Do we deserve good cities…?

A couple of years ago I went to Buenos Aires to attend the ‘Feria Mundial de Salud y Municipios: Derecho, Ciudadanía y Gestión local integrada para el Desarrollo’ (the World Fair of Local Government and Health: Rights, Citizenship and Integrated Local Management for Development – yes I agree Latinos have a much better way with words than we have). It was a relatively stale talkfest, so one afternoon I skipped class with some Danish community development friends to explore the slums. In Argentina, interestingly, these are called ‘Villas’ – but obviously they don’t even remotely resemble the multi-million dollar abodes you would see in Point Piper.

We ended up passing around and sipping yerba mate with a bunch of heavily tattooed slum dwellers. We chatted about slum life – how it allows communities to live under the radar, but also how that invisibility becomes a problem when you require public services or rights. At one point I suggested that all of those heavies (including their mamas and glorious troupes of kids) lived in the Villa illegally. Oh no, they responded, they were very legal, and (they started pushing my Danish pals and myself up a creaky ladder onto the hot tin roof) this is how we do it: we were looking out over a dusty plain at the edge of the slum. Some of the mate-sipping youths appeared with a couple of slender tree trunks, sheets of corrugated iron and rope. Within minutes they had tied together a shed. They ran back into the Villa and came lugging back two old Pirelli tires, a table and a mattress. The tires went on the roof, the table and mattress under it. “There!” the grandfather next to me on the roof said, “Now we have a legal dwelling.” Apparently something with a roof, a table and a bed cannot be bulldozed.

I had witnessed the most rapid urban sprawl ever.

It’s legal, but is it any good?

I was reminded of this little adventure when I saw the recent debate around population growth and urban planning unfold. Population growth isn’t necessarily bad and can be sustainable – if managed well and with hygienic ideas about purpose and function – spatially, morally, economically and in terms of human development. And urban planning is not just about putting in the hardware, although in the debates on ABC’s Four Corners and Q and A it seemed that the major issues revolved around the kilometers of asphalt, tunnel, and rail.

I have said this before and I will repeat it again. Urban planning, the liveability of our cities, and the sustainability of place is built on that hardware, but they come alive and acquire meaning through the human spirit that is unleashed upon it. In good and bad ways. Let’s take a look at a report of a little while back by Victoria’s Auditor-General on public transport. The singularly most significant message in the report comes from Figure 3B. The caption should have been ‘The shoddy chaos of Melbourne’s transport network’ but of course an esteemed oversight body like the Auditor-General can’t say such things.

What the figure says is that all the hardware is in place. There are trains. There are buses. There are rails. There are roads. But what isn’t there is inspiration, commitment, pride and courage. Buses don’t connect to trains and trains don’t connect to buses. There is no seamless public transport experience. Who wants to wait at a wet draughty bus stop (it is Melbourne, after all) for a vehicle that may or may not come in half an hour? Worse – the same report shows that there is a direct relation between public transport chaos and socio-economic disadvantage: if you are poor, you are made to wait.

If you live towards the edge of suburbia you may be forced to own a car – at great expense. Because we also found that public transport inefficiencies are coupled with lacking bicycle infrastructure.

Let’s be very clear: this is supposedly one of the most liveable cities in the world. Professor Billie Giles-Corti has researched it, so it must be true. And indeed, Australia is home to a virtual raft of eminent urban planning and urban health experts, so surely we get it right, don’t we?

Well we don’t. Just because it’s legal, it ain’t necessarily right. Just like that shack on the outskirts of a Buenos Aires Villa.

What makes cities and urban growth ‘tick’?

There has been a suggestion that the liberal (larrikin?) spirit of the Australian outback has prevented a strong value based politic of urban planning in this country. Indeed, in most welfare state typologies we find this great sunburnt country of ours grouped in with the other total free market friend we have – the United States. State interference is the enemy of individual liberty, everyone should be able to do what they want, and if they want to commute every day for four hours, never see their wives and children during waking hours and suffer disproportionately from obesity, diabetes and other non-communicable disease, so be it, it is a free world.

But we know it is not a free world, and we shouldn’t suffer from shoddiness, corruption, the total absence of human dignity and a general spirit of ‘homo homini lupus’ (‘Man is wolf to man’). We have transcended that, not just in our arts and culture, but in the ideas we have about a good world.

A good world is a green and sustainable world for us and those we love, for the next generation and for our guests (thank you so much, Aboriginal Australians, you are not just the symbolic Traditional Owners and Custodians of this land, you are truly our hosts and we all should take a couple of pages out of your Dreaming). It is a world of solidarity and caring, where needed through our public institutions. It is a world of beauty and surprise that we can navigate easily and with wonder – the infrastructure for population growth and urban planning we need shall be an inspired infrastructure that takes into account long term ecological balance. To do that we need to accept that we are (part of) nature, we are not just here to mine and exploit it. Especially in the fragile ecosystem that Australia is it seems to me that far too few people realise this and act on it. In a citizenship pledge for new Australians we should include a commitment to the sustainability of this ancient and delicate land.

But we do not seem to take pride in our land and our being here. Let me conclude with another very colloquial story. I live in Sydney and I do not own or drive a car here. Every morning I walk through Bigge Park in Liverpool to my office. Liverpool Council has made a tremendous effort to rejuvenate this bit of green space. Only a few weeks back tradesmen (nope, did not spot a woman…) installed new benches. This is what they looked like this morning:

 

On ABC’s Q&A Jane Fitzgerald (Executive Director of the New South Wales Division of the Property Council of Australia) said “we have a choice” – and suggested (or insinuated?) that the same people who deliver such shoddy-to-the-extreme workmanship (or the people who have destroyed it) would care about the world we live in. I’m not sure they would; and I’m not sure our community peers, family elders, intellectuals, politicians, and even infrastructure developers and commercial exploiters are the folk endowed with that ‘choice’, role models we aspire to, if we want to create that world we care for.

In countries where I have lived before I arrived in Australia there is profound concern and ready action for the red (built), grey (infrastructure), blue (water) and green (nature) environment. Often there are long term plans with often a 30 year horizon to invest billions in a comprehensive sustainable future. They are inspired by vision and values. Sometimes these visions are bold and on a grand scale – an entire country’s mobility might be at stake. And often those visions and values can start small: if we are currently developing new residential districts it would only require the tiniest bit of imagination and persuasion to adapt the infrastructure to new, healthy, sustainable and future proof standards. With a fraction of guts every streetlight can become an electric car charger. With the thinnest shred of vision the vast concrete slabs that are our streetscapes are torn out and become permeable surfaces that allow green to thrive and reduce heat islands. With only a sprinkling of values we can care.