NEWS | From your place to poor place

Posted on 14/08/2012

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Picking over this morning’s influx of newsletters, social media feeds and the like, our urban environments seem to be making headlines. In Brisbane, the Council has announced a plan to improve pedestrian experience and public space as well as linkages in the city’s bikeways. In the USA, there are more headlines about sprawl with particular emphasis on the maintenance costs (is it causing municipal bankruptcy?) and the redundancy of planning regulations (and the reification of ‘zombie sprawl’).

According to Robert Steuteville, in Better Cities and Towns, “Sprawl has never been entirely market-driven — it’s also an act of will on the part of the housing and finance industries, the regulators who establish the codes, the highway lobby, and departments of transportation.” At CNN William Fulton argues that “When sprawling new development happens, it’s easy to mistake that for prosperity. New buildings and wide roads look great when they first meet the eye. But over time, distant development costs more, gradually bleeding taxpayers and putting the hurt on municipal budgets.”

These issues, which have recurred at the global scale, probably need to be addressed as ‘wicked problems’ – to address them in their complexity and intricacy. These are not just patterns of urban development, they are bound up in systems of urban governance, development and planning.

In Brisbane, while the affirmation of pedestrian and cycling experience is much welcomed, there remains a need to extend that sense of a ‘dignified urban experience’ into the suburbs. For example, an American study revealed fewer trees in lower income communities than in higher income communities. Are we using placemaking to affirm social inequality?

My mind drifts to work on DIY urbanism and its ethos of ‘lighter, quicker, cheaper’ and what that might mean for issues like municipal bankruptcy and lagging planning codes. There is a two-way exchange as the failures of urban governance prod DIY urbanists into action. Perhaps there is something that planning and planners and local authorities can learn from this grassroots drive to change our places and introduce (or hack) more flexible and dynamic approaches to infrastructure and placemaking. Or perhaps there’s a need for new economic models and measures, as offered by the New Economics Foundation in their newsletter. These ideas of measuring wellbeing and developing a new economic model aren’t so removed from the principles and ethos of planning for healthy and vibrant communities. A new (or 21st century) planning project might also be adaptive and responsive to the emergence of new tropes and possibilities for planning and cities.

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