Architects and the branding of the new Ecocity: The need to dismantle the greenwash

We have just had the Ecocity 2017 world summit or conference in my city. Al Gore came to speak about his work and he received an honorary doctorate from my university. I didn’t attend the conference but the spin round it prompted me to think a bit about what an Ecocity might be. It made me think how architects and urbanists should respond or think about the Ecocity concept.

Since 1990 the ECOCITY World brand has claimed to address “the way humanity builds its home — its  cities, towns and villages.” Interestingly, the Ecocity brand is promoted as a series as if it was some kind of global franchise:

“The series focuses on key actions cities and citizens can take to rebuild our human habitat in balance with living systems, and, in the process, slow down and even reverse global heating, biodiversity collapse, loss of wilderness habitat, agricultural lands and open space, and social and environmental injustices.”

I worry that the Ecocity brand nexus of neoliberal policies, big property linked to the markets, and what I would call the “smart” and “sustainable” city industry is only leading us down the Business As Usual path to climate catastrophe. For some of your reading this, in mentioning the C word (catastrophe), I am going to sound uncool and alarmist. But maybe that is the reality and maybe since  Nicolas Stern’s The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review neoliberal and oh-so-nice, left of centre policy makers, have really been compromised.

 It’s always great to talk about cities as ecosystems or as places full of so-called smart sustainable infrastructure. There is a lot of that talk in my architecture school about this. But, is this enough? Do we really need cities; and in the Anthropocene, is it wise to conceive of cities as ecosystems. Doesn’t this conceptual act place our own species with a role at the center of the natural world. Are we really at the center?

A recent book by Derek Jensen the radical environmentalist also raises the above questions. He argues that sustainability is now a devalued term. He writes about what he calls the conservation-industrial complex:

“big green organizations, huge “environmental” foundations, neo-environmentalists, some academics–which has co-opted too much of the movement into “sustainability,” with that word being devalued to mean “keeping this culture going as long as possible.” Instead of fighting to protect our one and only home, they are trying to “sustain” the very culture that is killing the planet. And they are often quite explicit about their priorities.”

Jensen, argues for, and imagines, an end to “technologized, industrialized civilization and a return to agrarian communal life.” Of course to the well-heeled policy urbanists this is a seemingly extreme view. But nonetheless, it is a view, that at this point in time, I am drawn drawn to. It reminds me a bit of the urban efforts and gestures of the architects Leon and Rob Krier to return us to a pre-industrial urbanism. So what exactly would be wrong with such a return? 

Another author of interest to me in this debate is late Australian philosopher Val Plumwood. Plumwood questions what she denoted as hyperseperation. Hyperseparation gives rise to the dominant structures that drive binaries such as, nature-culture, matter-mind and savage-civilised. In the context of the Ecocities debate we run the risk of simply arrogating all mind to our own species and seeing everything else as mindless matter. Matter, as exemplified by the cities formed in our own image. These Ecotopias, Ecopositive cities and Ecocities are now crowding out our social media feeds, and these imagined cities are too often image-cities emptied of, and destructive of, real ecologies.

A real debate around cities needs to merge that examines how cities might be dismantled and decolonized and how we might see them less as machines of innovation and capital. At the conference the academic program looked like more of the same old pap: Densification, greening the cities or “Bringing Nature Back In”, resilience, healthy cities, new forms of co-operation and sustainable food production. Certainly there was some good stuff in the conference around the First Nations and those other real cities, the organic informal cities full of inequalities.

But, in the face of climate change and the loss of actual and real ecosystems, habitats and species, outside of our existing cities there is only so much of this pap I can take. A few papers held glimmer of hope about new research agendas and questioning of this prevailing, and increasingly branded paradigm. I guess the image that headlined the conference (ably devised by Simon Cookes) of chucking plants onto concrete buildings and rooftops kind of says it all for me.

As architects and urbanists we need to explore the dynamics and effectiveness of architecture in relation to the real and deeper ecologies than just greening up the cities in Photoshop. This also means having a debate around how we might dismantle the cities and explore new forms of settlement. We need to dismantle the greenwash.

Architects vs. Builders: Are builders the world’s experts at rent-seeking?

It’s getting towards the end of the semester and we are starting to talk about procurement and contracts in the Architectural Practice class. This inevitably leads to the issue of how architects relate to builders and contractors and which procurement pathways are better for our clients. It is also gets to the issue of which procurement pathways maximise design outcomes and give architects a greater degree of control over the process.

