Street Level Founder and Perth Chapter Lead Milly Main is on a quest to restore the wisdom of the past through a revolutionary movement to bring beauty, connection and sustainable solutions to our streets in Australia.
Street Level Australia is an association of local groups working to make Australian places more beautiful and conducive to human flourishing by advancing good urbanism, traditional architecture and quality building.
In this Warm Table conversation, Milly shares her perspectives on urban sprawl and how cars and transport dictate the way we live; we challenge the thinking of developers and demand more beauty and sustainability in our buildings and neighbourhoods.
Duration: 34 minutes.
Street Level: https://www.streetlevelaustralia.org/
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A great way to figure out what buildings are beautiful is where people take their wedding photos. People get married at old factories that tells us that we're not doing very well. Now at the buildings we build that a contemporary because we so cherish our ancestors stinky old warehouses. They're not stinky anymore. But our great grandfather's would be really surprised there'll be saying, you're getting married. Can't you do any better?Sonia Nolan:
If you're one of those many Australians building or renovating a house, or perhaps you have a new development rising in your neighbourhood, then you may want to consider the ideals of street level and new grassroots movement encouraging within the beauty in my backyard. Milly Main is our guest today she is street levels determined founder and Perth chapter lead. She admits there's an ambitious road ahead for her to change our city's thinking and encourage more classical architecture, the use of sustainable building materials and to empower local families and neighbourhoods in creating more connected and livable communities. I'm Sonia Nolan, and you're listening to my warm table. Milly Welcome to Well, it's actually your warm table that we're sitting at today.Milly Main:
Thank you for having me at your warm table and for sharing with me and the my warm table community.Sonia Nolan:
Everything that you are so passionate about now, which is street level, you're the founder and the Perth chapter lead of this very new, very grassroots movement that's going to revolutionise the way that we look at our streets in our communities. Tell me what street level is Millie?Milly Main:
Well, thank you for having me. Sonia street level is an advocacy organisation focused on the built environment. So that means buildings and architecture and planning. So the way that those buildings sit together and fit together, but our purpose is to restore beauty back into the built environment. So if you're from Perth, or another regional or large town around Australia, you're probably familiar with some of the beautiful heritage buildings that we have. In Perth, for example. We have the state buildings, yes, which we cherish. And luckily for us, they've been carefully restored. And they're being stewarded. So the next generation can enjoy them.Sonia Nolan:
And they've been repurposed, haven't they? So going from what they were as state administrative buildings, they are now areas of hospitality and fun and connection.Milly Main:
Yeah, which is what we call adaptive reuse. So one of the ways you can tell something's beautiful is because people find worth reusing for another purpose outside of its original purpose. And one of the things we really want to see happen is not just Heritage Restoration and revival, but the building of new things that are beautiful in the classical tradition. So traditional architecture, as opposed to contemporary architecture, which happens not at all on Australia. So we don't have any of that happening right. Now.Sonia Nolan:
I was gonna say, why is that? Why are we not seeing those traditional classical buildings being built in Australia anymore?Milly Main:
I'll go through a couple of the reasons. The first is that design schools don't spend much time on it anymore. So they do learn some of the fundamentals sometimes, but a lot of them don't instruct new architects in the basics of how you design a traditional building. And that's because a movement emerged in the middle of the last century, in resistance to classical and traditional architecture that's been really powerful and persuasive. And anyone who's intending to study architecture or thinking about it often expects to design beautiful buildings, because that's part of the reason they go into it. And then I heard from people who have graduated or who are studying that they're sometimes just surprised or disappointed, they're not learning that. So that's one reason. And another reason is we live in a culture that emphasises the disposable and the planned obsolescence of a washing machine, you'll now see in construction, where were used to the idea that a building might be built, and 30 years later torn down again, the environmental impacts of it are really vast, so 38% of global carbon emissions is generated by the construction industry, the 8% Wow, 5% by concrete alone. And when you compare that to some of the buildings, for example, built by the Romans, the Egyptians, not the pyramids, but the temples, those are lasting 1500 years, Roman concrete was amazing. We've got a lot to learn fromSonia Nolan:
the Romans. Well, we have we have consistently consistently, don'tMilly Main:
we and so when people say something's cheaper, it's not actually true. It's just cheaper. In the short term. It's short term thinking. If every building were to invest marginally more because building something like the state building does not cost twice or three times as much for how Now because we have degraded the skills base so much, it would cost a bit more. But once a building gets over a certain size, you reach efficiencies of scale that mean that those costs aren't as much as you would think. And glass is actually the most expensive building material. So if a building is going to be torn down in 20 or 30 years, you have to factor in what that building costs to replace, and also the maintenance and depreciation. And so we find that it's actually cheaper to build high quality, enduring buildings that people love. It's not necessarily a problem of architects or architecture at the culture, the economy, you know, policymaking.Sonia Nolan:
There's so much to the thinking. And the, I guess, the foundations pardon the pun, of what street level is doing. But tell me about street level, as an organisation that you're leading and that you founded, weMilly Main:
are in Perth. But we're also in the other states of Australia. Not every state yet, but we're trying to get there. So we have chapter leads in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and the far north coast of New South Wales. And were a group of people who are not necessarily urban design or architecture professionals, but we range from people who are in the industry, to just concerned citizens. And we all believe in beauty, we all believe that beauty can be defined and that we should seek it out. And that beauty is what makes us feel at home in the world in the words of Roger Scruton, and we're all doing different things to in our local areas to realise straight levels, vision and objectives.Sonia Nolan:
Milly, what inspired you to actually do this,Milly Main:
becoming more aware of my own senses and experience as I returned from Perth after living in Melbourne for a couple of years, and I'd always felt deeply uncomfortable about the built environment in Perth. But I started reading more about what people were doing in an emerging global movement, because we are part of a global movement. So there are organisations in other countries doing similar things to what we're doing. And so we take kind of inspiration from them, there's a rational response to seeing the volume. So there is development happening everywhere, and there's new buildings coming up every day that I don't like. And I would see people getting into fights that would take five years out of your life. Because if there's going to be a building coming in to your local area, you don't like it, starting to fight. It is a huge psychic drain takes a lot of time and energy. And it is David and Goliath. Because most people don't have the resources, I want to do it. And so I thought, well, we can't just keep being reactionary, somebody needs to have an alternative vision and approach. And so I sat down and I wrote a strategy. And so what we've been talking about now is a little bit of the bits and pieces of that, but I'm certainly willing to for anyone who's interested to sit down and talk to them about through the detail of it, because we are trying to be quite strategic about it. And quite pragmatic, because we are aware of the realities of you know, the political realities and the economic realities. But if you walk down the street in Perth, and you just look at the Better Buildings, the beautiful buildings, the traditional buildings, and you look at the stuff that's coming up now to outnumber them, anyone can see that in 50 years, the beauty factor of our cities will be vastly diminished unless we change course.Sonia Nolan:
So we were talking earlier, Emily, about laneways in streets, and we were talking about the idea of loneliness and connection in communities, there are all sorts of things that sit at the heart of why you're wanting to create street level as a grassroots movement. So it'sMilly Main:
definitely not driven by aesthetics or design or wanting something that looks good. It's about the encouraging stronger human relationships. So stronger communities, better relationships between friends, families, people, neighbours, which is the essence of life, the way that our cities are designed now is typically to enhance mobility or transport links, or the efficient movement of goods from A to B, which is an organising philosophy that has negative consequences. We believe on relationships because when decisions are made, they're usually made on the basis of productivity or efficiency, which is all important, but probably not as important as human relationships.Sonia Nolan:
Oh, that's interesting what you're just saying they said our modern cities are designed for transport the transportation of goods from A to B, like you've just said, they're very much designed around car parks, the car being a key stakeholder of a city, right? Look back to what you were saying earlier about the Romans and the ancient or traditional tow Churches and even in Europe where we're all wanting to go and visit and to take in the aesthetics and the beauty in the surrounds of Europe and those cobblestone laneways and the chatters. And, you know, again, coming back to my Italian heritage, and my father would always talk about the piazza, that's where everybody would connect. That's where everyone would come together in the middle of the town. Yeah, that's where you'd meet someone. And that's where you would form those relationships and catch up with what was going on. And the idea of La passeggiata in the evening, people would have somewhere to promenade and talk and connect and exercise. And, you know, that's what communities were built on. And the structure of those towns supported that. Love that, you know, you're sort of making me really think about this, Milly, you know, our cities are not designed with La Piazza, our cities are not designed to go and just have a stroll around and meet someone along the way. That would be a happy coincidence, rather than a deliberate intention.Milly Main:
That's right. There's lots to say, the car was probably a huge mistake, in many ways, because we're in a catch 22 With it, we all have cars, it's really hard to take it away, because it's how we get around. So pragmatically, you need to build roads, and you need to design the cities that we have, because this is what we've set up for ourselves. So to backtrack from that takes an ambitious and bold, holistic strategy. So we have ideas for that, what I will say about the piazza, and the passage data, I hope I got those, right, ddd beautifully is that as Australians, and we talk about this at street level a lot. We spend 1000s of dollars travelling to Europe, Asia, the cities of the old world, but also the new world, America, to bask in their beauty. And yet, there's something in us telling ourselves that we can't have that or that it's not possible. We don't think that's true, we think we should aim higher. We're up against pretty strong vested and systemic issues preventing it, but there are small places you can start and we're also calling for other more radical changes to the landing,Sonia Nolan:
what sort of radical changes to planning are you calling onMilly Main:
So, we advocate for a different approach to planning that most governments use now. So we are trying to educate planners who join our ranks or to encourage them to study classic planning. So that is a an approach to planning oriented around truth being goodness. Another way of talking about truth, beauty and goodness in the built environment is Fermi tasks, utility tasks and renew tests. The newSonia Nolan:
tests once for notice mean is that that would be the beauty is beauty.Milly Main:
firmer tests means basically means firmness. So it's the opposite in firmness, in firmness means sick, right? So it means a healthy building, like the state buildings, you can tell it's robust and healthy, and it's strong, and it's going to last and sorry. So utilitas is useful. Of course, it means it should have utility. That's the thing we're best at. But in a way it should have true usefulness. So for example, the flour factory in Queen Street in the city, but it's I think it is a form of flower factory just around the corner from that some apartments that have been redeveloped and used to be humble warehouses or a barn people get married in a great way to figure out what buildings are beautiful is where people take their wedding photos. Of course, people get married at old factories, that tells us that we're not doing very well. Now at the buildings we build that a contemporary because we so cherish our ancestors, dinky old warehouses. They're not stinky anymore, but our great grandfather's would be really surprised. There'll be saying, really, you're getting married there? Can't you do any better?Sonia Nolan:
So beauty we've covered and longevity is that other side of you know what you've just said as well is that and that's a premise of straight level is that understanding of longevity and making sure that you know that they will last and they can be repurposed. you're advocating for gentle density and human centred places. What do you mean by gentle density?Milly Main:
Gentle density would be familiar to anyone who has ever visited the best cities of the world. So Paris is a great example of gentle density. It tends to go up to six storeys, seven stories, eight stories. It doesn't have many skyscrapers. It has a couple now. But Paris is more dense than New York, Barcelona is more dense than New York, Paris is more dense than Hong Kong. Is that some we tend to assume you need skyscrapers, too, to address, housing availability and affordability but it's not necessarily true. If you can get that gentle density ride then you can make that To be more attractive to people who live in existing areas where density is being proposed and cut through some of the political past that exists in neighbourhoods where there's tension between existing residents and future residents. And our hypothesis is that if some of this gentle density that's being built in Perth, middle and inner ring can be more beautiful, then we will have a more palatable political solution to urban sprawl.Sonia Nolan:
And so how do we make it more beautiful? Is it by using better materials? Is it by thinking about sustainability principles? Is it about landscaping? How do we define beauty for the urban landscape in a gentle densely type of environment where you've got houses, families who've lived there for a long time and neighbours, and then all of a sudden, and I've got this example with a very good friend of mine in Como, that their area is being very quickly superseded by these gentle density six, seven storey high rises coming through.Milly Main:
