Developers’ Rule: A New Plan for Planning in New South Wales

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Ku-ring-gai. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

Ku-ring-gai. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

Dear Sir, I have a complaint…


A true story: one day at the New South Wales Department of Planning two planners are talking about different theories of urban planning. ‘Neoliberal planning,’ the first says, “that’s what we do.” “No kidding,” the other replies.

“No kidding” might be replaced by “yer darn tootin” after the release of the NSW Government’s A New Planning System for New South Wales – Green Paper. If the title doesn’t quite grab you, a new planning system, however boring, will have a far greater impact on people’s lives than more juicy topics like a new Museum of Contemporary Art or a new pavilion for the Venice Biennale. Planning is the most visible juncture at which architecture meets politics, and what the Government is proposing is interesting for the way that it reveals urban planning as the point where conservatism begins to conflict with itself, where a libertarian sensibility runs counter to pro-business economic rationalist conservatism. The development industry is not quite a friend of the invisible hand; it does best when certain freedoms are curtailed. This was shown most clearly in the US by the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which expanded the Constitution’s “Takings Clause” (“nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation”) to allow governments to claim eminent domain for purposes of private redevelopment.

In New South Wales, the State Government’s frighteningly named new agency Urbangrowth NSW will have similar powers, but the headlines generated by the new planning laws have to do with a different erosion of rights. What developers want from the new planning laws, repeated repetitively through their various lobby groups, is “certainty.” The Green Paper attempts to provide this by removing the right of members of the community to object to individual development proposals. Instead, new local plans would be drawn up in consultation with the community (and developers) which would specify what, how high and how dense buildings are allowed to be. If a proposal complies with these controls, it will be approved.

Nobody much likes the current planning laws. Simpler, more precise, “evidence based” controls are certainly necessary in a state where, in spite of the various layers of Local Environmental Plans, Regional Environmental Plans, Development Control Plans, State Environmental Planning Policies, anything goes. Consider the quaintly named “Rozelle Village” development in a fine-grained generally two storey neighborhood in Sydney’s inner west, first refused at 13 storeys, now resubmitted at 32 storeys. The local height controls it breaches give no “certainty” to the community — their best hope is that this “state significant” development will be refused on the grounds that it is tall enough to breach Sydney Airport’s airspace, which is protected by federal law.  Done in a public-minded manner, long-term strategic planning is the best way to prevent such nasty shocks and preserve those areas, such as urban farmland, most vulnerable to being eaten up by development. The problem is that strategic plans, consisting of motherhood statements, weasel words, legalese and blobs of color on a map, have their limits.  A plan can limit a building to five storeys but how do they ensure that it doesn’t overshadow its neighbor’s new solar panels or veggie patch? These limitations make it all the more troubling that in the Green Paper better strategic planning comes at the expense of the rights of members of the community to object to development. At the moment anyone has a right to comment on strategic plans and on individual developments (with some exceptions), tacit acknowledgment that a proposed building which complies with height and density requirements could be a masterpiece or an ogre. The current system results in more of the latter than the former, but at least it acknowledges that architecture is not cut and dried, that real people in real places have to live with the consequences of bad development.

The planning minister, Brad Hazzard, hopes that the new laws will put an end to “site-specific wars about individual developments,” but urban design and architecture are naturally site-specific (don’t forget that it was site specific wars which saved the Rocks, the Queen Victoria Building and Centennial Park). A total inattention, indeed contempt for, genius loci is as much as their ‘scale and bulk’ what makes so many new Sydney buildings so awful. The five or six storey ‘egg crate’ apartments which have just about ruined Ku-ring-gai, an area of Sydney’s North Shore defined by a nearly continuous tree canopy, and now a byword for the Sydney way of overdevelopment, are indeed too tall for their contexts, but are so evil because of the way they literally rip their sites to shreds, above and below ground, in order to impose their thuddingly unimaginative, utterly un-architectural sensibility on a landscape of such natural poetry.

Ku-ring-gai. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

Ku-ring-gai. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

Architecture needs constraint to be good or even halfway-decent. As an academic exercise one could imagine two rules being imposed on the building sites of Ku-ring-gai: no cutting down trees and no excavation. In the hands of a sensitive architect the result might be a lightweight building on stilts that dances between the trees, obeying the geometry of the clearings between their canopies. The big problem with the Green Paper is that, with no possibility of objection from the community, developers will have no incentive to choose the latter approach. With the exception of those few high end and mostly inner-city crannies of the property market which demand real architecture, beauty, or even the most basic contextualism, won’t enter into the equation. Architecture will become a box-ticking exercise, as “certain” as filling out a tax return.

