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Tales of the City
Urban Design


Planning as Misguided Faith in the Impossible
Russell Degnan

As part of an ongoing attempt to define what planning actually is, some six years after I started learning about it, I've begun a reading group with some equally misguided collaborators. To that end, we plan to work through assorted key texts from the past thirty years, beginning with the low-point of rational planning, that, in a way, marks the beginning of alternatives.

Wildavsky, A. 1973, "If Planning is Everything Maybe it's Nothing", Policy Sciences, v.4, p.127

Rittel, H., Webber, M. 1973, "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning", Policy Sciences, v.4, p.155

Published in the same journal, these two papers present two fascinating criticisms of our ability to plan, one expressing hopelessness, the other bordering on contempt.

Wildavsky begins by trying to define planning, distinguishing between attempts to plan - to create a plan, or to make rational decisions - and the ability to have control over the future. The semantic confusion over what planning is, in many ways being the key theme of the article, but one that needs resolving if one is to judge the efficacy of planning as an activity. Is it an activity to be judged according to its inputs - the quality of its planning - or its outputs - its success. And more importantly, when are we actually engaging in planning, in order to judge it; as Wildavsky says:

"Since practically all actions with future consequences are planned actions, planning is everything, and nonplanning can hardly be said to exist"

The remainder of Wildavsky's work consists of dead-ends, each pursuing some conception of planning to show that, in fact, planning is always something else. Thus, planning as causation - the ability to predict the effect of actions, and therefore choose them rationally - is, regardless of whether there is a plan, merely another form of decision making.

Planning is, therefore, merely a form of power - "the probability of changing the behavior of others against opposition" - or politics. But power is necessarily limited, and planners, not being dictatorial governors, are also limited, perhaps irreparably. The plan itself shares a similar limitation. Objectives must necessarily change with circumstances, but too many changes imply a lack of planning whatsoever. To plan in an adaptive way avoids the problem of "future control", and becomes, by Wildavsky's reasoning, indistinguishable from any other form of decision making. A logical pattern repeated for planning as process - as goal directed behaviour, indistinguishable from goal directed decision making.

But if planning is just decision making, then Wildavsky argues, perhaps instead it can be judged against its intention - did it succeed? Here too lies a problem: when a plan fails, was it the fault of the plan, or was the plan itself merely a conduit for the decision making process. Plans stop being intentions to deliver and start being symbols of a policy process that is rational, efficient, coordinated and consistent. These goals though, are, again mere platitudes, indistinguishable from other forms of decision making contained within the machinations of bureaucratic governance.

The true meaning of the tile is thus derived. Planning is either indistinguishable from any other governance activity, or, it is a badge of honour, worn by professionals as a means of arguing for their specific forms of governance, and a (possibly costly) article of faith for those who believe that decision making should be rational and planned.

While unarguably true in some ways, Wildavsky clearly over-reaches in others. Planning may be merely dressed up decision making, but it is not clear whether the costs of those plans do indeed outweigh some improvement in the decision making process. In the past I've argued against a formal bill of rights, on the basis that they rarely seem to matter when the rights are being questioned, that indeed, like plans, they are no more than well intentioned articles of faith. An interlocutor disagreed, arguing that those symbolic words meant something - they affected the relations of power, merely by existing. Plans too, may do that, provided they point somewhere - which is not necessarily the case these days.

There is some hope to be derived from Rittel and Webber's equally disparaging article on the technical problems of planning. Rather than stretching across the gamut of planning definitions, Rittel and Webber consider planning from a position of power, where planners are capable of directing and solving problems from within a sympathetic government. Here the problem of planning is not governance but ability.

Planning problems, they argue, are wicked, meaning they: are ill-defined problems ("the formulation of a wicket problem is the problem); are never ending; have ill-defined solutions; have innumerable potential solutions; are essentially unique; are merely the symptom of some broader problem; are immune to logical hypothesis testing; and require solutions that work.

Effectively, Rittel and Webber argue something now taken for granted: that social problems are intractable by purely scientific means. Although their formulations are somewhat repetitive when taken together. Providing a solution that works is only necessarily if a solution could be judged objectively, which they have already dismissed. Being essentially unique is irrelevant if the problem is defined by the actor. As it is often said, "if all I have is a hammer, all problems look like a nail"; as above, such an approach is only a failure if somehow viewed objectively.

