Designing Our Way Out of Market-Driven Cities

Building construction in dense urban environments has become the largest contributor to greenhouse gasses with buildings now accounting for a third of all energy consumption.[1] In an era of unprecedented urban growth, it is now logical that architects consider the impact of buildings both in terms of construction and use from the perspective of ecology. For Canadian-American architect and urbanist Charles Waldheim, this will require architects to marry the theory and practice of both design and planning to include environmental and ecological principles and importantly, describe how those urban conditions will look.[2]

This proposition faces considerable challenges in Australia.  A 2015 RMIT report, titled Melbourne 8 Million: Matching Land Supply to Dwelling Demand, led by environment and planning professor Michael Buxton, found that ‘Australian governments promote neoliberal planning systems[3] that ‘rely largely on the private sector to determine the selection of building sites, typologies and densities.’[4] This market-led approach, which is most often “ad-hoc” has, according to Michael Buxton seen ‘unprecedented numbers of high-rise and low quality buildings, warning that under the current market orientated system of governance the city will suffer significant and potentially detrimental challenges to Melbourne’s livability.’[5]

Southbank, Melbourne. Apartment towers dominate the skyline. “A numbers game when it comes to density and counting square feet and homes as a measure of success.” Image via Domain.

Less than two years after Michael Buxton report, journalist Kirsten Robb informed her readers of The Age that a study by Richard Rossmann of Secret Agent found more than 99% of Melbourne’s new apartments failed to meet the minimum requirements of the seven standards included in their study.’[6] This article has unleashed a flood of similar complaints around the country, prompting former Vancouver’s chief planner, Brent Toderian, on a recent visit to Melbourne, to observe; “You have ideological politics standing in the way of your successful city making … my observation is you’ve been paying too much attention to how tall the buildings are and not enough attention to how well the buildings are designed.”[7]

“Rather than being seduced by the property market’s surface bling, we need to pay more attention to the quality of the building envelope – the roof, walls, windows and floor.” Prof Wendy Miller

Senior Research Fellow at Queensland University, Wendy Miller, believes in looking beyond the property market’s “surface bling” and ‘paying more attention to the quality of buildings – the roof, walls, windows and floor, which she states will allow us to imagine a future where we can rely on our homes [and buildings] to protect us against weather events. An air-conditioner, she notes is a “band-aid” not a solution, that prevents us from identifying the cause and seriousness of the condition; a risky strategy going forward.’[8]

The Commons, Melbourne. Breathe Architecture. “The Commons takes medium-density living in a groundbreaking new direction. Conceived as a flagship triple-bottom-line residential development, the project is about building an urban community and striking a balance between affordability, sustainability and liveability, where the focus is on people rather than architectural form.”
Sustainability and affordability have been approached by reduction – “no airconditioning, no second bathrooms and no individual laundries. Focus on reducing energy use and cost savings –  Use of recycled, locally sourced building materials, a photovoltaic array, a shared hydronic heating boiler and shared solar hot water system.” Images via Breathe Architecture.

The experience in Melbourne is not unique. However, despite a familiar global picture, Charles Waldheim, believes Ecological Urbanism has the promise to “reanimate” debates of “sustainability with political, social, cultural, and critical potential’.[9]  For principal architect Toshiko Mori, this proposition requires ‘both bottom up and top down approaches to create strategies that can are both adaptive and flexible across multiple sites and a rejection of the uniform, prescriptive approaches.’[10] At ground level Toshiko Mori suggests two strategies: Optimising building performance; and assessing and improving the quality of the indoor building environment to increase comfort and productivity.[11]

In nature optimisation occurs naturally but it can also be argued that the development of architecture can be explained using the central ideas of evolutionary theory. Research fellows, Doctor Anh-Tuan Nguyen and Professor Sigrid Reiter observe that, ‘building designs have evolved over time to help achieve optimal comfort through the use architectural elements. In doing so, architects have lessened our dependence on mechanical systems.’[12] Today buildings are able to continuously adjust their configurations to respond to ever-changing environmental conditions. Crucially, this translates into ‘reduced energy consumption and better space efficiency than static buildings.’[13] Architecture is now deemed critical to achieving sustainability of contemporary buildings.

Harmonia 57, Sao Paulo, Brazil. Triptyque Architecture. “Like a living body, the building breathes, sweats and modifies itself, transcending its inertia. The walls are thick and covered externally by a vegetal layer that works like the skin of the structure. This dense wall is made of an organic concrete that has pores, where several plant species grow.
The Building is a machine. Rain and soil waters are drained, treated and reused, a complex ecosystem is formed within the local. The structures water-treatment system and other pipelines, like the veins and arteries in the body are exposed in the facades. Images via ArchDaily.

