The Australian Commonwealth government's Major Cities Unit recently released a National Urban Policy discussion paper. I was part of Arup's formal response, but I was also asked to write an individual response by Justine Clark, the (excellent) editor of Architecture Australia magazine (until recently). You should buy the magazine, but I'm also posting a fuller version of the response below. Thos who don't know the local Australian references—who don't know their Woolloomooloos from their Dandenongs—needn't worry; the core points are fairly general and, I think, applicable elsewhere to varying degrees. An experienced Australian architect suggested that the essay has probably managed to "offend most of the people working in the urban planning space" here ("with good reason", he added), so there's a reasonable chance it might offend people elsewhere too.
Offending people isn't the intention, though. As you'll see from what follows I didn't think much of the discussion paper, but rather than pick it apart I tried to offer a constructive critique, outlining some recent thinking about 'dealing with' cities. In this, I'm following recent lines of enquiry here and elsewhere about the increasingly questionable value of traditional professional approaches to contemporary cities. Or rather, what is the value of using the traditional tools, processes and sensibilities of architecture, urban planning and related disciplines to the processes and practices of producing cities?
In particular, I'm trying to focus on the idea of 'identifying the right questions', rather than letting discipline-based thinking or unthinking define answers to what may be the wrong questions (in this approach, and as usual, I owe a debt to Cedric Price.)
In spirit, it follows the various and ongoing discussions I've had with Bryan Boyer, Rory Hyde, Edwin Gardner, the UTS crowd and various colleagues at Arup, Gerard Reinmuth, Tim Horton, Justin McGuirk, Greg J. Smith, Jane-Frances Kelly, Mimi Zeiger and several others, as well as drawing from recent project work in Helsinki, Melbourne and Adelaide. And in particular, a project I've been conducting in the Melbourne suburb of Knox—an urban renewal programme centred on fusing new models of manufacturing and urbanism—where the clients, Ingo Kumic, Mark Holdsworth and Kim Rawlings, have particularly shaped my thinking around assessing the primary drivers in cities, and attempting to create urban conditions rather than urban form. It also follows some questions I outlined in my recent critique of Steven Holl's Linked Hybrid in Beijing, or an earlier review of Sydney's urban strategy, as well as my response to being caught up in the Brisbane floods.
It probably also started with work on a project for a National Plan for Kazakhstan, a couple of years ago. The project went nowhere for us—which is another story for another day, perhaps—but piqued some thoughts about national projects, national conversations and working with culture at this scale.
In retrospect, I realise it's also partly the summation of almost a year's worth of public speaking, particularly around the idea of 'Big Australia'. This storm-in-a-policy-teacup emerged when population growth figures were announced by then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, pointing to an Australian population of around 35m+ people within the next 30 years or so (Australia's population is currently 22m people.) The national conversation, or what passes for it in Australia, rapidly polarised into 'Small Australia' and 'Big Australia' camps. There were some unlikely alignments here, but most were focusing on the abstract idea of a number—should it be 25m? 35m? 45m?—rather than any sense of what kind of Australia we want?
And so I would point out that the number itself doesn't matter i.e. Big Australia does not necessarily mean Ballardian social breakdown, given that Germany can fit 81m people into an area (357,000 km2) which easily fits more than a couple times over into the state of New South Wales alone (809,000 km2), with a perfectly high standard of living. It just requires thinking through and new approaches of planning. (Note: the poor soil quality and high temperature levels of much of NSW means you wouldn't actually want to inhabit all of it, but still.) Equally, a Small Australia of 22m could punch above its weight, as the Nordic Region demonstrates.
This is not to suggest that Australia should try to emulate Germany or the Nordics—It's an increasingly Asian country with its own traditions—but both analogies indicate qualitative possibilities. So the question isn''t what number of people should live in Australia, but instead what kind of country do we want? In other words, what is Australia for? Addressing that question would enable us to plan effectively.