Stepping beyond mere problem solving, Rittel and Webber come to a similar conclusion to Wildavksy. In a pluralist society, planners are incapable of solving problems objectively, and are therefore only political players, not value-free experts. But as with Wildavsky, they overstate their conclusions, taking out the nuance whereby some solutions might still be considered "better", even in a pluralist society, and seemingly dooming planning completely:

"We are also suggesting that none of these tactics will answer the difficult questions attached to the sorts of wicked problems planners must deal with. We have neither a theory that can locate societal goodness, nor one that might dispel wickedness, nor one that might resolve the problems of equity that rising pluralism is provoking. We are inclined to think that these theoretic dilemmas may be the most wicked conditions that confront us."

Book Club 14th August, 2008 23:55:33   [#] [1 comment] 

Melbourne 2030 - Planning Rhetoric versus Urban Reality
Russell Degnan

Ch. 6 - Melbourne 2030: The Need for a Fundamental Review

See also: Ch. 1, Ch. 2, Ch. 3, Ch. 4, Ch. 5

The final, short, chapter summarises the arguments used to date, and focuses on the twin criticisms the authors have of Melbourne 2030. As discussed in previous posts, these criticisms are not necessarily compatible.

The primary criticism is that in order to achieve the environmental and population growth aims of Melbourne 2030, planners are willing to destroy Melbourne's liveability -- defined by the authors as leafy suburbia. The majority of the book, however, focused on problems of implementation, of which three problems are identified: the oft-mentioned lack of the government commitment to Melbourne 2030; that businesses want to be dispersed throughout the metropolis rather than in centralised locations; and that the activity centre housing strategy favours apartment-living when people would prefer detached housing.

The first point there is well established and not worth mentioning further. The government has underfunded Melbourne 2030, it has no inter-departmental support (even from the DOI), and it remains to be seen whether even the Urban Growth Boundary will be maintained.

The second seems to be a massive misreading of Melbourne 2030. If businesses want to be more dispersed -- and that is questionable, having more to do with office prices -- then dispersing them into activity centres makes sense. That businesses have a preference in some countries for completely ignoring the surroundign area is hardly an argument for letting them do so, particularly when doing so has several external costs.

The last point is more interesting. Melbourne 2030 is, as much as anything, a compromise. It seeks to preserve the suburbs from infill by putting that infill in activity centres. Birrell et al rightly see infill occuring in many places, rather than just poorly defined activity centres, but equate this with planners, instead of with economics. It isn't the case. Infill is occuring in spite of, not because of planners. Apartments being unpopular has meant tha demand for dispersed infill is higher than demand for denser accomodation where planners would like to put it. But this is an argument for stricter policies in Melbourne 2030, not fundamental reform.

By equating NIMBYist protectionism with "liveability" the authors raise the question of whether infill is bad. The problem, is that they have never show that it is; the chapter on streetscapes is terrible, and the old arguments against dense housing -- disease and over-crowding -- hardly apply in modern society.

The authors fail to argue against a denser city, especially given that the densities proposed will barely approach American, let alone European, or the ridiculously cited Japanese levels. Urban design and streetscapes are important, but in calling for a complete review of Melbourne 2030, the authors have shown neither that the goals are poor, nor that they are completely unrealistic.

Book Club 3rd April, 2006 01:32:47   [#] [0 comments] 

Melbourne 2030 - Planning Rhetoric versus Urban Reality
Russell Degnan

Ch. 5 - Residential Infill and its Threat to Melbourne's Liveability

See also: Ch. 1, Ch. 2, Ch. 3, Ch. 4

In many ways, of all of them, this chapter is the most coherent but least cogent. It makes two assertions, the first, based on the reasoning of previous chapters, that current legislation, the housing market and community preferences, all point towards more 'infill' housing -- medium density housing built on single dwelling blocks. And secondly, that this type of housing is antithetical to Melbourne's liveability and garden suburb nature with many canopy trees.

