What motivates a conference or symposium? To me there are four distinct drivers:
• the commercial interests of an events organising company.
• the desire to ‘show and tell’ – a form of self promotion.
• a talkfest for academics to meet the need to publish and present, usually to one another.
• an interest to stimulate ideas and raise questions rather than provide answers.
These days, when everyone is flat out conferencing under one of the first three objectives, the one day QUDAL Symposium was a welcome change. It is interesting to note that according to my Macquarie Dictionary, a symposium is also ‘a drinking party in ancient Greece….with philosophical conversation’. In a sense, this event was true to form, with much thoughtful and even intoxicating ideas during the day, rounded off with a few ales after sunset.
The theme itself provided a diverse and open ended context – City of our dreams! But whose dreams? This time it was largely the aspirations and wishful imaginings of professional city makers. I wonder what the city dreams of financiers, engineers and grandmothers are. Here are my highlights.
Gil Penalosa: Director of 8-80 Cities, sent us reeling, as if in a hallucinogenic spin, with the idea that cities are for people, walking and cycling!; that the urban glue is public space; that we should make public space first; that the glue of the city is its streets; that linear parks will not kill us all, that there is no such thing as bad weather – just bad clothing. While some of us were climactically high, a few traffic people, road engineers, developers and bean counters would have been having nightmares.
That all the above would be good for us was given the cutting edge – good quality living makes us more competitive. Good fodder for politicians and economists! We need to change our thinking and doing. While courageous and enterprising political leadership might be a bit hard to come by, Gil urged us to be more surreptitious – use ‘pilot projects’, ‘temporary’ structures, get the public on our side. Much of the time it is not a financial issue but one of building the right alliances.
Dr. George Hazel of MRC McLean Hazel presented a kaleidoscope of ideas and possibilities of how we can make a city work – well, work better. The very reason that we come together in a city or town is for the purpose of various forms of exchange – active as well as passive. If you accept that ‘cars don’t spend money but people do’, it must follow that you minimise movement space so that you move more people and goods, not cars. Our whole mindset about movement must also be rebalanced from an operational model to a focus on serving the ‘customer’ – the end user. Make every part of the mobility chain as easy, pleasant and seamless as possible.
Design the service, not just the roads, buses and trains. Add to this the endless applications and software via mobile phones and other electronic devices, and a whole new world emerges on how to rebalance our mobility options and opportunities.
Peter Morley of Hassell reminded us of the importance of high speed Metro Rail infrastructure to connect cities. However, my more important take-home message was that too frequently the procurers and commissioners do not realise that every part of the system is also public domain – from the surrounding area, to the entry ‘statement’ to the platforms and everything in-between.
Tim Horton, South Australia’s Commissioner for integrated design, described design as being about creating upper end value. Whatever you think ‘design’ is, the recipe ton achieving better end results, according to Tim, is to dissolve barriers and boundaries between people and departments. Getting all the key players physically closer together, preferably in the one room, certainly seems to have produced results in South Australia.
His statement ‘public engagement is not an eight week sprint but a marathon’ should be a mantra for all bureaucrats and systems of governance.
Malcolm Middleton, Queensland Government Architect, titled his story rather fatalistically ‘Being in the room’. Using a number of case studies, he recounted how significant turns took place largely through certain people (with the right relationships), being in the right place and at the right time.
What it also said to me is that when so much urbanity that we have produced is badly wanting, using the same old systems or structures again and again is being too optimistic to expect to produce something better. You need to change the method of doing it. ‘Planning schemes are a blunt instrument.’
My sobering awakening came a few days later while listening to ABC RN Sunday Extra (27.05.12). I heard Jane Caro say ‘we will not change until it is too uncomfortable to stay the same’. Sadly, I think she might be right. In the meantime, back to dreaming!