Federal Politics


Boy from Berlin pedals his message

Urban planner Gregor Mews is keen to help Canberrans get out of their cars and onto buses and bikes, PETER JEAN writes

Greg Mews laughs as he describes himself carrying a new vacuum cleaner home from the shops on the back of his bicycle. The German urban planner is not an anti-car zealot and accepts that Canberra was built around the automobile. But Mews has happily forsaken car ownership during the almost three years he has been living in the capital.

Mews uses one of his three bikes to travel from the Downer home he shares with his Australian partner to work at the Heart Foundation in Deakin. ''As long as I don't need to [own a car], I'm still happy to have my bike. If I need one, I rent a car. If I had a family in Australia it would probably be a different case,'' Mews says as he sips an espresso outside a coffee shop in Civic's New Acton development.

If it's raining or a ''suit day'', Mews catches the bus. He has crunched the numbers and reckons that, in his case, it is far more cost-effective to occasionally catch a taxi or rent a vehicle than it is to own a car.

Mews wants to make it easier for other Canberra residents to leave their cars at home and catch public transport or cycle. It's part of a broader agenda by the Heart Foundation to ensure future urban development encourages people to live healthier lifestyles.

The foundation will host an Active Living Forum on Tuesday to discuss the next stages in ensuring Canberra's built environment enables people to live healthier, more active lives. It believes that encouraging people to use public transport has public health benefits because even a short walk from home to a bus stop helps to reduce the risk of obesity.

''A good public transport system provides the choice, [an] equity choice … if you can make it convenient and the easy choice it's a win-win for everyone,'' Mews says.


''People don't have to take the cars every day, it's better for the environment because everybody's taking public transport and people are being more active on a day-to-day basis.''

Mews is enthusiastic about cities and about how developing them wisely can benefit the general public.

During a discussion about development he draws on the lessons learned from some of the 355 cities he has visited or lived in during more than 10 years' involvement in planning and infrastructure design. That international travel might have been impossible if the 32-year-old had been born a few years earlier.

Gregor Mews grew up in East Berlin where members of his family were separated by the fortified wall that divided the city. The collapse of communism created new opportunities and Mews began his undergraduate university career spending a year studying art in the United States.

He returned to Berlin and switched to planning out of a desire to help make a difference. He says Berlin is the perfect place to study planning. ''It's such a good case study: it's been bombed and rebuilt,'' he says.

Mews undertook projects in Warsaw and Rotterdam and worked on a volunteer project in Columbia on upgrading slums.

Over two years he travelled to Kazakhstan several times as part of a project that led to the publication of a book on sustainable development for Central Asian cities. He is a member of the International Council on Environment and Physical Activity and has lectured at European and Australian universities.

His first trip to Australia was a visit to Perth, followed by a two-year job as a planner at Kempsey Shire Council. ''There was a corner pub. They put me in a little flat on top of that and then I walked over the road to the shire [office],'' Mews says. ''It couldn't be more Australian and more rural than that, which I loved, to be honest, because it's what I came for. That's what I'm actually trying to get an understanding of, how the culture informs how decisions are made in planning because planning is fundamentally about people.''

Mews loves the fact that Canberra is a bush capital and says the city's educated population and well-developed network of shared paths have put it in a better position than other Australian cities to adapt to help reduce the risk of obesity among residents.

He says one of the best ways to do this is to create denser forms of housing, where people are close to public transport and outdoor recreation areas that are attractive to use. Mews believes Canberra's sprawl is not entirely consistent with Walter Burley Griffin's plan for the capital.

''Griffin envisaged a compact city with grand boulevards, a lot of people,'' he says. ''And what happened is we had all these bungalows put in place and the people never occurred. So there is no scale, there is no closeness, there is no compactness.

''Compact is cosiness, it's something comforting, it's something everyone can win and feel good in.''

Mews has been in Canberra long enough to know that any talk of denser forms of development will spark fears that the bush capital will be lost. ''But more compact development doesn't mean the city will be turned into another Manhattan or Hong Kong.

''Density is almost a radical prescription because what we're talking about in Canberra is more about the compact city. You can achieve all these good health outcomes by creating a much more sensitive, compact built form. When people actually associate density here, they always think 'Hong Kong'.

''Unfortunately when things pop up like Woden for instance, everyone gets scared and that's the last thing we need. We need a more sensitive approach. And there are compact built forms that enable all that.''

Mews says the traditional house and garden is a good choice for families with children but other more medium and high-density choices should be available for people who want something different.

''You also have to think about the older people who want to be close to everything, the younger people who want to be close to everything - they can't afford these big houses, they don't want to have that lifestyle,'' he says.

Mews says New Acton is a good example of how a high-density development can deliver a good quality of life.

He points out how townhouses are located next to cafes and a footbridge offers easy access to Commonwealth Park.

''You have the opportunity to mingle or you go just a couple of metres over the bridge and you have open space. You have the benefits of what Canberra has to offer,'' Mews says.

But Mews points out that New Acton is aimed at the high end of the market and new high-quality housing forms are needed for people on middle and low incomes.

The Healthy Living Project was able to provide some input on the development of Molonglo Stage 1. The project recommended bicycle links to Stromlo, good public transport and choices of compact housing forms next to open space.

''Because people who live in these places have to have a place where they can mingle and exercise because they don't have a backyard. They have to have that opportunity. It has to be a good aesthetic mode or people will never use it.''

No conversation about planning in Canberra can be complete without engaging in the decades-old debate on whether the city should have a light-rail network .

Mews admits to being a fan. ''Everybody loves it, it is a no-brainer,'' he says. But Mews says it may take an increase in the cost of petrol or a sudden willingness by the federal government to invest in the project for Canberra to see its own tram network in the near future.

Mews says a more realistic option might be for the creation of a high-speed bus network that could be upgraded into light rail.

''When we get people on buses and they're using it, we can much easier justify taking it to the next level and invest in light rail,'' he says.

Funding from the ACT Health Directorate for the Healthy Living project is due to expire at the end of next month and Mews is unsure what he will do next.

If more funding is forthcoming he might stay in Canberra, or perhaps he'll move back to Berlin or on to city number 356.

Peter Jean is Health Reporter.