STORY | Planning as story

Posted on 07/03/2010

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I was recently asked why I am studying planning given my extensive experience in the arts and as a writer. There are many reasons for this and as I have previously noted, I am interested in writing about cities, participating in a conversation about cities. For me, planning is about narrative; it’s about writing stories or scripts for the future, usually collaboratively and usually evoking a range of scenarios. It’s not about the Euclidean and functional aspects of cities. I am a roamer and my mind wanders. There is no greater joy than being lost in the process of writing; to be immersed and to be in love with every word and spaces between then. So for me, if planning is one of those professions that tugs at a range of disciplines, including design, and if it casts lines across the past and future, then the range of storytelling opportunities has the breadth and depth of the landscape itself. What stories can I – do I need to – cast into the future? How will or can you become involved in them? That is what writing does.

At work this week, there was a discussion about the SBS Insight program on population growth and housing. In that program, a resident of Milton, Brisbane, was fervantly objecting to increased densities and building heights in her locality, which is situated 1km from the CBD and undergoing significant change through transit oriented redesign/redevelopment and potentially integrated of social housing and affordable housing. As she speaks passionately about this subject, the spectre of the future slum is conjured. Density and social mix, it is argued, will result in slums. Assuming the narrative/scenario has been fully formed – and by the comments on the Insight program, it has not been – it is assumed that such densities and social mix will put pressure on limited inner city services and resources, resulting in the equivalent of ‘white flight’, leaving the key workers, students and disadvantaged ‘behind’. Their needs certainly cannot be met in the middle and outer suburbs especially for those who experience transport and fuel poverty. While poverty pools and grows in American suburbs, the risk of ‘slumburbia’ in Australia’s suburbs may be looming. A single community centre in a greenfield development won’t address that!

Surely there are other stories we can tell about our cities that aren’t underwritten by this type of blinkered panic and fear, or this mindless and selfish greed masked as citizenship. Panic and fear can become tools, motivations even, for writing alternative and better futures, rather than inhibiting any change that could potentially see our city become fairer and more sustainable. ‘Tin and timber’ houses, originally designed for working people, ‘renovated’ beyond recognition into luxury, single family residences doesn’t do that. In the end, you have to wonder about creating livability primarily geared towards to enhancing the lifestyles and investments of the affluent, or preserving cultural and architectural heritage so that the affluent can own their piece of the city’s history.

I recently read about YIMBYs – Yes in my backyard – a growing movement of people who are passionate enough about social inclusion and sustainability that they are prepared to support affordable and social housing and alternative energy generation. Even Wikipedia has a short entry about YIMBYs stating that “Informal YIMBY coalitions exist in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Stockholm, Gothenburg, Uppsala, Oslo, Phoenix, Seattle and elsewhere to provide community support for affordable housing or market-rate property development over the objections of NIMBY, BANANA and bureaucratic opponents.” We don’t seem to have reached that point in Australia yet – and in part I attribute that to a poor showing in citizen engaged planning – though please let me know if you are aware of any YIMBY initiatives.

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