I know this question resonated. (I gave speeches around this topic almost weekly, for most of last year, which ultimately contributed to me being selected as one of 'the 100 most influential people in Sydney' by the local broadsheet, which is somewhat laughable, clearly completely erroneous, and an honour, all at once—but either way, was partly due to my public field-testing of the ideas in the following essay on various audiences. It shows that speeches, if you're comfortable with holding forth on half-formed ideas, can be a form of prototyping, perhaps.)
So when it comes to Australian cities, the question still stands. What do we want Australian cities to be? That is un-stated, and certainly un-answered, in the National Urban Policy discussion paper, which, to a designer brought up on working with that awkward word 'content', is a strange oversight.
At core, I'm suggesting that, without considering these and other core strategic questions, few of the existing approaches to planning and designing cities are working, certainly on any meaningful, systematic scale.
In Australia, it's sometimes difficult to tell—until you look at the numbers—that this is the case, as at first glance what could possibly be wrong with these cities? The sun is shining, the food and drink is good, people seem well-fed, well-housed, well-educated and well-off, and the cities themselves are often beautifully-sited amidst stunning terrain. (Hence their high-placing in urban quality of life surveys, alongside Canadian and middle-European cities. It's worth noting that most of these rankings are often designed with a highly-specific agenda and judged by non-residents, and so they bear little relation to actual life in the cities in question.)
Equally, the economy—again on the surface—is outperforming much of the 'Western developed' nations. (Or 'over-developed nations', as some might say.) Powered by an unprecedented resources boom, it's not even in full gear yet apparently. But even The (laissez-faire) Economist recently outlined the dangers in not being able to strategically take advantage of this boom, suggesting a sovereign wealth fund. I'd wholeheartedly endorse this, alongside various strategic taxation measures, but also argue for an innovation-focused fund in particular, after the Sitra model perhaps. As the Future Fund indicates, it's not enough just to grow money, but to direct it strategically too.)
However, in a bit of Sydney that doesn't look like the gleaming harbourside suburbs or one of the world's wealthiest nations—which is to say, the bulk of Sydney—some people are taking architecture into their own hands and creating self-defence structures like this, which presumably would not look out of place in Tripoli or Abidjan about now:
This is one kind of warning light on the dashboard, and albeit highly unrepresentative, it is at least viscerally memorable, no?
But there are numerous others less obvious but perhaps even more substantial issues, well-known in Australian urban planning, architecture and policy circles. They revolve essentially around climate change, health, extremely high carbon footprint, ageing population, car- and oil-dependency, largest, most over-priced and increasingly unaffordable housing in the world, monopolised retail sectors, crumbling infrastructure, diminished surrounding food basins with nutrient-poor soil, falling productivity, rising income inequality and so on. While some of these are fundamental, there should also be concern over some of Australia's cultural attitudes, especially those relating to propensity for change and innovation, which would indicate a capacity to address these issues.
And yet these cities and this culture often do work, in the almost effortless, small, quotidian sense as well as through the occasional grand gesture. I've learnt as much about what makes good cities tick from Australian cities as anywhere else. There's the paradox. And a national urban policy requires an appetite to engage with the everyday complexity of this position.
So while there's a discomfort in addressing a strategic question or national conversation in a culture predisposed to letting these things just emerge, for better or worse, my response is written with this core thought in mind—can we pull focus on the question of what cities are, on how they are produced, and so create better patterns for urban development, and ultimately, a better Australia, punching above its weight rather than below it?
And within all this, given the context of AA, I'm trying to suggest a repositioning of architecture and other design disciplines within all this, moving into a position of strategic, creative influence rather than the increasingly marginalised, beleaguered position it's currently occupying.
It's a big question, and this is in no way an answer, but this essay is in the spirit of asking the right questions in the first place. Comments, as ever, are most welcome.
(Note: this is the original 'director's cut' version of the essay. The snappier version appears in the current edition of Architecture Australia, which is well worth picking up.)