Urban planning often a vehicle for obstruction

Urban planning often a vehicle for obstruction

In this article by Robert Nelson, lecturer at Monash University and Age art critic, printed in The Age on Friday 18th October, we get an alternative view of town planning. Whilst many are in favour of retaining as much of our heritage as possible, the article does make one think, where do we draw the line? We have posted previous blogs on Australian's reliance on motor vehicles and an apparent unwillingness by state government to invest in expanding public transport and Robert Nelson comments on this reliance here………..

The public fosters backyard isolationism, keeping us in cars and fostering a sprawling city.

The inner suburbs are in selfish lockdown, which means that developers have to scrimmage for whatever they can get.

Planning Australian cities is good in theory, but there's a catch. No one will agree with the plan. They'll hate it and will even deny that it's a plan at all. It's a farce, a charade, a strategy full of holes and inconsistencies. It isn't a ''real'' plan.

Urban planning is seldom thorough and, on the rare occasions when it is, the plans mostly result in something that we scorn.

An example is Canberra, which is a place with no sense of community, with an automotive footprint and hardly any people. Though its architect, Walter Burley Griffin, is still respected, Canberra has no urbanistic qualities: it's an antisocial city in denial of people with feet.

To believe in planning is an act of faith. Anything planned in the 1960s and '70s fills us with lasting dread, like the public housing towers in the inner suburbs, planted without a street presence in the middle of windswept open spaces, nasty derelict gardens which architects are now trying to backfill with medium-density apartments. We have to be grateful that more planning didn't take place in those decades.

I'm sceptical when planning enthusiasts like Michael Buxton complain about the lack of a plan, as he did on these pages last week. In fact, there's a broad plan which is sensible enough: to increase urban density in zones with reasonable services, yielding a richer street life than most of Melbourne can boast of. If it isn't a ''real'' plan, the want of detail only reflects a deeper structural stalemate.

Sadly, we might have to accept that planning in Australia – beyond the kind of broad strategy set out in Victoria – is impossible. The reason is given by the very people who denounce the plan as not a ''real'' plan.

Reading between the lines in Buxton's invective, a ''real'' plan would protect all the heritage we have, which means that no development would ever take place unless a paddock could be found that has neither heritage upon it nor neighbours around it.

We'd be stuck with the low-density footprint of the inner suburbs, with their tiny plot ratios, the consequence of which is an automotive dependence stretching beyond Donvale.

Just suppose that the state Planning Minister, Matthew Guy, had a thorough plan to rebuild the inner suburbs to accommodate more people without a need for cars, as with the development of 19th-century New York or Paris. Suppose he sought to allow architects to erect five-storey buildings to the four corners of the block without garages and sequester a courtyard for natural light in all rooms, as in the most festive towns in the world.

What's the point of having such an enchanted template when the ethos of development in Australia is so obdurately negative?

The pride of every Australian property owner is to frustrate development in the vicinity. Otherwise, as Buxton believes, our amenity and heritage values ''will be destroyed by high and medium-rise development''.

The problem is not the minister. The problem is the public. Planning in Australia has been impossible for decades, not because we've had to submit to the indignity of foreign capital but because our urbanism is kneecapped by a complacent backyard isolationism that keeps us in cars and keeps us sprawling beyond our fringes.

The inner suburbs are in selfish lockdown, which means that developers have to scrimmage for whatever they can get, usually commercial sites that aren't constrained by setbacks. This patchwork circumstance doesn't reflect the absence of a plan so much as the impossibility of a plan in an urban environment dominated by suburban paranoia.

If we could have the ''real'' plan of the planning critics, it would magically conserve low-density heritage and simultaneously promote public transport. Alas, these two imperatives are incompatible and cannot be reconciled by any plan. Low-density means inefficient public transport and correlates with automotive dependency. It also means empty, lifeless streets and street-less shopping centres that rely on cars.

Given the constraints of a suburban nation with a history of awful planning, state governments have few options but to liberalise land use where they can and suck it and see.

Some new developments have occurred along automotive principles, reproducing the alienating, antisocial spaces that we know from the 1960s. Others, however, have contributed vibrant streetscapes where there was nothing but shabby single or double-storey stock before.

Building projects admittedly spring up in a random smattering that represents the only opportunity for developers. It isn't well planned, but rather than seeing this sporadic fertility as a scandal, we should see it as our best chance to review what we really want in new architecture for close communities.

Instead of hoping to seal our fate prematurely with an improbable plan – which would have to be conservative to be approved – let us rather examine our options with the most imaginative and street-sympathetic architecture that opportunities encourage.

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