Saturday, August 18, 2012


view of proposal adjacent to Story Bridge, Brisbane

The Brisbane City Council organised what it labelled an ‘Advisory Group’ meeting to discuss town planning and design issues with local professionals in 2002. It was an initiative that sought to expose problems and develop some constructive strategies to improve both processes and outcomes. Like the Subtropical Forum (see Subtropical Urban Design Forum this event took place over ten years ago. The response published here was sent to the organisers. It is worthwhile reviewing it today as it does highlight problems with planning processes that still seem worthy of consideration, not only to know where we have come from, but how we might have attended to these matters over the last ten years.

Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928), the 'father' of modern town planning and the 'garden city' movement


Thank you for the invitation to attend the discussion on the Town Plan and the Design Advisory Group. I find that on such introductory occasions I attend to collect information, ponder on my experience and develop a position by reverie and reflection rather than just stand up and speak on whatever comes into my mind in the present moment. Of course, this is no criticism of those who do! I have for some time now been closely involved with the Gold Coast Town Plan and its application at Springbrook and Burleigh. I will use these experiences to identify the problems as I see them, as my work in the State Government has, at least up to this stage, not been heavily involved in local planning issues. The examples are my interpretations/understanding of my experiences that have been expressed previously. It appears to me that my interpretations are rationally established from my involvement in these matters. Others might have differing understandings, but the logic of the position can still make sense if only by way of example with a ‘what can happen if . . . . ’ question.

While the Brisbane Town Plan may be free from all the problems I read into the Gold Coast Plan and its implementation, the advantage in using the Gold Coast Plan as a reference for complaint is that it is not directly complaining to the BCC. Perhaps this might come later. My concern is that matters should be managed objectively rather than dragging up issues that have been a particular professional concern to any specific office or individual. Snippets of this position arose in the discussion that evening. It always makes the objective position more difficult to clarify.

The idea to collect my thoughts and make a presentation on Town Planning issues as I see them came to me after attending a seminar on planning presented by the Gold Coast planners. I have asked the organisers of this series presented in Brisbane to give me time to present the planning position as seen from the ‘other side’, and have formalised this request in a submission that gave an outline of my presentation. No response to my request has ever been received. This seems to be one of the problems with planners: they appear not to be interested in the real outcomes or the implications of their decisions; rather they seem to love to live in their hypothetical ideal world of words, charts, schedules and diagrams. It seems a little like the experts that spend their lives in the theory of construction contracts. Everything sounds fine until it comes into practice; and even then their ‘expert’ solutions to every problem remain in the world of dreams. And the reason? – things are always much more complex, interwoven and diverse – and more ephemeral – than any analysis, prescription or conjecture can ever rationally define. This is one of the concerns with any plan, and indeed, with any judgemental group.

Yet it seems that some of the most loved cities in the world did have precise rules for development. The traditional 5 to 7 storey height of Paris, Barcelona, Munich and Milan, for example, gives a fabric, scale, texture and density that make each place special in its own particular context and history. Perhaps this is because it has been so well enforced? I recall the story where, in Barcelona, Gaudi was forced to reduce the height of one of his projects in order to comply with the regulations. It is a problem I will talk about later. San Gimignano’s apparently ad hoc towers offer an alternative that is equally beautiful. But even mentioning these will give rise to interjecting possibilities and complexities that one cannot develop here. Our difficulty today is: how do we learn to build with some integrity and responsibility? It is interesting to ponder that our problem may indeed be spiritual, requiring ‘a nobility of purpose and a refinement of expression’. It is a point that I will not labour, as it is such an unfashionable position that it is aggressively pushed aside in favour of easier, smarter, more ‘rational’ analysis.

On my Gold Coast critiques, one may wonder why I have not taken these matters up with the Gold Coast City Council rather than raising them with the BCC by way of example. Over a period of ten years, I have raised all matters of concern with the GCCC both by way of personal representation and in lengthy written submissions. It was interesting on one occasion when I met with the head planners, that they described themselves as 'artists'. I suggested 'bullshit artists' might be appropriate, highlighting the odd mix of idealism, compromise and neglect that has been experienced over time.

The Springbrook experience has been one that has stretched over many years. My involvement in Springbrook is through the Springbrook/Wunburra Progress Association Incorporated. I am presently president of this Association. Over the years I have been involved at Springbrook, there have been numerous planning applications for development and various reviews of planning documents - strategic plans, development control plans, local area plans and the town plan. The Association has made detailed submissions to the GCCC on all occasions. The Association has also lodged objections to many developments and has taken the GCCC to court when it approved a golf course in this water catchment area. Unfortunately this has only aggravated relationships. The Association is now labelled an irresponsible ‘trouble maker’ rather than having its’ input seen as a genuine critique, with intentions being only to maintain good outcomes in accordance with Council’s own plans. This aggravation is supported by some in the community who have not made the fortunes they hoped their proposed development applications might achieve.