It is difficult to argue, that the efficiency of a building, is not reason enough in prosecuting the importance of good design in our cities. However, adding leverage, Toshiko Mori notes, ‘it has been shown that better-quality indoor environments achieved through optimisation, improve the health and productivity of the occupants…These experiences when applied to productivity metrics alone, provide a convincing financial argument in the long-term value of investing in high quality, sustainable design.’[14]

By acknowledging that buildings, health and energy issues are all strongly linked and recognising the ideological rhetoric that denotes building regulation as ‘red tape rather than consumer protection,’ Senior Research Fellow at Queensland University, Wendy Miller believes there is an opportunity to educate the community that the current building requirements are inadequate. The flow-on of which, has the potential to impact decision making and policy implementation that supports socially sustainable and resilient urban environments.’[15] Recent changes to Melbourne CBD building laws, with the introduction of ‘Better Apartment Design Standards[16] and ‘permanent changes which limit high-rise developments through plot ratio controls and height limits[17]vindicate this view and attest to the collective influence that planners, designers and the public can have in enhancing and weather-proofing their cities.

In committing to strategies that integrate ecology and urbanism, the architect is both a participant and an educator helping to drive behavioural change. For Susannah Hagan, ‘governance can facilitate the opportunity, but it is the architect who translates environmental performance into urban form’. In the face of climate change, Professor Anne Whiston Spirn believes ‘Ecological Urbanism goes beyond creating safer and healthier urban environments, it changes the picture of what is possible.’[18]

25 Green, Torino, Italy. Luciano Pia Architects. A unique higher-density residential building, the architects created a structure which is compact, adaptive and distinct but also transparent and enjoyable. 63 units, all different and fitted with wide terraces of irregular shapes supported by a load-bearing structure made of steel columns, covered in larch wood shingles. Images via ArchDaily.


The Architect, The Environmentalist and The City is a blog series unashamedly attempting to spread the word and find new converts to Ecological Urbanism as a means to realise cities that are more resilient, more life-sustaining, and less costly to build and maintain.





[1] Mohsen Mostafavi and Gareth Doherty, Ecological Urbanism, ebook, 1st ed. (Baden, Switzerland: Lars Müller Publishers, 2010),572.

[2] Charles Waldheim, “On Landscape, Ecology, And Other Modifiers To Urbanism”, Scenario 01: Landscape Urbanism, 2011,

[3] Michael Buxton, Joe Hurley and Kath Phelan, Melbourne At 8 Million: Matching Land Supply To Dwelling Demand. (Melbourne: RMIT University, 2015),, 1.

[4] Michael Buxton et al., Melbourne At 8 Million: Matching Land Supply To Dwelling Demand,7.

[5] Ibid.,5

[6] Kirsten Rob, “Almost All Of Melbourne’s New Apartments Would Fail Design Standards”, Domain, 2017,

[7] Kirsten Rob, “Urbanism Expert Brent Toderian On Melbourne: ‘Politics Standing In The Way Of Successful City Making’”, Domain, 2017,

[8] Wendy Miller, “We Need A Comprehensive Housing Approach To Deal With Heatwaves”, The Conversation, 2017,

[9] Charles Waldheim, “On Landscape, Ecology, And Other Modifiers To Urbanism”

[10] Mohsen Mostafavi and Gareth Doherty, Ecological Urbanism, 577

[11] Mohsen Mostafavi and Gareth Doherty, Ecological Urbanism, 572

[12] A.T. Nguyen and S. Reiter, “Bioclimatism In Architecture: An Evolutionary Perspective”, International Journal Of Design & Nature And Ecodynamics 12, no. 1 (2017): 16-29, doi:10.2495/dne-v12-n1-16-29.

[13] Craig Schwitter and Chuck Hoberman, “Adaptive Structures: Building For Performance And Sustainability”, Design Intelligence, 2008,

[14] [14] Mohsen Mostafavi and Gareth Doherty, Ecological Urbanism,573-575.

[15] Wendy Miller, “We Need A Comprehensive Housing Approach To Deal With Heatwaves”

[16] Linda Cheng, “Victorians In Line For Better Apartments”, Architecture Australia, 2015,

[17] Sian Johnson, “Dramatic Overhaul Of Melbourne Planning”, Architecture Australia, 2015,

[18] Anne Whiston Spirn, “”Ecological Urbanism: A Framework For The Design Of Resilient Cities.”, Annewhistonspirn.Com, 2013,, 22.

Grace Oliver

Grace is a Master of Architecture student at the University of Western Australia, with an interest in design and research that explores the relationship between ecology and architecture, landscape architecture, planning and urbanism.

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