Spin, spin, and spin again
Russell Degnan

Mary Delahunty has made a fairly piss-weak attempt to defend Melbourne 2030 from the likes of Kenneth Davidson, appealing to history, the noble goals of the strategic statement, and the government's record in implementation. If this was just another op-ed piece I'd probably ignore it as lacking in the substance to be worthy of comment, but since it is the Planning Minister...

Melbourne did not become the world's most liveable city by accident. Our parks and gardens, our wide boulevards, our user-friendly city street grid, our extensive tram and train network and a catchment system that delivers drinking water that is the envy of the world are legacies of visionary planning.

Dodging the debate on whether Melbourne even is the world's most liveable city, or even if urban form has much to do with that tag. This statement is only tenuously related to how Melbourne came about. The parks and gardens, I will grant. The wide boulevards exist around the inner city only; nearby suburbs don't have wide boulevards (think Sydney Rd., Bridge Rd., Swan St. Victoria St., Brunswick St.). And Hoddle himself is quoted as upset about this in the mid 19th century. The street grid is not user friendly, is barely a good idea, would be horrendous without the laneways and has been criticised for over 150 years. Regardless of its benefits, for the most part the tram and train network was built with political handouts and corruption of the worst sort, and very little planning as such - as opposed to the freeway system which wasn't mentioned. And, the water catchments I will also grant,

She then misattributes a quote to Davidson that was from Miles Lewis, and misrepresents his argument as being about one site; before following up with some banalities that hardly refute the point and don't in any way get down to the important matter that is still unresolved: how is the government actually going to implement Melbourne 2030. The results quoted for public transport increase on two bus routes are hardly "spectacular". A 30 percent and 20 percent improvement is a long way short of the 100 percent improvement needed to meet the proposed 20 percent share for all motorised trips. I regularly used to take both the Springvale Rd. and Blackburn Rd. buses and improvements of this magnitude are probably 1-3 passengers extra per trip. Taken from the traffic on those roads that means they have removed barely 1 percent of all cars from those roads!

The Bracks Government is making the hard decisions to protect Melbourne's liveability.

The Bracks government has no opposition to speak of and yet, is still so spineless that Melbourne 2030 is effectively dead as a plan for anything except undeveloped land (ie. the UGB and Green Wedges). They haven't made a hard decision regarding the Melbourne area in five years in office.

Rural areas on the other hand, are having their wishes over-run because of the government's commitment to wind farms. I'm ambivalent on the issue of wind-farms. I think we should be investing in storage technologies instead. But I also think it should be determined locally. This is not happening:

Local councils have been totally excluded from any approval processes. Assessments of the suitability of wind farm locations and government guidelines specifically declare that its environmental targets should have greater weight than community concerns about visual degradation of the coastline.

The 'Greater Good' is not a good reason for ruining a local environment. This is why it is used to justify dams, power stations and freeways at great expense to local amenity. Local residents almost never receive adequate compensation for these kind of schemes, which again, is why I think it is a local issue.

However, noone owns the bay. The Channel Deepening Project will almost certainly go ahead. This article takes what sounds like a relatively nuanced assessment of the EIS and tries to imply that there might be serious implications. There might be of course, particularly near the Heads, but neither assessment seems to indicate a major risk.

Sterner Matters 31st August, 2004 13:10:21   [#] [1 comment] 

Monday Melbourne: XLIII, August 2004
Russell Degnan

Late winter sun. Taken August 2004

Melbourne Town 30th August, 2004 23:41:13   [#] [0 comments] 

Melbourne`s trees
Russell Degnan

City of Melbourne Councilor David Risstrom has a strange obsession. He wants to remove every last non-native Australian tree from Melbourne. This is not news, he said this last year and after a study found that native birds prefer native trees (you don't say!), he is at it again. Specifically though I want to address this quote:

"It's time to get over the cultural cringe (of planting exotics)."

The cultural cringe is a bizarre phenomenon, it seems to exist only in the minds of the people who don't like it. Whereas in this case, as in most others, there are perfectly sensible reasons for preferring something exotic.

