Activism in Planning in Australia: A Delicate Balancing Act

I’m celebrating: 2013 was a great year for community activism in planning.

 

In New South Wales, concerted action by many forces, including the Better Planning Network (https://betterplanningnetwork.good.do/nsw/fund-the-better-planning-network-in-2014/), resulted in the State Government withdrawing the contentious and flawed proposed state planning legislation.

 

The Better Planning Network has more than 430 community groups and many more affiliated individuals (like me), and this number is growing every day.

 

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On 28 November 2013, the NSW Minister for Planning and Infrastructure, the Hon. Brad Hazzard, announced that he would withdraw the NSW Planning Bills until February/March 2014. The Minister made this announcement because of heavy amendments made to these Bills in the Upper House by the Labor, Greens and Shooters and Fishers parties.

 

Aside from some misguided planners and the developers’ lobby, nobody had anything good to say about the community engagement components of the Bills, which were my main concern.

 

I argued on a number of occasions that it was unrealistic – strategically and psychologically – to expect residents to be happy with community engagement limited to the strategic planning stage. Many people, including prominent lawyers, judges and local government, agreed.

 

We are all praying that the State Government will avoid the old trick and not undertake the next stage of consultation during January (as often people do!). It’s too late to put the plans on display on Boxing Day in a distant galaxy – but stranger things have happened to hitchhikers in New South Wales!

 

It was a big win, nonetheless.

 

Dear Manitoba

 

Blog image 2 Manitoba merge

 



On a smaller scale but equally as important, we had a major win in South Australia, What architect Ian Hannaford called his “Dear Manitoba” has been saved from demolition or redevelopment, as have two other inner city site with public housing tenants.

 

I cried when I heard the news from a Manitoba resident.

 

 

 

Big Win for Activism!

A Big Win for Activism!

 

 

 

I love Dear Manitoba; as a Member of the SA Housing Trust Board, I was involved in its planning and design in the early 1970s and even lived there briefly in the early 1980s. This year Manitoba will celebrate its fiftieth birthday.

 

All credit to Alice Clark and Shelter SA and the indefatigable residents of Manitoba and the other two sites.

 

And a compliment to Social Housing Minster, Tony Piccolo, who finally saw the light.

 

Brickbats to Renewal SA.

 

Brickbats to Renewal SA. Do you know that two years ago they hand-delivered their original letters to Manitoba residents on Christmas Eve?

 

Can you believe that?

 

The letters were very vague and contained nothing that could give anyone confidence; they created terror and anxiety at a time of year widely known to be difficult for vulnerable people (for all of us, actually)…

 

I find it hard to imagine that the Board of Renewal SA approved those sorts of heavy-handed and insensitive tactics.

 

There are experienced people on that Board who certainly should know better:

 

https://www.renewalsa.sa.gov.au/Latestnews/tabid/102/EntryId/17/URBAN-RENEWAL-AUTHORITY-BOARD-ANNOUNCED.aspx

 

I can’t imagine the experienced Renewal SA officers I know doing such a terrible thing.

 

How did this happen? Who approved it?

 

And, more importantly, how can we make sure that

vulnerable public tenants are not treated in such a manner again?

 

Let’s hope the corporate memory of Renewal SA survives into any new incarnation.

 

The message is clear: Do not do such cruel things! Just do not do them!

 

A delicate balancing act

 

Man walking tight rope illustration

So, it’s been a good year for activism.

 

And a challenging one.

 

At this very moment, with my only sibling, I’m co-designing a memorial for my mother who died in her hundredth year. She was a shocker, severely mentally ill.

 

So you can imagine that it’s a delicate balancing act  – emotionally and practically  – to create such an event – for the two daughters and our friends and families.

 

Similarly (a comparison in sharp relief during this highly charged week), it’s a delicate balancing act being a planner and an activist.

 



Punishments are routinely doled out.

 

Doors quietly close and invitations are summarily withdrawn. People sidle away at cocktail parties, eyes fixed on their shoes.

 

Activists know the price we pay for speaking out when others cannot  – or will not.

 

For activism is more than rubbing raw the sores of discontent, as the American activist Saul Alinksy would have it.

 

For planners with a conscience, activism is keeping the voices of marginalised people alive in public forums and debates about planning.

 

In tough economic times, I find (sadly) that some of my most respected planning colleagues simply ignore emails that ask them to speak out about ethical matters. They seem to have hardened their hearts against the plight of disadvantaged people. Or, at least, they’ve silenced their inner voice.

 

But, like finishing off the tiramisu at Christmas dinner, somebody has to do it.

 

And this year it was me. On both fronts.

 

I’m proud to have helped the courageous people (you know who you are), who really, truly, put themselves on the line for justice in planning and housing.

 

Here’s to 2014

 

Here’s to a 2014 with more planning and housing wins for vulnerable people in Australia.

 

And here’s to a 2014 with more respect for those planners who choose to support them in ways that push the envelope for our more conservative colleagues.

 

 

 

Please Spare Manitoba!

 

Manitoba in the early days
Manitoba in the early days

 

What now?

 

I never thought I’d see the day! One of the best examples of medium-density housing in Australia is up for redevelopment! How can this be?

 

Where is our memory?

 

Is new always better?

 

Don’t we know what’s good when we see it?

 

 

One of my fears about the redevelopment of this site is that the shared open space will be lost.

It’s the heart and soul of Manitoba and it’s its best feature.

Removing shared open space: a fashion we’d be best to forget!

