Sunday, February 7, 2016

THE RATIONAL SHAPING OF SURFACES - TOWN PLANNING IN SHETLAND AND IN GENERAL


The immediate response to the reading of the article in The Shetland Times was that one should write to the editor to highlight the silly inconsistencies in planning matters, and to argue yet again that this profession should be abolished. The front page of The Shetland Times of Friday 17th April 2015 carried an illustrated article on a 'monster' house. The title of the piece was 'Lerwick view blocked by 'monster' house.' 'The accompanying photograph by Dave Donaldson showed 'Partners Anna Damowska and Mark Goodhand with the new house being built directly behind their back garden.' In the background behind the heads of Anna and Mark as they stand in their garden is a large gabled roof form that looks to be as high as a two-storied building.



The article tells how this new house blocked the view from the garden and overlooks the adjacent private open space - the garden that the couple were standing in. In spite of the objections of several other residents, the article reports that 'planning officials approved the application as it did not contravene guidelines' - 'planning rules state that people are not entitled to a view.' The report explained that 'They are entitled to daylight . . . and it was deemed there would be no significant loss of light to Mr. Goodhand's house, and his privacy would not be badly affected.' It seemed obvious to anyone looking at the photograph that the new house - 'a nine-apartment, five-bedroom house with an integral garage and a "value of work" of 300,000 pounds' - did loom over the private garden, and did block out some of the sky that the garden was once exposed to. One could not gauge the impact on view as this was now apparently blocked out, but something of the previous amenity had obviously been lost. Still, it seems, the planners could not care less. One had seen this situation previously – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/notes-on-development-application.html One had to write to the editor - but no: why bother? Editors only like 'man eat dog' stories. They are rarely interested in rational argument that might highlight the problems of an issue and suggest a resolution; they like the story of the 'interesting' hassle, of the tribulations of the problem itself; the more obscure and on-going, the better – or so it seems after having issues ignored on many occasions by various editors.



The Shetland Times is not unique in this regard. The Australian does likewise. One knows from previous experience that any detailed response to this planning matter would never be published in Shetland. One article on Shetland dialect has been published by The New Shetlander – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/on-language-shetand-dialect.html , but this publication balked at publishing a critical article on the Mareel: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/05/the-mareel-new-arts-complex-for-lerwick.html The Shetland Times did express some interest in publishing a critical article on wind turbines – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2015/02/shetland-wind-farming-quiet-and-distant.html , but seems to have backed off. Island life is intriguing. Certain interests are rarely challenged: see – http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2015/02/shetland-wind-farming-quiet-and-distant.html on Shetland Reel gin. One reads blunt letters by locals, but having an individual who is perceived as an 'outsider' criticise anything local, is really not desirable, especially if the situation is self-evident, and the argument reasonably convincing. Situations like this are, it seems, best ignored. So it was decided not to respond to the planning matter. The plea from Mr. Goodhand seemed reasonable - he 'called on the planning service to be more compassionate.'

The article was '(continued on page three)', so the page was turned. There was a new headline and a new photograph for the remainder of the report that was located under a still bolder headline and a bigger photograph: 'Plastic windows are a no-go at former guest house Bonavista' stood out in thick black letters above an image of a typical two-storied Lerwick Georgian dwelling with a basement and dormer windows. The windows had dark frames. The inset showed one particular window in no more detail other than that the upper sash opened as an awning widow. The article explained: 'two planning applications which would change the appearance of listed buildings were rejected by the council planning committee - and could mean one home owner ripping out work already done.' The report continued: 'Applicant Nigel Timberlake had submitted a retrospective planning application to install new railings and basement windows at Varis House, formerly known as Bonavista guest house. But planning officials deemed the work was not in character with the originals in the B-listed building, which is in the Lerwick conservation area on the corner of Church Road and Greenfield Place. . . . Attention should have been given to "preserving or enhancing the character and appearance of the area," according to planning officer Dan Stewart.'




It seemed simply a coincidence that two different planning issues, views and heritage, could come together like this, as the situation highlights everything that is askew with planning matters. One could only think that Mr. Goodhand might have been pleased to have had the 'character and appearance ' of his garden preserved and enhanced: but no. The second photograph shows how his garden space now looks over a low paling fence into a new house that is twice the height of his rear shed, looming over his private space. What on earth are planners doing? Mr. Goodhand noted that 'he was "disappointed" with the planning service, who only sent him a "silly" letter - it was the usual jargon, no compassion about it.' He added that it "might as well have been written in Chinese". He wanted planners 'to come into his house and garden and see the problem for themselves.' One instinctively knows that this will not happen. Planners have a history of showing no interest in real outcomes, merely in interpreting the rules. It is this stupidity that makes one call for the profession to be abolished - maybe 'significantly changed' would do.