Melbourne's gardens and streets were never intended to be purely exotic, and they never have been. They were laid out according to the principles and fashions of landscape and urban design, using whatever species could be obtained, and whatever species would serve the purpose of the designer. But even then they were Australian in nature. The original layout of Flagstaff and Fitzroy Gardens reflected "the importance of shade, the need to check the incursion of dust from unmade roads, and hot summers with limited water".

There has never even been a rejection of native species. The popularity of Heidelberg school painters and poets glorifying Australia's native species in the late 19th century and after Federation meant planting native species was popular then, as now, and at various other times in between. As such, native - though often not Victorian - species are common in all our parks and streets, for their unique qualities, their colour and beauty, and because as evergreens, they maintain their foliage.

Where exotic species are used it is because they provide their own advantages. The shade in summer and sunlight in winter provided by a deciduous tree is a very important and pleasant part of Melbourne's character, beauty and liveability. This view of Princes Park shows the general treatment that has always been searched for. On the one side of the path, gum trees and other Australian natives around the sports fields, on the other, elms. Complementing each other, and giving the advantages of both. Cr. Risstrom should find a better way to spend his time. There are dozens of environmental and urban issues of far greater importance: streets galore with little or no trees at all, council policy that is increasing the number of automobiles in the city, and pedestrian and bicycle spaces that are barely serving their job. Leave the birds to sing in the suburbs where noone leaves their house on foot.

Sterner Matters 29th August, 2004 01:43:00   [#] [0 comments] 

Selling out your sport
Russell Degnan

It never ceases to amaze me that sporting administrators routinely choose the highest bidder when selling television rights. Money is no doubt important, as it is one of the major sources of revenue, but is not the only thing by any means.

This week, the English Premier League did a deal with Fox Sports that sees SBS lose both the game per week and the highlights package. But television is more than revenue, it is advertising, and in the case of free-to-air, it is good advertising (even on SBS). If the overall interest in the Premier League drops because of a lack of coverage - and it almost certainly will - how much will those teams lose in merchandise sales?

It does however give Soccer Australia an opportunity - when they have a competition that is. They are another organisation that sold their rights, to channel Seven, for piddling coverage, and no real commitment. The NSL lost coverage on SBS, in favour of a very late night highlights package. It continued to flounder along until its mercy killing, but hopefully the lesson has been learnt. What sports - particularly marginal ones in Australia like soccer and basketball - need is coverage first and foremost. Other advertisers would follow if you locked a major network into prime-time coverage, but as the NBL has learnt (even as netball is jumping ahead on the ABC), noone is interested in an invisible game.

But, back to the Premier League. Australian's have no special attachment to the English game. It could well be usurped by whatever SBS find as an alternative, be it the Serie A or the Primera Liga. And it will serve them right.

Idle Summers 28th August, 2004 23:16:31   [#] [0 comments] 

Travails with the so-called "SmartGuide"
Russell Degnan

A few nights ago I was in the city waiting at the super-stop. No wait, SUUUPER-stop, on the corner of Collins and Swanston St. As well as the extremely useful tram indicators that tell you whether you have time to run and get a jaffle pie before your tram comes, it also has the moderately useful SmartGuide.

Being a bit of a nerd, I couldn't resist having a play, and having done that, and being a sort of uber-nerd, I couldn't resist coming back again to try and break it. And break it I did. The moderately useful thing is that it has a Melway map built in on which you can plan a route and scroll around the city. The useless part is that the route finder is a little bit "indirect" on occasion.

I chose a route to some obscure place in the South-Eastern suburbs. The short story is you need to take the Frankston train to Ormond.

Above is what it gave me. Since the text is hard to read, here it is in text:

Catch Port Melbourne Tram 109 at 9:24pm from Swanston St. to Flinders St., arriving at 9:42pm

Catch Wattle Park Tram 70 at 9:42pm from Spencer and Flinders Sts. to Swanston and Flinders Sts., arriving at 9:55pm

Walk 81 metres to Flinders St. Station. Catch Frankston Train at 9:55pm to Ormond Station, arriving at 10:57pm. Walk 904 metres to your desired destination.