The first argument is broadly correct. As the authors argue, infill has several advantages. Firstly, cost. Semi-detached medium density houses sell for almost the same price as an old house in the middle and inner suburbs, allowing developers to buy and redevelop many existing properties. Secondly, demand. There are many more people who would like to live in the inner and middle suburbs than can currently, so while they would undoubtedly prefer a large landlot, a terrace house is an acceptable alternative. Thirdly, availability. There are a lot of large lots dotted through these suburbs and with the exception of heritage properties there is nothing in the regulatory environment to stop this.

As I've argued elsewhere high density living is neither necessary nor preferable except perhaps in the CBD and immediate surrounds. The demand for infill that has occured over the past decade and a bit would seem to indicate that people are willing to live in medium density housing when that choice is offered to them. Most importantly though, infill would appear to be a solution to the expected increase in population and household numbers in Melbourne, and the need for more housing that is within reasonable distance of the CBD.

The authors disagree with it as a solution however, and in their second argument we finally dig to the bottom of their real complaint with Melbourne 2030. Apparently, infill housing causes two problems: congestion and a loss of suburban character.

The section on congestion is so short as to be unworthy of mention. It amounts, essentially, to a complaint about the number of cars on the street. To which I can only say: who cares? Seriously. This is a non-issue, especially when it is put against the costs of an ever-expanding suburbia.

The suburban character complaint is more serious, but deeply deceptive. The authors show through a series of photos, urban infill without canopy trees, and older suburban streets with so many trees you can't see the houses. The argument being that infill leaves no room for trees, and the tree canopy suburbs allow. This is complete bullshit.

The pictures they show are real, but I could easily find pictures of suburbs denuded of trees, particularly new suburbs which is essentially what the authors are depicting when they show new infill. And I can also find pictures of medium density streets with extensive tree canopies: Canning Street in Carlton comes to mind, as does Harris Street, North Melbourne, or Harrison Street, Mitcham, and dozens of others. All have extensive flats or terrace houses, all have large trees covering the footpath and roads. To suggest that canopies don't exist in small backyards is to ignore some any number of beer gardens in inner suburbia: The Standard in Fitzroy, or the Town Hall in North Melbourne being but two.

When there is the best part of 30m of public space in front of properties in the form of a public road, the idea that front gardens are essential for tree canopies is ludicrous. Good streetscapes are important, and developers should pay attention to them, but they are not dependent on extensive setbacks, any more than the precious neighbourhood character of Boorondara is dependent on its large number of hedges and six foot fences along the footpath.

The authors argument is deceptive and wrong, associating a particular housing form with a streetscape that can be achieved with the smallest amount of imagination within Melbourne's sufficiently wide thoroughfares. Councils should look to the maintenance of trees on streets better than they do, particularly when infill is occuring. But that is hardly an imposition, and certainly not a reason to dismiss infill as a solution to housing constraints.

Next: Melbourne 2030: The Need for a Fundamental Review

Book Club 25th March, 2006 18:58:31   [#] [0 comments] 

Intercities - Stefan Hertmans
Russell Degnan

I had planned to start this review with a description of what this book was about, and yet, having now revisited it I realise it isn't about anything. It just is; a collection of essays, most of them vaguely related to the city in the title, but only because he places himself there, rather than because they are about the city, or indeed anything at all.

Using a collection of anecdotes, history, literature and philosophy, Hertmans describes the city and its inhabitants both as he sees them, and as they see themselves.

Not that he is always successful in this. His opening chapter on Sydney and Australians collapses the Australian identity into the Sydney one in a way that he'd never think to do for his native Belgium, while simultaneously failing to find that same identity in its relationship with Aboriginal culture and its convict past.

But while that rang untrue, he could probably find no better place for an existentialist crisis than Adelaide:

It was February and 40 degrees. I looked outside through the full-sized smokey balcony: an abandoned fruit market, scorching tarmac, not a soul in the street, empty vague buildings and above them, a mercilessly still sky, meltingly grey-blue. It took my breath away. I could not cope with this, this emptiness without a sense of time or a feeling of space to give a meaningful framework to waht I saw. [...] There too it was Sunday afternoon, about four o'clock, and I thought that something would snap in my head and start bleeding and make me crazy forever, so confused and empty and without meaning did I feel.

Other chapters are similarly searching, some finding their mark, such as Trieste, caught between Italy, Austria and Slovenia, or Dresden with its Baroque past, and others not.

