Book Club
Tales of the City
Urban Design


Vale Jane Jacobs
Russell Degnan

Every time you read something it changes your life a little. Jane Jacobs greatest work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities changed the way the public thinks about planning; unfortunately, I am not sure we can really say it changed the way all planners do. But it is still a seminal work, and the widespread mentioning of her passing on blogs I read is proof that, hopefully, her simple, but deep, message will someday percolate through.

I had the good fortune to read this work at a time when I was particularly receptive to it. It not only changed my life a little, it changed it a lot.

I bought Death and Life at the Technical Bookshop, formerly on Swanston Street, and began reading it on a United flight from Sydney to San Francisco. That was the start of a five month overseas trip, with time in the United States, United Kingdom, Belgium France, Italy and the Netherlands. I had chosen those countries because, even before reading Jane Jacob's books, I was interested in the economies of cities, and if you want to see where it all began, then northern Italy, the Low Countries and Champagne is the place you need to go. I had been interested in urban issues as well, which is why I'd bought the book. The confluence of three things -- interest, time to reflect, and travel -- was perfect.

I think all good books start with a rant. It shows the author cares, and that the topic is important. Most books don't sustain the passion, but Death and Life does. From beginning to end it gets at you, explaining why things are happening, why current thinking is hurting those things. And always, in a way that appeals to my liberal/libertarian sensibility and post-Artificial Intelligence cynicism of our ability to model dynamic systems, it focused on individual people first, not collections.

I didn't put down Death and Life and say: I want to be a planner. Nothing is ever so simple. But it put me on the path to planning, because it made me think about the very real problem of cities; an insoluble one perhaps, but endlessly interesting problem. After a few months of these problems, I was safely in the zone of a mid-20s crisis. The problems I was working on in IT had lost their lustre. By the time I returned home I was seriously contemplating a change of fields, and within 12 months I was back at university. Not all the result of one book, but it was certainly a catalyst for my change of state.

Ultimately though, Jane Jacobs' work wasn't really about cities. They were just one problem that she looked at, in some depth, but never as comprehensively as other people, some of whom concluded similar ideas. What she was about was a way of approaching problems generally, that emphasised that many things are self organised and unpredictable; and therefore, that we should be guiding, not leading, encouraging, not restrictive, and amenable to dynamic change.

Planning, for the most part, is none of those things; and rarely tries. Jane Jacobs' legacy is a slightly blurry, cynical, but optimistic, vision of what planning, and society in general, can be, and often is. She was probably wrong on a lot of the particulars, but that won't matter. Her work will outlive her long life by some margin. And for that, I and many others, am very glad.

Urban Design 30th April, 2006 03:51:22   [#] [2 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CXIX, April 2006
Russell Degnan

Fake facades and screwy sculptures. Taken April 2004

Melbourne 24th April, 2006 19:37:48   [#] [0 comments] 

Broken Expectations
Russell Degnan

There was an interesting article in The Age about the effect of petrol prices on public transport use. It begins with the rather spurious claim that large numbers of people will change when the price hits $1.32, which it has again this week. Not that large numbers of people won't change their habit at that price -- as a percentage of public transport users, not cars users -- but rather that it implies that commuters are rational maximizers of cost and time, when they are not.

There was a more subtle discussion of habits and economics by Becker and Posner a fortnight ago. As indicated towards the end of the first article, the supposed rapid switch to public transport occured, not because public transport became marginally better, but because it became rapidly better; and more importantly, because it strained household budgets. In other words, the expectation of relatively inexpensive motor transport was broken, and a choice had to be made.

The problem, as countless articles since have noted, is that public transport is not positioned to take advantage of an increase in customers. The trains rapidly filled with disgruntled commuters and consistently ran late or not at all. Many people would have quickly returned to their old car habit, with a reduction in other spending.

This is the biggest problem with a non-marketised public transport system. If the operators had their profits tied to consumers then the rise in customers could have been offset by a combination of higher ticket prices, and more services. Instead we got a lot of complaints and no change, either to service provision, or to most peoples' long-term travel choices.

With another rise in oil prices going on, and the likelihood of a long-term price increase to around the $1.50 mark, we can expect more people to break with habit and explore different ways of travelling to work, school and the shops. It is therefore, important to consider, now, what sort of choices people might want to make, and should make, and how to accomodate them. As Becker noted on habits:

"At first, habitual behavior is usually slow to change since past behavior exercises enormous influences over current behavior that is "habitual". But the initially slow changes induce further and more rapid changes in later behavior, so that the cumulative change may eventually be quite big."

To draw an analogy. Making a change in the area of transport choice is like pushing a coal-cart up a hill. All the policies in the past have been ineffective pushing against a full cart that wanted to stay where it was at the bottom of the hill. In the next decade though, people, not policies, will take the cart to the top of the hill, before it rapidly rolls into another gully of habit. It will do so ahead of the policy-makers though; once it is rolling it won't stop. We need to line up the wheels to ensure it goes somewhere sensible, and that means first, considering all the possible changes that could occur, if given sufficient latitude to do so.

