The Australian Commonwealth government's Major Cities Unit recently released a National Urban Policy discussion paper. I was part of Arup's formal response, but I was also asked to write an individual response by Justine Clark, the (excellent) editor of Architecture Australia magazine (until recently). You should buy the magazine, but I'm also posting a fuller version of the response below. Thos who don't know the local Australian references—who don't know their Woolloomooloos from their Dandenongs—needn't worry; the core points are fairly general and, I think, applicable elsewhere to varying degrees. An experienced Australian architect suggested that the essay has probably managed to "offend most of the people working in the urban planning space" here ("with good reason", he added), so there's a reasonable chance it might offend people elsewhere too.
Offending people isn't the intention, though. As you'll see from what follows I didn't think much of the discussion paper, but rather than pick it apart I tried to offer a constructive critique, outlining some recent thinking about 'dealing with' cities. In this, I'm following recent lines of enquiry here and elsewhere about the increasingly questionable value of traditional professional approaches to contemporary cities. Or rather, what is the value of using the traditional tools, processes and sensibilities of architecture, urban planning and related disciplines to the processes and practices of producing cities?
In particular, I'm trying to focus on the idea of 'identifying the right questions', rather than letting discipline-based thinking or unthinking define answers to what may be the wrong questions (in this approach, and as usual, I owe a debt to Cedric Price.)
In spirit, it follows the various and ongoing discussions I've had with Bryan Boyer, Rory Hyde, Edwin Gardner, the UTS crowd and various colleagues at Arup, Gerard Reinmuth, Tim Horton, Justin McGuirk, Greg J. Smith, Jane-Frances Kelly, Mimi Zeiger and several others, as well as drawing from recent project work in Helsinki, Melbourne and Adelaide. And in particular, a project I've been conducting in the Melbourne suburb of Knox—an urban renewal programme centred on fusing new models of manufacturing and urbanism—where the clients, Ingo Kumic, Mark Holdsworth and Kim Rawlings, have particularly shaped my thinking around assessing the primary drivers in cities, and attempting to create urban conditions rather than urban form. It also follows some questions I outlined in my recent critique of Steven Holl's Linked Hybrid in Beijing, or an earlier review of Sydney's urban strategy, as well as my response to being caught up in the Brisbane floods.
It probably also started with work on a project for a National Plan for Kazakhstan, a couple of years ago. The project went nowhere for us—which is another story for another day, perhaps—but piqued some thoughts about national projects, national conversations and working with culture at this scale.
In retrospect, I realise it's also partly the summation of almost a year's worth of public speaking, particularly around the idea of 'Big Australia'. This storm-in-a-policy-teacup emerged when population growth figures were announced by then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, pointing to an Australian population of around 35m+ people within the next 30 years or so (Australia's population is currently 22m people.) The national conversation, or what passes for it in Australia, rapidly polarised into 'Small Australia' and 'Big Australia' camps. There were some unlikely alignments here, but most were focusing on the abstract idea of a number—should it be 25m? 35m? 45m?—rather than any sense of what kind of Australia we want?
And so I would point out that the number itself doesn't matter i.e. Big Australia does not necessarily mean Ballardian social breakdown, given that Germany can fit 81m people into an area (357,000 km2) which easily fits more than a couple times over into the state of New South Wales alone (809,000 km2), with a perfectly high standard of living. It just requires thinking through and new approaches of planning. (Note: the poor soil quality and high temperature levels of much of NSW means you wouldn't actually want to inhabit all of it, but still.) Equally, a Small Australia of 22m could punch above its weight, as the Nordic Region demonstrates.
This is not to suggest that Australia should try to emulate Germany or the Nordics—It's an increasingly Asian country with its own traditions—but both analogies indicate qualitative possibilities. So the question isn''t what number of people should live in Australia, but instead what kind of country do we want? In other words, what is Australia for? Addressing that question would enable us to plan effectively.
I know this question resonated. (I gave speeches around this topic almost weekly, for most of last year, which ultimately contributed to me being selected as one of 'the 100 most influential people in Sydney' by the local broadsheet, which is somewhat laughable, clearly completely erroneous, and an honour, all at once—but either way, was partly due to my public field-testing of the ideas in the following essay on various audiences. It shows that speeches, if you're comfortable with holding forth on half-formed ideas, can be a form of prototyping, perhaps.)
So when it comes to Australian cities, the question still stands. What do we want Australian cities to be? That is un-stated, and certainly un-answered, in the National Urban Policy discussion paper, which, to a designer brought up on working with that awkward word 'content', is a strange oversight.
At core, I'm suggesting that, without considering these and other core strategic questions, few of the existing approaches to planning and designing cities are working, certainly on any meaningful, systematic scale.
