Flying into Roxby Downs, scale is the first thing that hits you. Not only is Roxby Downs around 600km north of Adelaide but seen from the air, Roxby’s remoteness in a vast desert is striking. The town centre appears from the air a bit like a small village in a featureless African landscape. But where meandering goat tracks imprint themselves on the dry plains of Ethiopia, Roxby’s tracks bear the unmistakable signature of road engineering. And far from a featureless landscape, Roxby sits in what appears to be the inspiration for John Olsen’s Lake Eyre works; orange earth, dotted scrub, round waterholes in the dune hollows fed by rivulet veins.

Along with colleague Ben Hewett, South Australia’s Government Architect, we met with the Council to better understand how this place is planning for the growth expected by the mind blowing scale of the Olympic Dam project, and to talk about integrated design & planning as a way to thread Roxby’s everyday culture in to the needs of infrastructure, development and environment. Together, we worked our way around the town with Vivienne Holloway and Administrator, Bill Boehm.

While the Wikipedia entry for Roxby brings to mind Las Vegas – another city in a desert, sustained by the umbilical of desalinated water and a cashflow from royalties – on the ground it couldn’t be more different.

Roxby is not yet 25 years old. Now a town of 4,000, Roxby is (seemingly) a successful experiment in a shared model of governance between the South Australian government, and resources behemoth BHP Billiton. Roxby’s challenge is to successfully integrate the new settlements needed to service the BHPB workers within the footprint of a town on the cusp of maturity. Where ‘camps’ and ‘mess halls’ have been adequate in the past, an expanded Olympic Dam will draw in skilled workers (engineers, environmental scientists, researchers) and with it essentials like cafes and restaurants, computer stores and stationery supplies, activities for kids and Roxby’s remarkable youth population (30.6% of the town is under 15). And where 3 bedroom homes on 400sqm have been the mode of the past, more apartments & townhouses on (and over) the main street of Richardson Place will feed this small business growth.

So what does ‘proxemics’ have to do with anything? Anthropologist Edward Hall first coined the term in 1966 as a way of describing the cultural and behavioural response of individuals to ‘distance’. Or, more specifically, their response to distance between people.

Space, and its scale, has a profound effect on us humans. A classic technique loved by architects is to constrain the height and width – sometimes even the lighting level – in a passageway leading to a light filled, double height space that makes you stop, breathe and feel an almost tangible change in ‘atmosphere’. Another familiar one is a landscape ‘room’ framed by trees or hedges within a larger park. A place you can feel more comfortable by yourself or seated with a small group for a picnic. Changes in scale, distance and proximity impact on how we feel and how we interact. In a vast place we’re more likely to drive between places. In places with a finer grain, walking is the default.

The same can be said for a town like Roxby. After a day in the desert, driving to the mine, or to the nearest other town of  Andamooka 30km away, the ‘Roxby experience’ must offer a major shift in scale if it’s to be a success. But allowing a single individual to comfortably amble alone to the shops for milk takes some effort in a place set in the enormity of a desert. Creating ‘intimacy’ along streets and in the town centre is even more important as a contrast to the scale of the outback. All sky, desert floor and silver scrub.

This is certainly a priority in the 2008 master plan for Roxby (prepared by ARUP and Hassell for BHPB). It’s a clever plan that picks up on the red dune ‘drifts’ as the cue for the town plan; influencing allotments, walking trails and new parks. The master plan applies solid, proven principles (like open streets with intersections in preference to the loopy cul de sac disease seen in the spectacularly failed new towns of the American Midwest) to Roxby’s particular landscape context. It puts pathways along the ridges of dunes to provide that shift in scale – allowing the after work dog walk to give you a glimpse ‘out’ from within the protective embrace of the town community (and yes, in to someone’s backyard; seen too often in western culture as a negative, not an essential part of building community).

Reaching for foreign examples is useful as a way of breaking open fresh thinking. Masdar - a new city in the Arab Emirates – comes to mind for a city designing it’s streets, pathways and public spaces with it’s own dry desert context in mind. Roxby can reach 46 degrees C in summer. Masdar boasts the same. Masdar has taken the bold step of ‘under grounding’ cars and elevating the entire city 7m off the desert floor to catch that elusive desert breeze.

 

Not suggesting Roxby is raised. But Masdar’s logic in removing cars is to allow the ‘streets’  to be designed for people. Narrower, shaded, cooler. Roxby’s town centre could take on some of this thinking to create a main street shaded by the same new buildings that will house the living, working and trading of this desert town. Instead of the frontier template (single storey, well set back, verandah over footpath), Richardson Place is a long curving boulevard with a generous green median that is suited to 3 stories looking in to the eucalyptus canopy, over hanging the footpath below.

Roxby is still a new town poised on the verge of expansion. Growing pains are inevitable as it shifts from outback town to a global mining hotspot. But it goes in to this phase of change with some good bones. Its main street includes a hospital, TAFE, civic centre, school, hotels (x2), and a major retail anchor.

Bringing together the private interests of BHPB, the public interests of the state government, and the everyday needs of the local Roxby community is best done through a shared objective; designing a rich and layered urban centre in the middle of the desert, on the edge of a mine.