Total walking distance: 996 metres

Brilliant I first thought. But.... no.

The first terrible assumption it seems to make is that you have some idea where you are going. Which is why it lists a tram to take from that platform even though it is going nowhere near where you want. Now, the first rule of Human-Computer Interaction is that users don't know what they are doing and will actively break your seemingly logical system. The programmer who did this should be embarrassed. But it is worse than that, because there are lots of reasons people might be trying to do any route from any point on the system. This is a massive failing.

At any rate, this assumption results in a bizarre and unnecessary tram sequence. From Collins and Swanston to Spencer and Flinders, then back up Flinders. Taking a measly half an hour to do something that could have been trammed up Swanston in 3 minutes, or walked in 2. (Leaving aside the possibility to tram down Elizabeth, or get off at Spencer St. station).

Worse still, it assumes trams run on time perfectly, because the tram times match exactly (and the Port Melbourne was already late), so you would not actually catch the Wattle Park tram unless it was late.

A similar error is then made for the Frankston connection. Apparently we have godlike powers to transport ourselves short distances in zero time. A walk of 81 metres (I love the exactitude of that distance) will take 2-3 minutes. Scheduling exactly is plain stupid. Not that it matters, not only is the time to Ormond massively wrong - 1 hour, 2 minutes! instead of 29 minutes, and just 18 from Richmond because the loop is slow - but the timetable is wrong anyway. The train runs on the quarter hour and every 30 minutes in that period. You could saunter up to Flinders St., catch the 9:45pm and be in Ormond by 10:14pm.

But that's ok, because if you are sucked in to taking the tram, its times are wrong too! The Port Melbourne comes through at 9:35pm. The Wattle Park at 9:50pm.

In short, the SmartGuide is as dumb as dogshit, confusing, wrong, with hopeless heuristics on time, a terrible sense of direction, and stupid assumptions. I pity the tourist who mistakenly uses it to try and go somewhere.

Update: It occurs to me that the times may in fact not refer to when the vehicle arrives, but instead the time from which you have to wait for them. In which case, the end point times are correct, whereas the start times are ridiculously counter-intuitive.

Melbourne Town 25th August, 2004 22:47:24   [#] [3 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: XLII, August 2004
Russell Degnan

Meyer's Place Bar. Taken on a walk (of sorts), 18th August 2004

Melbourne Town 23rd August, 2004 19:34:59   [#] [0 comments] 

Local sport and their local council
Russell Degnan

Gideon Haigh wrote an interesting article yesterday on the plans Moreland city council - God bless 'em, I'm glad I'm moving - has for Coburg Cricket Club. Or rather, what they don't have planned. Gideon is obviously biased, being a player of cricket in the same sort of localised, historic club as Coburg. I am too, so I won't bother stating what I think of it.

However, I will comment on the nature of local councils and their sporting organisations in this day and age. There was obviously a time, before councils merged, and were told to be efficient - or at least pretend to be - when a club could go from year to year, paying their ground rent, occasionally asking for a bit of club room maintenance, but otherwise ignoring the council and vice-versa. That time is finished.

Haigh has written before about this. From a cricketer's viewpoint the key line is this one:

An office bearer of one club I spoke to recently told me of a meeting where two councilors wondered openly why they had a local team at all: cricket, it was well known, was an elitist activity.

This is rubbish of course, cricket clubs tend to reflect the area they reside in, which is why mine is mostly students, young singles, professionals, and an assortment from a half dozen countries. But councilors don't necessarily know what is going on, and they have a tendency to come from a less than diverse range of places. Cricketers for instance, do not have time to run for local council.

Until two years ago my club had very little contact with the City of Melbourne who own our ground, until they put out two strategy documents. The first was on green issues; I wrote to them to comment that if water-saving was an issue on playing fields they should talk to the local clubs because they were over-watering our ground.

The second was on local sport in general. The draft said outright that individual activities were growing where clubs weren't and bordered on recommending the move and removal of sporting clubs in favour of running tracks and general parkland. My club responded to a some of the issues raised, and put to the council that they were not consulting clubs enough - if at all.