In Australia, it's sometimes difficult to tell—until you look at the numbers—that this is the case, as at first glance what could possibly be wrong with these cities? The sun is shining, the food and drink is good, people seem well-fed, well-housed, well-educated and well-off, and the cities themselves are often beautifully-sited amidst stunning terrain. (Hence their high-placing in urban quality of life surveys, alongside Canadian and middle-European cities. It's worth noting that most of these rankings are often designed with a highly-specific agenda and judged by non-residents, and so they bear little relation to actual life in the cities in question.)
Equally, the economy—again on the surface—is outperforming much of the 'Western developed' nations. (Or 'over-developed nations', as some might say.) Powered by an unprecedented resources boom, it's not even in full gear yet apparently. But even The (laissez-faire) Economist recently outlined the dangers in not being able to strategically take advantage of this boom, suggesting a sovereign wealth fund. I'd wholeheartedly endorse this, alongside various strategic taxation measures, but also argue for an innovation-focused fund in particular, after the Sitra model perhaps. As the Future Fund indicates, it's not enough just to grow money, but to direct it strategically too.)
However, in a bit of Sydney that doesn't look like the gleaming harbourside suburbs or one of the world's wealthiest nations—which is to say, the bulk of Sydney—some people are taking architecture into their own hands and creating self-defence structures like this, which presumably would not look out of place in Tripoli or Abidjan about now:
This is one kind of warning light on the dashboard, and albeit highly unrepresentative, it is at least viscerally memorable, no?
But there are numerous others less obvious but perhaps even more substantial issues, well-known in Australian urban planning, architecture and policy circles. They revolve essentially around climate change, health, extremely high carbon footprint, ageing population, car- and oil-dependency, largest, most over-priced and increasingly unaffordable housing in the world, monopolised retail sectors, crumbling infrastructure, diminished surrounding food basins with nutrient-poor soil, falling productivity, rising income inequality and so on. While some of these are fundamental, there should also be concern over some of Australia's cultural attitudes, especially those relating to propensity for change and innovation, which would indicate a capacity to address these issues.
And yet these cities and this culture often do work, in the almost effortless, small, quotidian sense as well as through the occasional grand gesture. I've learnt as much about what makes good cities tick from Australian cities as anywhere else. There's the paradox. And a national urban policy requires an appetite to engage with the everyday complexity of this position.
So while there's a discomfort in addressing a strategic question or national conversation in a culture predisposed to letting these things just emerge, for better or worse, my response is written with this core thought in mind—can we pull focus on the question of what cities are, on how they are produced, and so create better patterns for urban development, and ultimately, a better Australia, punching above its weight rather than below it?
And within all this, given the context of AA, I'm trying to suggest a repositioning of architecture and other design disciplines within all this, moving into a position of strategic, creative influence rather than the increasingly marginalised, beleaguered position it's currently occupying.
It's a big question, and this is in no way an answer, but this essay is in the spirit of asking the right questions in the first place. Comments, as ever, are most welcome.
(Note: this is the original 'director's cut' version of the essay. The snappier version appears in the current edition of Architecture Australia, which is well worth picking up.)
Same Old New World Cities: how vision and strategy are amongst the many things missing from the Australian Government’s National Urban Policy discussion paper
It is perhaps unfortunate timing for the Australian Government that their National Urban Policy discussion paper, presumably months in the making, was released for comment at the same time that much of Australia's south-east was being swallowed up by flood water. What La Niña unleashed was more unfortunate for those directly affected of course, but the sad irony of seeing a document punctuated with pictures of sunny Toowoomba, Albury-Wodonga and Brisbane places the entire discussion paper in very a different light, one presumably not foreseen by the report's authors.
Writing on my iPad by candlelight as floodwaters began encroaching on Brisbane, it was becoming as crystal clear as the river was muddy brown that our cities are not resilient. We’d lost power to the house almost immediately, and all surrounding shops were sold out of bread, milk and other fresh foods, as well as D batteries, lamps and candles, within a few hours. Major roads were also quickly consumed by the flood, meaning there were no estimated delivery dates for any replacements. Deep in the suburban environment, a place virtually without footpaths, never mind a “walk score” of 50+, there is no way to source energy or food at scale: relatively little installed solar, no cultural memory of food production. Before we know it, we’re resorting to filling Eskys full of drinking water and stockpiling “rations”.
Rapidly, almost literally overnight, Brisbane felt, as Richard Sennett would say, “brittle”.
And for Brisbane, read virtually any other town or city in this land of droughts and flooding rains. But Brisbane, Toowoomba and the rest have brought these matters into sharp focus – showing that they require fundamental rethinking, not the incremental, timid approach of the discussion paper.