Of course, for those of you who read my previous blog on our alien overlords the project managers you can probably guess what is coming next.

The above picture the back of my bro’s car. He is a highly intelligent concreter and he spends his life existing from contract to contract, driving across the burbs in his Nissan for up to 4 hours a day.  As sub-contractor, he is regularly screwed over by the contractors and builders he works for. This is often when it comes to the last payment.

As a concreter, the type of work he does is hard and gruelling and the industry is not looking after his health. If he gets sick or can’t work he is in trouble. He has worked on bridges, tunnels, rail, pools, facades, toll roads and of course that noble of all structures the floor slab. At the time of the pictures he was doing concrete stairs in a high-rise apartment building.

So with this background in mind let’s make a few points from an architect’s perspective about the state of the Australian building and construction industry.

Builders vs. Architects.

 Builders will always blame the architect no matter what. It’s just an easier thing for builders to do. They will make out that architects are design orientated wankers who know nothing about construction. They are adversarial and combative negotiators. In fact contractors are more likely to blame the architect if the building has been actually designed. For a number of large public building projects around my city this has certainly been the case. In fact many contractors will often cover up their own missteps by blaming the architects and point the finger at “design” issues. Or that other great spectre “design changes.”

The other aspect of this is the way they will go behind your back and whisper into the ear of the client that you are an idiot. Many clients, including large institutional ones, do not often have the expertise to manage the conflicts arising out of these tactics, or have the knowledge to make the necessary judgements or trade-offs when a builder does this. The culture of the Australian construction Industry is riven with anti-intellectualism and these tactics usually work.

I don’t want to sound overly pedantic or didactic. But, for clients, large and small, arguably it is always in a client’s real interests to get an architect. An architect is an independent professional and carries professional indemnity insurance. Just like the lawyers, and just like the doctors. Why would you do otherwise?

Builders love to “design”

Of course, people don’t employ architects because they see them as being too “expensive.” Certainly, this is a notion that the builders, large contractors and project managers will readily promote. Yes, this is all about the dollar for the builders, whatever is cheaper and easier for them to do, they will do it.

They especially love, and are great at, what I call builder redesign. Usually this involves some pretence at simplification, minimisation or easy substitution. Before you know it those well-crafted spatial arrangements, geometries and details have been erased by the builder.

Builders will do anything or say anything to justify changes, variations or easier and better designed ways to do things. Yep, builders love to “design” stuff. They, in their own minds at least, are great designers. Who needs an architecture degree to design stuff? They will always tell you how much they love to design stuff and how much they know about design, which is generally based on the reality TV shows, and what they have observed at their local gastro-pub or shopping mall homewares store. Of course, they all love Utzon’s Opera House. But none of them would have the guts to do or support something like that nowadays.

All about the dollars

For the builder class it’s all about the dollars. Forget about design, life-cycle costs or zero carbon buildings. If there is some eaves framing and eaves lining that can be easily cut back to the top of the wall plate they will do it. It’s cheaper. You only have to drive out to the outer suburbs of my city to see the results. Tract after tract of houses without eaves. Who needs eaves when you can add a Fujitsu air conditioner

The rise of new forms of procurement have tended to diminish the role of the architect. Yet the best civic buildings in my our city have been procured by methods where the architect has the primary role to both design, oversee and deliver the project. In novated contracts, as soon as you get novated across the contractor will ask for a value management meeting. In PPPs (or PFIs) They will pretend to love your design if it gets them the job then they will butcher it.

Zilch policy initiatives.

Most big contractors will say or do anything to get their local governeloper to redevelop that large slab of industrial vacant land on the outskirts of the city. They will do anything in the name of low carbon, green star city densification. The all love to talk about ESD but they really don’t care.

As policy advocates the builders (e.g. The Master Builders Association) have spent a fair bit of time arguing against apartment standards. Their solution to building more “affordable housing” is not to create design innovation but to ease the regulatory barriers (especially planning) as can be seen here. It’s like they actually want more project homes without eaves and apartments with inflammable curtain walls to be built.

Zilch R&D.

 If the builders cared they would put money into construction and urban research. The inside of my bro’s car is his control centre and probably gives you a pretty good idea of the level and state of ICT technology in the building industry. It is an industry with a low technology base. This is where he does most of his business while he is driving about.

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In the early 2000s I worked for the CRC for Construction Innovation. It was headed up by a civil engineer and its governing board had a few head honchoes from big builders. Its network comprised of a small tribal clique of contractors and CM academics centred around Brisbane; in other words, a network of mates. The case study and the semi-structured interview reigned supreme. Mates talking to mates. There was a lot of spin about technology futures that did not actually include architects (the naivety of it was unbelievable).