I know where I stand here, as would any regular reader, but I'll state it again, plainly: Firstly, I think we should aim to make walking and cycling (or buggies for the elderly) the first two choices of travel for all trips, for many reasons including health, the envionment and overall cost. Secondly, we should make an efficient, and preferably cost-neutral public transport, the third choice, for trips longer than 5-10km.

This doesn't necessitate grand schemes, so much as attitude shifts and appropriate prioritising of road space to favour these modes. The change in habits, and then travel culture that will initially be brought on by a gradual but significant rise in oil prices will (hopefully) do the rest.

Planning 19th April, 2006 17:18:01   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CXVIII, April 2006
Russell Degnan

A restored St. Pauls and the colours of Fed Square. Taken March 2006

Melbourne 19th April, 2006 00:21:16   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CXVII, April 2006
Russell Degnan

As the winter cold sets in we also get the best time of year for photo-toing. I haven't had a chance to, though, so this is from the archive.

Melbourne 10th April, 2006 20:41:24   [#] [1 comment] 

Welcome to Clueville. Population: Zero
Russell Degnan

Ray: Most of us are having to tighten our belts a little with petrol prices going up, but some people are doing it really tough. Mike has a story about some of how a few true Aussie battlers are just trying to live the Australian dream.

[Cut to service station price board]

Mike: This is the view most of you woke up to this morning. Petrol prices going through the roof. But while some of us can leave the car at home, for the Dudded family in Livindots, this isn't possible, making their four hour commute an expensive one to boot.

[Cut to family on couch, two kids, dog, looking pensive]

Mr. Dudded: Well, we bought here because we thought, for the kids, you need the space, you don't want to be near the traffic and noise. We wanted to be able to ride bikes and ponies. Maybe have a dam. But you can't find 2000 acres in Melbourne anymore, not for what we could afford. Livindots was the only place where we could live that was still, you know, near the city, and work. Of course, leaving at 4am, and getting home at 10pm, I don't see them much, but you do what you can.

[Awkward pause to cut material]

Mike: Money is tight though.

Mrs Dudded: Well, fuel costs, a lot. We travel about 1000 km a day between us. And the mortage, you know. We dreamed all our life of living here, and now...

Mr. Dudded: The government has forgotten us. I mean, there are no schools out here, no water, no services. How are we supposed to get by? We both work in the city. Good jobs, but when fuel goes up we have to put little things on credit. We can't keep doing that forever. I mean, the bank says we can, but can we?

[Cut to more heart-breaking typically battling scenery while Mike talks]

Mike: And they aren't the only ones. Bill Gutted has had enough.

[Cut to Mr. Gutted, a typical middle aged bloke with a red face]

Mr. Gutted: We get nothing. You pay your taxes, and then spend all your time in a traffic jam ten k' from your house. All this fuel tax goes on who knows what, why we suffer.

[Back to studio]

Ray: [pause] Mmmm, just trying to live the Australian dream. [pause] But are our governments doing enough. We have with us Prime Minister John Howard and Premier Steve Bracks. Gentlemen, welcome. Are you doing enough?

Stevie boy: Well I think we are Ray. This government is committed. Committed to improving services in rural areas. Committed to improving roads and travel times. We can't help fuel prices, but service delivery is something we are committed to. And our commitment remains strong.

Ray: Prime Minister?

Little Johnny: Look Ray, I feel their pain. I really do. Oil prices are high and that hurts people. But we are operating in a global economy, and a time of higher oil prices. What we can do is keep interest rates down, and that helps people pay their mortgages. I promise we are very concerned, but overall the economy is doing very well.


Ray: Oh fuck this! What has that got to do with anything? Tell these people the truth. You are stupid morons living in the middle of nowhere with huge debts and no savings because you are selfish and short-sighted. Have you read anything in the past ten years. No-one thinks fuel is going to go down. The debate is between people who think it will go up significantly and people who think we are all completely and utterly screwed. So why would you choose to live 80km from the city on the brink of financial destruction, instead of in a smaller house with some sort of leeway? If this was medieval France you'd have starved to death in about two years while the sub-literate peasants with no access to any information or markets laughed at you. It isn't a dream to live in a big house on lots of land. It is no more and no less than gratuitous consumption for your personal aggrandizement. Wake up and use your friggin brain.

Stevie boy: Fair go Ray. I have an unloseable election in November.

Ray: Sorry. [Straughtens tie]

That's all we have time for I'm afraid. After the break, snake oil salesmen say it cures all, but does it? Our tests will shock you.

Planning 8th April, 2006 20:03:52   [#] [3 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CXVI, April 2006
Russell Degnan

Tall buildings of Melbourne past. Taken January 2006

Melbourne 4th April, 2006 01:08:04   [#] [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] 


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