Floods are front of mind, but Australia and its cities face further significant issues, not least the other manifestations of climate change – rising sea levels, desertification – and the troublesome combination of an ageing population and falling productivity.
The discussion paper starts with a careful exposition of these challenges but, afraid to scare the horses perhaps, balances this by noting several times that Australian cities are frequently well placed in global quality of life rankings. Those placings are almost entirely due to natural gifts – weather, glorious landscapes, bountiful produce enabling a rich food culture – rather than any policy or planning activity, strategic or otherwise. The benefits of being the “lucky country”, yes, but remember that that phrase is not exactly complimentary.
Strategically, a national urban policy should address the very real challenges, and take inherent quality of life aspects as a bonus.
So how does the discussion paper approach this slowly cracking urban fabric? Rather than describe the details of the paper, I’ll discuss its general approach, suggesting that those details are almost unimportant, as unfortunately the discussion paper is often asking the wrong questions in the wrong way.
As my colleague at Arup, Emma Synnott, points out, the paper is “incremental”. She asks what conditions would instead engender a “step change” in urban policy and development. This is important. It directs thought towards the core drivers of cities (economy, food, climate and natural resources, culture) as opposed to its symptoms (density, congestion, transport modes, energy and the usual instruments of urban planning) as well as suggesting the sense of urgency and ambition that ought to underpin the creation of something as challenging as a national urban policy.
With the La Niña flooding or its mirror the 'Big Dry' multiplied by climate change, it’s clear some cities have to change radically, and even that some new cities might be required. Yet there is no real sense in the discussion paper that the world will be hotter and drier and that this threatens some fundamental patterns of human existence.
We should be actively aware that desertification might ultimately threaten the long-term viability of current habitation patterns in much of South Australia and a good chunk of Victoria and Western Australia. These existing towns and cities may be much changed – occasionally deserted, occasionally remodelled. And ultimately, cities like Adelaide might need to be so reconfigured that they are built for conditions more akin to that of Abu Dhabi. A “Masdarlaide” strategy is clearly a long way from the city’s current mode, where an already parched, car-dependent suburban topography actively multiplies heat and wastes resources, as opposed to providing natural shelters from the sun via threaded latticeworks of tall narrow streets, woven through with diverse activities.
The corollary of “Masdarlaide” is that our verdant, humid north becomes habitable in new ways and that an array of medium-sized cities might develop to take the strain off the already over-sized capital cities.
Whether this is useful or thought-provoking 'national spatialisation' is a moot point – it’s more that this kind of “national narrative” is missing from the discussion paper and, in fact, from Australian public life. The discussion paper skips questions as to scale of change in favour of addressing its three stated goals of “productivity, sustainability and liveability” through some well-worn instruments of planning. Much of these can be described as “business as usual” and so give the opportunity for call-out boxes of case studies, subliminally suggesting that everything is in hand.
What cities are for
But the instruments of planning are not what the city is for. We don’t make cities in order to make infrastructure. We make infrastructure in order to support cities; it’s a secondary, supporting activity. Cities are about exchange—of commerce and culture, principally.
In this sense, it would be worth exploring the strategic use of brand—not as in simplistic marketing tool, but brand as in identity, mission and activities articulating what Australian cities are for and about. Brands are culturally embedded, and directly deal with values, so they enable this necessary investigation of identity and function. This can then be used to align a series of policy responses. It provides a platform for that missing national conversation.
By way of example, look at the recently announced country brand for Finland. A vital and positive 365-page document provides no less than “a mission for the nation … as a country which solves problems” on the world stage. There is a sense of a national conversation at work here, with a vast range of detailed ideas about what Finland can be. It “assigns various missions to different actors … All of the missions take the form of concrete actions and constitute a part of the brand building work. In this case, this does not mean logos, slogans or marketing campaigns, but actions.”
It’s easy to see how Finland’s detailed and proactive country brand could direct a series of conversations about the urban milieu required to support it; less so with Brand Australia, which is essentially about a boomerang-shaped logo.
In fact, the closest we’ve come to a national discussion on what Australia’s mission might be was the ‘20 20 Summit’ in the first flush of Prime Minister Rudd’s ascendancy, and it’s probably best if we quickly move on from trying to discern any productive legacy from that event. (Note, at the time of writing, the official 20 20 website still features a statement from “Prime Minister Kevin Rudd” making a commitment to drive the national conversation on Australia’s long-term future towards 2020.)
As climate change unfolds, Australia could become the destination for migrants from the huge displaced populations of Africa and the Asian subcontinent. In this scenario, no amount of gunboats patrolling will prevent heavy and uncontrolled population increase.