Whilst the CRC did produce some worthwhile intellectual property it produced next to nothing that could be commercialised. You would think after spending millions of bucks on research something might have come out if it apart from a few how to do BIM books. Construction Innovation related research in Australia has never really recovered. In 2013 Australia’s chief scientist Ian Chubb argued that after the CRC R&D investment by the builders in Australia fell into a hole.

Try this and then run 

The Australian construction industry is arguably riddled with bullies, brutes, hi-viz-vest-leering tradies (Tony’s tradies) whose minds are never elevated much beyond low prices and cheap results. Try talking to a builder or tradie about design and watch him (and usually a him) start up with the jokes and the eye rolls and the thought that you are an onanistic character regardless. Of course, cisgender is probably not a word you would even mention to a builder or a contractor: Try it and see what happens.

The upshot

Of course, there are bright things in the contractors and builder’s firmament in Australia. some of them are NAWIC and certainly there a few admirable builders who do support research in my workplace. But mostly it is the builders holding our sector back.

Architects are way smarter, are educated for far longer, have professional insurance, sit actual registration exams and have a better handle on innovation, construction, detailing, urban design and spatiality. Yet many of the builder brutes keep propagating the spin that we are useless aesthetes and could not construct our way out of a paper bag. As one of our graduates once said “I thought you were joking when you said that builders are evil vermin, but you were spot on.”

It’s time for architects in Australia to rebrand ourselves in the public eye. We need to be seen at the forefront of policy and innovation in the design and construction industry. Maybe we architects need to spend less money on the awards programs and the funky conferences and more on promoting our brand at large. 

Mr. Turnbull all I want for Christmas is a Cities Policy.

For those of you tired of Christmas day gluttony and Hannukah frivolities this blog post from earlier in 2016  is worth reposting. Not much has happened since its publication in the policy arena. Of course the absence of policy only reinforces the idea that the The Australian city is a rhetorical singularity. A discursive construct which is a open and malleable site for the forces that have a vested interest in shaping it. A neoliberal imaginary.

The word on the street is that Australia’s Prime Minister is about to ramp up Cities policy. Not only that, but both sides of politics in Australia are keen to showcase cities policy. Not since the ill fated Multi-Function Polis has urban policy been on the agenda in a Federal election year. Now that the price of Iron Ore has bottomed out  it is the city that has become the hope for the future. In a country beset by booms and busts it is the city that is, and will be the next boom. This boom will be presaged by and indistinguishable from a boom in city orientated policy.

But this current fashion for arguing that the best and most sustainable way to develop is via continual city growth needs to be seriously questioned. In Australia I think these questions are crucial. How big should Australian cities be and where should they be? How should populations, and resources, across the continent be dispersed? Australian cities are obviously cities of the new world and the developed world. In some ways Australian cities don’t have the same problem’s characteristic of larger older cities built on mediaeval or ancient foundations in the developing world. Perhaps this is why it is easy to conceive of Australian cities as greenfield sites engines of a new boom; a primary means to leverage and improve productivity (whatever that might mean). Much of the architectural, urban and policy discourse around Australian cities presumes that their continual survival and growth is the most efficient and sustainable way forward. But in its current formulations cities policy in Australia does not ask the fundamental and basic questions related to cities. Cities concerning distribution, size, structure, social governance and relation to country all need to be addressed before the cities boom becomes the next bust.

In urban discourse across the globe their has been a lot of talk around the notion of the anthropocene. The idea as it is defined is that the “earth’s most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans.” We are all in the Anthropocene discourse nowadays. The vibrant and energetic discourse around the anthropocene appears to be inextricably linked to the idea of the city and the urban.  As the sponsors of a forthcoming seminar at University  of Westminster put it:

The discursive rise of the anthropocene has been accompanied by the normalisation of the idea of the ‘urban age’. The city has come to constitute a powerful imaginary, simultaneously the locus of all manner of contemporary crises – ecological and otherwise – and the focus for our hopes of their resolution. While earlier visions of urban sustainability disrupted the nature/culture divide, the goal remained one of ‘balance’, to be achieved through intentional agency.  Such aspirations are increasingly augmented, or framed, by notions of ‘resilience’ and ‘smartness’, in which human agency becomes at best reactive, or even dissolves within a process of recursive co-adaptation.

