Less of ‘me’ in planning would help rest of us

Check out this excellent article from the Age on development that captures the key debates very well. Good to see Fremantle at the centre of Australian and international debates on density and sustainability.

http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/less-of-me-in-planning-would-help-rest-of-us-20120530-1zjga.html

Less of ‘me’ in planning would help rest of us

by Elizabeth Farrelly

Had I 10 wishes for the planet, one would be to take the ”me” out of planning. You might think there’s no me in planning. I’d be forced, respectfully, to disagree. As a rule there’s nothing but.

Call it, if you prefer, urbanisme. But virtually all that passes for planning debate in this country is a mere jousting of self-interests: government, developer, resident.

I might not care – it’s hardly new – except that me-ist planning of this kind could split green thinking asunder. Greenwars. Brown versus Rhiannon will look like play school.

“Where I live in Fremantle,” asked an audience member after a talk I gave last week in Adelaide, “the Greens council is supporting a 10-storey building. Everyone is very upset, including me. What can be done?”

The questioner – whose words I paraphrase but you get the gist – was Carmen Lawrence. Professor Carmen Lawrence would, I still think, have made a very decent PM. And although her question sounds like classic nimbism, it’s both more interesting than that and more inscrutable – not only because Freo is one of the Earth’s sweetest towns.

Traditional nimbism pits developers against residents and other locals (who, be they stockbrokers and bank managers in their out-of-home hours, for these purposes wear the ”ratbag” hat).

Most of our planning debate is of this kind, driven by the host community’s fear of built mass or ugliness, their distrust of both government and developer, their sense of being unfairly imposed upon, their protectiveness of their investment and their determination to shroud their (perfectly legitimate) emotions in rationales of traffic, heritage or sustainability.

A less common nimbist variation pits residents against political bastardry. Ku-ring-gai springs agilely to mind.

But a third kind, the nimbism of the future, will be both more nuanced and more damaging. It’s this that could split green from green.

The greenwar of the future has two fronts, both largely unacknowledged, both needing to be fought. These are the fight over green space, and the fight over density. Two flanks, but one war, which will pit old, agrarian, hippie-based green-think against urbanists like Edward Glaeser.

Traditional green-think has a survivalist hinterland; the sense that when things really arc up, you can always grow your own food and generate your own energy from your own waste. Many critics of globalism, like Helena Norberg-Hodge, take this view. Their future settlements are low-rise, low-density, field-based – not unlike Hodge’s beloved Ladakh, the mediaeval European village, or sprawl. Call these the radish-growers.

Opposing them are the urbanists. Glaeser argues that, in carbon terms, more is squandered by urban agriculture than it saves. “All that’s grassy is not green,” is his summary position; Manhattan is the greenest settlement on earth.

Myself, I imagine – and believe we can invent – a middle way, yet unbuilt, that combines food production and intense city dwelling. Of this idea, all those ”green walls” and productive rooftops and tri-gen schemes currently in construction, as at Central Park Broadway, will constitute a preliminary test.

But as Carmen Lawrence noted the other day, urban imagineering is far more fraught when dealing with existing communities.

This is because existing communities mix emotion, ego and money into a lethal potion. It’s called nimbism.

I sometimes fantasise about a world where people engage in hive-shaping discussions from a loftier viewpoint – not intellectual, necessarily, but as though they had no personal stake.

This of course was John Rawls’s advice about politics in general; we should think and vote as though we are not ourselves affected by the outcome. But in planning, as in politics, the invasion of the overweening ”me” takes such higher thought further from our reach.

Most people, most communities, get sufficiently fired up to ”do something” – rant, rage, rally – only to protect their own corner. Views, amenity but, above all, property values.

Governments, accustomed now to their abandonment of the public good, do likewise. So a planning stoush often comes down to resident self-interest versus government self-interest. My dollars versus your dollars. No moral content at all.

Of course, you say. Of course you must fight for your own.

But two contingencies underpin this feeling. One, the sense that if you don’t protect your interests, no one will. And second, the fear that whatever comes next is, almost by definition, worse than what exists now.

Both are real, reasonable and demonstrable, but they are still contingent. Mutable.

Sharing the stage at that same talk in Adelaide was Colombian Enrique Penalosa, who is celebrated for his New Urbanist reforms as mayor of Bogota.

Penalosa may be a politician, but he resisted telling Dr Lawrence what at least part of her wanted to hear, which was that the Freo Greens were behaving badly and should stop it at once. (I mean no insult to the good doctor. She’s smart enough to know that, may her heart plead, there are harsh collective realities here, in particular climate change).

“The first principle of democracy,” Penalosa said in his charming Spanish accent, ”is that where there is a clash between private good and the public good, the public good must prevail.”

Certainly it’s easier to start from scratch, but good governance is a tough-love exercise. “Manhattan is Manhattan because things were knocked down and rebuilt. Houses were knocked down. That’s how it goes.”

Fremantle mayor Brad Pettit’s argument is not just a climate-change drive to density. His motives are also cultural, urban and economic.

A cyclist who famously sold his mayoral parking bay for charity, Dr Pettit believes bringing the masses to live and work in central Fremantle will save it.

“I don’t want to see us keep sliding down a slippery slope where in a decade’s time all you’ll be able to buy in Fremantle is coffee, ice-cream and tourist T-shirts,” he said.

I myself would be very sad to see Freo destroyed, or Surry Hills, Woollahra, Fortitude Valley, Carlton. Not because they’re mine, but because they are unique and lovely and vitally of their place.

When Michelle Obama starts growing vegies in the White House rose gardens it’s clear the war between density and open space must come. But Australia, with its warmth and wealth, is ideally placed to invent a new model, combining intensive building and intensive greenery. We just have to lose the me from urbanisme
Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/less-of-me-in-planning-would-help-rest-of-us-20120530-1zjga.html#ixzz1wPbOcU1p

About Mayor of Fremantle Brad Pettitt's blog
City of Fremantle Mayor

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