Harbinger Consultants

Culture + Complexity + Change

IDEA | Communicating Planning

by Linda Carroli

I’ve been reading some reports about and responses to the ULDA’s Fitzgibbon plan. At the outset, when the Urban Development Area was announced, a residents action group formed to oppose the plan before it was drafted.

As I read through the responses, it was apparent that many people do not really understand our land use and urban planning system. There needs to be some better ways of sharing stories about our sense and experience of place rather than leaving communities to ‘react’. Many people do not understand the frameworks, ideas and practices that shape the future of our cities and regions. Even as communities and residents are increasingly consulted and engaged in planning processes, they remain largely uninformed about the principles that underwrite the system. That means we probably need some richer communication so that people aren’t left to flounder and react.

Planning tends to be forward looking even if not wholly concerned with foresight and futures. Planning is always concerned with a future outcome. However, as I look around my local suburban area, its apparent that planning methods (as they are guided by statutory processes) often have undesirable results. I often wonder if this really is the vision those planners, developers and others had in mind. There is an obvious need for richer thinking and decision making to be woven into planning practice: potentially this means futures thinking and strategic foresight. One of the best of ways of engaging people is through stories and visioing. This means that communities and residents also develop a greater awareness of these methods and are able to consider planning proposals – which are multidimensionional – in their complexity.

One of the things that struck me most about commentaries about the Fitzgibbon proposal is that many people made misguided claims: from property value to the ‘types of people’ who live in social and affordable housing. Such claims are an articulation of fear, psychogeographic and psychoterratic response rather than fact. There is no single truth or certainty in the planning of cities and communities. And so, in privileging any approach, a raft of assumptions are made and tested. Some of the drivers of a plan like the one at Fitzgibbon include:

  • regional population growth
  • global climate change and peak oil
  • citywide insufficient social and affordable housing
  • carrying and extension capacity in existing infrastructure such as public transport
  • containment of the city footprint and efficient land use
  • socially diverse communities and neighbourhoods.

Low density suburban development is the most unsustainable and resource intensive in any city. The cookie cutter approach to suburban development can no longer hold, nor can the proliferation of McMansions nested in cul de sac estates. New ideas and approaches are needed for the entire city to find a more sustainable path, particularly suburbs. That means finding new approaches to suburban development. Density is not the same as vertical sprawl. Affordable housing is not the same as social housing. Housing prices may well increase as a result of this plan due to the increased density and population that necessitates new infrastructure. Infrastructure can enhance property values. I am particularly looking forward to new community facilities and parkland in an area that has very little community support mechanisms. The middle income earning strata holds a precarious place in the current economic climate and more localised servicing, resources and support, perhaps in the shape of better neighbourhoods, might provide the safety net required to keep families stable.

If one thing changes, potentially everything changes. This most likely requires a systems or complexity thinking process. For most people, the results are unknowable. Hence it’s perhaps most desirable to keep things just as they are (probably because they like it that way). If more people understood some of the basic principles of planning then perhaps development would be less fraught and frightening. Even with the extensive consultation undertaken on the Fitzgibbon plan, residents are making the same claims they usually do about development ie property values, lost lifestyle, undesirables etc. By the same token, I’ve lodged a comment or two, during public notification periods, about proposed cul de sac suburban McMansion subdivisions.

A newspaper article about Christopher Leinberger’s approaches to urban living notes that “retooling the suburbs is going to make urban renewal look like a walk in the park”. The Fitzgibbon plan does seriously engage the possibility of suburban revitalisation and viability rather than continue to regard suburbs and suburban lives as fragmented, individualistic and formless sprawl. According to Richard Ingersoll in Sprawltown, “all of the alienated fragments of sprawl are waiting for a new awakening of synoikismos, the ancient process of agreeing to live together in dialogue. Synoikismos would be a creative tool not just for administrators but for designers as well”.

In the face of climate change and peak oil, there is a need to catalyse a transition away from excessive resource consumption and provide a path towards relocalisation and sustainability. Lucien Steil, Nikos A. Salingros and Michael Mehaffy discuss the possibility of reconstructing a more sustainable suburbia with the goal of reintegration of the urban realm. They describe the suburban situation as ‘disintegration’. Change, they argue, needs to be implemented over time. Like Ingersoll’s proposition of synoikismos, this change requires a different management approach and urban strategy. The purpose is not to overlay inner urban solutions, such as ‘cafe culture’, across outer suburban issues but to critically investigate those issues and opportunities with a view to introducing locally specific and place-based solutions and opportunities that engage communities, create incentives for ‘smarter development’ and revive local activity nodes while also having positive impacts on the greater shape and purpose of the city.

Recent land use paradigm shifts such as smart growth and transit oriented development resound in the planning priorities of Brisbane and the South East Queensland region. In America, Joel Kotkin identifies the emergence of ‘new localism’ driven by demographics, new technologies and rising energy prices. More intense uses of land within the boundary of the city will curtail further urban expansion and land releases within manageable transport infrastructures. Suburban areas seem to be overlooked by current regeneration priorities and policies despite many of them experiencing decline and consistently poor planning and design. This manifests as run-down or fragmented shopping centres, poor public transport links, low investment in the public realm, and a lack of community cohesion.

While American commentators decry a descent into ‘slumburbia’, Gleeson argues for a restoration of hope in Australian cities and suburbs, calling for hope and health to be a defining quality of Australian suburbia. There is, then, a need for communities, developers, property owners and governments to collaborate to address these issues rather than rely on statutory planning. This means thinking beyond single developments and self-interest. Local and state governments, perhaps even professional bodies and the development industry, need to start engaging communities both in and about the planning and development process. Engagement in the planning process is a sign of social capital and can mean more resilient communities. For some time, I’ve been interested in citizen planning and undertaking small investigations into overseas initiatives and activities. There’s not really a citizen planning network in Australia, though we have do have some remarkable public participation and community consultation specialists who are engaged to work on planning and visioning projects.

Many citizen planning initiatives are developed out of knowledge rich engagement and participatory process. The overseas context is obviously different because of the shape and maturity of their non-profit and citizen sectors. One example is UK-based Planning Aid which provides free, independent and professional town planning advice and support to communities and individuals who cannot afford to pay planning consultant fees. It complements the work of local planning authorities, but is wholly independent of them. Planning Aid was started by the Town and Country Planning Association in 1973. From the beginning, it has been at the forefront of engaging communities in the planning process. Now Planning Aid is working to further widen engagement in the planning process and to give an equal voice to all those involved in planning.

These kinds of participatory processes appeal to me for all the reasons that user-generated innovation, deliberative democracy and civic dialogue appeals to me. Communities can be an untapped resource for developers, planners and designers. Just as new development might present opportunities for communities. As with all consultations, to reach the best results the whole system needs to be interacting and engaged. We can’t have that if communities continue to be dealt with in perfunctory manner without public education and communication initiatives.


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