Tropical Urbanism – Supporting a City in a Rainforest

Study awarded highest honour at National Planning Awards

In Cairns, the relationship between built form, city planning and landscaping is expressed as Tropical Urbanism and is a defining characteristic of the region’s identity.

The Tropical Urbanism: Cairns City Image Study was a combined effort of Cairns Regional Council and a consultancy team comprising Tract Consultants, Follent, Peddle Thorp and local firms CA Architects and Total Project Group Architects.

3D of the Abbot Street Hotel by CA Architects

Tropical Urbanism was incorporated into the CairnsPlan 2016, which was adopted in March 2016 with the inclusion of assessment criteria for development in a number of codes and a supporting Planning Scheme Policy (The Policy) to provide additional guidance.

The Policy includes requirements for development to achieve 15% vertical landscaping and 50% shading on each façade, as well as separation and promotion narrow buildings for ventilation, increased heights and a generous street canopy to provide ventilation and shading and allow for pedestrian movement in response to tropical climatic considerations.

The policy has been well accepted by industry, winning the 2017 National PIA Award for Planning Excellence – the highest accolade for planning in Australia. This followed success in two Queensland PIA awards, including the Best Overall Award for Planning Excellence across all categories. Judges commented that “the study represents a significant contribution of tropical expertise that can be offered, transferred and adapted to suit the needs of other tropical cities, with Cairns defining itself as a leader worldwide in the area of Tropical Urbanism”.

Local Architects have embraced the policy, with several planning applications having been made under the CairnsPlan 2016 that will result in improved urban place and tropical design outcomes. This will result in enhanced aesthetics, shading, sustainability, increased landscaping in the horizontal and vertical planes and improved amenity, leaving a great legacy for planning in the City

The policy encourages designs that better reflect the sense of place and Biophilia, or connection with nature, which can energise residents and the experience of tourists visiting Cairns’ unique tropical environment.

One example is the Abbott Street hotel and apartment building by CA Architects which has been designed to explicitly embrace the principles of tropical urbanism whilst capturing the flavour of Cairns. An architecture of high canopies, filtered shadows, water play and large volumes capture the essence of the rainforest and reef, blurring the lines between indoors and outdoors. The activated street fronts, covered public spaces and landscaped edges provide a uniquely Cairns experience.

To support the implementation of the policy, particularly the provision for 15% vertical landscaping, Council intends to engage further with the building and construction industry to explore how to the policy may be further refined through guidance on species selection, vertical gardens, podium planting, and shading devices.

Cairns is currently developing a new City Centre Master Plan, which will further integrate Tropical Urbanism principles into the urban domain through a series of identified urban design projects.

The Tropical Urbanism Policy provides a framework to express the unique tropical environment on two levels; firstly by providing a physical representation of the brand of Cairns as a City in the Rainforest (where rainforest meets the reef); and secondly by ensuring that the urban domain remains climatically responsive and is a place that people want to live and visit in generations to come.

This article was kindly provided by Sophie Barrett, Coordinator Strategic Planning, Economic Development & Sustainability, Cairns Regional Council

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