Not suprisingly though, the best chapter is closest to home; in his description of his life as a Flemish citizen in Amsterdam, and a long-term resident of Amsterdam in Brussels. Here, personal reflections on loving a resident and living in a city mingle with reflections on the differences between the two low countries capitals:

Brussels makes at least one thing immediately clear: that there are two kinds of Dutch-speakers: about sixteen million who belong to the Germanic sphere, and six million who belong to the Latin sphere.

The rift he describes affects all aspects of life, from fashion, to architecture, to the newspapers and television stations available, to the works of literature, and intellectuals admired. But also the difference between two capitals, Amsterdam as the unifier of a nation of one people and one language, and Brussels "the capital without a country, and hence a city without responsibility or morality"

Taken as a whole the book is a diverse and interesting look at the way a city shapes its citizens who shape the culture which shapes a city. That this wasn't always disentangled merely makes it an interesting read.

Book Club 31st December, 2005 03:43:42   [#] [0 comments] 

Melbourne 2030 - Planning Rhetoric versus Urban Reality
Russell Degnan

Ch. 4 - Demographic Constraints

See also: Ch. 1, Ch. 2, Ch. 3

In this chapter, the authors substantiate their claims that Melbourne 2030 won't work, as opposed to merely being a bad idea. They begin by discussing the important change that occured in the inner city areas during the 1990s. To summarise: large numbers of apartments were built, some on brownfield sites, others over existing detached dwellings, attracting a mostly young, single and/or childless people into the area.

The authors then turn to the household projections underpinning Melbourne 2030, and here find a disparity. While it is true the number of single person and childless households will increase, they will be older, not younger. The young people who have been driving inner city gentrification will actually decline in absolute terms.

Older - indeed all - households rarely move from their local statistical area, and don't appear to downsize their houses either. There are few financial reasons to do so because of the cost of apartment construction - a point borne out by the number of approved but unbuilt apartment complexes in the suburbs. The author's conclusion that "it remains an open question whether older childless couples and lone-person households will move in any significant numbers" appears to be justified.

The conclusion then, is that dwellings on the fringe, on larger blocks with room for children will continue to be the primary housing need despite the drop in household size. However, while I agree with this in part, there are two reasons why I don't believe it is clear-cut as that.

Firstly, the financial considerations are not straight-forward. Like farmers on the fringe of towns, a large landlot is a potential nest-egg if it can be subdivided. With the incentive of financial security many older people would be willing to move. However, if they need that incentive their numbers will be relatively small unless there is a market for apartments or detached dwellings. The question then becomes whether that market does exist given the youth demographic is declining in size.

This brings me to the second point. People are reluctant to move as they get older, and at all times generally move along the same corridor, and within their local area. We therefore have an interesting new phenomenon that is only just emerging. Many young childless couples living in the inner city are now having children. It is not clear that these couples, adjusted to living in the inner suburbs will want to live on the urban fringe. Some appear to be moving to regional areas, some are staying in the city in smaller detached dwellings, thereby forcing the younger demographic further from the city.

The urban fringe is now very distant from the CBD, and even more expensive to travel to. Houses there are not substantially cheaper than smaller, closer dwellings, and lack local amenity. Some cities in the US - particularly LA - have already found density levels increasing, and there is no reason it won't occur here. If older people don't move house, then this group will remain the driver of Melbourne's urban form. Unfortunately we just don't know what choice they will make.

Next: Residential Infill and its Threat to Melbourne's Liveability

Book Club 15th September, 2005 23:50:07   [#] [0 comments] 

Melbourne 2030 - Planning Rhetoric versus Urban Reality
Russell Degnan

Ch. 3 - The Urban Growth Boundary

See also: Ch. 1, Ch. 2

Much like activity centres, how you perceive the urban growth boundary makes all the difference. As described by the authors, the State Government perceives the boundary as a way to slow down and manage growth on the suburban fringe, rather than as commonly held: a strictly enforced limit to Melbourne's growth. I base this on two facts: that the government has a policy of maintaining 15 years worth of land inside the growth boundary; and that it wants to retain the green wedges, and guide development. It should be obvious then, that the UGB is a significant market distortion in a field that seems to specialise in them. But what exactly its affects are is complicated, and the basis of the criticisms in the book.