The response was two fold, and it is something that all clubs need to keep in mind. One, we meet with the council far more often, which was very useful during the recent water restrictions, but means in general that we have much greater idea what is going on. And are much less likely to be thrown off our ground in favour of the local soccer club that also uses it. Two, we have been more active in the community we are part of. This hasn't been entirely successful - it is much harder than it looks - but it is the attitude that counts.

Sporting clubs in Melbourne can no longer afford to stay independent of their local council. A lot have been shunted, or moved, often at great cost to the club itself, and in an insensitive way. They really need to step up and show why they are so important to the community - because they are - otherwise incidents of random politics will keep killing them off.

Idle Summers 22nd August, 2004 23:22:34   [#] [0 comments] 

It never rains, but it pours
Russell Degnan

Perhaps the Planning Minister and her shadow just wanted to get outside while it is sunny, but there was lots of planning articles in the Age in the last few days.

Kenneth Davidson wrote a diverse, rambling and largely incorrect article on his own bugbears, while obliquely referring to the panel report on the controversial Smith St. proposal (no link, the DSE website is crap). As I've mentioned earlier Davidson is basically anti-development at all, which is why he seems to think Smith St. - a street that was notorious for its drug problem only 5 years ago - will be "ruined" by this proposal. Accusations that developers are being enriched by the planning system are just rubbish. He quote Miles Lewis in the panel hearing referring to compensation - an area that Lewis goes into detail on in Suburban Backlash. The quote:

"An owner or developer should not reap windfall profits due to changes in planning controls. If the council's existing height limits in this area are set aside, whether due to Melbourne 2030 or for any other reason, then the property owner is in effect handed a packet of money. It is absolutely reasonable that a proportion of that unearned gain be garnished for the public good."

This is not consistent with the planning laws. Developers don't get compensation for changes to your potential land uses because of planning controls. To suggest that they should pay it when the lottery wheel swings round the other way - by planning scheme changes, or by simpler things like new infrastructure - is rubbish. Unless Davidson wants to change the whole nature of compensation under Victorian Planning law of course.

In other news though:
Boorondara residents are whiners. Well we knew that. But what about this throw-away comment down the bottom of the article:

Opposition planning spokesman Ted Baillieu yesterday vowed to scrap the State Government's urban growth boundary, a cornerstone of the metropolitan planning blueprint Melbourne 2030.

Mr Baillieu said the boundary was contributing to a land price rise on Melbourne's fringe. The Liberals would probably want to "re-engineer" the blueprint, he said, with legislation to remove the growth boundary and a review of the land designated as "green wedge".

However, Mr Baillieu stopped short of promising to scrap Melbourne 2030, which he described as a "dud".

The problem with writing and implementing a strategic plan is that if it does what you wanted it to do, aggrieved parties hate it and threaten the government until they dump it. And if it doesn't it is not worth the paper it is written on, so the government dumps it. The real beauty of Melbourne 2030 is that it is managing to do both simultaneously.

Want to protect something in Melbourne? Plant trees. The views from the botanic gardens are to be protected again. The green wedges are to be protected, as is the greenery related to heritage or neighbourhood character (if it ever gets off the ground). Views are useless in a larger sense, but they are relatively easy to plan for, so that's something.

Government doesn't consult local council. Government denies it. Local council is insulted. Maybe planning articles just mean it was just a slow news day?

And finally, a piece of madness to warm the heart. Colin Fraser has got all giddy watching the television series on Victorian era engineering projects and wants to build dams in Queensland to send water to the southern parts of Australia. Or perhaps to the Middle East if the last few paragraphs are any indication.

Two points: One, eco-systems work on a purely local level, dependent on a complicated number of inputs. It depends where on the Flinders River you take the water from how much an effect taking three percent will have. Likewise, water tanks on houses might be "small dams" but except that they remove stormwater from some stormwater systems that might need them, they have a fairly neutral effect on the local environment. Big dams do not. Piping water thousands of kilometres to replenish the Murray-Darling means putting the water in the right places at the right time to achieve the effect the original dying eco-system needs.

