5 Things to Make Brisbane a Better Place

I saw a great video the other day that reminds us how good design is not only good for our environment, it’s downright good for us. So, here are 5 things we know could be done right now to change Brisbane for the better.

Warning… this blog contains a shameless plug of another Dixon family member!

Design leadership vital

Marjorie Dixon and Leah Gallagher of Kin Architects said this in a video explaining their passion for revitalizing and retrofitting buildings, residential and commercial: “We like to work with the buildings. We never like to force a design upon something. We find you can lose its charm and its character.”

I’ve long been an advocate for great architecture. It inspired our book 150 Years of Brisbane River Housing (published 2004) promoting our magnificent riverside residences.

But now, I feel like our entire city is having bad design forced upon it, that it’s slowly being suffocated by ‘ugly creep’ – soulless squat and boxy buildings, garish advertising signs, cheap weld mesh barriers.

The physical and psychological benefits of living in an attractive, engaging urban environment are well documented. Quality visual amenity feels good, and it’s good for our mental health.

There should be no patience in our community for poor design or lazy policy when it comes to development and public spaces. Our city council should be the standard-setter and guardian of visual amenity, not drag it down. Every decision must begin with the question, ‘will this be a better place to live as a result?’

Here are 5 steps to get us back on the right track.

1. Bring back the city architect

When this idea was raised during the 2016 council election, Lord Mayor Graham Quirk said he would not reinstate the post of City Architect because he would “rather spend that money tackling traffic congestion.”

Only a few weeks ago, when unveiling a supposed new “blueprint for the city”, Cr Quirk said he would introduce a ‘Chief Design Office’. This only shows he really doesn’t get it. We need someone with specific design credentials to make design decisions, an architect, not some bureacrats or engineers or town planners.

Think for minute about the wonderful legacy of people like Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) 2005 Gold Medal winner James Birrell who was Brisbane City Architect from 1955 to 1961. He oversaw iconic projects including the Centenary Swimming Pools and Toowong Library. Earlier counterparts are why we still enjoy beautiful designs on things as mundane as old manhole covers and fences.

A former president of the RAIA Qld Chapter, Richard Kirk, put it this way: “Without a city architect, there is a leadership vacuum where there is no embedded informed advocacy for design excellence – particularly on important landmark sites.” Which leads me to my next point.

2. Say no to ugly, squat buildings

Give Brisbane beautiful designs. Simple sure, just not ugly. We seem to be witnessing the slow death of Brisbane’s charming timber vernacular. In its place, concrete box unit blocks are permitted.

They’re not only eyesores, they’re an environmental disaster. In supposedly enlightened times, when addressing climate change is seen as a priority, authorities are allowing stacks of units that need air-conditioning 24/7.

We say, those given the privilege of undertaking developments in our unique timber city have a moral obligation to respect and improve it, not detract from it.

3. Advertising in its place

The price Brisbane paid for its CityCycle network was a visual assault as large, intrusive advertising billboards invaded footpaths and even parks. We’re all for a bike system, but not at the expense of our visual amenity.

Ironic that something healthy, active and sustainable was the means for delivering ugly and intrusive visual pollution. But that’s what happened – our public space was traded off for a feel-good transport solution run by the largest outdoor advertising company in the world.

It’s a slippery slope. With each concession to advertisers, the bar drops lower. We say STOP. Advertising has its place, but that place isn’t blocking city views, blighting parks and spoiling heritage buildings.

4. Protect and celebrate views

More and more we have to struggle to glimpse our famed river through endless lengths of ghastly wire fencing.

Have you seen the cheap and nasty example lining Radnor Street at Indooroopilly? It’s one of the few places in our western suburbs, after Coronation Drive, where a river view can be appreciated from your car. Or at least it would be, if not for the horror ‘weld mesh’.

The same unsightly ‘pedestrian control barrier’ fencing is popping up everywhere, even at entrances to our otherwise splendid South Bank Parklands. Surely public safety doesn’t have to come at the cost of valuable sight lines to the views and attractions that make Brisbane what it is.

All it would take to change this is creative, quality barrier design. And quality doesn’t have to mean costly.

5. Restore our river

Finally, it wouldn’t be a Dixon Family blog if it didn’t reference our river. I know this isn’t strictly design-related, but no discussion about making Brisbane better would be complete without another appeal to clean up the mighty Brisbane River.

It’s our most important visual, recreational and tourism asset. Yet a mish-mash of state and local government authorities fails to deal with the litter and sediment that diminish its beauty. Once and for all, they must find a solution and devote enough resources to rehabilitate and protect the lifeblood of our city.

Patrick Dixon

If you’d like to hear more about great design:

Kin Architecture Introduction Video from will on Vimeo.

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5 Things to Make Brisbane a Better Place