Urban Sustainability

Urban sustainability and urban design towards good city design. Urban Design process should incorporate larger awareness of sustainable elements and processes. This research considers how strategies in the city design overseas can have practical applications in the Australian context, with an emphasis on economical use of space and preservation of natural resources.


Pictures used are from Mike Matas Ted presentation of the new book by Al Gore “Our Choice”

Towards good city design

Environmental urbanism is a well-known and long forgotten technique of combination of past experiences and natural environmental characteristics of each location and its micro-climate.

The study points to a number of practical examples of  understanding of climatic influencers such as wind, undulated terrain, physical structures, properties of building materials and many more. Tangible benefits of such design are manipulating natural resources to service human needs.

Relevant application of the environmental knowledge and evolved practical experience could offer a greater quality of life for its inhabitants.

Such strategies have been found only randomly appearing in few copies of European buildings here in Australia. However, it is the view of this research that previous attempts have been hamstrung from the outset by both poor research, rushed population increase and the absence of an effective holistic approach.


The research addresses these obstacles directly, and in doing so proposes a ‘second chance’ for the importing of urban sustainability strategies used overseas. Asking for legislative change necessary to facilitate it, it offers an agenda that learns from mistakes of the past in order to present an optimistic vision for the future.


For centuries houses have been designed and built by trial and error with new designs improving on previous ones perpetually.

From times of building ancient cities and before good design books were printed, developer will import a talented tradesmen – artist who knew “the secret”.

After those triumphant times of grand designs and glorious structures in the very intensive growth and progress of civilisation, last few centuries, world wide housing went through very complex changing process.

First built human settlements were in the full correspondence with nature, which was the primary condition for their sustainable existence. Small villages, as the dominant type of human settlements, centuries and centuries after, where built in the accordance with the dominant characteristics of their natural surroundings.

Even the big towns of ancient period such as Athens, Alexandria, Rome, settlements of Incas and Mayan civilisation, were built in accordance with the environmental awareness well known in those times.

Last few centuries, industrial revolution and population growth produced new type of settlements in the hurry which were less and less corresponding with their ecological surroundings. This trend is still ongoing world wide, although contemporary science, architecture and town planning theories make serious efforts to promote sustainable type of housing and dwelling.

“If building green houses is good, then building green housing developments is even better. When you combine sustainable design with densely planned neighbourhoods, you get future-friendly city living. Considering the breakneck speed of urban growth around the world, dense, green housing complexes may be the only way to shelter everyone without compromising the planet.

Green building gets cheaper as builders scale up their developments, one thousand units complex has a marginal cost increase above traditional construction and five thousand unit complex can incur no additional unit cost at all.”[1]

What these numbers are telling us is that united builders will achieve much higher star rating of their homes and fast track their permit process if they work together on volume developments.

Situation in Australia, and particularly in few biggest cities like Melbourne and Sydney is even today extremely critical.

Existing historical heritage of housing in the first circle around the central areas, built on small land parcels more than hundred years ego, with small, one story houses is in the ecological context are very bad example.

Settlements built in the second half of last centuries have somewhat better urban arrangements but unfortunately not well executed in correspondence with today’s well known ecological parameters.

The beginning of our effort is to remind ourselves which ecological parameters are dominant for the creation of new settlements today.

The primary ecological and climate influencers, in order of least applied in Australia, are:

  1. Geo thermal properties
  2. Spatial configuration and orientation
  3. Micro climate and unique wind rose- wind pattern
  4. Electromagnetism and bio energy
  5. Seasonal temperature amplitude
  6. Vegetation, surface water and local bio climate
  7. Global sprawl building density and proximity
  8. Building density as direct influencer of mental health and community awareness
  9. Solar aspects and insolation

In accordance with their effects on the single house or whole settlement, we must adjust our town planning, urban design and architectural knowledge to plan, and build our new developments  as ecologically sustainable complexes or organisms, that should perform to much higher standards of living and health.



Exploration of the potential of geothermal properties can fit in two main categories

a)      Active – comprising the installation of geothermal heat pumps. 30 to 100 meters deep syphons providing for stable temperature below ground level to balance temperature changes inside the house.

b)      Active – cooling tubes as seen on the Melbourne City Council building

c)       Passive – capturing stable temperature below ground level as shallow as 2-3m below ground with thermal mass and vent systems in place not too dissimilar from old fashioned chimney.

Application of the geo thermal properties can be used on single house or at the precinct level.



Best way of addressing spatial configuration and orientation is on the large scale projects where great numbers of houses are grouped. Structure planning and masterplanning of all precincts should incorporate environmentally driven decisions that provide 1, 2 or 3 star improvement for future houses regardless of their other design elements.

Negative southern cooling effect in winter can be overcomed with earth mounds, appropriate design of adjacent buildings or planned building use to best service entire development.

Note that soil mound can act as a quality thermal mass and passive design technique. So if retaining walls are present on site their benefits would best serve the site if they can shelter the house from the south.

Reduced house footprint and increase in strategically placed shared open spaces are crucial in delivering under high environmental principals.



Each geographic location has its unique wind rose and micro climate characteristics. Furthermore same geographic location will at certain stages of building/development, change its micro climate characteristic. So such changes should be predicted, closely observed, and altered to best service built form and its inhabitants.

Calculated methods of such change are available and used widely overseas.

Wind tunnels, wind turbulences, uplifting winds, prevailing winds are only some of the outcomes how built form can alter its immediate surrounds and its microclimate. Best solutions to such outcomes are systems where wind is manipulated to best serve cooling and heating changes, used to power small or large wind turbines, strategically positioned windows and so on.