Logements (Raphaëlle Hondelatte & Mathieu Laporte), rue Rebière, Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Logements (Raphaëlle Hondelatte & Mathieu Laporte), rue Rebière, Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

What encourages good architecture? I’m not naive enough to believe that there is some magic law which will turn every house into Fallingwater. In almost any city, but in Sydney more than most, bad buildings, buildings which don’t even try, buildings which aren’t even architecture, are numerous enough to furnish the background of most streets, and therefore most lives. Good architecture is more a matter of culture than of legislation. In the 1920s Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony built Castlecrag, still perhaps the ultimate dream of Sydney living, according to their own ideas rather than the requirements of local planners. That was then, but there are other cities today where the local culture of building maintains high expectations. In Paris the new social housing built on Rue Rebière became an opportunity for nine young architects to design innovative buildings on a cleverly reclaimed site. At every level those involved with the project sought to create something they could be proud of. In Sydney it would not even have been social housing (coincidentally, the buildings on Rue Rebière are about the same height as the aforementioned “egg crates” of Ku-ring-gai). No law could be written which would force a recalcitrant building culture to produce such a result.

Dag Hammarskjöld once said that the “UN wasn’t created to take mankind into paradise, but rather, to save humanity from hell” and planning is similar. The first job of urban planners ought to be to protect the community from the worst architecture while getting out of the way of the best. To slightly misquote the prime minister, “Don’t build crap. Can’t be that hard.” One of the untold stories of modern architecture is the decline in quality of ordinary background buildings during the 20th century. The ordinary buildings of the 19th century, wherever you go in the world, have proved themselves urbane and useful while later buildings, made climatically lazy by air conditioning and gorged on a smorgasbord of available materials — a little aluminum here, some formica there —  redefined ugly. Decent brickwork and openable windows go a long way.

Most architects will only ever design such background buildings. They are a noble calling, the problem is that the clients in most cases will be developers. It’s a shame that no one talks about developers in architecture school, nor much about architectural ethics in general. The “Bigness” that sounds so seductive to the student blissed out on Rem Koolhaas looks like the end of the world when put into practice at places like Rozelle Village. In a city like Sydney where public commissions are sparse, architects depend on developers for most jobs larger than a private home. There is certainly a hierarchy of quality among developers, depending on which segment of the market they target, but all are united by the desire to make as much money as possible, not exactly the scoop of the century, but maximizing profit is not generally the goal of good architecture. Thus developers find their architects, architects who are neither original nor good. There are good and lousy architects, but the main division is between the critical and the uncritical, those who question themselves, their briefs and their clients and those who ask “yes sir how high?” with results such as are found in Ku-ring-gai. In architecture school, at least the looming prospect of having one’s work publicly dissected in a “crit” tends to inspire some creative ambition in even the worst students, if only to reduce the possibility of embarrassment. After graduation there is no such constraint, unless one of those “site-specific wars” forces an architect to justify his work to an angry, I mean “concerned,” public. A crude form of critique, but better than nothing.

The Government has the task of actually designing and administering a planning system, while I have all the dubious fun of criticizing their efforts, but I will offer the constructive suggestion that architecture and urbanism are site specific. As a cyclist in the Tour de France starts the race with a general strategy but ends up taking his chances as they present themselves on the road, so a city depends on its sites. Faced with high population growth and ridiculously overpriced real estate, planning in Sydney has in recent years taken a crude, nearly punitive approach. Planners come up with a certain “target” number of dwellings they think should go up over a certain period and each part of the sprawling metropolis is expected to ‘do its share,’ regardless of local conditions. This approach, like the modernist planning which produced the high rise grands ensembles of postwar Europe, treats urban planning as the storage of human beings; it is then no accident that so many of the resulting buildings simply stack people up in boxes. As you would be hard pressed to find someone who prefers the Sydney of today to the city which triumphantly hosted the 2000 Olympic Games, one doesn’t have to be a cynic to see that the Sydney of six million people projected for 2036 will likely be even worse. Sydney’s record of infrastructure building over the past decade has been atrocious. It is at least naive and possibly very stupid indeed to think that a city can gleefully expand in this fashion with only a privatized railway line or two to compensate for the influx. “Encouraging development” is easy — all you have to do is open the barn door — the hard part is building the infrastructure which makes a growing city livable, maybe even delightful.