As they argue:

But where does this leave our ability to ‘plan’ our (urban) future? And is this imagined ‘city’ in fact a multiple construct? Might its rhetorical singularity across different discourses be holding us back from reimagining the future in more productive ways?

This pretty much sums up the urban policy debate in Australia. The Australian city is also now a rhetorical singularity. A discursive construct which is a open and malleable site for the forces that have a vested interest in shaping it. A neoliberal imaginary. The Whitlam agenda of focusing on cities, but also suburbs and regions, was an aberration quickly extinguished. But Australians have been witness to the cities rise over the past 25 years which perhaps started with Hawke’s Building Better Cities program. The cities rise over this time frame is easily discerned in a number of developments: in the discourse of architects, who have abandoned the house, and social housing, as a object of intellectual pursuit, in the rise of the urban design profession, and the emergence of landscape urbanism. Fuelling this rise and impending boom, young hipsters flock to see Jan Gehl and his particular brand of cities for people spin. An entire industry has grown up around state government and local councils fostering green cities, resilient cities and so called smart cities.

A boom focused on the discourse of the urban now exists, and also includes developers, all levels of government, the consulting class, policy specialists, academics, architects and urban designers. There are a number of key groups with different agendas and views which circulate around the cities policy pond. A few of these are worth mentioning. These include: Infrastructure Australia an independent statutory body poorly funded and yet somehow still beholden to whoever is in power in Canberra. Alongside sits lobby groups like the Property Council of Australia and quasi-lobby groups like the Green Building Council of Australia  which has made a virtue of legitimising , and marketing, mediocre green initiatives and passing them off as radical. Even the conservative think tank the IPA  is on the case with housing in cities.

There has also been recent work from the Grattan Institute with its City Limits: Why Australia’s cities are broken and how we can fix them. A report, which identifies issues but elides notions of design and community perhaps because its research is rooted in the corporatist methods of the Boston Consulting Group. More admirably groups like AHURI struggle on limited funds to gather data and produce research around cities. At our architecture school at MSD great groups like VEIL offer unique bottom up insights into community and distributed infrastructure systems. AURIN offers insight into the data throw up and produced by urban agglomerations.

For many of these actors the city is seen as the integrative platform through which various wicked problems can be solved. This integration, both imagined and real, drives the new boom in cities and city policy.  This boom is based on the idea that problems are economic and the city is seen as a place where economic functions can be integrated. It is not about addressing ecological damage or income equality. It is about place and productivity. For example, the  Deloitte Economist Professor Ian Harper has recently espoused the centrality of place in economic theory. It is surprising for someone trained in architecture and urban design to see the mantras of place, innovation, creativity, knowledge capital as these have long been discussed in architecture. As Harper proclaims “crowd’s accelerate” the process of value creation in a services economy moving from manufacturing towards the digital utopia.

Of course transforming place in cities will require the most advanced modelling: Urban research datasets (so called big data), combined spatial and statistical modelling, VR simulation and digital visualisation, as well as Carbon accounting and heat sink modelling. Alongside these tools new urban methodologies will also be needed and employed including AI, complex adaptive urbanism, digital ethnography, systems dynamics and agent based modelling. All of the above is supported by the hardware of mobile computing, the internet of things, wireless and sensor networks and drones.

This theatre of actors and set of technologies associated with this boom will accelerate , once the political apparatchiks, fresh faced ministerial advisers and pedigreed policy mavens accelerate city policy. Events, media releases, showcases of excellence and the ever tightening noose between the discourses of design and innovation will be a part of it. Complicating this is the fact that Australians forgot to establish  a sovereign wealth fund during the commodity boom years. As a result there will be always be a mismatch between the boom in policy needs and the volatility of global financial markets. Policy mavens will always try and catch up and explain away market volatility or alternatively align policy with the markets. But, as the proponents of the Westminster  Centre for the Study of Democracy suggest, the idea of setting policy around cities, without radically rethinking settlement patterns, political governance, technology futures, infrastructure, procurement pathways and community participation in development may only lead to the further degradation and implosion of Australian cities. Isolating any one of these factors for example technology futures or procurement (via new methods of financing) will only lead to further disfunction.

Even a simple dialectal or dichotomous approach is better than seeing cities and place as a localised, simplistic, unified, all encompassing, holistic singularity or imaginary. I suspect a whole-of-continent approach is preferable. The problems of the Murray Darling Basin and the remote communities in the West would suggest that.

Before we think about cities we need to defetishise the way we think about them. Let’s hope its not too late to forestall the next boom.

