Monday, May 20, 2013

TOWN PLANNING VISIONS




Is there a new idea in town planning today? What is it? What vision drives town planning forward with enthusiasm and vitality? What gives it hope? What guides its ambitions; accommodates the essence of life in living: enlivens it? Once ideas drove visions - The Garden City; Utopia. These were patterns for living, grand ideas that could enthuse being, provide a ground for the hope of new and better futures. What do we have today?





Looking around the world one could be cynical and note that ‘towns/cities’ are in the worst state ever in the history of the universe, even though we have more town planners than ever before. Why? What is happening? The Garden City offered the promise of integrating the convenience of vehicular access with open green space for people, placing the home in between on a fingering geometry that cleverly provided continuity and separation for both vehicular roads and walking/cycling tracks, as well as green vistas as a background - foreground?- for the betterment of life and well being. What vision do we have today when green matters are so much more central to our lives? Is there anything other than the functional management of energy? Instead of the vision where every house should have some green, (Howard Garden City) or space, light and fresh air, (Corbusier), we hold visions for every house to be unique and uniquely clever with its energy systems and usage. There is no vision for any whole - our towns and cities - other than to accommodate everything new, somehow.




One has to fumble about in order to appreciate what the ideal might be today. Where does one start? If one looks at our cities today, there is no obvious or discernable concept or strategy that could be said to be the organizing principle. Even the generic concept of zoning and heights is being challenged by new developments that are encouraged to argue their case for difference and divergence. What might a new city look like if one had the opportunity to start from scratch? What might one do? What might the parameters be? What strategy might one begin with? What outcomes might one seek? What ideals?




Today’s cities have newer areas that cluster around older parts that are being changed within their finer fabric left from other, older times. Old centres are being gutted to make space for grand visions shaped in the form of buildings that indulge in their own presence rather than participate in any sense of civic place and neighbourly configuration. Even in smaller changes, the old patterns and scales are ignored in favour of the ambitions of the new that usually relate to maximising profit or enhancing matters personal. Governments once established the example of what might happen when towns/cities were made for people, but sadly, with the ever-repeated GFC excuse - the global financial crisis - governments are stepping aside, sacking their workforce, and relying on what they see as the ‘efficiencies of the private sector’ to drive change. Having worked in both private and public arenas, I can advise that if there is any so-called ‘efficiency’ in either enterprise, then the private sector can claim an efficiency in self-interest, while government can claim an ‘efficiency,’ so we are told time and time again, in the interest of the public - the people. The turning of the tide away from public service - it is a true term touching on commitment rather than a put-down as ‘fat cats’ - only opens the door to self-interest in both arenas. It is a shame as our cities are already suffering from years of neurotic government responses to the critique of so-called ‘waste’ when governments seek to build best for both place and community: the Taj Mahal is frequently used to disparage such developments with a critical putdown that harms both this iconic building and the proposed development. Now the ‘waste’ is being managed by private practice that seeks to maximise profit for itself while minimising quality and output; and governments just keep sacking their experienced staff, adding more woes to the efficiency drive. How can there be any efficiency when years and years of specialist knowledge and experience are thrown aside, willy-nilly? The loss of government expertise and know-how is simply astonishing. No politician cares.



So what might the visions be that drive us to make place today - to make our cities/towns? There seems to be nothing other than what one might refer to as ‘patchwork principles’, of assessing possibilities on the basis of what one might have to work with and then responding specifically to these criteria that establish the scope of concern as the brief. The broad concept appears to be one that looks for fit - not the fitness for purpose ideal of old, but how to best fit in ‘the most that can maximise benefits for me.’ There is a subtle irony here, because doing ‘the best for me’ might include doing something for the public, but minimally. Nothing is really clear - black and white; but the patchwork principle remains active and proactive. We patch our cities up now with our miniature bits and pieces concepts, like addressing the street; making safe places; people places; private place - all matters that linger from previous planning enthusiasms when ideals drove possibilities and discussions, enlivened them into public debate. Where is this today?




