Saturday, May 3, 2014

In praise of accidental cities

Most of the built form we know as our cities of today was built before complex town planning regulations were developed. The irony is that it is the accidental parts of our cities – the parts developed during periods of the least regulation – that we now seek most to protect.

An increasingly urbanised world is placing pressure on governments and policy makers to more carefully control the use of land within recently defined urban boundaries. But this is, in terms of the history of our urban development, a largely modern construct. Regulatory town planning itself is largely a post-war concept, first notably embodied in the UK Town and Country Planning Act of 1947.  There had been previous ‘town planning’ Acts prior to this in the UK but the 1947 Act significantly overrode land ownership and required virtually all proposals to seek planning permission from the local authority.

Given the post-industrial state of much of urban Britain in the pre and inter-war period, it’s not surprising that regulators sought more control over how land was used and for what purposes. Well intentioned urban planners sought to segregate housing from industry and to carefully define and control how future urban expansion occurred. Higher standards of living, less pollution and the pursuit of a more equal society were among the motives. (The extent to which these hopes were achieved is open to much debate).

Fast forward some twenty or thirty years and to the antipodes, and Australia’s turn was to come. Our urban development history had largely been a free enterprise model until perhaps the mid 1970s but certainly by the mid 1980s regulators were having more say in land use policy and controls over private land. Prior to this, the 19th century had seen industrial and housing uses develop in close proximity, often centred on transport nodes such as sea or river ports. It was a walkable society back then because there was no other choice, expect the horse, which wasn’t so much needed when the factory or wharf was only a few blocks from home. Tiny workers’ cottages and terraces sprung up in amongst the tanneries, warehouses and factories of industrial pursuit.  

The 20th century witnessed a gradual transformation of work from blue to white collar. Australia by the 1960s was a very different nation – with a rising middle class, white collar employment and the post war baby boom in full stride (or should that be ‘crawl’ under the circumstances?). Suburban development took hold and an upwardly aspirant middle class quickly embraced the quality offered by modern brick homes with flushing toilets and fancy kitchens (by their standards), with yard space for children to play – all features which had largely been absent from the homes they and their parents had grown up in.  Land was developed for suburban use with minimal regulation or control. Cities expanded and entire city administrations had relatively small building divisions with perhaps a few city engineers to ensure what minimal standards existed were met. The notion of town planning departments was something new, and novel.

But as growth continued and society progressed, governments found themselves under increasing community pressure to control and regulate this growth. By the time comprehensive land use regulation took hold, most of the structure of our urban form - including major transport routes, suburban housing development, centres of industry, of white collar employment, the locations of hospitals and schools – all had largely been developed and delivered, as if by accident.

There is no question that modern town planning has helped deliver some very high quality outcomes. Witness in particular the large swathes of urban renewal projects which have leveraged private capital to transform brownfield and largely abandoned inner city industrial land into high quality (and high priced) inner urban housing and commercial developments. 

But the point should be remembered that there are limits to what regulation can provide and there are benefits of enterprise-driven development which are too quickly forgotten. ‘Accidental cities’ has become a derogatory term used by those who see benefit in increased planning control over public and privately held land. The price of not intervening through fine grained regulation, the argument goes, is inefficient cities which lead to inefficient economies.

For me though, this has a touch of Stalinism about it. There are huge sections of cities globally which are now feted for their character, and they are invariably parts which developed ‘by accident’ through free formation of common interests and private capital, unrestrained. Often messy, sometimes disorganised and invariably hectic, they are nonetheless the places that feature in tourist brochures. Think of Singapore’s Chinatown, or Hong Kong’s night markets. Think of Venice’s canals, New Orleans’ French Quarter, or New York’s many ethnic enclaves like Little Italy.

I struggle to think of many places elsewhere in the world which were created under the rigid guidance of regulatory planning, which we’d like to mimic or replicate. To me it seems very much the accidental parts of cities that are somehow more ‘real’ and less reconstituted. It’s as if we can tell the difference, without even really thinking about it.

So it should come as no surprise that it’s also these parts of our cities that we tend to want to preserve. They aren’t necessarily just historical structures or places – sometimes, like the laneways of Melbourne’s CBD – they can be uses which have sprung up as if despite of – or in defiance of - the regulator’s rule book.  

What this means for modern town planning is that the efforts to control and command in fine detail the nature of urban outcomes – even down to deciding what type of retail shop should be allowed in one place or another for example – is actually counter-productive. It stifles competition and smothers creativity. 

There is a balance between the planned and the accidental and to find where that balance lies first means appreciating that accidental cities, or the things that are allowed to happen without intervention, can have as much appeal as those parts which have been carefully planned, controlled and documented. 

Perhaps once we begin to appreciate the design dividend that is delivered through accidental aspects of urban development, we might as a community become less wedded to the idea that only more regulation can achieve the quality urban outcomes we most admire.

1 comment:

  1. Here at the National Trust of Queensland we always say its the layering of old and new that gives a city its heart and soul.

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