Community Economy

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I was invited to write a 700-word opinion article for ar (Architectural Review Asia Pacific), expanding on the concept of ‘Community Economy’ I wrote about in a 200-word letter to the editor of The Age, in October last year, and which I subsequently posted on this blog site. The article for ar is published in the current issue (issue 129, Autumn 2013, pictured) and on-line at AustralianDesignReview.com in the OPINION section. It can be read, direct, here. 

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On the radio

Image from The Architects program within the Triple R website. (Photo is of a different recording to that reported here.)

Image from The Architects program within the Triple R website. (Photo is of a different recording to that reported here.)

 

Last Tuesday evening I had the privilege of being on Melbourne Triple R radio station’s regular Tuesday night program, The Architects, speaking about cities. Rory Hyde, who is a specialist co-host of the program, kindly invited me to join him and regular host Christine Phillips.

It was good fun, and some great questions were asked, covering the role of an urban designer, Melbourne’s award as “The World’s Most Liveable City”, strategic design, and governance.

So thanks to Rory for inviting me on the show. He has recently written an excellent book entitled Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture, in which he records interviews he conducted with some great thinkers and doers in design. It’s a truly inspiring book that I can recommend highly to anyone interested in making effectual change in the city.

Here is a link to Triple R’s podcast of the show, located on The Architects program of the Triple R website. I’m on 19-minutes into the 1-hour program.

Housing is just part of great city*

(Title matches that assigned to a letter to The Age, by the editor.)

Only five weeks ago I wrote that the debate about tall buildings in Melbourne usually surfaces every six months or so, but since then The Age has published at least two more articles dealing with this subject —“High Drama” (18/11), where the subtitle reads: “Tall buildings do a city a tower of good, some say, but do we really need to reach for the sky?”, and, “Fear of a second Docklands” (19/11).

The former article continues to discuss the same old obsession with what Alexander Cuthbert would call ‘physical determinism’ — dealing with the city as if it were sculpture, unrelated to the city’s production from social processes, political strategy and economic policy; the very real conditions by which the city exists.1 The latter article revealed how the Victorian State Government has been seeking foreign investors to realise what is being labelled “Australia’s largest ever urban renewal project” at Fishermans Bend. Again, concerns with this particular strategy of seeking foreign interest focused on what the development will look like, and, refreshingly, the social consequences of the specific commercial production arrangements being pursued, which is more critical.

My main concern with all this relates to the lack of any sense in our city planning as to what the city is, and what it is for. And so I sent a letter to the editor of The Age, in response to the Fishermans Bend article, which was published today, gratefully. (It’s the top letter, of the same name as this post, and unfortunately with an incorrect reference to the article I was referring to.) It has been edited, so below is my original “uncut” submission, all within the maximum 200 word count required of letters to the editor.

I wonder what’s “compromised” in chasing foreign investors for the redevelopment of Fishermans Bend. Was there ever a shared vision? A 90,000-resident suburb is a description of what the area is, not who it is for, exactly, or how it is to function and perform. And just what Melbourne are the big six “serious” about investing in?: Melbourne the place conceived to enable citizens to live together and generate a broad range of wealth for themselves, or Melbourne the piece of easy dirt to realise exclusive real estate?

Whether the housing delivered by overseas “investment” is expensive, high-rise, or “massed glass and concrete” doesn’t matter; housing is a component of cities. We don’t make cities to make housing. What matters is who the community are, what they seek, and how they are to deliver on what can be shared.

The strategic error of Fishermans Bend planning is in seeking the “broadest range of investment partners available” — in real estate — rather than seeking the broad range of investments required to deliver on a shared vision, and who is best to provide them. Real estate and property development should not be lead drivers of development, rather supportive components of something else.

1. Alexander Cuthbert, The Form of Cities: Political Economy and Urban Design, Blackwell Publishing (Carlton, Victoria), 2006.

A different driver

A 71-storey residential tower proposal, what would be the tallest of residential buildings in the central city of Melbourne, has re-sparked debate in the city over how high buildings should be. The same debate seems to surface around about every 6 months in Melbourne, usually due either to a new “vision” or, as in this case, a property developer’s eye-catching proposal. The Age reported the story last week: “The new tower that has tensions rising”. The report largely focused on the competing views of the proposed building’s architect and the local government authority. It pointed out that the tower is subject to the approval of the state government who, through the minister for planning, is the planning authority for any building development in the city that is over 25,000 square metres in gross floor area (which the proposed tower is).

Aside from the usual debate about the height of the building itself — the aspirational symbolic city-defining merits of its height versus the “blight” the height would cause — an op-ed by Robert Nelson published in The Saturday Age highlighted the direct relationship between low density in the inner city and the on-going expansion of low density car-dependent urban sprawl further out. Nelson wasn’t commenting on the proposed 71-storey residential tower, per se, rather pointing out the competing attitudes towards a city’s spatiality, and the influence of the views of a powerful elite in shaping the city — in his article, NIMBY-views resistant to a greater densification within the established city.

But despite the extension of the discussion from the mere height of one building in the city to city density, and the ecological and social implications of continuous urban sprawl, the entire debate, as per usual, has focused entirely on city form. Whether the architect, local government, state minister for planning, or anyone else are right or wrong in their determination of just how tall a building or how dense a city should be, height and density are incidental to how cities are made.

If we were to seek better cities, we would need to deal with the core drivers of how they exist. If we wanted a certain height or density we would need to look to the industries by which these are produced, and not regard them as if it they were arbitrary forms of an abstract and idealised city whose shape is at our discretion.

It was timely that I had recently posted a piece relating to this very subject, titled “Lessons from a child: Thinking about thinking — about cities — and the design cities need: The business of community”, as it helped me prepare a letter to The Age in response to the current debate. The letter focuses on the specific business within a city that determines height and density form, and introduces the idea that height and density could be appropriately determined through a business that represented community — what I referred to in my previous post as “the business of community”.

The letter was published yesterday and can be found on The Age’s website (see 4th letter down by the same name as this post); it has been slighted edited, so below is my original “uncut” version, all within the 200 maximum word count required of letters to the editor.

Robert Nelson is right in saying planning involves so much more than looks. But height is yield, not appearance.

Buildings are created by property developers investing in real estate, not community. Our cities are the aggregate of individual and disparate real estate investments. These have little collective intention and are unable to deliver on the broader forms of wealth a community requires. Whether a building scrapes the sky or hugs the ground doesn’t matter; it makes no difference to the community while community is a consequence of development, not a lead driver of it.

The essential cause of planning’s limitation in delivering on how cities need to perform, is that planning prioritises buildings as the lead driver of cities.

What if the planning minister had something to be guided by other than height?

What if we were to imagine a process whereby developers invest in what the community desires and needs and this was a healthy local community economy, not the economy of real estate? Building height could then be determined by community economy — an extension of, and contributor to, its function, not an exclusive economy itself.

We may then avoid the same debates over looks 100 years from now.

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