In another scenario, Australia itself could be increasingly ravaged by even more extreme weather events—hotter and drier than ever, and/or wetter and wilder than ever—and ultimately become a place that generates migrants, rather than grudgingly accepts them. Would people have the fortitude to create “Masdarlaide” in this scenario?
In either case, Australia needs a vision, a point.
As the choice of destination for the 2022 World Cup indicated, Australia is already losing out to those countries that do have a vision. Australia is a resource-rich wealthy nation, and ought to have scored well in any stand-off with Qatar in that respect. Yet maybe it was the additional presence of the Qatar National Master Plan 2010-2032 and other initiatives which helped position the latter more favourably, with a range of projects redefining the nation, encompassing soft power and peace negotiations, investment in high-technology and R&D, as well as world class cultural infrastructure. [Read more on Qatar's vision from Rory Hyde with Timothy Moore or Todd Reisz.]
Australia shouldn’t copy the detail of Qatar’s initiatives, many of which could be essentially unsustainable, but could it not aspire to a similar level of ambition, creatively finding its own response to its wealth, emerging instead from the richer, more diverse loam that democracy and human rights generates?
Ambition is palpable and motivating, as is the lack of it.
Aspiring Chinese migrants came to the “New Gold Mountain” of Australia from European settlement onwards. If you were a smart young graduate or equivalent now, which country looks the better bet for the future? We can’t rely on beautiful beaches. Many other countries also have those and are rather better located. Australia needs to work hard to retain significance, and good urban planning and urban design, unless completely re-imagined, are not enough to drive our cities forward with ambition. Only vision can do that.
There are compelling roles that Australia could play in the Asia-Pacific region – culturally, economically – but there is no sense of them here. In fact, this document only highlights the void around it, the lack of broader debate about what Australia is and what it can be. That would be a better place to start, not least because we could then better design our cities, which will be the key generators of that future. Without some clear ideas about “content”, how can we design? How do we know what kinds of soft and hard infrastructure we need?
Are you being served?
Meanwhile, in Australia’s major trading partner China, there are plans to consolidate nine cities around the Pearl River Delta into one mega-city of around 42,000,000 people (as reported breathlessly in the Sydney Morning Herald: "China's mega-city will eat Wales.")
“The idea is that when the cities are integrated, the residents can travel around freely and use the health care and other facilities in the different areas,“ says Ma Xiangming, the chief planner at the Guangdong Rural and Urban Planning Institute.
Whether this happens or not, the tenor of the discussion is interesting, because it focuses more on the key benefits of integrating services in the nine cities—transit cards, health care, telecoms networks and so on—than on the built form. The benefits outlined are telling: phone bills to fall by 85%, residents using the internet to see which hospitals are least busy, diversified employment markets, unified pollution policies and petrol/electricity pricing across the mega-city region, and so on. It indicates an urban policy predicated on urban services—which affect citizens far more directly than urban design.
At last year’s Shanghai Expo, the most interesting pavilions were those that indicate how such new urban services might unfold, whereas the visions of future cities were typically ludicrous, and ultimately unhelpful, telling us more about now than then. Note that the first suggested question in the ‘Your Say’ section of the National Urban Policy discussion paper is “What should our cities look like in 2030, or even 2050?”
Trapped in the same ocularcentric prism as the Australian pavilion at the last Venice Biennale, this is also profoundly unhelpful. As much as I love future visions, from Sant’Elia to District 9, the response to that question ought to be both “who cares?” and “it doesn’t matter.” Exploring how our cities might function or feel or what they might produce or perform like would be far more useful.
This emphasis on a soft infrastructure of service is also pragmatic. Paul Mees is right to point out that transport policy can change far more rapidly than urban density, and as his research shows, mode shift can occur in response to policy, not simply density. (Mees compares with Canadian cities of similar density to Australian, as well as the suburban European experience—in both cases, public transport is used far more heavily as a result of better planned, designed, coordinated, maintained, integrated and operated services.)
Or examine Milan’s new Territorial Government Plan, which places public services at the centre of the project. It also re-conceives what a plan should be in the first place, creating a framework for ongoing, near-continuous assessment of what and where services should be, with new periods of “reconnaissance” with citizens occurring every six months. It is oriented at least in part towards a system, or “service ecology” in the words of John Thackara, that can generate possibilities for entrepreneurs and other citizens at the ultra-local level of the everyday. This means it shares some philosophical traits of the ‘emergent urbanism’ projects such as Renew Newcastle, YIMBY, or SeeClickFix, and the continuous calibration of the service ecology is close to the ‘real-time city’ driven by urban informatics that some of us have been working towards over the last few years. (Interestingly, Milan’s plan was designed by Interaction Design Lab, a Milanese firm of interaction and service designers. It will be interesting to watch it either unfurl or unravel as it moves through the local political context.)
