Thinking big

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stumpjumper
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Re: Thinking big

#46 Post by stumpjumper » Sun Mar 08, 2009 8:28 pm

One of the problems we have in SA - although we're not alone - is what you might call an ugly symbiosis: the mutual interests of politicians and the property development industry.

Polticians find immense satisfaction in being associated with building projects, the bigger the better. The property development industry finds immense profit from the same activity.

Is it any wonder that many politicians behave like kids given exclusive access to the biggest sandpit of all? A property development gives them many things - electoral credibility - there is nothing so visible as construction. Construction is always progress, and progress equals votes.

Construction gives politicians psychological satisfaction (see 'edifice complex'). It satisfies the very urges that brought them to politics in the first place - recognition, respect of their peers and the chance to swan around with seriously successful and rich people in whose society the art of the deal is the highest art, and profit is the highest goal.

Most politicians are lawyers, union hacks or earnest toilers for the public benefit who have worked their way up via councils and citizens committees to a parliamentary seat.

For a few short years, they are exposed to the seductive business of property development. It's exciting and new and fun to be forming the built environment, and the eagerness of these newcomers to be involved plays right into the hands of their new best friends in the development industry.

I am not critical of the development industry, or of politicians, but when the development industry makes friends with people in government simply to gain access to the development decision-making process, the public interest, which our elected politicians should keep paramount, slips down the list of priorities.

As an example, consider the relationship of Nathan Paine, Executive Director of the Property Council (SA) and Kevin Foley, our Treasurer.

Paine is constantly instructing all levels government and lobbying individuals with its single-minded message of fewer constraints on development.

"While the SA Government has done much to set the State on the path to prosperity , more must be done..." 2/3/09

"Nathan Paine said the (ACC heritage) survey would have a negative impact on the value of listed properties..." 6/3/09

We need a balance, not bias, and the opportunity to fairly assess developments from all aspects, not just 'do-ability'.

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Re: Thinking big

#47 Post by Prince George » Mon Mar 09, 2009 3:08 am

I hadn't heard the term "edifice complex" before, and yes it is an apt description of much of the problem. In any walk of life it is hard, so very hard, to really play the role of a servant, whose primary motivation is the best interests of others. Sometimes people talk about needing be "egoless", but perhaps that has a somewhat negative connotation, as if it means that you can't put any of yourself into your work, that it must be totally generic. I don't think that that is the case, that you must actually put a great deal of yourself into what you do (you must care about the results), but you must also understand the difference between having something bear your mark and having it be your mark.

I think the best current examples of the wrong side of that equation is Frank Gehry's architecture - you hardly have to glance at the buildings to think to yourself "well, that must be Gehry", and no-one else can design something like that without being compared to him. How can his buildings tell us anything about the place where they are built, the people who live there, the things that they do or want or hope for or believe, when they have to chant "Gehry Gehry Gehry" over and over? The famous Bilbao is much more closely related to the Disney Concert Hall in LA, or to the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, than it is to anything in or about Bilbao. (In fairness to Frank Gehry, I believe that he is somewhat trapped by his brand, as clients are contracting him in order to produce things that "look like a Gehry")

But apart from self-aggrandisement, there is also a common train of thought that runs something like "a bigger (or broader, or grander) solution is a better solution". For example, we often hear talk like "we're going to sort this mess out once and for all" (Victoria Square, anyone? Or the Pt Adelaide developments?) I no longer believe in this line of thinking, because (1) we are almost never clever or wise enough to understand the whole mess that we are sorting out, and (2) there is no "for all". Times change, cities change, people and lifestyles change, and because we aren't good at understanding the present problems, that need for change comes sooner than we think.

Big, monolithic projects adapt and evolve slowly (and at greater expense), and are more vulnerable to obsolesence than a host of smaller ones would be. This seems paradoxical, because we tend to equate bigger with resilience. I like to think of biology, comparing humans to bacteria: bacteria were around a billion years before us, and they'll still be around a billion years after we're gone.

So rather than seeing a single project running on a billion-dollar budget and plan, I would prefer to see it organised as a thousand million-dollar projects. And, continuing this process, I would love to see those thousand projects each operating as a series of a thousand thousand-dollar decisions.

