Assume utopia, then plan
Russell Degnan

Must be a slow news period, as the last fortnight has seen a jump in planning articles in the papers, without there being terribly much news, as such. The first, by Sally Capp, rolls out the usual tropes: suburban sprawl is bad and must be contained, with the solution being greater densities around activity centres - now reduced to six.

Some of the claims are strange, such as the need for investment to encourage businesses to move outwards to the suburbs, despite that being a trend for well over three decades with the actual percentage of CBD bound long distance commutes in new suburbs being as little as 10 percent. But the real problems lie in the author's certainty. Apparently,

If we could agree on the future direction of our city - the proposed activities centres and greater urban density along existing transport routes - we could all be more constructively involved in these discussions.

Which is probably true, but it never seems to occur to proponents of this model that people do, and will continue to, disagree with it. That their inability to make a case for it, not to themselves, but to the people it will affect, is in fact part of the problem. Instead the finger is pointed at local government, apparently a road block to development and lacking in resources to plan effectively. Although how body could plan effectively, lumbered with a planning system that requires extensive consultation, in-built uncertainty and an appeals process that potentially ignores all that came before is not explained.

The idea that a metropolitan body, as proposed, could work any better than local councils and the planning department (who must surely already have all the power vested in a metropolitan planning body), unless the planning system itself is substantially reformed is laughable. That people take it seriously as a solution, without any adequate explanation of how it will improve the system, is sad.

Actually arguing for a strategic direction, rather than merely proposing one never seems to occur in strategic planning discussions however. Which is why clearly inconsistent statements, and proposals can be discussed, with barely an acknowledgment of the other. Take infrastructure. A central plank of the activity centre proposal is that:

By building around existing economic and social infrastructure, we leverage existing facilities without the need to create new ones.

This has been questioned on a number of levels over the years, but I've yet to see an actual economic study showing how true it is, and under what circumstances, for Melbourne, given different strategic plans. Which is why, last week, Frank Keane could write:

About half of Australia's population is contained in five state capitals. The result is an over-urbanisation that is inefficient and requires the building of ever-expanding infrastructure, including transport, sewerage, water and energy supply, telecommunications and waste disposal.

Smaller cities are then proposed as a solution, clearly at odds with high density growth within Melbourne. The relationship of either solution to the economic processes that underpin urban form is never mentioned, so some sense of what is better, or even what might be possible is unknown. The utopian vision for an environmentally sustainable city, or cities, never seems to ask what the point of a city is, before trying to change it.

Developers are on firmer ground, they, at least, understand that a city is there for them to profit from, even in this uncertain climate, but it never hurts if you can get a helping hand. It suits developers to blame local councils for the slow planning process, particularly when there are jobs at stake. Which is not to say the minister is wrong to call in these proposals - though he may be, who could tell? Merely that the existence of these call-ins points to greater problems with the planning system.

Fear and uncertainty prevails in Victorian planning. People don't trust developers, and they don't trust planners. The market has been tending towards the things planners want - polycentric cities, denser development - for years. But the planners reflex assumption that they must constrain the market, and
"encourage" density lends them, with only the flimsiest (and vaguest) of arguments in favour of the plans being created, has turned the planning process into a tool for conflict, with little upside in terms of better outcomes. When times were good, and a little hindrance of development was able to glean the edge off the most abject developments, such a system was poor, but acceptable. When the state government needs to see development, the flaws are more apparent, and planners need to start thinking about what they can justify, what actually matters, and what can be expeditiously jettisoned.

The last activity centre policy failed before it crashed on the rocks of the 90s recession and the Liberal government. The probability of this one following the same pattern are very high.

Sterner Matters 24th April, 2009 18:44:51   [#] 

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