Consolidated urban services may be key in transforming the way cities feel and function, but there is no sense here of the ‘platform thinking’ that has transformed much of the business world in the last decade (“platform” as in an interoperable or strategically linked combination of hardware, software and services that can take advantage of reinforcing ‘network effects’.) Equally, genuine community engagement and participation is barely given any space, despite the near-inversion of social and cultural models of knowledge construction and communication over the last two decades. The discussion paper mentions the key goal of subsidiarity—delivery of service at the closest, most local point—several times, but doesn’t seem to see the potential of these new models to deliver an almost infinitely richer form of subsidiarity and agency.
The processes and structure outlined in the Australian Government’s discussion paper cannot scale down to this urban and local level effectively. They do not have the smart framework of Milan’s plan, nor the genuinely at-hand quality of emergent urbanism. And yet they rarely speak to the national level either, and so do not balance the non-strategic effect of subsidiarity—certainly there’s little sense of a national spatial plan that would look for productive connections between local centres, or the development of the medium-sized cities so lacking in Australia.
The architecture of the problem itself needs to be evaluated in order to unlock the right questions and discern the most effective structures, systems and values.
Despite the gleaming sheen of its GFC-defying surface, there is a brittle quality to the Australian economy, with exports strongly pinned on China’s demand for resources, the value returned so meagre in response, and an over-reliance on service industries domestically.
This does not mean attempting to detail every aspect of a city’s output, designing everyday life itself. That would be an overly-programmatic view of design, and ignores the possibility of sketching out systems that can produce rich, diverse and even unforeseen scenarios, channelled towards particular value sets and performance criteria.
The overall pattern of the economy currently produces vast wealth but apparently also brittle cities, while exacerbating inequality by adding increasingly unaffordable housing and income inequality to the mix of privatised education and healthcare. The value generated is one-dimensional and sometimes unhelpful. How can Australian cities develop a more diverse sense of wealth?
Shared value is one concept that would enhance the discussion. Michael Porter and Mark Kramer, in the Harvard Business Review, are beginning to describe how capitalism might be re-tooled to produce multiple forms of value. And not simply via the sop of corporate social responsibility (with its parallel in local urban sustainability policies, almost akin to fiddling while coal burns). Porter and Kramer argue that outcomes such as those associated with resilience must be allied directly with financial return; they cannot be an add-on or side effect.
This means urban policy must start with productive capacity—the ability to generate wealth, in its widest sense, including social, environmental, intellectual, cultural and economic—as a generator of shared value. Focusing on productive capacity is an entirely different proposition. It recognises why cities exist and what they are. Cities are not, after the Greek, urbs, bricks and mortar stacked in a particular built form and location, but instead civitas, its citizens, and their various activities of exchange. That, ultimately, is what makes Melbourne different from Manila or Moscow. A national urban policy that focused on shared value would also start a very different conversation about how we make cities.
The machinery of city-making
The discussion paper does not address the systems of city-making or the everyday ways in which cities can re-create themselves. This is partly an issue with authorship, though there is little or no guide as to what disciplines, skill sets, philosophies or processes produced this report, which is odd. It feels like the output of economically inclined management consultants and urban planners. For something as multifaceted as cities, a richer mix is required, as well as an ability to imaginatively “reframe the brief”, a skill not traditionally associated with those trades.
For instance, little appetite is demonstrated for challenging systemic aspects of city-making such as public–private partnerships (PPPs). PPPs have shaped our cities as much as any aspect of urban design, and yet there is no critical assessment here of their value, worth, future or success. Recent independent studies indicate that PPP-fuelled infrastructure projects have generally been built at “higher cost to the public than would have been the case if they had been built the way they used to be, as government-owned assets built with debt finance”. So governments – and therefore the public – would be billions of dollars better off had they not had PPPs, and without having to make promises not to commission “competing infrastructure”.
Tim Williams has noted that the poor quality of urban design in the UK over the last decade emerged at exactly the same time as hard work by CABE and ambitious national policy statements around place-making. The problem is that “bad design is rooted in the UK development market and the way in which the regulatory framework has shaped it”.
Without addressing the fundamental business model of property development, summarized by Williams as “sell the units and basically bugger off”, it’s hard to see how a national urban policy will help. Without addressing this economy, the activities of urban design and architecture at best leave a nice veneer. The detailed design of public and private places is important, but not as important as these other aspects.