In other words: where is the love? The way to plan is to treat the city the way Louis Kahn treated a brick: ask it what it wants. Sydney has dozens of leftover sites like Rue Rebière. Identify them, get talented people to master plan them at the same table as the public, write up a brief, hold a design competition and stand by the winner. This won’t produce masterpieces every time but the point is to begin with physical space rather than numbers. The reason the general public tends to object to individual developments while failing to exercise their right to participate in the strategic planning which makes them possible is that the layman can relate to specific physical reality better than colors on a map. Here we come to the vaguest and most important aspect of the Green Paper; if it is to have any legitimacy, the new arsenal of strategic plans, set in stone, with no right to object to complying development proposals, depends on an entirely new level of community participation (the words ‘community’ or ‘communities’ appear 259 times in the Green Paper’s 96 pages; such crude analysis is a fun way to ‘read’ planning documents — the phrase to really look out for is “where practicable”). It will involve scrapping and rewriting hundreds of extremely complicated local plans in a way which the general public understands and supports. There is the promise of a “Public Participation Charter” mandating an “appropriate level” of community participation, and a minimum percentage of the community to be consulted could be set, but how to ensure the quality of that participation? In revising its Town Centres plan this year after the previous version was thrown out in court, Ku-ring-gai Council appointed an “independent community engagement specialist” as a kind of middleman between government and governed — will the new planning law mean a bonanza for such firms? The minister cites Vancouver as the Government’s model, where four percent of the city’s population was consulted on its city plan, or CityPlan, in the early 1990s, but this tells us nothing of what the community actually said, what brilliant ideas might have been ignored or, more importantly, of the underlying predisposition of those in charge of the plan (Vancouverites, please comment below!).

Here planning comes to a conundrum. In attempting to “depoliticize” planning, the new laws will give greater power “to appropriate independent and expert decision makers,” in other words, planners. City planners and architects are usually described as professionals, but, though they generally have better handwriting, they are not professional in the way that a doctor is. Whatever his or her philosophy of medicine, any doctor will prescribe a cast for a broken leg, while a given planner might prescribe skyscrapers, McMansions or brownstones for a broken city. The problem with leaving planning to the professionals is that there is always predisposition. Many planners I have known see themselves not as guardians of the city but as encouragers of development. On the side of elected officials, for both major political parties economic rationalism is simply assumed, as once in certain circles it might have been assumed one went to church on Sunday (this is why banning political donations from developers, while obviously necessary, has not solved the problem of influence — politicians support the interests of developers because they believe in those interests, not because of brown paper bags full of cash).

Complicating the prospects of public consultation is the inconvenient truth that democracy, in the sense of majority rules, will not necessarily produce good cities. Non-professionals — and particularly children — often have playful insights into their city which have been beaten out of architects and planners during their education but there are a lot of other people with terrible taste and, worse, no taste at all, content with an eaveless McMansion and a treeless garden. I live in one of those Sydney streets where the bush springs across the protective boundary of a national park and onto suburban streets, amongst mostly modest houses. If my neighborhood were proposed today it would probably be unjustifiable on environmental grounds since it is so close to the bush, but now that it exists the best we can do is to preserve and enjoy the presence of nature in our own backyards. You would think such a neighborhood would attract like-minded folks, but there is one patch of street where for maybe four or five houses all the big gum trees have been cut down and it looks like any other suburban subdivision. What if on local community consultation night the tree-loppers outvoted the tree-lovers, the birds and possums being, presumably, unable to vote?

The point is that the definition of community is not simple when it comes to urbanism. A city is the people who live in it at any one time but it is also the legacy of those who came before and, most importantly, those to come after we move on. Cities exist in time and in history, not quite the same thing. A planner in charge of community consultation, packing predisposition, could frame things in a way which results in skyscrapers or community gardens. A public which might never have considered that cities can be designed is susceptible to being pushed in certain directions by “professionals.” When it comes to cities everyone must have a say, but the value of one person’s say is only as good as their frame of reference and their good will. The time people spend in traffic jams  shuttling between dreary houses and dismal offices the lower their own expectations of their city, when the key to public participation is that they have high standards. The problem compounds itself when they are consulted by some planner and the places they know become their only frame of reference. How are they to know, for example, that terrace houses can provide a less-damaging form of higher density than the blocky apartment buildings developers find most profitable? Who will tell them that not all angles are ninety degrees?

Biff's alternate reality in Back to the Future II (1989).

Biff’s alternate reality in Back to the Future II (1989).

Even if one accepts the removal of the right to oppose development — and I most certainly do not — this Government’s record on urban issues is not encouraging. Elected on a promise to “return planning powers to local communities” in 2011, the O’Farrell Government began well by scrapping the notorious Part 3A, which allowed developers to circumvent local planning laws, such as they are, by getting their projects declared “state significant.” Since then they’ve declined to review Richard Rogers’ bulky towers at Barangaroo, reversed normal planning procedure by asking developers where on the fringes of the city they’s like to build their McMansions, let developers rebuild Darling Harbour — a project as important as Barangaroo — as they see fit, behind closed doors, without a masterplan or even the fig leaf of a botched design competition. Oh yeah, and the Premier thinks it would be a good idea to build a casino at Barangaroo, on land allocated for a park, naturally (do we now live in Biff’s alternate reality in Back to the Future II (1989)?).

Forgive me if these “certainties” sound a little scary.

About the author

Alan Miller

Alan Miller is a graduate of the Sydney University Faculty of Architecture and the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. A fanatical cyclist, he is a former Sydney Singlespeed Champion. He reports on cycling, film, architecture, politics, photography and various mixtures of the above.

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