To understand what I mean by that, choose one of the recent or proposed towers in the city. City centre, Spire, Aurora, Conservatory, whatever you want. Now pick a window at random, and ask yourself "why is this window, with this size and shape, at this spot on the building?" Is it because it will frame a view especially well? Is it because it will have a particular quality of light? Is it because the room behind it has a particular shape, with the door placed just-so, and this exact window produces a particularly welcoming feeling? Or is this window is like that because it is on floor x, and floor x is the same as floors (x-1) and (x+1)?

It's almost certainly not the case that this particular window is the product of unique circumstances, and in fact it is exactly the same as the ones beside or above/below it. And that is because the architects don't have the time to consider every window, and every room, on its own merits, so instead they will repeat the same window everywhere, placing them by just spreading them out evenly over the building. But where a single architect could not, perhaps a thousand architects could. And when I say "architect", perhaps I should say "decision makers", because perhaps these decisions can't be made at a drawing table, but must be made on the sites and in the buildings.

Really, if there was one "big idea" that I could wish for, I think this would be it. Transforming a series of dull design monocultures into a radically diverse collection of microcultures, each uniquely adapted for their own circumstances. That would be incredible.

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Re: Thinking big

#48 Post by Queen Anne » Mon Mar 09, 2009 4:36 am

This is an interesting discussion you're all having about citizen involvement in planning. It's clearly a very complicated, difficult issue.

I'd like to think that, if the will is there in SA, we can develop a more inclusive culture around planning. I'd be interested to hear what people think of the following two websites:

http://www.friends.org/ 1000 friends of Oregon was started by the then Governor in the '70s, as the "citizens voice for sound land use planning" the urban growth boundary is one of their famous works.

http://mas.org/ Municipal Arts Society was started by a group of artists in NYC in the 19th century, who wanted to beautify their city. It has grown to become a planning advocacy and education organisation.

These organisations interest me because they offer a chance for ordinary people to get involved in, and learn about, planning issues. There is something positive and energizing about them.

I'm not suggesting that SA should copy these organisations, as we have our own issues, aspirations, laws, etc. But I find them both inspirational. What do you think? Could we create something in SA that could help us form a dialogue between the community, and politicians and developers?

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Re: Thinking big

#49 Post by Will » Mon Mar 09, 2009 1:03 pm

Interesting discussion, but let us all remember that in our society what dominates is $. If you make development too expensive or add too much red tape then there will be no development at all, because if a developer cannot make a profit then he/she isn't going to propose anything at all.

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Re: Thinking big

#50 Post by stumpjumper » Mon Mar 09, 2009 7:08 pm

This is an interesting discussion you're all having about citizen involvement in planning. It's clearly a very complicated, difficult issue.
Au contraire, QA. At least in theory.

At state government level, the community interest is represented by the minister responsible for planning. In turn, that minister oversees an apolitical planning department whose expertise is used to ensure the best results for the community.

At local government level, highly qualified planners impartially review development applications in light of planning policy and legislation.

What's complicated or difficult about that?

(Hint: The whole system is poorly protected against 'undue influence', and there is in SA no independent commission against corruption - in fact the government is strongly against having such a body.)

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Re: Thinking big

#51 Post by Cruise » Mon Mar 09, 2009 7:17 pm

say it again!

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Re: Thinking big

#52 Post by Queen Anne » Tue Mar 10, 2009 6:27 am

stumpjumper wrote:
This is an interesting discussion you're all having about citizen involvement in planning. It's clearly a very complicated, difficult issue.
Au contraire, QA. At least in theory.

At state government level, the community interest is represented by the minister responsible for planning. In turn, that minister oversees an apolitical planning department whose expertise is used to ensure the best results for the community.

At local government level, highly qualified planners impartially review development applications in light of planning policy and legislation.

What's complicated or difficult about that?

(Hint: The whole system is poorly protected against 'undue influence', and there is in SA no independent commission against corruption - in fact the government is strongly against having such a body.)
The "take away message" I have from your posts here, is that the solution might be simple but the issue remains complicated and difficult because the aspirations, egos and habits of powerful people are involved. Would this be reasonable assessment?