The authors have three criticisms of the UGB. Firstly, that there it is encouraging housing trends that are reviled by almost everyone but the thousands of people buying them: McMansions on small lots. Secondly, that it has substantially increased the price of housing at the expense of first home-buyers. And finally, that it detracts from a more sensible regional planning policy.

Much of the criticism of smaller lots-sizes is based on the lower number of trees in newer housing estates. This is covered more extensively in chapter 5; I won't comment now except to say two things. That the poor quality of design on the urban fringe is an architectural fault, rather than a lot-size issue. Architects who continue to let garage doors dominate will produce ugly houses. And that the lack of trees is a function of the lack of age. Front yards may be smaller, but it is backyards decreasing. If you were to compare them to the houses of the 1920s through 1940s on quarter acre plots they are not substantially different and there is plenty of room for decent foliage for the street.

The pricing issue is more interesting. In their rush to quote the Productivity Commission report on first home buyers as saying price rises were 'inevitable' they missed the section that says current prices were the result of low interest rates and increased demand in the bouyant economy. Even the author's own figures don't support the claims they are making. There difference in price growth was not substantially different between the inner and outer suburbs, nor were changes in the number of first-home buyers substantially different to what you'd expect from the government funds under the first-home buyers scheme. Even when their evidence is correct, for example that housing on the fringe is becoming more expensive and is being filled by older, second and third home-buyers, their conclusions aren't. This trend can easily be explained by the increase in average marrying and child bearing ages, and in any case, having to buy a home nearer the city is hardly a great imposition being, in general, better serviced.

What the Productivity Commission does say is that it will cause long-run changes. Evidence from other cities - notably Portland - is that by disallowing the most cost effective housing type (low density suburban housing on the fringe) will result in second-best choices occuring: movements to regional centres and a longer commute; rural living in areas no longer available for higher housing densities; and increasing densities inside the UGB. These may not be optimum outcomes, but if planners are to actually "plan" then those outcomes are probably acceptable.

The last point, that the growth corridor approach is mindless. That it is causing a strain on infrastructure and creating communities with no identity, and that the implementation is not adequately addressing these problems is correct. It isn't good enough to put a macro-level policy in place that only weakens the ability of the local government to direct and handle growth; nor is it acceptable to put that same policy in place without considering required infrastructure needs (in particular transport). But this is not an argument against a UGB; the alternative could still be worse -- though more likely it will be much the same.

Next: Demographic Constraints

Book Club 6th September, 2005 01:12:13   [#] [0 comments] 

Melbourne 2030 - Planning Rhetoric versus Urban Reality
Russell Degnan

Ch. 2 - Concentrating Melbourne - The Activity Centre Strategy

See also: Ch. 1

The activity centres are supposedly the keystone for Melbourne 2030. They are the method through which the urban form will be constrained, and simultaneously the most controversial element. Unfortunately it is not always clear what the authors' are trying to argue. They alternate between criticising the identification of centres, the underlying philosophy, the implementation, the ability of the activity centres to provide what they say they will, and the market demand for higher density living. Though they are quite critical of the centres it is never quite clear whether the authors believe they will fail because of politics, demographics, or lack of will; nor why, having stated their opposition to higher density living in the suburbs at length, they conclude that "few will deny a multi-centred approach is needed to manage the growth and change of Melbourne".

Each of the critiques above is developed at various points through the chapter. Some are stronger than others, so I will deal with each in turn.

Centre identification and implementation

I put these together because they are essentially the same thing even if they occur at chronologically opposite ends of the process. The authors make three arguments regarding activity centres, none of which are an argument against the centres, but are important problems still to be addressed in the implementation process. Firstly, they criticise the number of centres, claiming that there are too many to attract significant investment, and to make a difference to the urban form. Secondly, they note that neighbourhood centres have been poorly as to their role. Thirdly the authors correctly claim that the activity centres are poorly defined as to what area they cover, and in the case of neighbourhood centres where they actually are.

The first claim seems to imply that the activity centres will be something they are not intended to be (mini-CBDs) when planners are actually trying to achieve a much less ambitious goal: shifting development closer to public transport. But what the activity centre strategy actually is trying to achieve has never been made clear, as also indicated by the second point.

