Same old new world cities

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Flooded shipping container park on 13 January 2011, in St Lucia, Brisbane.

Flooded shipping container park on 13 January 2011, in St Lucia, Brisbane. Image: Markus Gebauer

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The flood in Brisbane’s Auchenflower, 13 January 2011.

The flood in Brisbane’s Auchenflower, 13 January 2011. Image: Andesign 101

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The Brisbane suburb of Rosalie under floodwaters, 13 January 2011.

The Brisbane suburb of Rosalie under floodwaters, 13 January 2011. Image: Andesign 101

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How vision and strategy are missing from the Australian Government’s National Urban Policy discussion paper. Dan Hill outlines the issues.

It is unfortunate that the Australian Government’s National Urban Policy discussion paper was released for comment at the same time that much of Queensland’s south-east was being swallowed up by floodwater. 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 discussion paper in a very different light.

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.

National narratives

The flood in Brisbane’s Auchenflower, 13 January 2011. Image:  Andesign 101

So how does the discussion paper approach this slowly cracking urban fabric? Unfortunately, it often seems to ask the wrong questions in the wrong way. As one of my colleagues 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, in a continent already fairly hot and dry, 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, studded 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 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. Cities are about exchange – of commerce and culture, principally.

In this sense, it would be worth exploring the strategic use of 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.1 A vital and positive 365-page document released in December 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.

Vision

The Brisbane suburb of Rosalie under floodwaters, 13 January 2011. Image:  Andesign 101

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 and ultimately become a place that generates migrants, rather than one that grudgingly accepts them. Would people have the fortitude to create “Masdarlaide” in this scenario?

In either case, Australia needs a vision, a point.

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 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?

Shared 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. 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 privatized 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 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 recognizes 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.”2 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 United Kingdom 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. 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. Thus giving a clear idea of what cities can be in return.

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 and nothing to challenge the orthodoxy that homeownership is better than renting.3 If, as global evidence suggests, the pursuit of homeownership has in part driven housing unaffordability, then might it not be appropriate to think about how that cultural primacy could be challenged, rather than simply seeing the problem in terms of the rate of construction of new housing?

Equally, how might the soft infrastructure of services change the way cities feel? The first 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 exhibition at the last Venice Biennale, this is a red herring. Much as I love future visions, from Sant’Elia to District 9, the response ought to be “It doesn’t matter.” Exploring how our cities might function or feel, or what they might produce, would be far more useful.

Consolidated urban services may be key in transforming the way cities feel and function, for example. But the discussion paper has no sense of this “platform thinking,” which has transformed much of the business world in the last decade. Equally, new forms of genuine community engagement and participation are barely given space. The discussion paper mentions the goal of subsidiarity – in this context, delivery of service at the most local point – several times, but doesn’t see the potential of new “emergent urbanism” models to deliver a richer form of subsidiarity and agency.

In its “Sustainability” section, the paper states, “Addressing the high consumption behaviours and lifestyles of Australians is … fundamental.” It might seem like progress that a statement about behaviour change can even appear in this paper, but this is just playing catch-up – many, worldwide, are actively exploring behaviour change programs, within and without governments. 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? This cannot and should not be done through diktat, but instead through skilful and perceptive crafting of localizing systems, through initiatives that respectfully shape culture away from our current “lifestyles” and their associated consumption habits.

We would do well to find richer ways of engaging with people beyond simplistic focus groups, exploring what Witold Rybczynski calls “demand-side urbanism,” but this can only be an agent for change if it shapes what demand is to some degree.

Media 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 suburbanization (watch The City, 1939, at archive.org). Shows such as Grand Designs Australia partly underpin the vast increases in living space per person and home size, while 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 in terms of carbon emissions – this reinforces an imperative to build less and to build smarter when we do. This paper, however, does not cast things in this light.

Government

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’s 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.

Angles

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.

1. Hyper-localization

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 only see opportunities to introduce new transport or building types, rather than reimagine 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 genuinely sustainable approach would actually be a program of hyper-localization 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 be sourced from local materials and labour, and distributed locally too. As John Thackara points out, this pattern is beginning to emerge in all kinds of industries. The likes of Coca-Cola 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, 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 past 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, fifty-four to sixty-eight cents of additional economic activity is created locally. If a dollar is spent at a national franchise, only fourteen 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 fifty kilometres per hour. 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.

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 organizing 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?

2. Un-building

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 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. 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 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. Architects do this to some degree, although they 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 particularly 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.4

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 of the Grattan Institute 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 or ambition about it.

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. 

1. www.tehtavasuomelle.fi/

2. inside.org.au/paying-for-australias-infrastructure-deficit/

3. 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 subsidization of homeownership over generations has actually “undermined the American dream.” Here, this hegemonic ideal of homeownership has been unthinkingly imported and exaggerated from the UK, whose own fetish with homeownership is brilliantly detailed in John Lanchester’s book Whoops, and need not have the primacy it does in Australia. ”Australia needs a greater mix of thinking, an orchestration of multiple voices genuinely exploring a positive reinvention of its patterns of settlement.”

4. For more on an extended idea of design practice for architects and urban designers, see the discussion that ensued at Amsterdam-based Melbournian and architect Rory Hyde’s blog recently, after his piece Potential Futures for Design Practice – roryhyde.com/blog/?p=614. See also the work of Finnish innovation agency Sitra’s strategic design function, in particular the Helsinki Design Lab program, in which I’ve been fortunate enough to take part – http://helsinkidesignlab.org/pages/what-is-strategic-design


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