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Re: Thinking big

#53 Post by Prince George » Tue Mar 10, 2009 4:12 pm

Will wrote:Interesting discussion, but let us all remember that in our society what dominates is $. If you make development too expensive or add too much red tape then there will be no development at all, because if a developer cannot make a profit then he/she isn't going to propose anything at all.
I don't feel any sympathy when multi-billion dollar industries start crying poor. Perhaps I just don't have a generous heart and don't realise that Urban Construct and Samaras and the Property Council are really poor destitute waifs, trying to sell matches at the street corner to buy a stale loaf of bread and survive another night. But somehow their glossy brochures, big headquarters, and extensive portfolios convince me otherwise.

I also think that some constraints and restrictions are good for creativity - there are plenty of soccer fans on the forums that will have heard Beckenbaur's famous line "adverse conditions breed superior results", it seems that similar rules apply in other spheres as well. Does Adelaide really compare in expense to Paris, Madrid, or Rome - has that stopped them developing? Could Adelaide really have more red-tape than Berlin or London - the English gave us the phrase "red tape" - and yet they are still throwing up projects. The Netherlands has some of the most complex planning requirements in the entire world; they produce unexpected designs all the time because the architects and planners challenge themselves to adhere to all these requirements in novel and creative ways. Much of the reason that Manhattan turned out the way that it did is because it's on an island - they couldn't build out so they had to build up.

And let us remember that the money that these people profit from is ultimately our own - they may spend their money to start building it, but they profit from us buying it. Since ultimately we all fund it, letting us have more of a say seems only fair. :)

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Re: Thinking big

#54 Post by Prince George » Tue Mar 10, 2009 4:31 pm

stumpjumper wrote:At state government level, the community interest is represented by the minister responsible for planning. In turn, that minister oversees an apolitical planning department whose expertise is used to ensure the best results for the community. At local government level, highly qualified planners impartially review development applications in light of planning policy and legislation. What's complicated or difficult about that?

(Hint: The whole system is poorly protected against 'undue influence', and there is in SA no independent commission against corruption - in fact the government is strongly against having such a body.)
I don't mean to say that corruption isn't an issue, nor that it has not happened in some form, but I disagree that the problems in SA reduce down to just that one factor. Put another way, I would only accept your position if we looked at the decisions that are made and said that the only way that these decisions could have been made was because of "undue influence", that it is simply impossible for reasonable people to make them otherwise. I do not believe that this is the case.

I increasingly feel that there may be deeper systemic problems within the disciplines themselves - that even with totally competent people of unimpeachable integrity, they are still trapped in some other way into making poor decisions. I already mentioned that project-scale is a factor that might drive down quality of the outcomes; there are also problems like distance between the people making the decisions and the people living with them; and problems like misguided but well-meaning thinking - for example, why do traffic engineers seem to command so much authority in planning (not bribery from the road-painting consortiums, I hope)?

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Re: Thinking big

#55 Post by Will » Tue Mar 10, 2009 4:59 pm

Prince George wrote:
Will wrote:Interesting discussion, but let us all remember that in our society what dominates is $. If you make development too expensive or add too much red tape then there will be no development at all, because if a developer cannot make a profit then he/she isn't going to propose anything at all.
I don't feel any sympathy when multi-billion dollar industries start crying poor. Perhaps I just don't have a generous heart and don't realise that Urban Construct and Samaras and the Property Council are really poor destitute waifs, trying to sell matches at the street corner to buy a stale loaf of bread and survive another night. But somehow their glossy brochures, big headquarters, and extensive portfolios convince me otherwise.

I also think that some constraints and restrictions are good for creativity - there are plenty of soccer fans on the forums that will have heard Beckenbaur's famous line "adverse conditions breed superior results", it seems that similar rules apply in other spheres as well. Does Adelaide really compare in expense to Paris, Madrid, or Rome - has that stopped them developing? Could Adelaide really have more red-tape than Berlin or London - the English gave us the phrase "red tape" - and yet they are still throwing up projects. The Netherlands has some of the most complex planning requirements in the entire world; they produce unexpected designs all the time because the architects and planners challenge themselves to adhere to all these requirements in novel and creative ways. Much of the reason that Manhattan turned out the way that it did is because it's on an island - they couldn't build out so they had to build up.

