Planning for high quality and well used public open spaces

There is a growing understanding of the importance of open space for liveable, productive and sustainable cities. The delivery of open space is now built into planning at the regional, local and site levels. In Victoria, Plan Melbourne includes aspirations for enhancing access to open space, including meeting the needs of all members of the community, regardless of age, gender, ability or a person’s location . The Plan Melbourne Implementation Plan includes an action to prepare a new metropolitan open space strategy. The Victorian Planning Authority also launched the metropolitan open space portal in 2016, which provides a comprehensive spatial dataset of Melbourne’s open spaces. In this context, it is timely to consider an updated framework for planning for open space. This article explores some of the opportunities for consideration in a new metropolitan open space strategy for Melbourne.

Figure 1. Melbourne metropolitan public open space network

Source: SGS Economics and Planning

Moving beyond basic quantity and proximity metrics

The starting point to plan for open space typically uses two key metrics: quantity and proximity. While these aim for equitable access to open space across a community, they neglect to consider the quality of open spaces [1] that is needed to meet the diverse needs of local communities. The simple application of these two metrics does not adequately consider the quality of the spaces and importantly, the experience people have within these spaces. This diversity of needs is recognised in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities includes a Target to “By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.”[2]

New tools are needed to achieve higher quality public open space. This is particularly important in the context of the significant population growth and change projected across Australian cities. In Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, housing growth is being planned in a mix of greenfield, major renewal and infill areas. Often, major renewal and infill redevelopment results in a higher density development form, and reductions in private open space. Open space planning needs to consider changing community needs.

Integrating open space planning with planning for active transport corridors

Open space strategies are often separate initiatives to cycling and walking strategies, despite the overlaps in the ways that users interact with these spaces. Open space planning has a lead role in contributing to more active transport.

Identifying existing and potential open space corridors at a regional scale would improve links between open spaces. This would foster local and regional connectivity, and enable the use of open space as functional transport networks and corridors rather than just destinations. The integration of corridors into relevant planning schemes would enable development to contribute to and support open space and regional linkages, and could form part of the decision making process. It would also ensure greater connectivity across local government boundaries.

Improving guidance on typologies of open space for higher density locations

There is currently limited guidance in the literature and policy on how to deliver open space in higher density areas that meets local community needs. Commonly used typologies of open space provide little detail on how to respond to the specific needs of communities in higher density development, and rarely consider the role of small spaces. This could be addressed through the development of a more nuanced open space typology, with a series of quality indicators associated with each typology for assessment purposes. Potential indicators could include presence of shade trees, seating, lighting, accessibility, connectivity and maintenance. These indicators could be used for individual site assessments when open spaces are being upgraded or to inform the planning of new open spaces, depending on the specific local needs.

Networks of smaller spaces, (in line with Plan Melbourne) which include streetscapes/nature strips, quasi-public space, parklets, transport corridors and overlapping uses with schools and other institutions make an important contribution to shaping the ‘lived experience’ and aesthetics of an area. There are opportunities to recognise the cumulative contribution of these spaces in policy and planning. Understanding the current networks of public open space through spatial analysis would allow for a greater diversity of experiences and improve connectivity. These opportunities could firstly be mapped at a suburb or municipal scale, then assessed for how the network of small spaces could be improved, and how they can be given consideration in planning and capital works programs, e.g. Median strips and parklets.

Improved knowledge sharing and collaboration on community needs

The specific needs of various user groups for open space are, at times, inadequately considered in current open space planning. For example, the elderly, young children, young adults or active recreational users have specific demands which should be integrated in to planning and delivering open space. A needs-based assessment approach to identifying open space provision that considers the demands of specific community groups is required. A better understanding of variations in community need for open space, based on updated demographic profiling, would assist in guiding investment to the most appropriate open space interventions and upgrades, and would also provide guidance on suitable types of open space in new developments and improvements in existing developments.

It’s time for a consistent and integrated approach to open space planning and provision across Melbourne

A metropolitan open space strategy is an exciting opportunity to revitalise the approach to open space planning in Melbourne. This would provide greater assistance to local councils to ensure consistent provision of higher quality, connected public open spaces that respond to the changing needs of local communities. A needs-based assessment approach and developing an open space typology could provide valuable guidance in improving the consistency and quality of open space planning at the local level. Additional planning guidance, through practice notes that cover these topics and more, incorporating case studies of best practice, with a combination of qualitative and quantitative indicators, would do well to better communicate intent to planners and improve community, economic and environmental outcomes. It would also target funding to locations with the greatest needs.

[1] Jason Byrne and Neil Sipe, “Green and open space planning for urban consolidation – A review of the literature and best practice", Griffith Research Online, 2010.

[2] As contained in Annex III of the Report of the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (E/CN.3/2017/2) and agreed upon, including refinements on several indicators, at the 48th session of the United Nations Statistical Commission held in March 2017.

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