The third point is very important. The implementation of Melbourne 2030 has been sloppy and poorly designed. Council were supposed to do structure plans but little resources were made available, and the precise definition remains poor. The far simpler method would have been an activity centre overlay (or rather, three). Councils could apply it as they saw fit. As it is the statutory scheme and the strategic document continue to talk across each other.


The authors very succinctly summarised the two interesting aspects of the activity centre policy as regards to housing. Firstly, that there is an enormous fudge occurring in the proposed housing distributions, because they are almost exactly the same as what a past trends would indicate (ie. not planning, projecting). Secondly, that "the difference with the past is that much of the development is expected to be located in activity centres, rather than as ad hoc infill".

They then make two arguments against it, one sloppy, one ridiculous. The first makes a prediction of the required housing densities within activity centres if these housing targets are to be met. Then claims (incorrectly) that they will be "high-rise" densities. Their most shocking number, for the smallest area (100 hectares or 1.0 sq.km) with 50% of the projected housing devoted to it and 50% of the land taken by other uses gives densities of 109 and 123 units per hectare for Doncaster and Glen Waverley. Is that high-rise? Because roads are included we are talking about the nett (not gross) residential densities. 100 units on a hectare gives a lot size of 100 sq.m. Not high rise, but terrace housing. It will only become higher if the existing housing stock is not being redeveloped, and even then, it will never, and should never be "high-rise"

The second argument then makes the claim that apartment living (and higher densities) will not be economically viable in the suburbs. Yet, isn't that what the trends mentioned already indicate? And aren't these developments of higher densities the very reason groups like Save Our Suburbs came about? High rise is probably unlikely in the suburbs, but medium density is already occurring, and will continue to occur. The only question is whether it can be directed into activity centres.

Jobs and transport

Whoever wrote this section should redo it. It makes logical leaps that would do superman proud. Put simply, they split job types into 4 categories, higher and lower order activity centre jobs, dispersed population related and technical clusters. The claim is two-fold, that the latter two categories are unsuitable for activity centres, and that because the higher order jobs are located in the CAD that the activity centres are chasing a small 19% of mostly retail. This is just ridiculous. Firstly, activity centres should be capable as acting like the central area. The problem is that most jobs chase other jobs, particularly higher order ones; the purpose of the centres policy is to get a critical mass of jobs in the area. Secondly, the figures don't add up. Half of all higher order jobs are already outside of the CBD, so there is at least an additional 11% of all jobs that could locate near the CBD in the same municipality. Thirdly, because of the number of activity centres, population dispersed jobs could easily be put near them, particularly as the authors included "cultural and recreational services", "health and community services" and "personal and other services". If these suburban jobs aren't in activity centres already there is no reason why many shouldn't be. The only requirement for a business is that they be accessible to their customers. The very fact that "edge-cities" exist should be a reasonable indication that shifting jobs is possible, given the proper incentives.

The second part then claims that activity centres don't reduce car traffic. In this they are partly right. The structure of transport options and the time it takes to use them will be what determines car use. But the measure they used -- car ownership -- has nothing to do with it. Car ownership is a reality for almost everyone, because almost everyone has places they can't go without a car. But that doesn't mean they will use it. Congestion, another problem, is related to the concentration of traffic. It will increase if no alternatives are proposed and planners continue to believe that everyone has the right to drive to the doorstop of their destination. As usual, the devil is in the details. Done properly and activity centres could attract serious (European) levels of walking and cycling. Yet this was not even mentioned -- but then, Melbourne 2030 largely ignores it as well.

Political issues

Finally, we come to political issues. Which is the real problem with Melbourne 2030, across the board. The authors are quite correct, as others such as Brian McLoughlin have been before them, that the government is lacking the will power to actually implement the policy. But it is important to realise that this means a continuance of ad hoc placement of medium-density housing and businesses. It is not an argument against activity centres per se.

This equally applies to problems with resident groups. The housing issue won't go away. It has to go somewhere. Pressure not to build to higher densities in Melbourne -- either in or out of activity centres -- may increase, and the government may (and probably will) fold. It is worth noting that developers are trying to build to higher densities. If planners are encouraging higher densities unreasonably as the authors claim then the planning system is actually working against that aim.