Beyond the Australian Dream: Australia’s future housing and the failure of the political classes.

Last week I presented a paper at a great conference at Swinburne University in Melbourne. Future Housing Global Issues and Regional Problems Conference. Its was organised under the auspices of MPS. For me the conference reinforced the view that housing design, housing research and housing policy is a critical issue in the context of Australian policy debates. It reinforced for me that architects and urban designers are at the forefront of this issue and that it requires policy responses that are not left to the property markets.

Any approach to infrastructure policy, cities policy and urban sustainability must address housing design, housing policy and housing issues. Sadly, for numerous reasons policy makers, developers, contractors and the political classes housing policy has arguably been a casualty of neoliberal policy that in effect ignores the needs of different demographic strata and groups in Australian society. As the Grattan Institute pointed out in its 2013 report Renovating Housing Policy housing policy in Australia is in need of “renovating” (full marks for the pun) as well as a number of prior reports including The Housing We Choose, Getting The Housing We Want and a report called Productive Cities. 

Housing or cities have not really been a central feature of Australia’s current election campaign. The taxation arrangements around negative gearing have had a bit of a run. The real estate agents have squawked a bit. But generally the politically classes and the media don’t really see it. Its ok for the investment bankers, lawyers and union apparatchiks to talk about smart infrastructure, and so called smart cities, and city sustainability but it is housing that is the key policy element in all of these efforts. Yes, the Coalition will invest up to $100 million in a Smart Cities Policy renewable energy and energy efficient technologies in cities, if re-elected. But, the policy lacks real vision and looks like it is specifically targeted at Western Sydney with a whole lot of give aways like “better lighting, it could include better traffic management, it could include better water management,” I wonder why that is? So much for the rest of us. Why not devote the money to R&D in alternative housing financing, ownership, typologies and housing design. Why not fund ARC research that explores urban densification that isn’t simply about building apartments being developed developers who contribute to political parties. What about regional housing issues?

In contrast a recent Australian Senate Committee published a report on affordable housing in May 2015. The report containing over 200 submissions from different stakeholders in Australia’s housing sector.

The Senate report concluded that concluded that:housing affordability was also exacerbated by policy fragmentation. The report concluded that Australia’s housing system needed to be considered as a interlinked system which had both public private and the numerous local, state and federal jurisdictions. Policy was needed to give “coherence to the numerous local, state and national incentives and schemes intended to contribute to the provision of affordable housing.”

Organised by the Centre of Design Innovation at Swinburne University, and under the Auspices of MPS, the conference covered a number of diverse topics. A survey of the topics presented at the conference indicates the degree to which housing is a complex issue that requires more than property marketing, think-tanking and political spin. It is a policy area that requires alternative propositions through design research and experiment.

The conference covered the full gamut of this area of research and for me it underscored that housing policy cannot be boiled down to any singular catch cry. For example academics at the conference presented papers and research on affordable housing and issues in other cities and countries such as Iran, Sweden, the UK, South Korea, Mumbai and Vietnam. Researchers presented who examined alternative housing typologies in Australian cities as well as work regarding remote, rural and regional housing. Indigenous housing got a guernsey; as well as research into Australian social housing, rental affordability, housing finance and Australia’s urban poor; there were also papers on ageing, disability and housing design.

One intriguing paper investigated the notion of neighbour hoods and neighbouring patterns in Australian cities. Not a topic that is often discussed in the context of housing policy. Mostly, these days all the talk of neighbourhoods is in the glossy marketing materials. One of the more innovative papers, based on a MSD design studio explored proposals for the redevelopment of the Prahran housing estate. This paper reminded me that design research is an essential component in terms of housing policy and housing futures. Call me cynical, but the lawyer trained political apparatchiks and marketing minded developers really don’t care that much about design or design research.

Yet, architecture schools and architects themselves have been at the forefront, for the many years if not decades, by producing and proposing alternative typologies to the housing question. Architects are well placed to understand the interdependencies and intricacies of housing. Yet, as a profession and within the graduate studios of architecture school this work has had little impact on Australian policy debates. It has been largely for no avail and mostly ignored. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a politician  talk about the “Australian Dream” we would all be extremely wealthy. But for some reason Australia seems to be stuck in a limited number of market driven approaches to the housing question. The Australian dream of universal and egalitarian home ownership has gone now. It has slipped away. To keep talking about this dream only masks the stratified, and as I muse increasingly extreme, demographics that is the real nature of Australian society.

