From the delegates list, it is not possible to tell which of the participants were regular members of the ACNU congregation, but it was clear that a good number were first timers.
It was also encouraging to note that many were in the early stages of their professional careers. One way or the other, clearly the ACNU community is growing and many are at least interested to find out what is going on. It is my regular lament that those who ought to hear a conference message usually are not there. Nevertheless, the delegates list is always very illuminating. On this occasion, 117 delegates – close to a third – represented local authorities or public institutions. This is an encouraging number if only as a sign that more of our arms of government are taking notice of urban design. However, teaching institutions in the main had chosen to remain aloof with only six representatives registered. Ipswich City Council takes the ‘biggest contingent’ prize with 14 and Waitakere City Council (NZ) a close second at 10.
When there is a rich three-day feast, served up by some of the world’s most highly credentialed and skilled cooks, it is difficult to filter out the most interesting and nourishing morsels. In the end, each ‘diner’ will take what they came for or wanted to sample. Here are the special bits that I savoured.
The conference was officially opened by Colin Jensen, Coordinator General, Director General, Department of Infrastructure and Planning. Regrettably some of the images were a little off target for this conference audience. In Queensland, planning has now been divorced from the Local Government Department and coupled with Infrastructure. This writer has reservations about the wisdom of this union.
Policy makers asleep at the wheel
Evan Jones produced the first sermon with a sobering prognosis. ‘We are only 30 years away from climate catastrophe, fossil fuel depletion and an aged and almost stable population. This means that the decisions we make in the next 10 to 20 years [and I think we have already missed the start] will dictate the shape, liveability and sustainability of Australian cities for the whole of the 21st Century. There is no second chance’.
Yet, most of our major policy makers seem to be asleep at the wheel! Paul Murrain opened his presentation with David Engwicht’s mantra that ‘the purpose of the city is to facilitate and maximise exchange while minimising the need for travel’. This axiom deserves to be tattooed on the forehead of everyone with any kind of role in the making and management of cities and towns so that they see it in the mirror every morning. I will also carefully file away a few other of Paul’s metaphors and epigrams: many development strategies are obese; the DNA of towns is the streets; the grid is still the fundamental element of the urban buzz; we should know more about The Social Logic of Space (look it up on the net if this leaves you puzzled); don’t let the architecture fight in the street.
Peter Richards gave an overview of where New Urbanism has been in Queensland, especially in the south-east. Moved we have, but it seems ever so frustratingly slowly. Peter reminded that, above all, the major stumbling block for lots of people is developing the right mind set – to think/imagine a town instead of merely infrastructure, property, traffic or markets.
While some delegates were doing a quick inspection of South East Queensland’s more significant recent greenfield projects, Chip Kaufman and crew lead us through a quick New Urbanism Primer. It all seemed a little too obvious ñ well interconnected neighbourhoods with their own walkable-distance local amenities. However, I particularly warm to the idea of schools not only being on smaller sites but located so that they can actually be more convenient for everyone and treated as one of the most important elements of the urban fabric. It is absurd that around 3pm, the local roads get choked worse than peak hour and there is little chance the drivers can do another errand while picking the kids up from school.
Victor Dover observed that while initially New Urbanism was largely intuitive, as time has passed we now have research results which confirm most of the basic concepts and principles. Victor also assured us that the New Urban ideas are not just for greenfield locations [just as well] but also for urban regenerations and applicable to other urban problems. However, to this fan, Victor excels in his graphic communication of what is possible with his seductive and highly credible ‘before’ and ‘after’ illustrations.
With the graphic technology at our disposal, why do our planners and policy-makers still waste everyone’s time using language-based surveys and ‘consultations’ which mean a different thing to every participant rather than employ more graphic/virtual reality examinations of what is possible and might be? We truly need to be re-imaging our cities and towns. However, words do also have power. Victor used the expression ‘mixed income housing’ instead of affordable, welfare, etc. This kind of relabelling is sometimes called social marketing, but do we not need more mixed income housing? What does ‘affordable’ really mean? Is it a euphemism for cheap?
Day 1 was wrapped up by Stephen Bowers, the ever present conference chair and chief conductor. To Stephen, the only way to ‘do’ urban design is through the enquiry by design (EbD) process because any other way of engaging with the community is ‘doing planning by exhaustion’. Of course, it does not matter if you exhaust the EbD leaders!
To him, the accelerating development delivery vehicle is the charrette, dramatically illustrated by an intergalactic vehicle in full flight! Stephen’s testimony was given added credibility as he represents a sector of the development industry.
Successes claimed under NU banner
The following two days logged and reviewed the spectrum of projects and successes claimed under the New Urbanism banner. Regrettably, insufficient time and intellect was applied to strategies on how and where the broader message of the concepts, principles and structures of a better way of putting together our cities and towns can be broadcast and implemented. The core material of a conference of this kind ought to be taken on a tour of all of our cities and provinces every year. Urban design education (in all senses and levels) is too dispersed and a very feeble level for an occasional conference to make the kind of difference that this country badly needs.
Of the various round-up comments, the one that stuck in my memory is Paul Murrain’s ‘For consumer capitalism, certainty is more important than truth’ – worth pondering. As long as you give them certainty and predictability, you may be able to get more than you expect?
Coping with the inevitable?
We will not arrest global warming and its consequences! Our non-renewable energy will decline and exhaust itself. Our demographic and social change cycle will not be reversed for at least another couple of generations. Helping our cities to cope with the inevitable should be our primary mission. Whatever your own ‘confession’ to urban design, we need it more now than ever. For a cohesive approach to these challenges, the ACNU agenda seems to be the best insurance to minimise the pain.
An assuring sign of the acknowledgement of urban design importance and the ACNU route to it was the impressively large number of major sponsors, including Queensland Government’s Department of Infrastructure and Planning. Let us hope that this means a genuine embrace of better urban practice and not merely a marketing opportunity.
This reporter is probably not the most appropriate to reflect on the feast, having been selling this cuisine for two decades. However, while I did not experience any new ‘road to Damascus’ revelations, I did come away encouraged that the last 20 years have not quite been for naught: that urban design is moving ahead, however slowly; that there are still people with zeal and passion for urban quality; that a strong message is being broadcast. As for ACNU, in the absence of any other strong voices or championing from our universities and other institutions, it is the only coherent message in town.