Our world is inward-looking; safe; cautious and indulgent. Town planning lingers on as a set of gathered sundries that can be selectively assembled to prove whatever, or to insist on whatever, just as politicians juggle words to justify any contradiction or failure - to make it appear rational and sensible. Just look at the latest harangues after the presentation of the Australian budget, (May 2013), that gave up on the certain prediction of four surpluses with the announcement of a whopping deficit of $19 billion, to be followed by yet another of $18 billion! No worries; no blame; no shame. It’s the GFC! Our planners seem to do likewise with their words that, in the same manner, seem to hold no essential meaning or assured outcome - weasel words with weasel outcomes: hollow forms without any guiding idealism other than convenience




What is there in any plan that can drive a vision that can give new outcomes; and real hope with change? One only has to look at any planning submission and read the nonsense  -no, let’s be plain: bullshit - that is there to justify anything that any developer wants to do: and it is taken seriously by those making approval assessments. Those who try to point out the problems are mocked outwardly, or more subtly, with an array of conditions that cannot and never will be enforced, if by any chance they might even be possible to implement. Frequently the words : ‘to the engineer’s/planner’s approval’ are used as a cover-all, last resort that dismisses all objections with an unknown outcome that could very well be the same as that being objected to:  see


Here are a few examples from one recent submission made by a planning firm:

An acoustic timber boundary fence is proposed adjacent to the proposed driveway - 1.8m high! Does sound know this? Is sound only 1.8m high?

The proposed development layout has been designed to achieve suitable aspect orientation where feasible. And when not?

. . . to promote good access to sunlight for private open space areas where feasible. Gosh, might it be otherwise?

The building’s appearance of bulk is reduced by the placement of balconies recesses and overhangs. (sic) Various materials such as timber and rendering have also been used. Is variety the spice of architecture?

The roof includes skillions. The balconies have been designed to add interest to the building and reduce bulk. What is ‘interest?’

As the site is in walking distance of public transport, visitors and tenants will be encouraged to use public transport. How? Will residents and visitors be fined if they choose not to use public transport?

The proposed vehicle parking areas have been screened by a 1.8m fence and vegetation . . . Acoustic screening has been provided next to vehicle movements along the side boundary. This is dwarf sound too!

The proposed multi-unit dwelling will utilise traditional materials in the form of weatherboard cladding and tin roof, which will provide a pre-1946 appearance and complement existing homes within the surrounding area. Is character the copying of adjacent materials?

Due to the extent of the buildings, car manoeuvring areas and roads widening, not much of the existing vegetation will be retained. The site will however be landscaped to complement character of the area.

Due to the extent of development supported in the Low-Medium Residential Density Area, the development is limited in its capacity to retain trees. This is said as if the designer had no option; that it was Council’s fault that the site has to cleared rather than the ambitions of the developer!

Each building will be distinguishable through the inclusion of roofs with varying pitch, length and shape contributing to the overall architectural distinction. What is ‘architectural distinction’ and does self-conscious variation necessarily achieve this?



One does not have to look far for examples of trite nonsense in planning reports.


Planned Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


The ‘modus operandi’ appears to be to make sure that the words mention everything that might be contentious, and to propose an interpretation as a set of words that can overcome any potential problem even if the description means nothing and has no relevance to outcomes or functions. These are true weasel words. The astonishing logic that argues that all trees have to go because of the size of the development is just as irrational as the low acoustic fence and the rules for ‘architectural distinction.’ Yet, in spite of this stupidity, the words are accepted and approvals are given. Cynicism and doubt are never alerted.





Little wonder that our towns/cities are in such a poor situation. How on earth can any authority ‘encourage’ anyone to use public transport, an argument that is obviously meant to try to overcome the objection that the proposed development does not have sufficient parking for tenants or visitors - which is so: one car per unit (26) with 6 visitor spaces. It is this astonishing nonsense that needs to be thrown out, not even accepted as being reasonable for any submission. It is truly an insult; and when the completed development is shown to have problems, these are either ignored, (the letter will come that tells one that Council intends to ignore all future correspondence on this matter - I have received one from our ex-Mayor now Premier, Newman!), or approved with another submission to formalise the non-complying work. We need much more rigour as well as some vision in the form of an unambiguous plan that can achieve quality outcomes.




Plans that allow words to guide substance that does not exist and can never be implemented have to go. Developments that are poor have to be rejected. The cry for ‘natural justice’ is used to allow anything and everything to be approved. There is nothing natural or just about this charade of the clever use of words, as if the submission was a political debate. When acoustic barriers in the form of six-metre trees are approved in locations in which such trees will never fit let alone grow, and this position is defended even when this is pointed out, then we get close to bullying; or is it just plain pigheaded ignorance? One cannot cheat with trees, just as one cannot cheat with sunlight: simple, basic life has the rigour that is missing in the process. Yet still approving planners always know better. Is this corruption? It is certainly the corruption of simple argument and process: see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/notes-on-development-application.htm




