10 checkpoints for urban planning in an Age of Disruption

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‘The Great Disruption’ is Paul Gilding’s perceptive description of the current phase of global society’s perverse development, a phase that has already commenced but may still leave us with helpful options should we choose to act decisively on contemporary threats.

Is there a role for city (metropolitan) planning in the light of these dire comments?

Len Puglisi thinks it can play a part, at the very least as a forum for local challenges to the government mania for ‘big growth’. Len sets down 10 checkpoints by which to judge whether our city planning is taking up those challenges.

by Len Puglisi

These 10 checkpoints are a work in progress. Expecting refinement and further thought, I look for approaches to future city (read ‘metropolitan’) planning that propose working with the following:

1. Rejection of city population growth as an economic tool: asylum seeker placements are a different matter and can be expected to increase, demanding personal acts of decency from us, such as taking in refugees into over-built homes. This point is made very consciously, facing as we are, potentially huge numbers of refugees while we track with business-as-usual to maybe 4 degrees of warming. Planning positions that announce and accept up-front that Melbourne’s population is expected to be 6-7 million by 2050 for example, have caved in to future scenarios that will see, even against best intentions, severe congestion as wel

l as conditions that are unpleasant and highly damaging to the city’s natural ecology and other-than-human creatures.

2. No doubt more will suggest themselves in particular areas, but at least one potential disaster scenario from the many that have been publicly identified (for example, fire, flood, sea level rise, heat island) should be introduced into planning and works programs. Action here would include infrastructure resilience upgrades at appropriate locations as a matter of urgency. Disaster recovery options to be investigated for all areas, whether these are already developed or intended for development. (Vic Justice Department Report: Emergency Risks in Victoria, Feb. 2014; *Peter Fisher).

Photo: Vastra Hamnen, clickr, cc
Photo: Vastra Hamnen, clickr, cc

3. To introduce to metropolitan planning, the concept of 5 Melbourne’s (*Kevin O’Connor) that includes productive and commercial activities, learning institutions, and artistic, hospital and sporting centres. A nature structure to be overlaid on all sub-areas for rivers, creeks, parks, beaches, etc, bolstering the work of local groups such as for the Blackburn Lake, the Merri Creek;

4. An emphasis on Localisation initiatives: Widespread support for Transition Towns, Sustainability Streets, permaculture, Food Tank, CERES-type projects throughout the suburbs (for example on the Healesville Freeway Reserve), and many other grass-roots activities that we read of almost daily. These can be used to promote tertiary-level environmental education and local food production as an everyday experience for all, including at schools, as well as social justice and community development initiatives.

Courtesy John Ward, flickr, cc
Courtesy John Ward, flickr, cc

5. A clear acknowledgement of the importance of existing low-density areas as valuable starting points for the 1,2,3,4 focus. This is in no way meant to idealise ‘suburbia’, especially much of its late 20th century, early 21st century ‘Vulgaria’ (*Paul Knox’s US characterisation). But it does start from a recognition of the importance of the existing reality of some 70 per cent of the metropolitan area and which, itself, will need a community-generated make-over. Further, while dense urban forms can be designed ab initio with some environmental pluses, at a time when there are clear technological vulnerabilities associated with highly centralised services (power, water….), it may not be wise to opt for a broad-scale ‘urban consolidation’ concept (*Graham Turner).

6. Small lot houses and apartment buildings will continue to be provided for small households – seen principally as a response to demographic/social circumstances; but only in concert with greening-naturising initiatives (*Peter Fisher), so that disconnection of residents and workers from nature surrounds is avoided. Governments should not be blind-sided into dispensing with greening-naturising contributions by the allure of attracting foreign investment funds.

7. Reducing private vehicle transport: We need additional public services including fixed rail, buses, safe bicycle lanes, walkable paths, and to be quickly transitioning out of petrol cars into smaller electrical/hydrogen vehicles while the sub-metropolitan restructuring/transition occurs as above. This initiative should aim to improve community services, to be an anti-global warming measure, and should also be applied as an anti-air pollution program (to PM2.5 levels of particulate emissions), mirroring concerns not only in Chinese cities, but also in Western cities such as London.

8. A regional-country focus, with further regional fast rail extensions, to be considered in conjunction with metropolitan settlement planning and, for example, Transition Town and similar approaches to community-building in these areas.

9. Dropping of notions of such as ‘Triumph of the City’: this is a confusing perspective given the Disruption scenarios now expected. Given the economic realities of free trade-induced turmoil and manufacturing closures, we are more likely to be dealing with *Saskia Sassen’s bifurcated ‘urban glamour zones and urban slums’.

10. The specific outcomes from these efforts are unlikely to be achieved without steady state/ no-growth/ de-growth/ radical simplicity/more equality-driven economic change at the (macro) political scale to mitigate disruption occurrences. The environmental dimensions, unevenly distributed but already visible, include both global and local ‘creep’ dimensions: climate change, food scarcities, water supply interferences (availability and quality issues), mining land and groundwater deterioration, forest destruction, bio-diversity loss, ocean acidification and pollution and fish-stocks depletion. This point may seem an unusual one to include in discussions of urban planning, but city development is now so interwoven with economic growth considerations that it has become unrealistic to write as though it lives in a separate universe!

A.(Len) Puglisi is an urban environmental writer, and a former urban planner with State and local governments. His 2010 ‘Urban Reader’ with a selection of general articles from multiple authors is in the social justice library at Yarra Theological Union, Box Hill. See also his article on the SPC website, ‘Altogether too much for planet Earth?’
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