As many architects already know housing brings together interdisciplinary perspectives across economics, finance, planning, architecture and urban design. Creating new knowledge across this area requires a bottom up approach involving both community participation, nuanced data analytics and concerted design research. Meanwhile, the global marketing machine that spins a lifestyle of, minimalist danish modern designer homeware bright breakfast morning margarine advertisement living, just rolls along.

The Australian dream is of home ownership is now just another phantasm in the spectacle.

Planning Anarchy: Why architects hate urban planners in my city.

Architects are a contradictory profession. Prone to political activism and yet also deeply conservative. Seemingly agile, radical and innovative yet unable to move quickly in the face of gender inequality in the profession. Forward thinking and future driven yet bound by the traditions of the canon.

But if there is one thing I think many architects in my small global city of 4 million people can agree on it is this: Statutory Urban Planners are the lowest form of life.

I am not the only one in Australia to actually think this. A recent article by Elizabeth Farrelly in the SMH also points to the crisis in the planning profession in Sydney. However, I think many of Farrelly’s observations may also apply to Melbourne. The only problem is the planners themselves are not aware of the crisis. Architects, to their credit, on the other hand always seem conflicted by professional guilt and riven by internal debates of one kind or another.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of urban planning and its associated discourse. I was in partnership with a planner who also did architecture. But, many small architectural practitioners I know are angry. They are angry about the idiocy of a planning system that permits the wholesale destruction of our cities fabric and memory and yet binds up small projects in the most torturous regulations and processes.

From the perspective of many architects in Melbourne planning governance is broken and this impedes the governance and development of the city. It is an anarchic system.

Lesson 1: The built environment would be better if planners actually learnt about architectural and urban design

In 2011 we organised a protest against the unsanctimonious and ill considered renovation of a so-called brutalist building. One of the most important examples of this movement from the 70s.   You can read about it here. As a result of our protest, the council undertook to renovate an important element of that building. It is still yet to be refurbished. Despite a heritage assessment report and its significance the planners at the council in question said and did nothing.

Clearly in this instance the planners had no sense of responsibility to or appreciation of Australian modernist architecture.

Perhaps the study of Australian architectural history should be mandatory for statutory planners. The curriculum of most planning courses have a kind of pseudo legal aspect to them. This is matched with a altruistic, if not condescending, interest in community participation. Chuck a bit of sustainability into the syllabus and what more could you want? How about planners study architectural history, visual arts or urban design as a core component of their tertiary courses. How about planners learn about design, design research rather than exclusively focusing on social science research?

Lesson 2:  Planners will tie you up in processes that are disproportionate to the size of the project at hand

In the process of doing an internal renovation of a commercially zoned building in a middle ring suburb the building surveyor insisted an external facing shutter be removed and replaced with a gate in order to facilitate emergency egress. Makes sense doesn’t it ? Sure, it makes sense but not to the planners. They insisted that the new gate be subject to a planning permit including advertising. Maybe 3 months, maybe 6 months maybe a year to get through this process if you are lucky. Providing no one objects during the advertising period. But, maybe someone will object and you will go to VCAT. Of course if any one objects the planners will agree with them.

The architect friend of mine responsible for this project bemoans the fact that, a junior planner is employed at the council on the project and is just following the rules; that way they don’t have to think. She says, perhaps with the benefit of prior experience,  if you complain the planners put you at the bottom of the list and go slow.

Planners are not independent, mostly they are employees of councils, who will simply follow the dictates of their line managers in their organisation.

I am keen to document examples of situations where architects have been bogged down in planning red tape on small inner city projects. Send them to me and I will de-identify these cases and then discuss them in a later blog ! Email me if you are interested. 

Lesson 3: Planners have no control or interest in questioning large scale developments

One of of the last remaining buildings associated with the coach industry. Who cares ??? Not the planners. This facade is about to be completely demolished for a, perhaps tawdry, laneway and curtain wall. Maybe the laneway will have a barista outpost in it.

The upshot is almost nothing is actually governed by the planners. Small projects get locked up in red tape and as Elizabeth Farrelly points out the interests of big developers remain paramount.

Lesson 4: Planners love to meddle in architectural design 

So what’s worse than the planners not planning or not governing the planning system? It is when the planners actually start to see things in the urban environment; or think they actually know about design. Planners love to add design value. But they often get this wrong. Why is that? Urban Planners are not trained in visual or spatial thinking. Sure they can argue and talk about the politics of community participation and the rights to the city. But they by and large have no idea about urban aesthetics, architectural value, or design processes. Their understanding of the issues is extremely simplistic.  Consequently,  since the demise of high modernism and the birth of the building conservation and renovation movement in the 1970s our city is littered with the most simplistic and naive examples of facadism. Rohan Story has all done us a favour by documenting many of these as a part of Melbourne Heritage Action group (thanks to MHA for the images in this blog).