The result is some naïve interpretation of context; matching; scale; requests for fake windows or silly colours, or awkward functional relationships just for a preferred form; or to conform to a dimension, or some dream of a street relationship, or a perceived safety issue; or stepping a wall for interest, a curve for excitement, to distort the horrid flatness of a wall, like the step in height to conform likewise to rules or appearance, or someone’s’ idea of these planning platitudes. Planning is legislated; architecture is, at the best, barely tolerated. After all anyone can be an architect - even better than one because architects are just a waste of money. The perception is that you have to tell them what to do or else they will send you broke; and/or give you buildings that just don’t work, prompting the cliché, ‘wouldn’t you have thought’  . . . .   and it continues latently . . . that someone who has spent six years studying might know how to design a building that doesn’t leak; or a kitchen bench that is the right height and width. Even the local builder can do this!!! “It’s all jest common sense!” says the ‘cow cocky know all.’* There is little jest in these positions. They are all serious because the profession does little to change this understanding. The planning profession does not have to suffer the blasts of the common man, the common man has to suffer the blasts of the planners because law gives planners complete power, complete with their cliché perceptions that become figments of someone else’s wish list.


Planned Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


There is no care or feel for anything in such planning documents; and this is reflected in the projects too, that become just a game of applying rules and ticking boxes that are so loose that they can all be ignored if one chooses to argue appropriately inappropriately. There is no intent to structure a precise outcome with any specific set of performance aims or criteria, be these functional, social or cultural; individual or civic. The whole concept is to get approval for the maximum profit with the minimum outlay.




Planners ask for matching; patching; for heights, colours, setbacks, all as a formula when it might be clear that a proposal is nonsense even when it can be shown to have complied with everything. This is not planning; it is cheating, manipulating in the way a debater uses words and ideas: confusing the obvious with the logic of language. If we are unable to get any little development right, how can our cities become anything but a shambles - the shambles that we know them as today?




We need to reassess where we are with our cities. We need a new debate. We need to throw out everything in order to see what possibilities might be best for us today, and for those of tomorrow. Where is the spirit in planning? Where are the guiding ideas and ideals? We need new theory, not just a weak amalgamation of clichés and platitudes from the past. We need light and clarity to drive us with new visions that can enthuse and enliven, become the catalyst for more of the same in every aspect of being. Today we have an accumulation of clutter that can be pushed around to allow anything to be approved with our attempts to be ‘fair’ to everyone, offering ‘natural justice’ for all, including fools, cheats and charlatans. All we get is the worst for everyone - the lowest of denominators.




Ideas/ideals need to be explored, exposed, experimented with and examined with rigour and commitment. We seem to have lost this drive, this dedication to steadfastness in our accommodation of indulgence. We might have to say ‘NO’ to many things if the city is to thrive once more. We might have to fight for our cities; but we need to know what we all want them to be first, or else the shambles will continue. Premeditation and intent do, after all, shape our cities, towns, villages and countryside. If we want these to gain rigour and respect rather than merely leave them languish in the mire of motorways and developers’ visions, then a new commitment must arise, squash the whimsy wallowing in the current planning mire and raise it to the solid ground of certainty in the clarity of theory.




Even if we get this wrong it will be better than what we have and are doing now: gathering self-centred ‘ME’ buildings that scream out for attention over old patterns of place willy-nilly, wherever; however. Indeed, the breaking of these patterns only adds to the primal scream of the bespoke that seems to be our only interest. The question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ remains a judicial and biblical anachronism that has no role in our cheek by jowl juxtapositioning that has more cheek than jowl, although the jowls drop at the astonishing boldness of things that know no doubt or shame. Maybe more personal and intimate matters need to be addressed first - humility; love; compassion; care? Our concerns seem to be based on a rude and raw lie of rationalism that is devoid of feeling: to become merely a legal or political expression of fake feeling for the issues that can give personal or political gain - or, preferably, both. It is sad to see causes become political pawns. Town planners are behaving likewise with language games and sloppy approvals.




Start now! Envisage possibilities for planning that can truly make a difference and offer a framework for a new enthusiasm that can bellow out its success as it reverberates in living life. Why else might one choose to plan, shape, design? Why else plan anything?


“For what shall it profit a man . . . .?” Mark 8:36 KJV.


*P.S.
The report of 22nd May 2013 that tells of Queensland's intentions to allow cattle into National Parks and Nature Reserves highlights the 'common sense' approach of  'cowboys.' These special areas occupy less than five percent of the State but still no commitment can be made to protect them for future generations. Sadly, it is the same lack of rigour and care that exists in Town Planning.


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