Ultimately, activity centres now, as in times past, will depend on the support given them by the State Government. That support has always been minimal, and is liable to waver at the first sign of protest. Residents are not stupid; they put enormous effort into 'protecting' their neighbourhoods and the planning system is an effective vehicle for channeling that effort. In the absence of planning controls to either over-ride or work with those people the policy is probably doomed to an anonymous end. But that doesn't make it a bad policy, nor does it imply that it will 'necessarily fail'. This is politics trumping market forces, not the other way around.

Next: The Urban Growth Boundary

Book Club 30th August, 2005 00:38:16   [#] [0 comments] 

Inner Navigation - Erik Jonsson
Russell Degnan

Given the majority of books I purchase these days are recommendations creamed from assorted bloggers, it is nice to stumble across a book that was simultaneously fascinating, completely unknown to me, and extremely useful. The sub-title of this book is "Why we get lost and how we find our way". Jonsson seems more fascinated by the former than the latter in this breezy and entertaining read. Each chapter placing another brick or two in the argument through a wealth of interesting stories about lost people, and confused internal maps.

In a basic sense, we seem to have two methods of wayfinding. The first is our 'dead-reckoning' system, our ability to say roughly what direction we are heading, and keep track of how far. The second is complementary. It is the landmark method where a person walks from known place to known place in a sequence.

A Landmark's usefulness is based on our ability to integrate the knowledge it gives us into the current mental map we have of where we are. The interesting parts therefore, are how we actual orientate ourselves, and how we assess our position, and to Jonsson, how these can go wrong.

Although he mentions other orientation systems, the author, to me, overemphasises the compass points as means of orientation. Probably because of his background in orienteering and non-urban navigation. For probably two reasons I can't say I have much use for north-south at all -- though I can generally point them out with a bit of thinking. Firstly, Melbourne has an imperfect north-south street grid, a perfect one to its north, confusing curves in North Melbourne and something else south of the river. Secondly, when travelling overseas, and as Jonsson describes, it can be quite difficult to work out which direction the train is travelling as it curves into town. In addition, the sun, being in the southern sky in Europe throws my northern sky orientation so much I can't trust it.

My method of orientation is different. It might be more unreliable at times, but it is easier to construct. Instead of compass points -- useless on curving medieval streets anyway -- I generally orientate myself according to a line from the railway station to the town centre. A sort-of town-north if you will, that may or may not resemble an actual north. I therefore have an odd directional sense: in Bologna north is actually south-south-west; while in Ravenna it is east, which an abominable west to the top tourist map made even more problematic. Though this isn't always the case, in Genoa's maze of twisty little streets, all alike, it is easier to orientate yourself by the harbour, and to pray. While in Florence I orientated myself by the river (and it seems strange to me that the old Roman part of town is orientated differently to the Uffizi gallery).

The book doesn't provide all the answers. Navigation seems to remain something of a mystery to cognitive scientists. But it does provide an excellent basis for thinking about navigation, about how people get lost, and more interestingly (to me), how to try and prevent that happening through good urban design and better maps.

Book Club 19th July, 2005 02:17:20   [#] [6 comments] 

Melbourne 2030 - Planning Rhetoric versus Urban Reality
Russell Degnan

Ch. 1 - Looking Back, Looking Forward: Urban Policy for Metropolitan Melbourne

While we had a short discussion of this book when it was released a more in depth look is required. To the extent that Melbourne 2030 is an important document - and that is debatable - this critique is almost the only major analysis of the core assumptions relating to population growth and the changes in dwelling types that the plan would require. For this reason I want to analyse the arguments made properly, chapter by chapter. Some are good, some are bad. Either way, they must be addressed by either the advocates or opponents of Melbourne 2030.

The first chapter has no argument to make. It does, however, lay out the assumptions guiding the book, some explicitly, and others less so. Firstly, the authors identification of Melbourne's liveability as:

"The prevailing streetscape with the predominance of low slung bungalows, dense tree and shrub canopy and resultant green ambience, along with local open space for recreation, gives the city its sense of place and identity"

That is to say, low density is a goal in and of itself, because it makes for better streetscapes.

