All and Nothing
Russell Degnan

An Answer to the question 'What is Neighbourhood Character?'

A fortnight ago, Aaron Hewett made an admirable attempt to usefully define neighbourhood character. Admirable because, as he shows, the official definitions of neighbourhood character are not useful; they define character both vaguely - as an expression of how the community views their neighbourhood - and precisely - through physical descriptions that don't adequately express the community's view. More importantly, the character must be open to change, and shouldn't be precisely replicated, potentially making the whole exercise an interesting but pointless waste of time.

Outside the strictures of the planning profession, neighbourhood character means so much more. Arguably, once the largely unarguable, and mostly necessary aspects of planning legislation are taken into account - such as not building on a flood plain, the need for adequate sewerage and water, and so on and so forth - neighbourhood character is everything. What, for instance, is the point of a set-back, a height restriction, heritage, trees, and for that matter, over-looking, if not a character consideration? And what, except outright damage to their property, do neighbours have any interest in, except the impact a development has on their neighbourhood's character?

By defining character more broadly, we come to the heart of character disputes, simultaneously delving deeper into why protecting neighbourhood character, especially a preferred character is problematic even when it can be defined. Roughly, there are five categories into which definitions of character fall:

Physical Character, the definition preferred by planning practioners, dealing, as it does, with things they have some control over: the relationship of physical objects to each other in the neighbourhood.

Heritage, is something that, theoretically, character is not. Heritage is something of historical value. Character is closer to an architectural style. Yet style is often representative of the use and historical circumstances that the neighbourhood has maintained. They cannot be separated as easily as experts might like.

Use as character should be an obvious concept; consider a city of the early 20th century: the meat-packing district, the docks, the garment district, and many others, each preserving within them the residential support for their local industries. Yet, use restrictions are only contained in a zoning system that is inadequate for protecting character, and excessively restrictive of the changes modern cities have undergone. Meanwhile, the uses that preserved the character of many neighbourhoods have moved on, even as the new residents of those areas seek to 'preserve' the now somewhat mythical character of the old housing stock.

Identity is a character trait often missing in Melbourne. Council amalgamations have not helped, emphasising an idea that suburbs are no more than arbitrary lines on a map. Yet people strongly identify with where they live, by name, and by its associated area. Carried within that identity is a sense of the character. Though, as Aaron has already noted, there is no guarantee that it is a character worth preserving.

And finally, people themselves make up the character of a neighbourhood. Yet, preservation of character, defined in this sense, can only be either discriminatory, or ridiculous. How, for example, should we have defined the preferred character of an inner city slum in the 1940s? Would it have included the post-war immigrants, the students, the gentrifiers, or even the outer-suburban through-traffic?

The mistakes being made with respect to neighbourhood character are two-fold. The first is to assume that it can be defined. None of the properties above are easily written about, and most are so subjective as to be specific to the individual. Andrew Tate's article on character and heritage demonstrates this nicely. He complains bitterly of the way developers and the planning system work against objectors, but what really, does he mean when he says people want the "history, integrity and ambience of their neighbourhood preserved"? The scent of destruction wafts across from those words. Yet, there is little evidence of destruction from even those very large developments where battle lines were drawn and vast armies assembled. Individuals adapt, and neighbourhood character carries on, with generally less angst than the process itself.

The second mistake was for the government to accept the proposition that neighbourhood character was worth preserving. Good urban design is worth working towards. Creating and maintaining neighbourhood identity and character is as well. But the former is not a character consideration, and is only sidelined by focusing on aspects of the physical character. The latter, meanwhile, is being left to rot, while the individuals with a vested interest in it, fight with developers over land-use; rather than placing their efforts into improving the community. More importantly, existing residents are being priviliged, at the expense of non-residents who would otherwise be able to live there. Neighbourhood character is not without costs.

Sadly, for its defenders, radical change to neighbourhood character is possible with barely minimal changes to the urban environment. It is possible to prtoect the history, integrity and ambience of a streetscape, and European cities are good examples of this; but they are also examples of the sort of stagnation that level of protection can cause in a city street; and also, more pertinently, how strong the controls need to be to achieve it.

