ENCOUNTERS| Ripples and waves

Posted on 29/07/2013


I’d like to be able to say that my silence on this blog is attributable to being extremely productive and focused. With an opening sentence like that, it’s clearly not the case. My work on various projects has been grinding and slow. The writing has been painful, forced and terse. And recently, while out cycling, noting the ballooning clouds on the horizon, I said to myself, “I wish I could write like that.” Like clouds gathering towards rain or a storm – gathering, building and rolling until ready to transform and release. “Wouldn’t that be something,” and then a sigh which I didn’t quite understand as loss or as longing.

There are, however, ripples in my writing as my attention has been fractured and diverted. Having attended a number of conferences, seminars and other conversations, my mental space has become a busy swirl. I have so much to do – though not in that self-important ‘busy-ness’ kind of way – and, yet, not enough to do.

Earlier this month, I volunteered at the ISUF2013 conference held at QUT where I chaired one of the sessions. Here I felt myself coming to a better understanding of urban morphology and the complexity of urban problem solving in the way that Michael Conzen describes as the systematic and scientific study of urban environments involving historical and geographic analysis. It’s not, as he tersely pointed out, a “general interest in urban form” reducible to simple formulas and rules. Perhaps one of the more humbling presentations I heard at ISUF2013 was Jose Forjaz’s overview of his work in Maputo in which he talked about the world of the informal city and the transformation of slums. He stressed the need to work with communities and ‘barefoot planners’ (a recurring theme in many presentations from those working in slums and with impoverished communities) to effect change. Ultimately, he said, slums will evolve; they will not be improved through administrative and planning processes.

I’ve also had cause to interrogate my thesis research topic, which after years of focused attention on suburban transformation and sustainability, seems to have taken a turn towards emerging thoughts about infrastructure. This, in part, is drawn from Bent Flyvbjerg’s work on phronesis and the ruse of ‘major projects’, some thinking about ecosystem services, smart infrastructure and other encounters with policy and planning debates that weave through infrastructure, financing, sustainability and governance. This not only included some of the work presented at ISUF2013 – specifically Teresa Marat-Mendes work on sustainable urban futures and urban metabolism, and Carlos Dia Coelho’s work on suburban urban fabric – and commentaries from several forums on the state and the city’s economic fortunes and woes. The emphasis continues to be on integrated or integrative thinking and the words of CEO of the Committee for Sydney, Tim Williams, uttered at the National Urban Policy Conference echo: “neo-liberal thinking does not serve cities”. Another idea that echoes from these encounters is the importance of ‘changing the conversation’. This is equally at the crux of Lewis Atter’s work on transport funding in the UK, as presented at the National Urban Policy Conference, as it is in Forjaz’s work in slums and with slum residents. Changing the conversation means changing ourselves and our approaches recognising the importance of collaboration and governance.

Another semester of tutoring in placemaking and studying in intergovernmental relations awaits too. These  topics seem to sit at the different points of an urban and/or regional development spectrum – policy to practice. The challenge here is not to reconcile these but to connect them. Here, I think, is where this idea of topology that I endeavouring to explore in Fieldworking comes into play. In landscape architecture, Christoper Girot offers some thinking topology that I am finding quite useful. He says “topology … pays greater attention to the deeper poetic and philosophical meaning of a landscape, and helps us grasp as much about its making as about the perception of intrinsic beauty … Topology can help fields of action that seldom cross paths habitually to merge on the plinth of territorial continuity, considerably reinforcing the discipline of landscape while opening it to others. The challenge of landscape topology is to integrate heterogeneous fields of action that can be both physical and philosophical and scientific and poetic – integrating past, present, and future potentials into a single meaningful whole.”

Having undertaken numerous walks trying to develop a fieldworking and spatial process that traverses these heterogeneous fields, I was quite relieved to have found Girot’s statements and work. We address landscape through and as metaphor – thinking about the political terrain or the policy landscape – and so this idea of topology is multiplying and complex.