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The New City aims to foster critical thinking and debate on the future of our cities and the disproportionate influence of inner-city thinking on urban planning and economic, social and environmental policy. Editors: John Muscat, Jeremy Gilling

Urban Diary: Jan Gehl's pedestrian ideas for Sydney ... [enter]             

                         Comment: 10 September 2009         

               The crisis of academic urban planning

A wide gulf has opened up between mainstream Australian values and the prescriptions of our urban planning academics. So much so that the latter are at risk of degenerating into a cult. While it’s usually unfair to criticise a group in generalised terms, there are ample grounds in this case. Anyone who doubts the existence of an urban planning “establishment” in and around the Australian university system, and that it’s in thrall to ultra-green groupthink, should revisit some recent correspondence to our newspapers.

A perfect example appeared in the Australian Financial Review of 31 July 2009. On that day, the paper carried a joint missive penned by no less than eight leading-lights from various urban and planning related faculties, along with two others from like-minded institutions.

Stirred by the perennial bugbear of residential development on the urban fringe, the authors wrote to denounce the Victorian Government’s plans to develop 40,000 hectares of new suburbs.

The signatories included the Dean and the Chair of Melbourne University’s architecture faculty, leaders of the university’s Nossal Institute for Global Health and Eco-Innovation Lab, the Director of Curtin University’s Sustainability Policy Institute, a Professor of Planning and the Dean of Global Studies at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), and the Director of Urban Research at Griffith University.

They were joined by two holders of non-academic posts, one in the City of Melbourne’s Design and Urban Environment Department, the other at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute.

Since they’re all attracted to some variant of the command economy, let’s call them “the ten commandants”.

Their letter opens with the standard formula of green urbanism. The Victorian Government’s plans are “unsustainable - environmentally, economically and socially”. This highly abstract phrase, a mainstay of the urban planning literature, implies a seamless and mutually reinforcing compatibility amongst the three dimensions of sustainability. In the real world things aren’t so simple.

The formula conceals far more than it reveals. It’s not at all clear that environmental sustainability, as conceived by the commandants, is compatible with economic sustainability. More than likely, it isn’t. As most prescriptions for environmental sustainability include measures to suppress economic activity, including regulations and cost imposts, the more likely outcome is economic stagnation.

Economic stagnation may well be compatible with environmental sustainability, at least in the eyes of ultra-green academics, but it’s hardly compatible with social sustainability. A society without economic opportunities will descend into division and conflict.

In this regard the commandants’ agenda is ominous. “[W]e will have these [new fringe suburbs] to deal with”, they complain, “when we finally commit to a low carbon economy”.

This paternalistic tone pervades the whole letter, even when the public are offered apparent choices. Having spilt a lot of ink on how, in the sustainable future, “developments will be denser than the surrounding suburbs”, the commandants still claim “we will live with … more choice of housing type”. And the false choices keep coming. Consider this intriguing paragraph: “Not everyone wants or needs to live in an activity centre or on the tramline, but a sustainable city is one where you can get there without a car”. You can live wherever you like, as long as you don’t need a car. Plenty of choice there.

“This is a future”, they say of their vision, “where we will be fitter rather than fatter”. This is a future, more accurately, where intellectuals treat people like laboratory rats.

What it all means, of course, is that the public won’t have a say, let alone a choice. “The fear of a suburban backlash is unfounded”, say the commandants, “and attitudes will become more supportive when imaginative design visions and construction projects demonstrate what is possible”. Behind the condescending verbiage lurks a strategy of imposing a fait accompli. Indeed, they end up hoping that the federal government will intervene.

There’s one good thing about the letter. It concedes that releasing more land does improve housing affordability. Planners have tended to argue that it doesn’t work, since nobody wants to live on the fringe. Still, the commandants question the benefits, arguing these are “short term” and “outweighed by the long-term costs in capital expenditure and car-dependency”. Such criticisms underestimate the substantial and positive ripple effects of affordable housing on disposable incomes, consumer demand, job creation and ultimately state revenues.

Green platitudes usually get a pass in the media, but on 3 August the AFR published a valiant letter in reply from Alan Moran of the Institute of Public Affairs, aptly titled “Planners’ patrician arrogance”.

Moran makes two powerful points. First, had the commandants bothered to canvass public opinion, they would have discovered that “consumers around the world overwhelmingly prefer [separate houses to apartments] … One United Kingdom survey showed that only 2 per cent of people prefer to live in apartments”. Second, despite all the guff about the “sustainability” of denser development, the Australian Conservation Foundation found that “emissions from inner city households are a third greater than those on the fringe”.

Leading up to the global financial crisis, demand for residential property was subdued, especially in Sydney. Buyers baulked at the combination of rising interest rates and developer costs, together with inflated prices linked to stymied land supply. Commentators speculated about a cultural shift away from outer suburbia. But things changed.

Since the crisis, plummeting interest rates and government incentives have unleashed a new wave of demand. Buyers, including a substantial proportion of first home buyers, have flocked to new fringe suburbs. According to one report “[p]roject-home builders are reporting a boom in new house sales in parts of Sydney that were until recently green pasture.” NSW Department of Planning figures show that in the current financial year building on Sydney’s fringe made up just under 20 per cent of all construction, compared with 10 per cent in 2005-06.

Things are no different in Melbourne. The city’s fastest growing area is the outer western suburb of Werribee.

Where does that leave the commandants? They would agree that urban planning should alleviate socio-economic disadvantage. If so, they and the planning establishment need to acknowledge that most low to middle income Australians reject their vision of a compact ecopolis. These Australians cherish their lifestyle, and sense that the social and economic costs of planning fetters will far outweigh the environmental benefits.

The suburbs have spoken. Unless planners ditch their utopian dreams and integrate academic research with social reality, they face increasing alienation from the policymaking process.

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This comment has been republished by the American urbanist blog New Geography.

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