The reasons why so many experienced planners are sceptical about all this are (a) they have heard it all before, (b) they are looking for substance behind the rhetoric, and (c), in practice, New Urbanism has sometimes been intolerant of questioning and deviations. There is simply an unease about any school of planning thought that comes across as the only way things can be done, and which resists professional and policy debate. So the problem isn’t with the Charter for New Urbanism (which looks to me like the sort of things an Australian planner with any decent training and experience would already accept), but rather in some of the rigid aspects of practice and detail, and the unrealistic outcomes that are sometimes promised.
An example is the persistent claim by some that culs de sac are to be avoided at all costs—a view that Andres Duany himself abandoned long ago. I thought Jan Martin had put that one to rest in these columns years ago, and I’m happy to debate the technical merits with anyone. But I can recall a Planning Congress being told: “If you allow one cul de sac, you’ve lost the whole game”. It might have been meant as hyperbole to make the point, but it has become an absolute rule. Is this kind of rigidity essential to New Urbanism?
There is also an evident unease (especially among those planners of the non-architectural persuasion) about implicit claims being made about the way the built form will create coherent and contented social units—a classic example of physical determinism. The questions that were debated during the 1960s and 1970s about the practicability of the neighbourhood as a sociological template for local planning and design (eg Keller in 1968) seem now to be anathema.
Fads and fashions
The planning profession has been plagued by fads and fashions for more than a century (see the articles parodying fads in planning by Ross in the JTPI in 1972). In the 1910s and 20s, for instance, every mundane piece of subdivision and land development seemed to have been labelled as a “garden suburb”. Now, if a project manages to get a mixed-use development anywhere near a tram stop, it is called “transit oriented” rather than common-sense planning. Well, I can live with that – as long as we don’t forget some of the lessons we learned previously.
Take neighbourhood planning, for example. The Charter stresses walk-based and accessible neighbourhoods, which is hardly a novel thought. Keeble, in the standard planning text of the generation before mine (ie writing in the 1950s), described planning as “a study in accessibility”. Local and regional accessibility is hardly a new objective for planning. It formed the basis of the first post-war Canberra suburbs, and the transition from the classic neighbourhood with school and shops at the centre, through the “overlapping catchments” phase, to the “territorial units” of Tuggeranong, and then back to neighbourhoods (now called “urban villages”) of Gungahlin is worthy of closer examination. What is different in this more mobile age that will make the classic neighbourhood more viable than in the past?
As a planning researcher and observer, I am uneasy about the lack of empirical information to back the claims that are made in contemporary planning documents. What evidence there is does not satisfy the tests of causation and replicability. We are still practising “slide show planning”. Peter Jewell, in a recent issue of “Planning News” (PIA Victorian Division) called for “more R&D, less folklore”. Top priority must be to understand choice behaviour better.
A passionate commitment to better urban design is of course important and desirable and expressing that passion is fine. Finding new ways to convey the key messages and policies to lay observers and decision-makers is also essential. But planning by slogan is no substitute for systematic planning based on reliable knowledge about how real people actually behave and why they do what they do.