‘Tis a fine thing to live in an urban village

By Lorenzo

I am spending some weeks back in Seddon-Kingsville area of Melbourne housesitting for friends.  (Well, cat-serving really, but house-sitting sounds more dignified; though it is possible it may have included some famous literary cats.) It is very nice to be back in an area where everything is in walking distance.

Yarraville shops

Yarraville shops

The contrast with having moved to an area where nothing is in walking distance, and having had experience with the appalling traffic of an outer (“semi-rural”) Northern Melbourne suburb when attempting to pick someone up from the local station and return to the school we were at that day has just reinforced my problems with the bad urban design which has become such a feature of Melbourne and other Australian cities.

For a start, the roads in the new suburbs really are designed so they bottleneck. The lack of backroads between the new suburbs means one is forced out into the congested linking road even for short trips–trips which are, because everything is so spread out, nevertheless too far to walk with any convenience. The absolute reliance on car transport for even the most mundane trips also hugely undermines any chance to develop a sense of local community. Urban design driven by car–government doing its bit to support the local car industry? Oh, wait … .

The everything-requires-approval system means that we get cookie-cutter suburbs–once a design has got through the approval process, there is no reason for developers not to just keep churning the same design(s) out, with minimal variation. Why put yourself at the mercy of the vagaries of approval processes, when you can just repeat the last effort?

My past and present reading of the urban planning literature suggests strongly that there is a lack of any serious thinking about the incentives approval systems create. Instead, the focus seems to on getting the role of local planning tin god “right”, with a patently highly misplaced confidence in their ability to balance the trade-offs and competing pressures such urban planning requires–difficulties which increase disproportionately the more the approval system attempts to do. Critiques of exclusory technocratic processes are part of the literature, but they are about participation in the control mechanisms, not critical examination of the mechanisms themselves. Neither the problems of Seeing Like A State nor of The Death and Life of … Cities seems to be understood or seriously grappled with.

Government “management” of the land process not only drives up the price of land (thanks to said government management, Australia has the most expensive urban land in the Anglosphere, excepting the special case of Hong Kong) turning “approved for housing” land into a positional good, it also encourages dominance by a relatively small number of developers and hugely undermines the incentive to provide appropriate transport infrastructure. Pre-war developers provided linking transport–such as tram lines. But land was cheap and there was a return to providing such infrastructure–the developer reaped the benefits of the higher value of land with transport access. Now, the cost of land is driven up so much by government land-rationing (and knock-on effects on developer incentives), any such effect is swamped. For the government as well. Hence chronic under-provision of transport infrastructure. The scaling back of new transport provision from the 1970s onwards not coincidentally coinciding with the adoption of State Government land “management”.

Nobody walks to here

Nobody walks to here

The system in place does not stop “urban sprawl”.  It just produces crap, under-resourced and expensive urban sprawl. The suburb I now reside in is significantly worse-designed–for both community dynamics (it is designed to have none) and local transport access–than the post-war suburbs of Canberra in the area I lived in before moving back to Melbourne. (I am not holding Canberra up as a benchmark, merely pointing out that the quality of urban design has been going backwards.)

If insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result, then it is insanity to expect the combination of government land “management” and everything-needs-approval to do other than continue to turn out the expensive, poorly-designed, under-infrastructured suburbs it has now been doing for years. After all, the planning bureaucrats have nothing personal riding on the consequences of their decisions–blame attaches either to the developers or the State Government.

The alternative is to abandon government land “management” and everything-needs-approval with a rule-based system. Such as requiring shops within x distance, a school within y distance, and so forth. Set up clear and sensible rules and innovation is encouraged–rather than being stifled by the comfort-zones of planning bureaucrats and the “just repeat” incentives approval systems create.

The idea that complexity can only be managed by command processes is not only false, it is the opposite of the truth. Clear rules generating sound incentives can manage complexity far more effectively than any permit raj. Bangalore, in the land that gave us the term permit raj, provides a chilling example of how a dysfunctional, over-reaching state can mismanage a city–in Bangalore’s case, leading to solution-by-gangster. (The other Asian mega-state is also astonishingly corrupt, with property investment being the best-of-bad options saving choice.)

Corruption may make things worse, but approval systems make corruption much more likely.

One of the ironies of planning-by-approval is that it is often based on an ostentatious attachment to nature–yet nature is not planned. Nature is also red in tooth and claw–there is often something dark not far from the surface in the romanticising of nature. Or, in this case, gardens (which are planned). The garden metaphor provides a notion of superiority and control which may be flattering to the planner but is not a way to create well-functioning urban areas.

This fetishing of approval is part of a much wider tendency to not distinguish between law, command and government, which have quite different interactions with markets and commercial activity. Markets are based on implicit or explicit rules; an effective legal system can greatly encourage commercial activity. Command represents replacement or restriction of open transacting; it is a substitute for market activity. Governments can provide and/or enforce laws (so as to encourage commerce and extend markets) while also engaging in command activities (so replacing or restricting markets). But, then, firms also represent command mechanisms–internally–while engaging in market commerce externally, hence economist Ronald Coase’s famous theory of the firm.

Government action can also benefit some transactions and transactors while restricting others. The coercive power of governments is a great generator and protector of privilege. Approval processes–due to their lack of transparency and inherently higher transaction costs–are a particularly effective way of privileging one group over others; indeed, tend to do so no matter what their explicit intention.