Strategic placement of passive ventilation systems can be created from high thermal mass elements, columns or cavities and using difference in temperature to extract hot air out of the building and bring replacement fresh air in.

Some negative effects of wind can be corrected by smart housing orientation, location of open spaces, road alignment, barriers, mounds, valleys, vegetation and many more.


Electromagnetic forces are governing our body through heart impulses, fighting gravity and many more. On a larger scale earth electromagnetic forces are allowing oceans to maintain its balance and volcanos to fall back on earth, and on even larger scale same forces are keeping our solar system orbiting in its predictable pattern.

Similarly all elements of our surrounding have its electromagnetism some easily detectable such as being struck by the electricity or absorbing radiation of radioactive granite stone. So it is not unusual to hear that people living along power lines get diagnosed with some form of cancer. So their bioenergy have been week enough to protect itself from outer influences, and the frequency of radiation has penetrated their fragile system.

We rarely “fuel our batteries” with strengthening our bodies through peaceful recovery, healthy food and exercise.

Little that we know that the same laws of physics can protect our houses from such radiation through simple methods like Pharaday cage, effect that is surrounding us but we don’t pay attention to it, why there are no phone signals in the elevator, one of the Pharaday cage effects.



Temperature itself and seasonal temperature amplitudes are also important parameters for sustainable housing planning and building.

It is not the same situation if we have daily temperature amplitudes les then 10 degrees, or seasonal amplitudes of less then 20 degrees, or daily amplitudes of 20 and seasonal amplitudes over 40 degrees.

Our housing planning and building must have different solutions for its local seasonal temperature amplitudes.

It is not the same if we live in the house with glass walls and sliding doors in the day temperature amplitudes of 10 degrees.

Generally we can adjust our indoors home temperature with different kind of cooling/heating systems, but it is not the same as smart built house, with adequate construction systems, window orientations and their proportion to thermal insulation.

Well built houses, with adequate thermal insulation, good solar orientation and right proportion of openings will save money for cooling and heating.



Vegetation in the surrounding of our housing estates has not only aesthetic function. The main natural function of vegetation, in general, is aeration. Vegetation gives us the indispensable quantity of oxygen. But effects of vegetation in our settlements have many other very important functions.

Well located, combined high and low vegetation can protect our homes and entire housing districts, from main wind strikes and avoid cooling of its surrounding. High vegetation has the shading function and protects our environs from temperature extremes.

Vegetation can reduce the traffic noise. It can protect the soil in our environs from over drying, and preserve the humidity of atmosphere in the locality as well as on the larger scale such as parks and bushland.

Vegetation preservation go hand in hand with water re-mediation.

The hard task is in re-instating vegetation and water capture once it has been removed like from Melbourne CBD.



Residential density is directly related to the environmental sustainability if we consider amount of green field sites appropriated to be further subdivided and developed.

Only certain residential density and proximity creates a trigger for all supportive services for comfortable living such as basic: power, water, gas, phone and at the other end schools, medical care, shops, entertainment,… 



“Coexisting desire for autonomy and community… a place of repose as well as a place of activity. When we find ourselves in love with a particular neighbourhood or city, the reasons sometimes escape articulation.

It takes three basic design principals to make it right

  1. Build to the side walk
  2. Make building fronts permeable
  3. Prohibit parking in front of the buildings (all opposite current Australian Planning requirements)

When we follow these rules, we end up with the kind of urban environment that renews our spirits rather than drains us, city that is safe, stimulating and convenient.”[2]

We are unaware of the influences poor built form has on our social interactions creating loneliness, depression, alcoholism, and lack of community interactions, supervision and participation in our lives. Furthermore entire communities become undesirable and create poor rapport at the real-estate and property valuation.

So lack of good design decisions and strategic planning support of our cities is detrimental to the social outcomes of people inhabit poorly design suburbs.



Sun and sun exposure are the main and almost unique source of warmth in the atmosphere. The quantity of solar energy changes during daylight hours, depending on the season and geographic location.

Quantity of accepted solar energy depends also on cloudy periods at the location. For sustainable housing, energy saving, house orientation and building materials are important. Locating living areas with sunny northern aspect will save on heating and cooling cost.

The best orientation for daytime use rooms is north, north-east or north-west. Bedrooms and children rooms have best orientation to the east. Study, utilities, staircases and sanitary blocks may be orientated on the south.

Heating and cooling of houses is directly influenced by the use of coloured materials and their level of heat absorption. So for the Victorian region, no dark roof finishes and walls facing north should be used despite the fashion at the time. Only dark surfaces should be those actively collecting sun and converting it into the energy like hot water and solar panels. South facing walls can be coloured dark to reduce winter cooling of the house.

Few practical tips

  • Before filling big pool of water run water via few shallow pools with black floor tiles or temporary black matt it can increase water temperature 5-10deg depending on the quantity of water.
  • Capture sun light via set of mirrors as in the submarine and bring it into the house.
  • Required World standard of living space/capita is 20m2, so if your house is any bigger it is already unsustainable and not environmental.


There are many more environmental parameter and in this study I have covered only few.

MECENE URBAN DESIGN invests in promoting the knowledge and problem solutions on Sustainable Urbanism subjects, to initiate the urbanists, architects, town planners and builders collaboration in creating better places.

[1] Bio Regional Solutions for living on One Planet by Pooran Desai and Sue Riddlestone, Green Books 2003

[2] City Comforts: How to Build an Urban Village by David Sucher (City Comforts Press, 2003)