.

“She told me, ‘I affect more people’s lives when I design a new community than when I design a new building’.”

The outer Perth working class suburb of Kwinana’s town centre was Feilman’s first major design in the 1950s and emerged to cover the need to house 25,000 oil refinery workers. It demonstrates key signatures of her town planning style, which was environmentally aware, humanitarian and mindful of aesthetics.

“I thought that was really instructive,” Mr Day, Partner at Hatch RobertsDay, said.

“I feel so blessed that we’re able to work at scale and work with such a broader range of people in terms of designing new towns because we are affecting people’s lives.

“We lay these communities out and they are there for generations, 200 to 300 years.

“Buildings come and go every 20, 30, 50 years but once you lay out the framework for neighbourhoods, schools, parks, whatever, they very rarely change; so that was a powerful realisation to me.”

Since his early days of graduating in town planning from Curtin University, a 30-plus year career has seen Mr Day become a force in his own right.

There is potential for eight cities to be built along a Sydney-to-Melbourne high-speed rail line.

- Mike Day, Partner, Hatch RobertsDay

He is a partner of urban planning and design practice, Hatch RobertsDay, a fellow of the Planning Institute of Australia, member of the Committee for Melbourne’s Liveability + Urban Optimisation Standing Committee, member of the Victorian Division of the Urban Development Institute of Australia’s Sustainability and Innovation Committee, and was formerly the Chair of the Housing Industry Association WA Planning and Development Committee, board member of the East Perth Redevelopment Authority, and Deputy Chair of the Subiaco Redevelopment Authority.

In 2018, Mr Day was the recipient of the Place Leaders Asia Pacific Award for Leadership in Promoting Walkable Urbanism and received the Russell Taylor Award for Design Excellence for Ellenbrook New Town – Australia’s most awarded urban development project, which was the recipient of the FIABCI (International Real Estate Federation) 2015 World Prix d’Excellence for the world’s best master planned community.

While able to bask in the spoils of grand designs, it’s Day’s country roots and international outlook that continue to drive his vision for the future.

“A number of us in our practice have either grown up in country towns or spent time in country towns.

“That’s influenced us in terms of community building.

“Since we started RobertsDay, I’ve been trying to promote the essence of the neighbourhood, which is so distinctively embedded in the country towns.

“It’s that sense of place, sense of belonging, I think you get that in regional and country towns.

“The way suburban patterns have been laid out in metropolitan areas has moved away from that notion of the daily needs of being in close proximity and people having the independence of movement; all ages and incomes being able to move around.

“If you haven't got that distinctive neighbourhood structure, then I think it erodes the prospect of community building.”

20-minute neighbourhoods

Mr Day recently shared the stage on a panel with Victoria’s Mitchell Shire Council Director of Advocacy and Community, Mary Agostina.

“She said most of her residents are commuting three or four hours a day.

“Family units start to break down if people are detached from their communities and they’re commuting these long journeys; it's got to be debilitating,” Mr Day said.

The solutions can be incorporated into urban centres.

“Private vehicle transport costs in disconnected suburban growth areas may become more expensive than housing in the future and we will be contending with the notion of ‘attainable living’ rather than ‘attainable housing.’

“It’s time to give priority to pedestrians and cyclists and think about the 40 per cent of the population that doesn’t have access to a car; that’s the young kids, the teenagers and the elderly. “We do need to start thinking about dedicated paths, particularly with micro mobility, such as electric bikes, skateboards that need to have their own pathways and trails rather than just being put on the pedestrian path, and that’s something we’re working on,” he said.

He is also pushing hard for walkable neighbourhoods.

“Contemporary neighbourhoods will be enhanced through the promotion of mixed-use developments such as courtyard housing, townhouses and residential apartments built above shops.

“This will lead to the formation of ‘15- and 20-minute neighbourhoods’ that allow residents to leave their homes for daily essentials without relying on a car.”

“I heard social researcher Mark McCrindle speak recently and he talks about Central Lifestyle Districts and how we’ve got to move away from the notion of Central Business Districts that are single use and unhealthy monocultures and so debilitating for people to have to commute to.

“It’s ok for the CEOs because they live within five minutes of downtown but they want all their workers back to work in the office, yet in reality it’s not fair and we’ve demonstrated that we can work remotely or at least for some part of the week.”

Another key concept for his contemporary urban design is the ability for children to walk to school safely.

“Children should be able to walk and cycle to school from day one in new residential neighbourhoods.

“Novel methods of providing ‘interim schools’ should be mandatory in all new housing estates.

“Successful interim ‘schools in houses’, ‘schools in offices’ and ‘schools in shops’ have been trialled in South Australia and Western Australia and have wider application in the Eastern States.

“Many pilot programs across the world have introduced car-free school zones.

“Toronto first implemented the program in 2019 to encourage students to walk and cycle to school, as well as reduce exhaust emissions.

“Adopting the 20-minute neighbourhood principles across new developments would allow children to walk or cycle to school from day one no matter where they live.”

Eight new east coast cities

Retrofitting these ideas to existing cities is possible but identifying potential sites for new cities is imperative, he says.

“Now is the time to be thinking about potential sites for new cities and to provide attainable housing and jobs in new self-contained cities serviced by high-speed rail in rural areas.

“There is potential for eight cities to be built along a Sydney-to-Melbourne high-speed rail line, which could provide distributed workplaces and much more attainable housing for residents within proximity to the hubs of Sydney and Melbourne.

Looking forward, he returns to the past.

“We must learn from history and consider major environmental factors, such as flooding.

“Building in resilience to environmental disasters requires transformative action years ahead of construction.

“Unprecedented floods in New South Wales and Queensland have resulted in devastating outcomes.

“While relocating existing flood prone settlements to higher ground and creating new towns might be challenging and expensive, disastrous events years in the future can be avoided.”

Building the ability for people to stay connected to their communities and families is at the heart of Mr Day’s urban planning.

“Low-cost investment options, such as granny flats, can help meet the increased demand and population growth.

“Ancillary dwelling or granny flats can be built in rear yards or above rear garages, and are significantly cheaper to build than houses.

“At around $100,000 to build, they can be rented out and they help keep families together through intergenerational living and are a more attainable option for many young people.

“We need to put a bit more thought into the way urban areas are laid out.

“Health and wellness, mentally and physically, are essentials,” he said.

Article Q&A

What are 15-minute neighbourhoods?

Fifteen and 20-minute neighbourhoods allow residents to leave their homes for daily essentials without relying on a car.

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