There’s also a figure–ground relationship between cities and regions and, at best, a symbiotically linked ecosystem in which each feeds the other. Paradoxically, any national urban policy should have the regions at its core, finding ways to keep flood plains, allow rivers to run freely, preserve food basin soil to strengthen food security, and replant forests to reinforce flood-mitigating topsoil and act as a fast growing natural carbon sink. And thus giving a clear idea of what cities can be, studded like jewels throughout. Eliel Saarinen’s great design tenet of always designing something with its next larger context in mind means we can’t assess at cities without thinking about regions.
This is not how it’s played out in Australia, where urban expansion threatens the few relatively rich areas of soil around our population centres. The discussion paper points to this issue, but it doesn’t point out how, say, Melbourne 2030 can be sidestepped like the Maginot Line. Talk to a developer and they will just shrug and say it’s much cheaper to build out there than within the existing city. Market design, not urban design, is required to shape that development pattern in more positive directions. It’s not explored here.
Affordable housing is highlighted, correctly, as a key issue, but there are few new ideas in the discussion paper. For instance, there is nothing here genuinely challenging the orthodoxy that home-ownership is better than renting. Robert J. Samuelson, writing in the Washington Post, said of America: “we let a sensible goal become a foolish fetish”, suggesting that a “single-minded” government subsidisation of home-ownership over generations has actually “undermined the American dream”. Like the unaccountably popular lawn bowls, the hegemonic ideal of home-ownership has been unthinkingly imported and exaggerated from the UK, whose own fetish with homeownership is brilliantly detailed in John Lanchester’s book I.O.U., and—as with lawn bowls—need not have the primacy it does in Australia.
If, as global evidence suggests, the pursuit of home-ownership has at least in part driven housing un-affordability, then might not an appropriate response be to think about different ways in which that cultural primacy could be challenged, rather than simply the see the problem in terms of the rate of construction of new housing?
In its ‘Sustainability’ section, the paper states "addressing the high consumption behaviours and lifestyles of Australians is … fundamental". To some, wearily used to the non-interventionist mantra around Australian governments of all stripes, it might seem like progress that a statement about behaviour change can even appear in this paper. But that is just playing catch-up, essentially, with many worldwide, within and without governments, who are actively exploring behaviour change programmes. The real question is "how, exactly?"
This is the key test—what would it mean to reframe ‘being Australian’ such that we get the cities we need? Given the preference for democracy, this cannot and should not be done through diktat, but instead can only be done through skilful and perceptive crafting of localising systems, of initiatives that carefully and respectfully shape culture away from our current ‘lifestyles’ and their associated consumption habits.
What is going up against, say, Grand Designs Australia, where the lack of critique of wholly unsustainable homes is breathtaking? Or look at the way the average Delfin Lend Lease ‘community’ is sold, designed to tug at the heartstrings, or, say, how the Chinese car company Great Wall is selling its utes?
Whilst the entire business would do well to find richer ways of engaging with people beyond simplistic focus groups, exploring what Witold Rybczynski has recently called “demand-side urbanism” can only be an agent for change if it involves shaping what demand is to some degree. As Rybczynski notes, property developers are the true planners of cities, intrinsically working on the demand-side, but what he doesn’t describe is how demand itself can be shaped.
Media actually paves the Australian cities of the near-future by shaping the population’s understanding of what cities, houses, transport and jobs should be—just as it did with suburbanisation (watch The City (1939) for how an earlier generation of planners did it.) They are at least partly underpinning the vast increases in living space per person and home size, whilst household occupancy shrinks and consumption, which correlates with carbon, increases.
Preparing the ground is a necessary precursor to enacting change, but this discussion paper apparently does not wish to engage with stimulating the demand side at all. What policy initiatives could help create a fertile environment for the kind of conversations we need to have?
In its reluctance to challenge the basic preconditions of the Australian culture and marketplace, the paper places faith in both to solve the upcoming problems. Unfortunately, the built environment business does not have any such track record. Last year, Harvard Business School found that while non-farming industries had made productivity gains averaging 80 percent since the 1960s, the construction industry had become 20 percent less productive over that time frame.
Given the immense cost of construction—not simply financially, but more importantly in terms of carbon emissions—this reinforces an imperative to build less, and to build smarter when we do. Once seen in this light, can there really be any debate about opening up new land to developers for development at the edge of cities? This policy, however, does not cast things in that light.
Without addressing these core aspects of why cities exist, or indeed a wider range of policy approaches, a national urban policy focused on the traditional tools of urban planning, architecture and urban design may work for, in Tim Williams’ words, “good times and easy places”, but is unlikely to make Australian cities resilient in the face of real challenges. Williams was referring to the limited effect of Jan Gehl and his ilk to enable true resilience, but the same question has to be asked of the effect of government itself, when government is limited in ambition to the extent it appears here.