Generally the pattern of development applications on Springbrook seems to have been, from our perspective:

The developer/applicant meets with the local member and planning officials of the Council, along with a private professional planner if one is involved. Prior to this the developer/applicant may have met with the local member on site. The meeting with the Council officers generally discusses the proposal and its particular potentials and problems, and devises ways to facilitate the application if it is seen to be generally acceptable or desirable. If it ‘stretches the limits’ or goes beyond the Town Plan and is still seen to be desirable, (often for unstated reasons), the Council officers formulate ways whereby it might be seen to be interpreted as being able to be accommodated within the Town Plan or any other useful document: ‘Oh! I see now. It’s not a restaurant but a cafeteria. That’s different!’ when it is the very same application - earlier rejected - that is now supported, perhaps by the ‘recommended’ planner collecting a fee of some thousands of dollars for a supporting report. It is interesting here to note that because of the seemingly vague drafting of the legal planning documents, one document is able to be used to promote something that may be excluded or disallowed in another.

After this inaugural meeting, the developer/applicant makes the submission to Council. Sometimes it has been reported to us that Council officers give advice to developer/applicants on just which Town Planning firm/individual could be (should be) used to help prepare the formal application if one has not already been appointed. This Association has seen applications that openly describe the Planning Officer as the 'collaborative designer', suggesting that officers sometimes become very much involved in the making and shaping of the proposal that will eventually be assessed by him/her.

On receipt of the application and the starting of the process where public objections are sought, Council has found ways to counter objections apparently to ensure that the commitment or advices given in the early discussions are indeed the outcome. The first method seems to be for Council to encourage, (or to have others encourage), submissions that are in favour of the project. It appears that because Council had to address serious issues raised in the objections, it determined that a submission supporting a project could be accepted as a ‘positive’ objection. This turned the public submissions into a numerical game that could be analysed as ‘x’ in favour, ‘y’ against – the ‘x-s,’ that can seemingly always be organised in sufficient numbers, have it. This calculation seemed to take no account of the substance of the document, with a simple, almost inarticulate, ‘I’m in favour’ note holding as much importance as a carefully structured analysis of the weaknesses of the application.

Once this process has been implemented, the serious points raised by the ‘negative’ objections are then confronted. This process seems to seek out ways of negating these important points. This appears to be managed either by way of argument (you are wrong) or by way of ‘conditions’ that are framed with the apparent intent of overcoming all objections. In this way the Council can be seen to be responding to the serious matters but can still approve the scheme in accordance with the early advice given at the first meetings. It is like a fake ‘win-win’ scenario that is actually a ‘win-lose’: Council wins; ‘negative’ objectors lose again.

These conditions can take various forms: they can be conditions that require precise actions ‘to the Engineer’s satisfaction’; or they can spell out solutions to the particular problem identified in the objection. It seems to be a way of designing a framework that can alter the application without incurring the need for any new application. Indeed, new applications of ‘corrected’ documents are very rare, even with serious errors in applications. Council decrees everything to be satisfactory.
The project is then approved. If the developer is serious, then the project goes ahead to completion. That the various conditions are part of the approval seems to matter not at all. They are left to the ‘Engineer’s satisfaction’ that seems to mean nothing in practice other than Council will approve it.

After the project is up-and-running, Council seems to care little for the actual details of the conditions and appears to have no way in which to ensure they are complied with; nor does it seem interested in enforcing these conditions. That an approval for a children’s camp becomes a motel, and a conditional water transport approval becomes ignored in nearly every detail only seems to cause Council (once it has been pointed out) to meet with the developers and seek a way to modify the conditions. That this can occur privately without any need for public consultation appears to offer a gaping loophole in the planning controls. The outcomes of prior public comment can be manipulated to suit Council and developer in private agreement without public knowledge.

It is all a very unfortunate process that appears to be able to avoid any and every awkward planning restriction. It is the initial strategy that becomes the blue print for the scheme – the scheming? Planning needs to be much better than this. If it means that the process must become segmented to be managed separately by individuals without any necessary connections, and that Council and Councillors must withdraw from the process that becomes managed properly under the strict guidance of the Town Plan and other documents, then this should be implemented.

This means that Town Plans and the other documents must be more precise and must become less ambiguous so that the political ambitions do not interfere with the planning intentions. What this can be seen to be is a call for a separation of powers at the planning level. The Plan should define everything that needs to be known so that developers can put submissions to Council that can then review the submissions without any need for cosy arrangements, private advices and manipulations.

The previous GCC Council CEO described this process by way of justification as a ‘learning process,’ arguing that developers were naïve and needed the guidance of Council officers to ensure the process could achieve the best outcome. I see this as the CEO ‘spin doctoring’ the situation. It must be commented that the ‘collaborative designer’ did not stay in his position very long after this was pointed out to the CEO; but then neither did the CEO! It seems that one can only remain critical in silence about these matters as one might try to theorise about their cause.