Which brings me to point two. The great Victorian engineering feats didn't tame their environments. They were a way of protecting themselves from them, but they still suffered within them, be they railways, sewer systems, bridges or ships. Dams are an attempt to tame the environment, and they have been spectacular failures as often as great successes. Damming the Flinders River, and pumping water mostly uphill over several thousand kilometres to put more water into areas of Australia that already have a major salinity problem from over-watering, is a fairly high-risk way to solve non-existent problems.

Sterner Matters 22nd August, 2004 22:43:09   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: XLI, August 2004
Russell Degnan

The City Square. Taken July 29th 2004

Melbourne Town 16th August, 2004 23:54:26   [#] [0 comments] 

Blaming the victims of state education
Russell Degnan

I mentioned some of my thoughts on education a few weeks ago, and hadn't planned to return to it for a while. But, last week, Hugh Mackay produced an op-ed so full of illogical errors and slurs on parents and private schools that I will comment further.

He starts by questioning the idea that parents want "discipline" and "respect for traditional values" from their schools, accusing them of wanting to relieve themselves from the burden of their parental responsibilities. Needless to say, I see it very differently.

Students spend 200 days per year at school, for 7 hours a day, plus the time to travel. They spend further time at home doing homework, or outside the house doing extra-curricular activities (though not all of these are attached to the school). They meet the vast majority (if not all) of their friends at school. In terms of the time spent on school related things it consumes more than half the waking hours of the average young person. Do you think, that, maybe, all that exposure to other students and the school system might have an effect on a young person? Perhaps, rather than abdicating their responsibilities, parents are merely trying to avoid having their efforts undermined by probably the largest determiner of their child's character.

This mistaken view that schools somehow shouldn't or aren't responsible for teaching morals and discipline is merely part of a larger confusion on what schools are for that comes out later in the article. In successive paragraphs, to read Mackay: parents shouldn't have a choice in what they are getting from school; parents should not be using education to increase their students opportunities in life; that their is more to school than achieving high marks, but that private schools are only interested in marks; that privatising schools means students are in a battlefield competing for university places; and that public education should be a symbol of our egalitarian society. All of which are inconsistent, rubbish, or both. At least if you think education is something that people should be able to pursue, and that the pursuing is best done at an early age.

There has always been two concurrent views of education that Mackay has bundled into the mess of ideas that seem to represent his actual view on the role of education.

The first is for education as a means to self improvement, and as a useful adjunct for a person's broader role in society. It has consistently manifested itself in the upper and middle classes, in Grand Tours and the original Liberal Arts, in universities and schools that admit people on 'character' as well as sporting and academic achievement, and in special cases for education as a means in and of itself. It is a distinctly unegalitarian view of education, because it sees it as a step towards greater advancement on an individual level.

The second view is that first promoted by advanced Italian and Dutch city states, and later by the rise of public education in the 19th century, that of an educated populace for the advancement of the state itself. It started as universal primary education, and as the years have progressed, the 'required' education has increased likewise. Nowadays, governments see a university education as a simple requirement. They promote a university education for all, and have been doing so for twenty years. But it has never been a view supporting education as a way to self actualisation; it has always been as a required adjunct to a vocation. Any education behind the minimum requirement has always cost money, whether it was for grade four maths in the depression or a PhD today. And it is not and never has been about egalitarianism, but social engineering.

Both views are still held by large segments of the population, and they aren't incompatible. But as state schools descend deeper into the bleak hole of zero expectations, parents see them as failing in the first role and they head to private schools. That there is a focus on 'marks' is entirely the result of the socialisation of the university system. Governments have - rightly perhaps - made marks the sole determiner of whether a student can pursue a university course. Parents and private schools are smart enough to realise what that means. If Hugh Mackay engaged his brain he'd see that too, as he'd also see that noone has a vision for the role of education in the broader society anymore. If he'd like to keep promoting it as a means towards egalitarianism he would be well advised to produce one.

Sterner Matters 16th August, 2004 01:06:53   [#] [0 comments] 

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