Functional or Foolproof
The planning profession needs to narrow its perspective. Regardless of its roots in various social fields throughout time, it exists to perform a very specific role and fulfil a specific need. As the profession is continually watered down with other concerns and goals, it is doomed to fail, and will only succeed in churning out and endless supply of urban environments which will be a jack of all trades, and a master of none.
Planners need to make the decision as to whether they are going to create a Functional City or a Foolproof City. The only problem with trying to create the latter, is that as soon as you make something that is foolproof, someone designs a better fool.
Planners need to abandon the responsibilities hoisted upon them by other notional groups in society who either have little or no understanding of what the planning profession is all about, or have given up trying themselves. We need to build functional cities – cities that work. Not walkable, thin, healthy, visually attractive, crime-free, pollution-free cities. We should not concern ourselves with the principles of CPTED – we have police and a judicial system for this. We should not concern ourselves with redesigning cities to be ‘walkable and healthy’ – we have basic education and a health system for dealing with this.
Look at Mexico City – it is a functioning city. It has nearly 30 million people, but you can still get from one side to the other on public transport very efficiently. Perth, regardless of the criticism it receives due to its sprawl, is a functioning city. It houses over 1.5 million people, and yet you can still drive from its northern-most suburbs to its southern-most in less than an hour. There is a wide diversity of housing styles, from high-density towards the city, to an endless supply of the Great Australian Dream, to semi-rural style living within 20 minutes of the city centre. It may not be attractive, crime-free, healthy, or pollution-free, but it functions as a city, and that is the key.
What society wants planners to do is create the foolproof city, but we will constantly be undone by a more superior fool. We need to let go of the notion that we can simply trick people into walking to work by making the streets look attractive. We need to let go of the notion that we can trick people into being healthy by making them ‘accidentally’ get exercise whilst walking to an imaginary ‘public meeting space’. We need to let go of the notion that we can simply fool people into taking public transport and leaving the car at home. These are real people we’re talking about here. Society seems to forget that.
Planners are not here to pick up the pieces of a justice system which fails to deliver. Do they really think that the problems with Aboriginal gangs in Northbridge are the result of poor planning decisions? It is only blamed on planners because to suggest it’s the fault of the Aboriginies is somehow racist. So we look for non-specific, nondescript groups to pin the blame one, like ‘planners’ and ‘the welfare system’. That way, no-one is offended, and we can go on complaining about it because no-one will be able to work out why we can’t seem to solve the problem by adding public lighting. They’re Aborignies, not vampires.
We are not here to provide exercise and health benefits when our food producers promote expediency and profit above healthy and responsible foods. We are not here to save the environment when the Capitalist system encourages profit before environmental sustainability. We are not here to save the environment when builder fail to use environmentally sustainable practices, like recycled materials, lightweight construction, and alternative solutions like hemp-based concrete. We will never achieve this as long as these methods are constantly referred to as ‘alternative’ building methods. They need to become the norm. They need to challenge how things are done, when they’re only done that way because they’ve always been done that way. We are not here to combat the pollution created by the automobile company that, over a century down the track, still revolves around the internal combustion engine. And those who claim there is still no viable alternative to this need to see the documentary, ‘Who Killed The Electric Car’, and change their way of thinking.
Planners need to focus on building a functional city. Once that is done, a functional justice system can work on providing the security and safety we need. After all, that’s what it’s there for. Once it’s there, the building companies can reduce the environmental impact. After all, that’s where the real damage is done. Once it is done, the food suppliers can provide all the healthy food we need, and the education system can empower people to make smarter choices. After all, that’s what they’re there for. And if that doesn’t work, and people still eat themselves into obesity and an early grave, well… who cares. That’s the best thing about a democracy. That’s they’re decision, and they’re free to make it. I’m not going to redesign an entire city because some fat bastard can’t get off the couch. I mean, we even make shows like the Biggest Loser to get the message across, but it really just gives them another reason to spend another 30 minutes sitting on their asses. Does no-one get the irony?
Urban sprawl exists not just because we couldn’t see far enough into the future to realise the problems it would cause. It exists because it serves a purpose, and in serving that purpose, urban sprawl works. It provides space for those who value it as a necessity. It provides options of lower-cost housing. It provides a sense of living that some people value. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but people are not lemmings. They have their own needs and values.
A functioning city will also have roads. Lots of them. The notion of a ‘walkable city’ is entirely unrealistic. Goods will always need to be transported. Walking to the shop is fine for a litre of milk, but not when you’re doing the weekly shopping for a family with 3 kids, or shopping for a new fridge, or a 42” plasma. Or when it’s raining. Or when it’s a hot day. I’m fairly certain when the washing machine repairman comes around to fix my washing machine, he’s not going to come by bus, bringing his tools and spare parts with him. Neither is the guy who comes to mow the lawns, the guy who comes to clean the pool, or the guy who comes to install the Foxtel. And while I’m happy to live within walking distance of a sporting facility, I can’t vouch for all the other people in my team, or all the other people making up all the other teams who we play against.
Planning will ultimately fail when it blindly follows unachievable goals like those presented by theories such as New Urbanism. We laugh at people when they take a horoscope as gospel. We laugh at them when we point out that for a horoscope to be true, one-twelfth of the world’s population would have to have exactly the same personality traits and characteristics. Yet we revel in the notion that if we design a city to be visually attractive and walkable, 100% of the population will react the same way, and we can save society from itself and its obesity. This is nonsense. Such rhetoric and broad generalisations will get us nowhere.
The planning profession needs to abandon the notion of the foolproof city. So too, the notion of the ideal city, the perfect city, and urban utopia. These things can never exist, and never will as long as society continues to grow or change. We cannot succeed as long as we challenge ourselves to meet goals and expectations that cannot be measured. How can ‘sprawl’ be measured. Who is to say that the detached dwellings on 300m² R30 lots will not be the ‘sprawl’ of the future? Yet this is being heralded as evidence that urban consolidation is alive and working. We will never win a battle against an immeasurable entity. We can not win a war against a noun, just like the ‘war on drugs’ or the ‘war on terrorism’. We can, however, design a functioning city, and we can design it very well.