One recalls the events in a very modest planning application in Corinda, Brisbane, Australia where the planner was told that the twentysix, six-metre high trees that he insisted be shown along the one metre wide boundary strip on the plan as the solution to the 'Mr. Goodhand' problem of loss of privacy that had been part of the objection to the over-development of the neighbouring block, would never fit and would never grow in the space allocated. But planners always know better and just ignore everyone else. The outcome - not one tree of this proposed green screen was ever planted and the completed development was signed off, regardless of the condition to provide privacy. Planners like process only. Outcomes are as irrelevant as other opinions and people's lives. One soon learns that planners are always right, no matter what else might have happened in the area, or how sensible one's idea or objection might be.




The importance of planning for people and outcomes
The world has more planners than ever before and the cities, towns and villages are all just getting worse, apart from heritage places that do not change. These precincts, so it seems, are an easy matter to police – just do nothing. It appears that planners have an interest only in the formulation of town plans and guidelines, and in their application, their interpretation. They have no interest in real outcomes. Mr. Goodhand has no chance of getting the planners into his home - the planners think that they are always right: "Go away!" Yet Mr. Goodhand is right: compassion is needed.


The problem with planners is not simply a lack of compassion, but it is a core deficiency. Their training tells them nothing about this. Architects are interested in such matters, but planners have no knowledge of any such issues - and they do not seem to care. Yet it is their rules, guidelines and interpretations that shape the profiles, the surfaces of the environment made by others - including architects. Planners define heights, setbacks, materials, even colours, but they know nothing about these matters other than as a set of rules that they have the power at law to implement. Planners are powerful. They can insist on work being demolished, as Mr. Timberlake has found out. They can insist on a building being repainted to comply with the colours listed in the plan. There is nothing that says that planners have to be consistent. They can do whatever, however, just as long as they can argue their case, prove it by rational argument, using, as Mr. Goodhand has found out, every piece of jargon that can baffle and confuse. Planners are a serious problem. If the profession in not prepared to change, it must go.


The profession is irrational. When asking about a possible concession to height - about half a metre - on a small extension, the over-the-counter advice was to make a submission in writing. It appeared that the argument might be considered in this special context. So the submission was made. Four weeks later a letter was received saying that the rules defined the heights. Months after, the local paper carried an article on how a developer had been allowed to exceed the allowable height for high-rise development because a small public path was being provided. The local Councillor had promoted this project. This is planning? No, this is stupid. Little wonder that the world is getting the 'Goodhand' outcomes everywhere. Planners have no interest in outcomes, in sense of place, in feeling for form. They have no training in these matters and are not expected to get any. Anyone can become a planner, from any background. It might make more sense to establish planning a second degree that requires architecture as its base. It might be better to just do away with planners. They have become an impediment to consistent, quality outcomes.


One problem is that plans are getting written in such an obscure and ill defined manner that almost any outcome to be facilitated; that all applications can be approved if so desired: see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2016/02/will-development-applications-always-be.html The world is becoming a shambles. There is no interest in plans that can achieve precise outcomes. One thinks of early Lerwick that established a rule that, with the harbour-front development, all buildings should be positioned end-on to the harbour front in order to provide a sense of 'equity/equality' to minimise any advantage that could be gained with an extra-long frontage. The town shows how successful the rule as been - and others too: Commercial Street, the connecting lanes, even the Georgian area up and over the hill behind. All of the planning rules in these developments have given us historic Lerwick that is admired today, and protected, as Mr. Timberlake as discovered. Such control and preservation is easy for planners - just keep what is there and do not change. It is the new work that is the shambles, the outskirts of Lerwick - indeed, the outskirts of any place today. Planners appear to not know what to do to create an organic sense of place or to simply respect the landscape.


Mareel photographed from the preferred location
Just south of the town of Lerwick one passes terrible blocks of Council houses, and then climbs over a hill to see the greatest clutter of new houses, each trying to claim an importance and view irrespective of the others. This has been 'planned.' It is simply a messy chaos. The Mareel gets built at the water's edge in spite of flooding high tides already reaching the floor level of the nearby museum/archives building; in spite of predictions of rising seas; and in spite of any sense of civic space and location being considered for Lerwick: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2015/11/lerwick-public-toilet-planning-place.html Why? Where has the concern for place gone? There is no point in having rules or any interpretations that care nothing about context or consistency. There are colours defined in the LAP, the Local Area Plan, for Burleigh Hill in Queensland when the hill has blue homes, white roofs, purple homes, blue roofs – anything: and no one cares? Why have height rules when the house over the hill is well over six metres above the limit, and all that is said to justify the bland rejection of a few centimetres more, is that these are the rules that apply now? The sheer stupidity needs to be exposed: outcomes are irrelevant.