So there will be different answers from different people, when you ask what's what's beautiful. And when I say from different people, if you were to ask design professionals, they would say, you know, it's design excellence. I think that answer is a little bit ambiguous and doesn't quite hit the mark. I would say that if you want beautiful go for tradition, and I'm a big believer in the phrase, it's not good because it's old, old because it's good. Yes, heritage architecture, is beloved. And there's a reason for that there may actually be a scientific justification for the emerging field in neuro aesthetics. But research is why people respond to architecture the way they do that, to me, the best example is where people get married. I just don't think let's not overcomplicate it. Yeah, and it's natural materials, people can tell when something's flimsily built, and I'll give the example of we're in North Perth, so I'll talk about the North Perth fire station or town hall. If you look at that, and compare it to some of the buildings that were built in East Perth at the time of its redevelopment, you'll notice that the buildings in East Perth look a little bit traditional, but they lack something, what they lack is, for one, enduring materials, so high quality materials, but they also lack an authenticity. And so that's why it's really important to have a approach to designing traditional architecture that's really oriented in a strong understanding of the foundations of it. Because if you attempt it without that, you get kind of kitschy looking, pasty shear looking stuff that gives it a bad name. For many peopleSonia Nolan:
budget is a reason why we've got something that looks quite beautiful, but is not quite there. So how do we manage that?Milly Main:
This is one of the trickiest problems that we have to solve, actually. So I can't say that I've figured it out. But one thing that people can do is think about what options exist for them. So if it's practical, for example, if you're building your own house to think about what materials are more sustainable, and try to use them if possible, because they're not always more expensive. I think sometimes you might just go for the prefab thing, because somebody suggested it to you and hey, why not. But we know from experiences like the flammable cladding crisis in Melbourne that these things can have inbuilt consequences. So it's almost like buying cheap home insurance or something, you might pay for it later on at a small system level, I suppose what we would really love to see is some recognition by government that it may be essential to either incentivize or subsidise longevity, if we're going to solve some of the root causes of the climate crisis and not merely just try to offset but to actually invest in addressing root causes.Sonia Nolan:
And that brings us to sustainability. And that's another key area of street level. And we had a chat yesterday million I was fascinated by the wisdom you were bringing to the conversation about the traditional approaches to sustainability. And in fact, if we just turned our gaze back to the classics, again, we can actually see that there were so many sustainable solutions already built into the way that they constructed their homes or their places of worship. It's all there. The sustainable design principles are often in our revision mirror and not necessarily through the windscreen. So tell us about some of the clever principles we can learn from from the past.Milly Main:
Well, of course when people used to build buildings And they didn't have electricity, they had to do something to make those places comfortable and livable. And so depending on the climate, I mean, there's hundreds of different ways that you can make a house actually almost completely energy passive, which they have to do because they have no energy. And so an example of that would be if you look at some of the buildings of the subcontinent or Asia and India, where it's really tropical and hot, they'll design a window in a certain way to capture the wind so as to sustain the coolness and keep away the heat. Or you can look at our example of Queenslanders. So that's an example of designing for climate. And if you go to Queensland, such as a town like Charters Towers or Townsville and look at Heritage architecture there, you'll notice it tends to have arcades and verandas. Yes, it's painted white. Whereas if you compare that to some contemporary architecture glassy with prefab materials, and you look at what's been built in Melbourne, it's really similar to what's being built in Vancouver and Hong Kong. So we're building the same stuff everywhere. And it's actually really bad for the environment to build something that needs energy hungry H vac system, and even if you try to say, well, we're gonna offset it buying carbon credits or having solar panels, it's still not as good as just designing something that's climate passive anyway.Sonia Nolan:
Tell me about the wisdom from some of these traditional countries. They all solved the problems in similar ways, but in very different separate places in separate times, not knowing what the other was working on the same sort of problem.Milly Main:
That's right, a good example to look at as well as Japan. So traditional Japanese joinery is designed to withstand earthquakes. It's obviously an earthquake prone country. And so they would build buildings with embedded resilience and a little bit of flexibility in the joinery so that that building could check a little book without falling down. And those techniques were sophisticated, developed over millennia, and they're still practisedSonia Nolan:
the cities that we're building. Now, I've heard you speak about this, Millie, you're saying that the cities we're building are actually quite fragile cities, an exampleMilly Main:
would be floodplains, we tend to build a lot on floodplains. But historically, in different places, you'll find different approaches to planning that will, for example, put a large public garden where there may be sea level rise, or floodplains say But now, if we're looking at sea level rise, we may not build in certain places, because we expect that and that doesn't mean that that land is for gone. But it just means that you might have, for example, a beautiful Botanic Garden. And if that were to become flooded, it wouldn't be a catastrophe, there'd be less loss of human life,Sonia Nolan:
also. So it's really thinking ahead to climate change, and what's going to happen to us in the future and planning accordingly.Milly Main:
If you think that at some point, we may be in a different set of circumstances, the most resilient city to build is one that's more like Paris, or Kyoto, Lisbon, that has stood the test of time, and it's still around after millennia. And that's the classic planning approach and the approach that we think we can draw on now to make our cities more beautiful and more resilient. And the best selling point is not actually I believe sustainability, even though it's really important. I don't think it's enough to move people I think the best selling point is beauty.Sonia Nolan:
And those classic cities that you've just referred to Lisbon Kyoto into Paris, what is it that makes them sold liveable? And so beautiful? I know the architecture is beautiful, and I know that the buildings have stood the test of time and is it the walkability? Is it the zoning or the lack of zoning is that you know, what, what are the what are the key ingredients, you know, if you had to, you know, sort of make a, make a recipe out of them, what would you do? What would you say needed to be in that?Milly Main:
Well, actually, somebody has tried to make a bit of a recipe out of it. And yeah, he is a architect and planner, and he wrote a book called The Art of classic planning, which we use and talk about a lot. And he visited 100 cities around the world and tried to understand what it was that made them so good. And a couple of the things that does contribute to it. An understanding of genius loci which means the magic of a place which would make it you laughed out of an executive room or a boardroom if you start talking about it him but the Romans used a they would try to figure out what the magic of any place was before they built their I guess to a modern it means working with the natural environment or not against it. So where are the mountain In what direction? Is the wind blowing? In? Where are the rivers? And how do we situate a city based on that knowledge? Luckily, unlike other countries, some other countries, we have a group of people that understand genius loci very well. And that's the local indigenous people have covered area. And so I think that when indigenous people are involved and consulted in modern planning, modernist planning, it's often tokenistic. Classic planning is probably the best solution for an authentic integration of the indigenous viewpoint into how to build a good city. If we could integrate some of that understanding into the way we build cities. Now, we could acknowledge things that would allow us to build more beautifully. And I know that sounds a little bit vague, but I'll just explain some of the elements of a beautiful classic city. So they tend to have as you mentioned, promenade ads, they make really good use of the riverfront front. They actually build right up to the riverfront so that there's human enjoyment and connection happening in the most beautiful places. There are people who want this now and you know, Perth has had a movement, for example, to bring something like streetcars and or trams in for a long time. It's just that because of the way our government works, those interests usually lose out to people who are advocating for transit or infrastructure oriented approaches to planning that ask questions such as What use should this land be? And how could we, you know, get people faster from the south of the north to the river instead of how do we build things that let us create a city that fosters human pleasure and dreaming and relationships, which in my view, should be the number one thing and everything else should be subservient to that, which is not to say that you forget about really important things like transport and sewerage, and utilities, those are all things that are in the methodology. It's just that they are in their appropriate place that are leaving what we do.Sonia Nolan:
Describe for me how sprawled Perth is in comparison to other cities in the world, or Perth isMilly Main:
the longest city in the world because of how sprawling it is, which can't go on forever. It's got to stop somewhere. Government knows that. And Perth is up there with the most sprawling and unsustainable cities in the world like Houston,Sonia Nolan:
it is really does sprawl out, up and down and across cities, a very sprawling city and I guess we're just used to that, you know, as a person from Perth, who's lived in Perth, pretty much all my life. This is what you're just used to it, aren't you? But that is not what other cities are like.Milly Main:
No, it's possible to do so much better. And it's actually a real equity issues. So I talked to people sometimes from you know, who live in Claremont and Cottesloe, and they say, well, Australians need their space. And we just need out two by four, or whatever it is. Now it's like four by six. And it's not true. Actually, there are people who are choosing to live in apartments and choosing to live in low rise medium density buildings. And I think we can do much better by them. But we can also do much better by the people who live in suburbs that are just not as enjoyable as it is to live near the coast. Beauty is so important for the soul and so important for people's well being and we overlook that I'd hate to think of what it's doing to our poor fried synapses and psyches. It's probably much worse for our health than we realise or recognise.Sonia Nolan:
How can people get involved,Milly Main:
if you go to our website, there's links to our events. And you can also join a chapter so you can become a member of street level and align yourself with a local chapter. And we have chapter leads in the major cities, but we're also looking for more. So if it's something that interests you and you're a person who thrives on community organising and making things happen, then we invite you to consider it because it's a really cool and fun group of people that are all really good friends and all really have a shared passion. And of course, there's all the usual stuff like you can follow us on social media and we're also publishing different tools. There's a gallery on our website of inspiration. So if you're interested in what I'm talking about, you can go and see how around the world people are building new traditional architecture and see what that looks like. And we'll putSonia Nolan:
all of those links on the show notes so everyone can easily access them Millie, so that's great. How does it work Milly?Milly Main:
So when you join street level, you join a community of people who have spent some time developing some of these ideas and tools and so when you find yourself in a conversation about this, you won't feel overwhelmed or like you don't know what to sight of people. So we want to equip people with persuasive pictures and arguments and, and tools. So we have stuff like letter templates you can send to councils, you know, kits that you can work on with your community. So you can go and show people what you want. And talk to your neighbours and talk to local councillors and give them a presentation and identify your local priorities. So figure out what the biggest pain points are in your area working with like minded people. And that might be that you want to prevent inappropriate development in the future. And that you want to set a vision for what we call bimby. So this is something that was coined by the prince's foundation in the UK, but they call it bimby, which is beauty in my backyard. So instead of being a NIMBY, or a yimby, you can be a b&b. So aSonia Nolan:
NIMBY is not in my backyard, what's a yimby? Yes, in my bed? Oh, yes, yes, and my so this is a bimby beauty in my backyard, ik our life.Milly Main:
If you feel comfortable, you can perform advocacy at the local level. So you can make counsellors and developers and other people with a stake and drum up other people to be part of the movement and to do some awareness raising, it has the opportunity to help shape the central organisation and the policy goals that we're working on as well. So to work with the national group at street level, and help us to develop some of these ambitious metropolitan level planning policy ideas that we work on.Sonia Nolan:
So you're really looking at this long term plan. And you know, you this is not a movement that's going to be done in five minutes, that you're committed to for the long term because it is it is changing mindset. It's changing behaviour. It's changing policy. It's allowing people to reflect and think about how we can do this better.Milly Main:
When it comes to the building of the buildings, you have to think I'm building this for future generations. But this is going to take ages. We need people to get on board with this. We really do because it's normal people who will have a conversation about this over the dinner table with their friends, they're going to help us change the national dialogue. Just like climate change didn't used to be part of the conversation or recycling didn't used to be a thing we need between the built environment and longevity in the built environment to be a thing that people talk about.Sonia Nolan:
Thank you so much, Milly. It's been fascinating and wonderful to reconnect with you. And I'm so excited about this new venture that you've got, I really wish you well. And I hope that the my warm table community can start talking about this around their warm table.Milly Main:
So thank you for the opportunity.Sonia Nolan:
You've been listening to my warm table with Sonia Nolan. In Italian, a tavola. calda is a warm and welcoming table where you can share big ideas, friendship, laughter and life. So much happens around the kitchen table, and I wanted to amplify it here in this podcast. My aim is to feed your mind and soul through smart conversations with heart. No topic is off limits, but good table manners rule. I hope you'll join us each week as we set the table for my extraordinary guests who will let you feast on their deep knowledge, life experiences and wise insights. Let's keep the conversation flowing. Please subscribe to the my warm table podcast and share it with your friends and networks. Perhaps if they're new to podcasting, take a moment to show them how to download and subscribe so they don't miss an episode either. I'd also love you to join our community on Facebook. You'll find the group at my warm table podcast. Your support is very much appreciated. So that together we can eat, think and be merry