I did mention that there were Burleigh experiences with the Planners also. This involved a property on Burleigh Hill that had been subdivided for many years but was never developed. When the workmen suddenly appeared on site one day with bulldozers, I wondered about the mature trees. The workmen showed me the plan. The earlier subdivision proposal had been altered without public notice to include an extra two blocks, all rearranged to have seven in a group title and three as separate, freehold blocks. The group title blocks gathered around a private road that ran along a boundary. The plan showed that the whole block was to be totally cleared. After a day of agitation that involved the media and many discussions with Councillors, Planners and the Australian Conservation Foundation, it was only after an appearance on the local news that evening that the CEO telephoned and gave assurances as to the tree clearance, (it would be minimised), adding that Council would insist on planting three trees for every one that had to be removed for house construction. This also meant that the road on the boundary was to be shifted to avoid a stand of some thirty mature trees. Subsequently it turned out that a young planner had approved the tree removal for this development but had never visited the site.

The tree clearing went ahead, the road was moved and the ‘landscaping’ took place at the very end of the process. During this time Council had to be regularly prompted to ensure that trees were protected. More trees than agreed were removed because of ‘safety’ reasons. This meant that trees over thirty metres tall were taken out rather than insisting on any modification to the plans in order to keep them. In spite of the ‘tree’ regulations, there is always an excuse to take trees out.

The real surprise with this development is just why it was allowed at all. Council has rules and restrictions about developing steep sites that seemed to be being ignored. It was only with one development at Springbrook that Council realised that subdivisions did not have to be advertised for public comment. Subdivision approvals could all happen within closed walls. Prior to this occasion, subdivisions were advertised. Council has apparently been happy to continue with ‘private’ approvals.

And the lighting? Planners had never thought about this and gave assurances that the lighting would be low level. No, it has gone in as normal street lighting.

And the homes? The Development Control Plan for the Hill makes it clear: homes should sit on the hill, not stand high on stilts. Nearly every house stands on stilts.

And the trees? Maybe one could agree that at least one plant went in for each tree that was removed, nearly as agreed, but these are not large trees. But some of these plants have died and have not been replaced. Nearly all the new plants are ‘decorative’ rather than native trees.

So again we see Council as having all the best intentions, (after being placed under pressure), with no way of ensuring that these controls are indeed achieving the dedfined outcome! And building approvals seem to go ahead without any reference to other bodies. One house at Springbrook was approved on a site that was the subject of a previous planning application, but was never amalgamated with its neighbouring block. The commercial development was carefully structured only on its own parcel of land, leaving this other block, that was a part of the original project proposal, undeveloped. Council missed this subtlety – opportunity lost forever. Council’s ‘plan’ has gone astray.

So in spite of all the Plans, this steep Burleigh Hill site has been cleared and developed in a way to suit the developer. The block of land that was the designated ‘park’ required for the subdivision has been planted with fruit trees by the neighbour who has colonised this property that is too steep to walk upon safely, let alone run or play on it. It is interesting to note that the DCP for the Hill lists the plant species that should be planted. Not one of the plants placed on the site is on this list! Councils must do better than this. If there are plans they must be enforced, otherwise they can be seen as mere political white wash, (hog wash?), to allow anything to happen with the boast that there is the Plan. It could very well be one with a ‘red herring’ status.

Generally this review/critique on GCCC planning procedures has been described by way of a ‘what not to do’ scenario. There are probably a range of experiences that need to be exposed for review, because it is only with the understanding of the weaknesses of the processes that one can respond appropriately – that is, hopefully, sorting out the problems so that the process is entirely open and transparent with all the rules for action being understood and respected by all. It does mean that Councils need to be very articulate about futures and real outcomes, and be skilful enough not to remain simplistic and totally prescriptive. The ‘Paddington’ lattice and ‘old house’ image used to promote contextual relationships is too prescriptively narrow. Open rules for action are needed: rules that can modify and manage outcomes without having to make cities boring and stodgy, or historical replicas. We need good plans and good intentions, or else all these old problems will continue unabated, allowing anything to occur. The rules of the lateral thinking type are a good model to try to explain possibilities, like the one that wants factories to dispose of all waste upstream. Imagine the impact on vehicle output if the waste gases had to be disposed of at the very front of the vehicle near the air intake. We need to be able to allow anything to occur within a strict set of open rules that are managed with rigour and commitment. Then even the most critical and outspoken detractors might be happy!


Note that such ‘Design Advisory’ committees are really not in place to manage the critics of this world. Nor are they there to modify architects ‘visions’ – blame Ruskin and Pevsner for this! Both these giants taught us to see ordinary buildings as being different to architecture; that architecture was 'something added.' Such committees are really there to manage the awful, careless work that seeks only maximum gain for minimum effort and outlay. If there is a vision, it needs to hold some integrity beyond crass commercialism. Modified visions are the other source of concern, where developers grasp an idea and mash it up to suit their profit - making nightmares out of dreams.

 No response was ever recieved to this communication. Good planning still seems to be confronted with the same problems that thrive on clichės, words and the intrigues of power.

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