We don't have those controls in Melbourne. Nor would people find them acceptable if we did. Instead we are muddling through, hoping to define something that cannot be defined, so that we can change it in ways that we could do anyway, if we were not so obsessed with protecting our grey definitions from imaginary threats.

Sterner Matters 31st December, 2006 03:32:37   [#] [4 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CXLVI, December 2006
Russell Degnan

Sunset over Birrarung Marr. Taken December 2006

Melbourne Town 6th December, 2006 01:24:05   [#] [1 comment] 

Following On
Russell Degnan

There was a point in the not-too-distant memory, when enforcing the follow-on was done as a matter of course. In Australia, if not elsewhere, those days have finished. If Headingley 1981 was a freak occurance, never to be repeated, several other tests served notice that enforcing the follow-on was not always desirable.

After looking at Australia's recent record in enforcing, or not enforcing the follow-on, I am prepared to make a much stronger statement: unless there is insufficient time remaining to force a result, enforcing the follow-on is never worthwhile.

"Insufficient time" is an interesting problem. If rain is expected, and in England, one may reasonably always expect it, then enforcement may be necessary no matter what day it is. In other circumstances, it is worth considering what has happened when Australia has or hasn't enforced the follow-on.

As Gideon Haigh showed, the catalyst for a change in thinking came first from Mark Taylor, having spent 152 overs in the Rawalpindi heat only two games into his captaincy, he declined enforcement in the first Ashes test in 1994-95. The former was drawn, but such a result is not common - the loss to India in Calcutta in 2001 was the only other non-victory - and over-coming the 200+ run deficit of a follow-on is near impossible. Yet, despite the problem of having to set a target, non-enforcement has not resulted in a single loss or draw in the eight instances since 1993-94.

The record, therefore, stands like this:
Non enforcement Wins: 8 Draws: 0 Losses: 0
Enforcement Wins: 9 Draws: 1 Losses: 1

Four of the nine victories when enforcing the follow-on were by an innings. The others victories had mostly small chases (the largest being 107), yet the prospect of a chase in the fourth innings looms in over 50 percent of instances. Even if Australia didn't have a long standing propensity to collapse chasing small targets, giving the opposition that chance can be dangerous. While much is said about the value of winning the toss and batting, it is worth remembering that it is the fourth innings, not the second (which is arguably better than the first), that presents the greatest difficulties for batsmen. Not enforcing the follow-on gives you the best of the batting and bowling conditions.

How much better?

Well, the average total for teams following on is 337 off 109 overs. The average for teams batting fourth is 235 off 81 overs. Because pitches vary, it is worth normalising those figures to the opposition's first innings. On average, teams following on score 104 runs more than they did in their first innings, off an extra 31 overs; teams batting fourth, on average, score just 26 runs more, off 2 less overs.

There is a lot of variation in these averages, teams have been rolled cheaply while following on, but more often than not they bat better than previously, and quite often that is much much better - in 7 of those 11 instances, the following on team batted for more than 110 overs, in the other 8, just once.

This puts the lie to the assertion of Mike Selvey and others, that Ponting somehow ceded England an advantage by not making them bat again. While England did well in their second dig, this was an anomalously good performance for a team batting fourth. Nor is it possible to predict how England would have performed had they been asked to follow-on. But one thing is clear from past history. If there are more than 4 1/2 sessions to play, enforcing the follow-on is a mugs game. On average, it results in your bowlers bowling for longer, when they are still tired from the first innings; it means the possibility of a having to chase runs on the final day is more than likely; and, if the large variations in scores made are any indication, allows control of the game to slip away,

There has been an unhealthy focus on psychology in the lead-up to the Ashes, and in the media coverage following the first test. Cricket may be a mentally challenging game, but ultimately, any advantage or otherwise doesn't exist until the scoreboard ticks over. There is a lot of cricket to go yet.

Idle Summers 1st December, 2006 02:00:14   [#] [1 comment]