WEEKEND | Entropic, enabling …

Posted on 31/10/2011


The morning blurs with the prior evening’s twitter and blogging engagements and the weekend’s social ventures. A sequence of events, not really conjoined or linked, but all having something to say about dwelling in the spaces of this city and its expanses.

Saturday morning, early. Aspley. With my mother in tow, we venture to the local Uniting Church to attend their annual market. My mother rarely goes out and rarely does anything new. She is tiny in stature though round in girth; some might say typically Italian. Slightly stooped, she sometimes looks like an owl. I’ll be in trouble if she ever reads this. People baffle her and, as she ages, she is retreating in an ever shrinking world of safety and comfort. She dislikes ‘going around’ as she says with an accusatory tone, as if socialising and curiosity are some kind of transgressive promiscuity. But she is comfortable in her world of Aspley, able to walk to the services she needs with relative ease. The wide roads, with their all too brief walk signals, present a challenge as her agility decreases.

As we enter the church grounds, a crowd has already gathered. John darts into the plant stall, featuring plants cultivated from local gardens. My mother stops in her tracks for a while and, like an owl, stares at the stream of people, exchanging pleasantries. We eventually focus on plants and share some thoughts about which are the best. As we cruise through the stalls in the hall, small talk ensues and we notice with some concern that the crowd is significantly aged. My mother sees her neighbours and they speak. I am heartened by their genuine warmth. As we walk, we gather up our load of jams, books and plants, perusing the arrangements of traditional and contemporary craft. John quips with the woman selling knitted prawns, a pattern of her own design. Of course, we are not churchgoers but we nevertheless feel like we are participating in rich exchanges. Speaking with the bevy of homebakers about their baking and preserving efforts, lavishing them with praise, hearing stories about and from recipes and ingredients. “It’s about timing, dear,” I am advised. As we leave, another neighbour comments that it is good to see my mother out and about. We commend him on his sausage sizzle efforts and guide my mother home.

Saturday morning, later. Aspley. Having escorted my mother home, we stop for coffee at the recently opened hole in the wall coffee shop. I have written about this modest venture in another post noting that small changes can disrupt normative suburban processes. Espress to Go is a mobile coffee cart franchise. However, they’ve now set up a hole in the wall coffee servery (with a customer review published online). It’s not the most ambient of environments but there are timber benches and a sense of enclosure underneath the awning that seems to make it possible to blinker out the busy main road. It creates, for a moment, a sense of intimacy in which we can chat with the barista and the other customers. Perhaps, the only irksome part of the experience is the way that a parked car encroached on the sitting area. Nevertheless, we enjoyed ourselves and our coffee, a short black neatly served in a small pyrex measuring cup, just to emphasise its potency and brevity. The shop has been open for a few weeks and we had yet to drop by. With early morning until early afternoon trading, it caters to the commuter market along Gympie Road. As I have said before, it’s a smart  use of space and identification of opportunity.

Saturday afternoon. Aspley. The afternoon sees us focused on our work. In this mental space of reading and writing, I start to think about other kinds of ideas about cities, culture and community. First, I write a post for PlaceBlog reflecting on and reporting some discussions I had participated in during the week. All pointing to the need for different ways of thinking about, planning and creating our places. I can’t help but wonder if perhaps my project of writing place is morphing into writing planning. I feel caught up in frustration about planning, unable to really position or settle myself within this set of professional practices. However, in reading an article as part of a peer review process, something clicks. It’s perhaps a set of words more than anything else. It concerns me that planners/planning are often blamed for the failures of urban governance and management. As I noted in my earlier post, often when we blame planning for poor results, the blame rests with decision makers within government – either at its adminstrative or political levels. Planners don’t have the kind of power we tend to attribute to them as they operate within systems of urban governance and management.

Planners often deliver consultation processes in line with inadequate corporate and government expectations or regulatory/policy frameworks – this is a demand to make of elected representatives. We blame planners for things for which they have little or no control. There is a tendency in critiques of ‘planning’ to situate it as a standalone or autonomous spatial practice rather than as part of a system of urban or regional governance, information, policy and/or management. Reference to planning (in a way that conflates plans, planning and planners) and that separates it from those broader and more politicised processes tends to infer planners have more autonomy than we should credit. Planning happens in the plural (i.e. community planning, economic development, cultural planning etc). There’s a need to clarify the positioning and relational dimensions of planning and to establish whether what we are really talking about when these critiques are offered is, in fact, planning.