This informs the second assumption. Namely that infill housing, the type which removes backyards and reduces the overall tree canopy is bad. They are less negative on apartments in activity centres - though no doubt not in their imagined Melbourne - particularly because they see the goal of Melbourne 2030 as directing density into a few areas, and not the suburban streetscape.

Thirdly, that planners have taken on the goals of new urbanism in a way that makes them antagonistic to suburban living:

For many of its proponents, it is a crusade that incorporates into its urban planning objective a social reform agenda which shows little respect for conventional suburban communities"

The problems with these assumptions will tease themselves out in later chapters, but one I want to address now. One of the key arguments put forth in support of the assumption on Melbourne's liveability is that it is a choice by people in suburban areas. Both because of the historical trend towards this type of development, and because of the strong opposition to infill development by residents. Both of these arguments are rubbish. Firstly, because the trend towards infill development, despite the costs to applicants negotiating the planning scheme, is a clear indication of shifting preferences. Secondly because opposition to infill is based on similarly faulty reasoning by existing residents. As we'll see, contrary to the authors arguments, infill, good infill, is not incompatible with good streetscapes. Equating the two is either disingenuous or misguided, and it ignores the myriad of other reasons that people choose to live where they do.

Next: Activity Centres

Book Club 11th May, 2005 01:28:51   [#] [0 comments] 

The Look of Architecture - Witold Rybczynski
Russell Degnan

This is a delightful little book, based on a series of lectures, and devoted to exploring the relationships between style, fashion and the users of buildings. Early on it rebukes modern architects for two things. First, for not acknowledging that style has importance to their profession. It is expressed best in a neat passage that the remainder of the book examines in more detail and with copious examples.

"Style is like a feather in a woman's hat, nothing more," sniffed Le Corbusier. Gabrielle Chanel, who knew something about hats, saw things differently. "Fashion passes," she said, "style remains."

Through the second and third parts the differences are worked through. Style, is expressed as the collection of materials, shapes, forms and ideals that guide an architect in creating a coherent whole. It can be classicism, gothic, beaux arts, international, post-modern, or even combinations of those or others. Fashion is the expression of those styles. It comes as both the desire for new, different forms from what came before, and as the point where the social context of the times is expressed in the architecture. Hence, styles go in and out of fashion, but their buildings remain as part of the built heritage of the city.

The heritage aspect is important, because of the first lecture. Here, Rybczynski administered his second rebuke. Quoting Henry Wotton in 1642, "The end is to build well. Well-building hath three conditions: Commoditie, Firmeness, and Delight.", he claims modern architects foxus on delight at the expense of the other elements, that they don't age well, and that they ignore the important fact that buildings are for people. Buildings, he argues are of their time, and their interiors reflect this in a way that ties people, decor and the fashions of both.

Hence buildings change both their function and their audience over time. He briefly cites the museums of Paris as having changed their functions, the Louvre from a Palace, and the Musee d'Orsay from a railway station. But here too, their new function is significant. Both contain the art of their time. Particularly the Orsay with the Impressionist art playing off the 19th century elegance of the railway building. Not all buildings can be so lucky to find a historical niche.

Heritage ideals have two parts: the preservation of objects of historical importance, and the preservation of the best elements of the built form. On both these, Rybczynski's musings provide interesting insights into what we should or shouldn't regard as heritage and how we should treat it.

Historically, the change in form, and the relevance of our own fashions to the interior of buildings means we should be more careful about the way we try and preserve heritage. Ultimately, buildings must be used, lest we seek to preserve delight at the expense of commodity (and to an extent firmness). Locking a building into a permanent stasis for preservation as a museum may occasionally make sense, but more often will just create an anachronism.

Preservation of the best elements is more problematic. If fashion is driving what we think of buildings then many may not be as bad as we now think them, nor others as good. Do we actually need hundreds, if not thousands of terrace houses that were little better than squatters huts in their heyday? Might careful sympathetic changes be better? Are all those buildings from the 60s actually as bad as we think? Are some truly masterpieces just waiting for a revival of the brutalist style?

I'm not sure. But nor do I think we are doing it well in Australia. There is an undercurrent of myth-making and arch-conservatism in the way it is conceived that works against good long term outcomes; by preserving crap, and by making it harder for buildings to be used in a way that secures their future financially.

Book Club 6th May, 2005 02:24:50   [#] [0 comments] 

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