You can always tell when the stat planners have a had a go at a building in the planning process. They love to tweak a corner or add a bit of value to a streetscape. They are excellent mimics especially when it comes to imitating, the facades of Victorian and Edwardian housing stock. Their favourite delight is slapping on the heritage colours out of the paint bucket. Fragmented and “broken down” facades, setbacks on setbacks, screening in myriad materials, different materials and colours; beige, pink, rust and that beloved of all colours for the planner wanting to evoke Melbourne’s historic past: terracotta. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the planners love a balcony.

Future Melbourne Committee meeting 17 May 2016, Agenda item 6.2:

These pathetic efforts are usually touted as a win-win and as a result our city is full of the results of this kind of urban streetscape slop.

In reply to Farrelly’s article the PIA the Planning Institute of Australia responded by stating:

Planning policy provides the checks and balances to put the densities where they best fit and ensure infrastructure is appropriate. There will always be differing public, professional and political opinions and reactions to any rapidly changing city. 

Planning is inherently focused on facilitation and balance where both the public and many differing private interests are accommodated. This should occur without compromising good design, creation of place, amenity and liveability – this is known as the public interest.

As far as I can tell urban planners in Melbourne are powerless and do none of the above. The planners are always good at writing stuff to make it sound nice.  After all that is what they are trained to do. But they need to be visually and spatially literate.

Yes, some of my best friends are planners, many of my more admirably and politically orientated colleagues are planners, but I am sorry we really need to have this debate.

What rankles is how easily the punters find it in themselves to hate architects. In actual fact it is the urban planners the punters should be hating. Yes, architects are kinda guilty as well. Both professions are involved in and witness to the current and ongoing contemporary destruction of Melbourne.

But at least the architects as a profession will argue about it and lose sleep over it. Which is more than I can say for the urban planners.

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The Next Commodities Boom: Defetishising Australian cities policy.

The word on the street is that Australia’s Prime Minister is about to ramp up Cities policy. Not only that, but both sides of politics in Australia are keen to showcase cities policy. Not since the ill fated Multi-Function Polis has urban policy been on the agenda in a Federal election year. Now that the price of Iron Ore has bottomed out  it is the city that has become the hope for the future. In a country beset by booms and busts it is the city that is, and will be the next boom. This boom will be presaged by and indistinguishable from a boom in city orientated policy.

But this current fashion for arguing that the best and most sustainable way to develop is via continual city growth needs to be seriously questioned. In Australia I think these questions are crucial. How big should Australian cities be and where should they be? How should populations, and resources, across the continent be dispersed? Australian cities are obviously cities of the new world and the developed world. In some ways Australian cities don’t have the same problem’s characteristic of larger older cities built on mediaeval or ancient foundations in the developing world. Perhaps this is why it is easy to conceive of Australian cities as greenfield sites engines of a new boom; a primary means to leverage and improve productivity (whatever that might mean). Much of the architectural, urban and policy discourse around Australian cities presumes that their continual survival and growth is the most efficient and sustainable way forward. But in its current formulations cities policy in Australia does not ask the fundamental and basic questions related to cities. Cities concerning distribution, size, structure, social governance and relation to country all need to be addressed before the cities boom becomes the next bust.

In urban discourse across the globe their has been a lot of talk around the notion of the anthropocene. The idea as it is defined is that the “earth’s most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans.” We are all in the Anthropocene discourse nowadays. The vibrant and energetic discourse around the anthropocene appears to be inextricably linked to the idea of the city and the urban.  As the sponsors of a forthcoming seminar at University  of Westminster put it:

The discursive rise of the anthropocene has been accompanied by the normalisation of the idea of the ‘urban age’. The city has come to constitute a powerful imaginary, simultaneously the locus of all manner of contemporary crises – ecological and otherwise – and the focus for our hopes of their resolution. While earlier visions of urban sustainability disrupted the nature/culture divide, the goal remained one of ‘balance’, to be achieved through intentional agency.  Such aspirations are increasingly augmented, or framed, by notions of ‘resilience’ and ‘smartness’, in which human agency becomes at best reactive, or even dissolves within a process of recursive co-adaptation.