Sunday morning, early. Sandgate. At the weekly market at Sandgate District High School, regular stall holders offer cheery morning banter  – the farmer from Mt Tambourine with her early crop of mangoes; the mushroom seller who, for a moment, contemplates his mortality; the banana growers who struggled to keep prices down in the post-flood environment; and the Thai masseur and her husband who sell homemade steamed banana leaf wrapped dumplings. It’s not the kind of market that rolls out of deft agri-craft-curation of the made and the grown, but the mix and match of outer suburban opportunity, informality and cultural diversity with its easy in and out. It weaves through the access roads in the school ground and the crowd shuffles as if meandering through a street market. Out of habit we pick over the trash and treasure stalls and second hand clothes. The school, probably as part of the Federal government’s BER initiative, has redeveloped what might have once been a parade ground into a communal space more like a public square with a stage and shelters. It makes the space more habitable, more sociable. Here, a young Indian woman sets up in a shelter and offers face threading (where there’s always a queue and several curious onlookers – there’s something quite refreshing about a public display of female facial hair removal) while we occupy a nearby seat and eat our breakfast dumplings with coffee.

Sunday morning, later. Sunnybank. Later we head over to Sunnybank to catch the last day of My Own Private Neon Oasis, a contemporary art project inspired by the histories and diverse cultures in the area. Sunnybank is located about the same distance from the CBD as Aspley. The project involves international, national and local artists in the development of site-specific installations that coincided with the Moon Festival. Drawing on Asian cultures, communities and businesses in the suburb, the installations address diverse ideas of site, ritual and history. The works that we most responded to were the two situated in local businesses: Hologram Holiday by Thea Baumann at iNails and Eunjung Hwang’s 131 Characters at Sakuraya. As well, Choi Jeong Hwa engaged outdoor sites in his works Wind and Earth, vivid installations of common objects or materials used in bulk to change the flow of suburban spaces (pictured below). The works drew us through the suburb and its various shopping centres, luring us to walk around and experience the sights, tastes and smells of this suburb. Through this, we come to understand a more complex cultural environment than the prevailing criticisms of suburbs would have us believe: this is not sameness or banality set against a background of big roads, big boxes and a slight suburban improvement program. There’s something more alive here than the rhetoric asserts. The artworks do not catalyse or draw out these social and cultural relations, they simply draw our attention to them as that which already exists, somehow camouflaged by the arrangements of concrete, asphalt and urban planning.


Sunday night, late. Aspley. As an evening storm builds, slowly rumbling and crawling to the coast from the west, I continue to reflect and read. I am challenged to draw some threads together after this weekend of wandering. During my reading, I have stumbled into some work on ‘entropic urbanism’, which seems to find companionship with thinking about adaption, complexity, recombinance and post-traumatic urbanism. Diana Limbach proposes that “a profound and uncontrollable (by definition) entropy, is exactly what I think is the key to revitalizing communities … an entropic city evolves, where as a planned city exists in fits and starts, in booms and busts.” She also notes her own interest in focusing on “between what always has been and what we plan for there to be”. This includes “building rehabilitations, informal economies, festivals, dynamic public spaces.  I think this is where cities are generative, are true to themselves, and most importantly, where they are resilient.  An environment that is constantly in flux, investigating possibilities and testing changes, is more resistant to crippling change from the outside.” I prefer this language as a frame for thinking and writing than that of urban renewal and regeneration. Perhaps suburbs are entropic right now, even as they emerge and are affirmed on greenfields across the nation. It is apparent that we all – all of us – need to become better at working with flux, working in flux. If planning is part of that picture, then it needs to become something else, shedding its ideological skin and opening up to possibilities. Having been emailing with a colleague about her interest in post-traumatic urbanism recently, this idea of the ‘entropic’ as a useful, even desirable state, seemed compelling for our current Enabling Suburbs project (and not so focused on catalysing creative hipster economies). On facebook, there are other conversations rippling, which share this concern. Urbanist and scholar José Carlos Mota tells me about a project he is working on in Portugal called ‘local collaborative agenda to economic recovery’, based in the concept of collaborative ‘low-cost & high-impact’ micro ideas at cities/neighbourhood scale in different domains (creative & cultural economy, local food, green buildings, sustainable mobility, ageing etc). Such work recognises the complexity of local situations, is less attentive to planning convention than building capacity and creating opportunities – it has a kind of potent clumsiness. An entropic state is somehow enabling – compelling and empowering through its implication of futuring and flexibility rather than placation or affirmation of an existing order.