Variety within suburbs can be encouraged by a rule-based system. One of the striking things about the Seddon-Yarraville area is that there are free-standing houses, semi-detached houses, apartment blocks, shops and small offices scattered around.  Conversely, the suburb I am now living in, like the others around it, has only free-standing houses with a few semi-detached and that is it. It actually packs more dwellings and useful parking in a given area: the problem is that is all it does. And at an alienating distance from anything else.

Pre-planned alienation

Approved alienation

The “local” railway station has the freeway on one side and vast-not-for-walking-across expanse of empty land on the other. I have to drive to shop or to take the railway and, not coincidentally, the local single-carriageway you-have-no-choice linking road clogs up sometime after 6am every weekday.

Instead of living in the inner city and having a traffic jam on the various access roads, as when I lived in Fitzroy, now I am out in the outer suburbs with far less amenities and a traffic jam on the one-or-two access roads.

Not that I hold out much hope of change. The current dysfunction suits the plugged-into-the-system developers; the state government reaps the higher taxes from land it makes much more expensive; political parties raise funds from people buying access to officials (very necessary in any approval system); and those with advantages in organisation, networks and advocacy love the insider benefits that approval systems create, being devout advocates and practitioners of social mercantilism (using the mechanisms of the state and their advantages in the framing of public debate to create and sharpen an insider/outsider divide). Driving up the price of land increases the value of their houses, as does starving new areas of infrastructure. They typically either don’t care about, or actively despise, the residents of the outer suburbs. As the work of sociologist Katherine Betts has documented, they certainly have very different attitudes to them. (Not that we can expect much more such academic analysis; the canning of the journal she co-edited, People and Place–by far the most cited academic journal in Australia outside academe–no doubt sent the desired message. Sceptically investigating the sort of folk who approve ARC grants is clearly not conducive to continued funding.)

Where once we had a Protestant Establishment, now we have a Progressivist Establishment, but one which views itself as “subversive” and is thereby absolved from any awkward responsibility.

So, the government land-management and everything-needs-approval system will continue to operate and it will continue to churn out expensive, crap, sprawling, socially isolating dormitory suburbs with (worsening) traffic congestion. Something no one will take responsibility for. Certainly not the supporters nor denizens of said government land “management” and everything-needs-approval systems.

Perhaps the last word should go to Sir John Betjeman, whose poem The Town Clerk’s Views was written at a time when British working class communities were fruitlessly resenting the depredations of urban planners who were destroying their communities much more successfully than the Blitz–that killed people and destroyed buildings; the planners frayed away the connections between people and their varied activities which are basic to being a community.

In a few years this country will be looking
As uniform and tasty as its cooking.
Hamlets which fail to pass the planners’ test
Will be demolished. We’ll rebuild the rest
To look like Welwyn mixed with Middle West.
All the fields we’ll turn into sports grounds, lit at night
From concrete stands by fluorescent light:
And all over the land, instead of trees,
Clean poles and wire will whisper in the breeze.
We’ll keep one ancient village just to show
What England once was when the times were slow–
Broadway for me. But here I know I must
Ask the opinion of our National Trust.
And ev’ry old cathedral that you enter
By then will be an Area Culture Centre.
Instead of nonsense about Death and Heaven
Lectures on civic duty will be given;
Eurhythmic classes dancing around the spire,
And economics courses in the choir.
So don’t encourage the tourists. Stay your hand
Until we’ve really got the country plann’d.


  1. Dave Bath
    Posted June 19, 2013 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    One of the problems is that when everybody has their little “quarter acre”, you need a large area to supply the volume of punters to support services and retailers …

    Increase the density of dweelings, and then there are enough people within walking distance to make it worthwhile having the places that don’t need to be megastores.

    I’be been lucky – I cannot drive – but I’ve always had strip shops close (the strip starts next door, and I once lived in the middle of a strip, in a bookshop). … whether in Melbourne or Warrnambool or Geelong.

    And don’t just bitch about regulations – the latte set in places little the inner eastern suburbs of Melbourne are pretty bad when it comes to stopping development of more land-efficient dwellings that would support the services (bookshops, cafes, etc) that the latte set (me included) love. Geoffrey Rush in Camberwell, stand up for shame.

    Medium density can be done sensitively, especially if there are enough little parks dotted around, (especially if they have swings and the like) It would be even better to promote engagement if community indrastructure was multipurpose – schools available at night for local adult education, or for a local amateur theatre group, or whatever, budget hire of a room for parties for kids ….

  2. derrida derider
    Posted June 20, 2013 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Ever been to Dallas, Lorenzo? Its a place famous for a very hands off approach to planning. Buy a building or tract of land there and you’re free to do pretty much what you like with it.

    The results, surprisingly, are NOT a set of immaculately untidy yet picturesque urban villages closely linked by excellent public transport and with a strong sense of community. Instead its a totally car dependent suburban sprawl with lots of awful eyesores and where people are unlikely to see much of their neighbours. Mind you, housing is very cheap there – you do get what you pay for in these things.

    Your basic point about planners needing to think hard about incentives and to depend much more on those incentives and much less on detailed prescription are probably right. But it’s an argument for better planning, not no planning.

  3. Posted June 22, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] I rather thought I was having a bit of a go at inner city attitudes
    [email protected] But we get the same result as Dallas–except much more expensive housing with much less transport provision. So how are we ahead? And I am not making an argument for no planning, I am making an argument for rule-based planning. Which Germany has, for example.

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