Part of the issue may be structural. The frequent accusation that Australia is “over-governed and under-led” is in part due to the varying, complex governance frameworks in play, not least in the COAG-ulated capital cities home to most Australians. Yet the work done by the Grattan Institute assessing effective urban governance worldwide indicates that there is no perfect structural model. A more fundamental issue may be to do with the role of government itself within Australian culture, as its very status – or lack of it – in turn drives levels of professionalism, ambition and motivation.
There’s a telling line in the “Liveability” section: “The Government’s key role is to improve the life chances of vulnerable Australians.” It’s as if the government is really only there to deal with market failure for the “vulnerable”. This is not an active, positive role for the state, as the key articulation of civilized public life; this is not a good platform on which to build motivating policy; this is not an idea of government whose object is “the happiness of the common man”, as William Beveridge put it, but simply a denuded role tidying up after the market.
But it’s too easy to pick apart discussion papers. By way of more constructive criticism, here are two angles that indicate how much the game needs to change, by exploring the concept of resilience – as well as productivity, sustainability and liveability – through the existing lenses of spatial planning and construction.
Almost instinctively, the discussion paper reaches for a series of responses to the vast spatial distribution of Australian cities. They revolve around extending public transport and introducing new technologies such as electric cars. Given that attempts at urban growth boundaries are apparently not working, these may only serve to reinforce the existing settlement patterns of moving at great cost over large distances. It could be that, just as a hammer sees only nails, planners and architects only see opportunities to introduce new transport or building types, rather than re-imagine the question and their response to it.
For example, why move so many so far in the first place? Public transport is an easier lever to pull – at least in theory it should be – but surely a better goal is ensuring that everyday needs are met locally, within walking distance, rethinking how we co-locate housing, jobs, services and amenities. This is a genuinely resilient approach that would have served Brisbane better (interestingly, it would mean shared sensibilities with other cities undergoing what Adrian Lahoud calls “post-traumatic urbanism”).
With no need to have cities heavily zoned, the only genuinely sustainable approach would actually be a programme of hyper-localisation in which the goal is to move as few physical aspects as possible. Data can move globally and locally, almost effortlessly, but production—of food, objects, products, services—can instead be resourced and distributed locally. So ‘recipes’ are shipped digitally, but ingredients, production and distribution are sourced from local ecosystems. As John Thackara has pointed out, this pattern is beginning to emerge in all kinds of industries, including the likes of Coca Cola who do exactly this: transmit their recipe and ‘assemble’ and distribute locally. It would mean a shift towards understanding and rejoicing in the seasonality of food, and in the particulars of local building materials, and in local craft traditions from furniture design to software engineering, but these could also be useful goals.
Thanks to fabrication technologies, this approach could apply to a huge variety of products too – ship the file, construct the object in situ. And replicating services locally can only be beneficial for citizens and jobs, without the false economies of scale incurred by the big-box approach to retail, healthcare, education or leisure. US research over the last few years indicates a consistent pattern: places with a “buy-local initiative” have revenue growth outpacing those that don’t; for every dollar spent at a local independent retailer, 30-60 cents of additional economic activity is created locally. If a dollar is spent at a national franchise, only 14 cents stays in the local economy.
Building in this kind of economic resilience is the starting point. This is what poly-nodal cities really mean. It’s more than just developing Parramatta or Dandenong; it’s at the scale of street corners. So local reinforces local, with an array of “new trickle-down” benefits in its wake.
Ensuring that good food can be obtained within walking distance would help with the increasingly significant obesity issue in Australia, as would walking more in the first place. The crude quality of much Australian urban fabric is due to the fact that only “low res” is required of spaces that move at 50km/h. But you can’t get away with SketchUp quality if you’re walking through a space, never mind dawdling in it.
Housing affordability would be positively changed, by dispersing demand more thoroughly across a mixed-use urban fabric (this also implies the development of an array of medium-sized cities, with their own hyper-localization patterns). Rethinking education through distributed local public systems would enable citizens not to have to drive their kids to school. Local shared workplaces, woven together by genuinely high-speed broadband, would retain the social aspects of work without the highly inefficient commercial buildings we currently occupy. Localized energy generation builds in resilience not seen in Brisbane after the flood or north Queensland during tropical cyclone Yasi.
A hyper-local approach would sidestep the apparent “problems” of congestion or the freight business or the electrification of the private car fleet. These are only problems if we make them problems, and you wonder whether, at 4.7 percent of GDP and growing, Australia’s oversized transportation sector is leading the government to bark up the wrong tree. The discussion paper sees these issues as key inhibitors of productivity, but only because it doesn’t address the core patterns of productivity in the first place: the local milieu.
