Best on ground: why city management has failed

This is a longer version of an opinion piece that ran in the punch.com.au on the day of the 2011 AFL Grand Final..
Each weekend, Australians everywhere take up the colours of sporting codes of all sorts. Soccer. AFL. In the right season, cricket. It’s common to play out the match ahead of time. Who’s performing well. Who had a shocker last week. We ruminate on performance over past game. If we’re lucky enough to be part of the live action you can see small plays around the goal that set up for the mark. Skirmishes off to the side that allow for the break away try. A late shuffle in the slips signalling something out wide. And as our eyeballs scan the field for the strategic moves of game play, we’re all doing something that serves as an analogy for the wider urban field of play. We’re watching a set of strategies play out. We’re ‘playing it forward’. Canadian Ice Hockey star, Wayne Gretzky was quoted as saying; ‘A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.’ Glory on the sporting field is all about anticipating where that puck/ball/catch is coming next. Imagine if that was how we ran our cities?

To many involved in urban policy, it’s like we’ve just woken up midfield, slumped over where the puck ‘was’, rather than where it was headed. But with a growing, and ageing population, an evaporating tax base, and the need for new, smart & green infrastructure expanding exponentially, it’s more important than ever that we grab hold of the future before it gets hold of us. At the heart of the cities debate is the widely held view that the late 20th century left us a legacy we should learn from, not mimic. Our cities are identifiable by a core that stands on the shoulders of a chaotic, mercantile and unplanned 19thC heritage, surrounded by struggling suburbs activated only by the big box wasteland of grumbling retail giants. This is where our puck ‘is’ currently.

But as an architect, I know the act of design can play a role here; because design is about predicting where we want the ‘puck’ to be. US inventor, architect and engineer Buckminster Fuller put it best when he said; “the best way to predict the future is to design it”. Positive. Hopeful. Appealing. Sentiments we need now.

We see evidence of a systemic failure to ‘play it forward’ in every Australian city. Writing in the SMH on 25 September, Environment writer Tim Barlass forecast the demise of Manly’s iconic penguin population in his piece “Unhappy feet: is the harbour a fairytale ending?”. Reading the article it again brought to the fore a recurring question; why, with local and state requirements for ‘Species Impact Assessments’ and ‘environmental management plans’ in place for decades, has the Fairy Penguin colony declined? Wasn’t that the precise outcome the assessments, plans and policies were meant to prevent?

Now, management plans are an essential part of governance. Monitoring and maintenance of the ‘now’ is just one part of the roles we ask of our leaders in stewardship of our past/present/future. And management works well when it’s ‘stasis’ you’re after. Management works when ‘status quo’ is the goal. And when ‘risk’ is the thing you fear most.

But ever since the Australian Treasury released its Intergenerational report in 2007, followed next by population forecasts that revealed a need to build four Melbourne’s (or sixteen Adelaide’s) within the next 4 decades, our leaders, rightly, have realised status quo is not an option. And a little risk is inevitable. COAG’s communique in December 2009 outlined the 9 criteria that make for good cities.

COAG’s criteria, and subsequent work by the Reform Council Expert Panel, Major Cities Unit and the Australian Urban Design Protocol are pushing the puck along. But there are still notable gaps in the toolbox. And the old ‘urban management plan’ doesn’t cut it anymore.

We need new, more active strategies that predict the future by means that a. rely on an evidence base (instead of base political tactics subject to cycles, partisanship & influence), b. engages the community through a constructive design vision – performance measures that are about what we ‘gain’, not ‘sacrifice’ c. works beyond current silos, land titles and legacy issues inherited from a different time. And if this seems like a tall order, it’s encouraging to know this is how Australia’s design, planning and development sector works every day.

Unprepared to accept the puck where it is; architects, creative planners and urban designers, landscape architects and forward thinking investor-developers ‘play it forward’ using a visual language to communicate principles of good urban design applied to a place. New connections where there were barriers. New open space activated by commerce and cultural programming. New city infrastructure, like substations and transit stops integrated into podiums, squares or streets. Cafes where there were skip bins. Safety where there was threat. All things that a ‘management’ approach generally hinder, not help. Let alone promote. Management, as we know it in our cities, has regarded change as a risk.

We need to find ways for urban governance to be put more effectively to the service of our urban future. To see policy as a means of implementing ingenious real-world design solutions. A bit more ‘computer says yes’.

COAG’s first priority in its communique is for better integration across functions of government. Particularly land use & transport planning. After 200 years you’d think we would have this one cracked. Not so.

Take the design and planning of large city sites. When it comes to large projects, including precincts that promise urban renewal, we expect our decision makers in government to co-ordinate between agencies, and even levels of government. But when an individual development provides, say, on site carparking for employees (often as a requirement of local government policy), you’d be horrified to know this information is not fed into state transport agency modeling to forecast traffic management in the area. Meaning that while an extra, say, 300 employees start to plan for a carpark at work, it also means 300 more cars jockeying at each intersection to get there. 300 more cars cramming school gates on the way. 300 more crawling back home at night. We’re yet to see any major urban centre in Australia share project-specific land use data with transport agencies. And, for that matter, yet to see any state transport agency have the tools or inclination to do anything meaningful with it. So while all of us experience the effects of worsening traffic congestion (I mean, beyond inconvenience; the rise in kids experiencing asthma along transit corridors, a cost burden expected to reach $30bn within 20 years), our efforts to walk, cycle, bus it to work/school/shopping are the urban equivalent of bucketing out the titanic as the iceberg tears at the hull. Good thing we have those transport management plans then, hey?

We need to value vision and boldness once again. We need to reset the levers we’ve been working from. A generation of management plans may need to be binned. And new action-focused strategies to deliver on the design ingenuity of our most creative minds should be a shared obsession. We’ll need new tools, new technologies and a new appetite for risk if we want the puck in a good place.

So next time Council, or your local MP drops a brochure in your mailbox, and seeks your input in a new Management Plan, make sure you give it. But also satisfy yourself that, along with management of the puck in its current position, your leaders are doing something visionary, imaginative and strategic to ‘play it forward’ and plan for where we want the puck to be.

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