As they argue:

But where does this leave our ability to ‘plan’ our (urban) future? And is this imagined ‘city’ in fact a multiple construct? Might its rhetorical singularity across different discourses be holding us back from reimagining the future in more productive ways?

This pretty much sums up the urban policy debate in Australia. The Australian city is also now a rhetorical singularity. A discursive construct which is a open and malleable site for the forces that have a vested interest in shaping it. A neoliberal imaginary. The Whitlam agenda of focusing on cities, but also suburbs and regions, was an aberration quickly extinguished. But Australians have been witness to the cities rise over the past 25 years which perhaps started with Hawke’s Building Better Cities program. The cities rise over this time frame is easily discerned in a number of developments: in the discourse of architects, who have abandoned the house, and social housing, as a object of intellectual pursuit, in the rise of the urban design profession, and the emergence of landscape urbanism. Fuelling this rise and impending boom, young hipsters flock to see Jan Gehl and his particular brand of cities for people spin. An entire industry has grown up around state government and local councils fostering green cities, resilient cities and so called smart cities.

A boom focused on the discourse of the urban now exists, and also includes developers, all levels of government, the consulting class, policy specialists, academics, architects and urban designers. There are a number of key groups with different agendas and views which circulate around the cities policy pond. A few of these are worth mentioning. These include: Infrastructure Australia an independent statutory body poorly funded and yet somehow still beholden to whoever is in power in Canberra. Alongside sits lobby groups like the Property Council of Australia and quasi-lobby groups like the Green Building Council of Australia  which has made a virtue of legitimising , and marketing, mediocre green initiatives and passing them off as radical. Even the conservative think tank the IPA  is on the case with housing in cities.

There has also been recent work from the Grattan Institute with its City Limits: Why Australia’s cities are broken and how we can fix them. A report, which identifies issues but elides notions of design and community perhaps because its research is rooted in the corporatist methods of the Boston Consulting Group. More admirably groups like AHURI struggle on limited funds to gather data and produce research around cities. At our architecture school at MSD great groups like VEIL offer unique bottom up insights into community and distributed infrastructure systems. AURIN offers insight into the data throw up and produced by urban agglomerations.

For many of these actors the city is seen as the integrative platform through which various wicked problems can be solved. This integration, both imagined and real, drives the new boom in cities and city policy.  This boom is based on the idea that problems are economic and the city is seen as a place where economic functions can be integrated. It is not about addressing ecological damage or income equality. It is about place and productivity. For example, the  Deloitte Economist Professor Ian Harper has recently espoused the centrality of place in economic theory. It is suprising for someone trained in architecture and urban design to see the mantras of place, innovation, creativity, knowledge capital as these have long been discussed in architecture. As Harper proclaims “crowd’s accelerate” the process of value creation in a services economy moving from manufacturing towards the digital utopia.

Of course transforming place in cities will require the most advanced modelling: Urban research datasets (so called big data), combined spatial and statistical modelling, VR simulation and digital visualisation, as well as Carbon accounting and heat sink modelling. Alongside these tools new urban methodologies will also be needed and employed including AI, complex adaptive urbanism, digital ethnography, systems dynamics and agent based modelling. All of the above is supported by the hardware of mobile computing, the internet of things, wireless and sensor networks and drones.

This theatre of actors and set of technologies associated with this boom will accelerate , once the political apparatchiks, fresh faced minisiterial advisers and pedigreed policy mavens accelerate city policy. Events, media releases, showcases of excellence and the ever tightening noose between the discourses of design and innovation will be a part of it. Complicating this is the fact that Australians forgot to establish  a sovereign wealth fund during the commodity boom years. As a result there will be always be a mismatch between the boom in policy needs and the volatility of global financial markets. Policy mavens will always try and catch up and explain away market volatility or alternatively align policy with the markets. But, as the proponents of the Westminster  Centre for the Study of Democracy suggest, the idea of setting policy around cities, without radically rethinking settlement patterns, political governance, technology futures, infrastructure, procurement pathways and community participation in development may only lead to the further degradation and implosion of Australian cities. Isolating any one of these factors for example technology futures or procurement (via new methods of financing) will only lead to further disfunction.

Even a simple dialectal or dichotomous approach is better than seeing cities and place as a localised, simplistic, unified, all encompassing, wholisitic singularity or imaginary. I suspect a whole-of-continent approach is preferable. The problems of the Murray Darling Basin and the remote communities in the West would suggest that.

Before we think about cities we need to defetishise the way we think about them. Let’s hope its not too late to forestall the next boom.