What if performance measures were put in place about decreasing speed, decreasing distance travelled by people or physical goods, reducing weight moved or carbon expended, or increasing social interaction, serendipity, intellectual capital, diversity of economic activity and multi-sensory qualities? We’d have a very different mindset emerging, to the extent that even the apparently progressive idea of “transit-oriented development” might be seen in a very different light. Why build somewhere with “transit” as its core organising principle? Again, who builds cities in order to build transit? A new urban design vocabulary would emerge focused on networks, information, interaction, and identity, as opposed to corridors, buffers, arteries and boundaries.
Simply, how can we move less while increasing shared value?
As Gerard Reinmuth and others have pointed out, the various artefacts of the “sustainability industry”, in which low-carbon products are offered as a cure-all enabler of new buildings and new mobility, can rarely if ever be justified in terms of their actual carbon footprint. Put simply, if the footprint of construction itself is enormous and our cities are already too big, the goal should surely be to build less in the first place, working with what we have. But for architects and many in the built environment business, whose business model is predicated on a gaining percentage of construction price, it’s difficult to suggest not constructing. Again, seeing outside the parameters of the problem space, and formulating a richer mix of disciplines and business models, is the key to identifying the right question.
Given that building does have to occur, could a discussion paper place the emphasis firmly on retro-fitting existing structures, intensifying existing places? What might be the urban services equivalent of the rock oyster, structures that can attach to and enhance existing places? Compared to the new developments envisaged in the discussion paper, this shift in emphasis could almost be described as “un-building”. We shouldn’t be beholden to what some call the “real-estate industrial complex” – as with transportation, an oversized sector in Australia’s economy – to the extent that the problem cannot be reconceived.
Heritage laws would need to be recalibrated—not before time—and Reinmuth suggests our aesthetic sense might need to develop too. But combined with the intensification of hyper-localisation, this would be a strategic design response to a strategic problem—how to build resilience and a shared value set.
Again, how can we build less while increasing shared value?
Redesigning urban policy – and urban planning
These two ideas, neither of which is new but neither of which features meaningfully in the discussion paper, are merely starting points for a different kind of conversation, one reinventing what urban policy is. This reinvention is required because the natural attributes that have blessed Australian cities for so long may begin to turn against them, as in the case of Brisbane and others, and the traditional tools of urban planning and urban design have either blighted cities or been an irrelevance, with some extremely honourable exceptions.
So this discussion paper also inadvertently provides a challenge to the profession. If the tools of planners, architects and urban designers are about expanding (distances, boundaries) or facilitating and devising construction, how might they contribute to a debate on opposing goals, never mind shared values for which they haven’t been trained?
These disciplines do have a role, as long as the integrative, synthesizing skills of designers can instead focus on the architecture of the problem itself. We can no longer expect to find answers within a single discipline, as so-called “wicked problems” make clear. With a pragmatic culture overly focused on the bottom line – and dominated recently by the dead hand of economic rationalism in particular – Australia needs a greater mix of thinking here, an orchestration of multiple voices genuinely exploring a positive reinvention of its patterns of settlement.
What designers can do is synthesize these voices, act as proxies for citizens and cultures, and articulate visions, sketching out proposals to stimulate and engage. Within design, architects do this to some degree, although are often more risk-averse than other designers due to their income being tied almost exclusively to the largesse and ambition of construction industry clients. Planners are not much attuned to this speculative approach at all, preferring instead the pragmatic, incremental and grounded. But situated within the risk-averse Australian political climate, this combination of planning and policy leaves a discussion paper shorn of much to have a discussion about.
(For more on an extended idea of design practice for architects and urban designers, see the discussion that ensued at Amsterdam-based Melburnian and architect Rory Hyde’s blog,, after his piece ‘Potential Futures for Design Practice’, as well as the work of Finnish Innovation fund Sitra’s Strategic Design Unit, in particular the Helsinki Design Lab programme I’ve been fortunate enough to take part in.)
A strategic design response instead—focused on asking the right questions in the first place, perhaps assessing national identity, productive capacity, shared value and local resilience in the face of climate change—would at least have given us something to discuss.
As Saul Eslake points out, the Australian economy’s success “may well have engendered a sense of complacency about the basis for our prosperity”. This discussion paper is, in a sense, complacent too, as it has no sense of urgency about it, no sense of our cities having a role in altering this.
Australia is “the lucky country”, it turns out, in that it’s coasting by through idly extracting itself, almost turning itself inside out and shipping its innards north, with little of value coming back. The fear is that the second and brutally dismissive part of Donald Horne’s “lucky country” aphorism might also be true. There is little evidence here to suggest otherwise.
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