Expert would chase cars out of Wollongong

Danish architect Henriette Vamberg. Picture: ADAM McLEAN

Danish architect Henriette Vamberg. Picture: ADAM McLEAN

Parking in Wollongong's city centre needs to be rarer and even more expensive to truly revitalise the town, a leading international planner says.

Danish "city expert" and urban planner Henriette Vamberg has been visiting Wollongong for the past week to work with the council to make the city more liveable, and some of her ideas may surprise residents who regularly complain about the city's lack of free parking.

Hailing from Gehl Architects - the Copenhagen firm which has helped unclog New York's polluted streets, rebuild shaken Christchurch and transform Melbourne's laneways - Ms Vamberg spoke about a number of lessons from other cities at a public forum held at the Wollongong Town Hall this week.

Her strongest message: people should walk or ride, not drive in the city centre.

A cyclist navigates the streets of Copenhagen, where bike riding is encouraged.

A cyclist navigates the streets of Copenhagen, where bike riding is encouraged.

"One of the fundamental principles in Copenhagen is that everyone should be able to walk or bicycle in the city centre, and that should be an integrated way of moving," she said.

"This deals very much with how to make a lively city, because the more we can see faces outside, the more we feel that the city is populated."

"It's about having people visible outside."

To provide parking for out-of-town visitors, the Copenhagen council established parking stations outside the city.

But, in a move that would have Wollongong residents up in arms, the council raises fees when the parking stations have less than a 5 per cent vacancy to force people to use bikes or public transport.

Making parking more expensive may be on the cards.

Making parking more expensive may be on the cards.

As a result, former parking lots have been transformed into active cafe and restaurant strips, and bike use overtook cars several years ago.

The streets are full of bike lanes to make it easy for cyclists to get through the city, and rush-hour lanes allow those riding at a constant 20 kilometres per hour to skip traffic lights completely.

While these policies have had striking effects on the health of Copenhagen's citizens and environment - the city saves more than $385 million in health costs each year - Ms Vamberg said this was not why people chose to ride.

"Riding is just a way of getting around now, it's nothing to brag about or tell your friends about and you don't have to wear spandex to do it," she said.

"People in Copenhagen ride their bikes in summer and even in the dead of winter - so when people say it's too windy, it's too hilly, it's too hot, it's too cold, I just show them these pictures of people riding through the snow.

"We had to evaluate what we wanted, do we want to drive into the city centre in a car or do we actually want a city with more space for people?"

Wollongong residents advocating for Crown Street Mall to be reopened to traffic may also be surprised by Ms Vamberg's philosophies, which have helped transform Copenhagen from an almost bankrupt and traffic-clogged CBD to a prospering city of open, bustling pedestrian squares.

"When the first pedestrian-only street was made in the 1960s, the businesses didn't want it," she said.

"But then retailers from other areas started saying they wanted a pedestrian street as well, because they could see the benefits because people were moving slowly through the city and stopping at the stores.

"When all this first started in 1962, people said 'we're not Italians, we don't spend time outside drinking coffee all the time'."

"But now we say, 'well, we're more Italian than the Italians', because we are so eager to get outdoors."

Gehl Architects used similar principles to help revitalise New York's CBD about five years ago, turning traffic-jammed streets like Times Square, Madison Square or Ninth Avenue into pedestrian squares and bicycle lanes.

At first, businesses paid to paint the lanes and squares on to the New York roadways but the difference in trade was so profound that the city voted to keep the changes permanently.

"There was an 84 per cent increase in stationary activities in Times Square, so businesses are performing better and have increased turnover," she said.

"It's been good for economics and good for quality of life."

For those who protest that Copenhagen and New York are very different to Wollongong, Ms Vamberg offers the case study of Malmo.

Many Wollongong residents may not have heard of the former industrial centre rapidly transforming into a cosmopolitan town, but Ms Vamberg says Sweden's third-largest city has plenty to teach us.

Malmo has a population of about 350,000 people, and - like Wollongong - is a satellite city located a 45-minute commute across the bridge to Copenhagen, and previously an industrial centre.

"But, now that the industry has started leaving, it is building up an education workforce who want liveability, quality of life and more leisure time."

Industrial land is being redeveloped, with one section of the city will house 20,000 extra people and 10,000 more university students over the next 30 years.

So far the buildings have been designed by 17 developers and 21 architects to ensure heights and designs are diverse.

This has resulted in large and small apartments, allowing people to move between blocks and live in the city from their student days, as professionals and into old age.

The lack of cars in the city squares and a large amount of pedestrian activity in parks and promenades means the city centre is safe because of passive surveillance, and wind generators and solar panels make it completely self sufficient for power.

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