And let us remember that the money that these people profit from is ultimately our own - they may spend their money to start building it, but they profit from us buying it. Since ultimately we all fund it, letting us have more of a say seems only fair. :)
The problem is that although in theory it may be nice to give everyone a say in planning, in reality I see this full of dangers because planning is like art. Everybody has differnet and often conflicting opinions, and by trying to appease everyone I fear that we will end up with a situation where nothing will happen because it will all be too complex, too expensive and for the Urban Constructs of Adelaide it will just be much easier in Queensland.

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Re: Thinking big

#56 Post by Wayno » Tue Mar 10, 2009 5:10 pm

Queen Anne wrote:http://www.friends.org/ 1000 friends of Oregon was started by the then Governor in the '70s, as the "citizens voice for sound land use planning" the urban growth boundary is one of their famous works.
this approach is interesting - i wonder if they have tangible impact in Oregon, or are perceived as being annoying fringe dwellers...
Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.

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Re: Thinking big

#57 Post by stumpjumper » Tue Mar 10, 2009 9:52 pm

I was being cynical - any corruption, overt or more subtle and insidious - operates together with rusted-on, knee-jerk resistance to change, knee-jerk automatic support for any building proposal at all, and numerous other positions in the community; well or ill informed, self-interested or altruistic.

Prince George's 1000 Projects Scheme is very interesting. If it is still subject to the above, it's probably less subject to the 'edifice complex'. I'd like to see it tried out.

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Re: Thinking big

#58 Post by Prince George » Wed Mar 11, 2009 12:47 am

Will wrote:The problem is that although in theory it may be nice to give everyone a say in planning, in reality I see this full of dangers because planning is like art. Everybody has differnet and often conflicting opinions, and by trying to appease everyone I fear that we will end up with a situation where nothing will happen because it will all be too complex, too expensive and for the Urban Constructs of Adelaide it will just be much easier in Queensland.
It is an art, but it's one that almost nobody is good at - try finding a fully planned development that's as interesting as an old Italian hill town that just muddled it's way along; and the town didn't have the apparent advantages of money, expertise, or numerous interesting old Italian hill towns (etc etc) to learn from. And I'm not asking for concensus or appeasement (that's something we're floundering with today), but diversity (possibly wild, possibly mild, but diverse).

Finally, I don't like to think of this as "communities vs making money", but rather "get the community to help you make money" - I try to explain what I mean over here.

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Re: Thinking big

#59 Post by Queen Anne » Wed Mar 11, 2009 4:02 pm

Wayno wrote:
Queen Anne wrote:http://www.friends.org/ 1000 friends of Oregon was started by the then Governor in the '70s, as the "citizens voice for sound land use planning" the urban growth boundary is one of their famous works.
this approach is interesting - i wonder if they have tangible impact in Oregon, or are perceived as being annoying fringe dwellers...
Yes, it would be good to know how well regarded they are in the broader community. I think it's interesting that it all started as a governor's initiative - makes it sound promising. But a lot can happen in 30 years, it's true. Of course, according to their own website all is going pretty well, lol.

Anyway, George and I have a friend from Oregon and I asked him today about '1000 friends' and if they are well regarded or not. He has heard of them but couldn't expand on that. But he reckons his brother (who is a university professor in Oregon and is, apparently, very up to date on Oregon issues) would know about it. Our friend is going to ask his brother about it for me. But it might take a while as the brother is currently on a field-trip in Perth, funnily enough.

Our friend did say, however, that Oregon has transformed itself over the last twenty years or so. He says Portland, in particular, has gone from being a bit of a hick town to a national hotspot with a progressive reputation. He said they had a mayor in the eighties who was a very big part of the transformation. It seems like Oregon has been blessed in a couple of its elected officials over the last 30 years. Fancy having a mayor that special, and a governor who was willing to let people get involved in planning in their own state!..

It seems like a happy combination of visionary leadership and a public who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved - and stay involved even thirty years later. At least, I hope it's "the public" in '1000 friends' and not a bunch of annoying fringe dwellers. We'll find out when my friend's brother gets back from Perth, I guess :|

OK, I'm rambling, so it's over and out time!

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