Commercial Street, Lerwick
There are many other examples: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/05/town-planning-visions.html ; http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/03/queenslands-power-tower.html ; http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/10/why-bother-with-town-plans.html ; http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/town-planning-concerns.html ; and http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/subtropical-urban-design-forum.html One hears of planners wanting windows where there are no rooms; wanting materials that have no functional sense; asking for 'historic' buildings to be matched when the building is a new replica! But planners have the law on their side, not common sense or compassion. As for enforcement, planners want things to be fuzzy in order to allow anything that will overcome potential problems. The Brisbane City Council has said that it will 'accommodate' developers in order to avoid courts making decisions that it might not like. The BCC wants to control everything with sloppy plans. It has even 'lost' documents and cares nothing about this at all! see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/05/planning-failures-who-cares.html

Lerwick Harbour
Planners and planning as it is now must go. It has to change if we have any hope of ever creating places that we can love. There is no point in caring for old places in ultimate detail when the new is so disordered and carelessly assembled. There is no point in defining shapes, profiles, materials, textures and surfaces when there is no concern for any impact that these might have on place, context or lives. Planners seem to be happy just with lose verbal matching. If we are to plan, then we need to define outcomes, know what these are, and be able to predict these, so that real situations are defined, prescribed and achieved. The ad hoc application of rules will not achieve anything but the mess that we now have. We need a vision - why else 'plan'? - that incorporates compassion and an intimate understanding of lives and place if we are to have any hope of building cities, towns or villages that can truly support living, feeling people, comfortably, in contentment, in a manner that can enrich lives rather than create a terrible shambles that has to be tolerated just because planners decide this to be so. This is not good enough.


Lerwick harbourside planning
We need rules that are creative, defining outcomes with a flexibility that has strength, certainty and coherence. Consider Edward de Bono's lateral thinking (a phrase coined in 1967) on managing of factory waste: the example was of the factory that uses water from a stream and then discharges waste into this stream, downstream. If the rule was that the factory had to discharge its waste upstream, then it might take pollution more seriously. Likewise, consider a car design that had the exhaust in the front of the car. We need rules like these, like the Lerwick harbour-side rule, that enforces real outcomes creatively. Demanding the defined height in every context whatever this might be, is a stupid idea that holds no life, no length, breadth or depth: no love - c.f. St Paul, Ephesians 3:18-19 - May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; And know that the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God. Height to a planner, it seems, can merely be enforced everywhere it is said to apply irrespective of anything and everything. It is dumb. Little wonder that planners like heritage controls.


Planning, planners, must start thinking laterally. This is no mere catchphrase or some academic analysis. It is critical if outcomes are to have any quality, sense, logic, coherence, and compassion. We must include love: care; concern for people and outcomes; yes, compassion. To live by rules alone promotes a dead rationalism that abhors everything but logic in a world where even the facts don't tell the truth, as Paul Auster noted; and planners rely on facts, and try to write them as rules to be re-interpreted to create our cites, towns and villages: our fabric for living; our daily support - everyday?


Town Planning needs to become husbandry:
Two Hundred Years of Farming in Sutherland The Story of my Family Reay D.G. Clarke. p.147
The word is husbandry: and husbandry is what farming is, always has been, and still is - even now. The original meaning of the word 'to husband' is to administer as a good steward: to manage with thrift and prudence; also to save . . . Our question should be, not, is farming efficient, but is it husbandry? If the husbandry is good, then, and only then, will it be efficient. Husbandry conveys the concept of careful management, so as to obtain the greatest good: conservation of resources: a sense of cherishing: thrift: above all an awareness of responsibility and continuity. These virtues defy economic evaluation. That does not make them unworthy of consideration. H., R. Fell
H.R.Fell: Proceedings of the Farmers' Club 1967.
The question is: is town planning good husbandry? It has to be, or it is useless, and an impediment to quality outcomes. If town planning is good, then, and only then, will it be efficient. It needs careful management, so as to obtain the greatest good: conservation of resources; a sense of cherishing; thrift; above all an awareness of responsibility and continuity.
Town planning needs to be totally reformed. Without good husbandry it is nothing but a self-interested game of silly rules: rationalism gone crazy. It will and can only give us crazy cities, towns and villages. Q.E.D.


Lerwick
p.187
The countryside will only blossom and yield her increase when the art and practice of good husbandry is faithfully and diligently applied. The soil is our heritage.
and so too with our cities, towns and villages: good planning is our heritage.
p.188
. . . they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness. They have made it desolate, and being desolate it mourneth into me; the whole land is made desolate because no man laydth it to his heart. Jeremiah XII vv.10 (part) & 11.
p.191
The future of human life on this earth depends on the well-being of that shallow six to ten inches or so of soil.

- and, one has to add, this needs good planning.

NOTE:
Surely the Shetland attitude to planning does not come from the local dialect that has a brash "spik it an lik it!" attitude? - see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/on-language-shetand-dialect.html


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