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Towards topographically sensitive urbanism: re-envisioning earthwork terracing in suburban development


The expanding peripheries of many cities in Australia and North America increasingly encroach into steep terrain. Prevailing 20th-century urban models have exerted a negligible influence in this environment where large-scale earthmoving techniques facilitate flat-land suburban morphologies irrespective of the site. In steeper terrain this practice results in engineered ‘benched’ landscapes comprising flat building pads interspersed with high retaining walls or embankments. Given the currently disparate nature of research on this practice, the article establishes a framework for incorporating greater topographical sensitivity into the sustainable design and planning of suburban landscapes. Drawing on examples from the Bay Area (California) and Perth (Western Australia), the paper: (1) overviews the root causes of suburban topographic benching, (2) outlines key negative ecological and psychological consequences of this practice, and (3) discusses mechanisms for fostering more topographically responsive design at the three scales of architectural typology, diversity of lot size, and street layout.

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