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Victories and disasters in planning.

By Robert Gibbons - posted Thursday, 6 January 2011


On Line Opinion ran an opinion piece by John Mant on 21 December 2010: “Australian cities: the things we don’t talk about”. He explained some major reasons why “planning” is often nonsensical in Australia.

Australians are notorious for their poor understanding of their own history and we can’t understand the future without the history. This system review complements Mant’s planning profession perspective.

What is “planning”?

In theory, planners see it as quilt-making: start in a corner but with a design in mind and move through the whole but with flashes of inspiration as you go. Planning is to be systematic and linked with forms of democracy and top-down and bottom-up governmental procedures; and needs money from private and public sources.

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In reality cities start on transport channels, on the coast with hinterland access, or on rivers, harbours or road/rail junctions. These situations produce “planning by necessity” as seen in Rome, London, Paris, Sydney and elsewhere before the mid-1800s. Cities have to have wharves, ports, bridges, railways, roads, water and sewerage networks and the like; and other things happen around those, like houses, schools, shops and hospitals. Erasmus Darwin designed a Sydney Harbour Bridge before Captain Phillip’s fleet even arrived. This logic continues today with the National Broadband project.

Theoretical land use approaches were developed as governments asserted reforms - Parisian roads and the Eiffel Tower, English healthier suburbs and American parks and suburbs, and increasingly clean air, water and food. “Planning to inspire” became important.

Economic models were developed to assess the costs of concentrated development against sprawl, airport locations and the like. However, this lead to “mistaken planning”. Peter Self pointed to “Nonsense on Stilts” in London’s 3rd Airport debates from the 1960s, as over-extensions of economic “logic” (often seen even now).

With the onslaught of “spinning”, we saw the emergence of “deception through planning”. Vested interests pushed their agenda without economic, financial, environmental, legal or sociological discipline.

These two factors led to “discipline through planning”, such as attempts to rein in the unruly NSW sibling.

Underpinning all is “planning in isolation” - land use and like strategies divorced from taxation and other incentives, pricing and subsidy distortions, practicality of projects in a network context, technology commonsense and the like. This topic stands as is for present purposes.

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Planning by necessity

Australia was a colonial overlay on a challenging continent, with great distances and thin patronage. There were “civilised” expectations even in the early 19th century but without a real government system and tax base. Adelaide and Melbourne had designer-founders.

Right from the off Sydney was venal and unregulated with slums in outer as well as inner suburbs, crooked narrow streets, noxious industries and sewer discharges upstream of swimming pools and on sources of drinking water, and sloppy land allocations.

In the 1870s Birmingham mayor, Joseph Chamberlain - in charge of England’s colonial affairs on both sides of 1890, chair of the London County Council in the 1890s, and so nearly Prime Minister in 1902 but father of later PM Neville - made massive efforts to improve living conditions so that potential sailors and soldiers would grow up strong and healthy (“eugenics”).

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About the Author

Robert Gibbons started urban studies at Sydney University in 1971 and has done major studies of Sydney, Chicago, world cities' performance indicators, regional infrastructure financing, and urban history. He has published major pieces on the failure of trams in Sydney, on the "improvement generation" in Sydney, and has two books in readiness for publication, Thank God for the Plague, Sydney 1900 to 1912 and Sydney's Stumbles. He has been Exec Director Planning in NSW DOT, General Manager of Newcastle City, director of AIUS NSW and advisor to several premiers and senior ministers.

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