A fashion in the development nowadays, promoted by New Urbanists seeking to maximize developers’ profits, is to remove shared space from higher density housing. This is such a massive social error that it defies understanding.

The hierarchy of open space

It is generally accepted by social designers that there is a hierarchy of open space in any urban or residential area.

 

First, there is private open space (the balconies, yards, courtyards, terraces, decks, patios and other private outdoor spaces that are associated with a private dwelling).

 

Second is shared open space, the territory of a group of dwellings and the primary play space for pre-schoolers.

 

Finally, we have public open space, which can be accessed by anyone: parks, plazas, community gardens and any other pace that does not belong to a specific dwelling or group of dwellings.

 

For many years — decades, actually, New Urbanist designers and developers, bent on “neo-traditionalist” designs and grid road patterns, have sought to remove the central level of the hierarchy: shared open space. They argue that the function of shared open space can easily be taken up by neighbourhood parks. The reasons are clearly about profit maximisation, as there are not legitimate other reasons fro removing this space or violating the integrity of a hierarchy that has stood the test of time.

 

All the recent research on natural pay, child development and “Nature-Deficit Disorder” focuses on the importance of “near nature” in the early years fo a child’s life. And, with the increase in single-parent families and many parents experiencing post-partum depression and feeling uncomfortable about venturing into the the wider urban domain, this piece of nature is all the more important.

Ian Hannaford

One of the best examples of shared open space is the beautiful public housing estate designed in the 1970s by South Australian architect, Ian Hannaford: the Manitoba development. The care and sensitivity of this design have made it a popular site for visits by overseas planners and architects for decades.

 

Ian Hannaford
Ian Hannaford

 

The care with with Hannaford (and the Housing Trust planners and architects who assisted him) provided for natural surveillance (“eyes on the street”) from the neighboring  dwellings while allowing residents to maximise their privacy, spoke to a sensitivity that we rarely see in current housing designs.

The subtle but sensitive approaches to “cut-out” fencing allowed residents to add to their fencing and/or provide landscaping if they sought greater privacy chose not to participate in the chidlrne’s play in the central shared space.

 

Cut-out fencing allows views out or privacy
Cut-out fencing allows views out or privacy

 

Qualities of shared open space

Clare Cooper Marcus, a specialist in this field and now an Emerita Professor, argues that shared open space must have specific qualities. It   can be a highly significant component of the neighborhood landscape if it meets the following criteria:

 

(1)                 It is bounded by the dwellings it serves and is clearly not a public park;

 

(2)         Entry points into this space from a public street or sidewalk are designed so that it is clear that one is entering a setting which is not public space;

 

(3)         Its dimensions and the height-to-width ratio of buildings to outdoor space create a human-scaled setting;

 

(4)         Each dwelling unit bounding the shared outdoor space has access to an adequately sized private outdoor space (patio, yard, balcony) which forms a buffer between the residence and the common area;

 

(5)         There are clear boundaries and easy access between what is private (dwelling unit, patio, yard) and what is shared;

 

(6)         As much care is focused on the layout, circulation patterns, planting plan, furnishings, lighting, etc., of the shared outdoor space as is normally focused on the dwelling interiors. In particular, the design needs to focus on children (play equipment, paths for wheeled vehicles, areas for exploratory play, etc.) since research shows that children will comprise more than 80% of the users of such spaces if they are designed with the above criteria in mind.

 

(7)         The scale of such a space can vary from the urban, rectilinear courtyards of St. Francis Square to the more rambling suburban greenways of Village Homes as long as all the above six guidelines are followed, thus ensuring that the space is perceived as unambiguously neither private nor public, but shared.

 

The arguments in favour of shared open space can be summarised as follows:

 

Arguments for shared open space

 

  1. CPTED (Crime Prevention through Environmental Design): Capable guardianship possible within territory controlled by residents
  • Children are vulnerable users of residential environment

 

  • Do not always understand which places are safe for them to use

 

  • Can be victims of predatory practices

 

  • Parental fears can inhibit children’s use of the environment (Paul Tranter)

 

  • Attention to CPTED principles will reduce potential for limiting children’s independent mobility

 

 

  1. Education for sustainability: Microcosm of the wider environmental world: essential for child’s environmental literacy and ethical development

 

  • Diversity of urban environment: learning ground for children’s ecological values

 

  • Environments that communicate   sustainability are important

 

  • Educate children (and adults) to value sustainability

 

  • Valuing sustainability and intergenerational equity communicates that we value children and their futures

 

  • Children grow into ecologically literate and responsible adults

 

  • The environment is a communicating medium.

 

  • It communicates what we value.

 

  1. Child development and safety: Microcosm of the wider social world: necessary for child’s social and physical development

 

    • Shared space is microcosm of the wider social world: necessary for child’s physical and social development

 

  1. Equity and cultural diversity: Young children in some households (and some young girls) not permitted to go alone beyond sight and calling distance of home

 

Young children in some households (and some young girls) not permitted beyond sight and calling distance of home without an adult

  • Males tend to dominate outdoor play

 

  • Older boys and teenagers will dominate most attractive play areas

 

  • Girls play less often in parks than boys do

 

  • Girls tend to play significantly closer         to home

 

Children (especially girls) need opportunities for private social play

 

Summary:

 

CPTED:

  • Clear sense of territory: what is private or shared (reduces excuse-making)
  • Recognising (and confronting) strangers
  • Expressing capable guardianship
  • Building a sense of community

Sustainability:

  • Nature-deficit disorder
  • Learning and practicing ecology at home
  • Near nature
  • Personal health and ecosystem health linked
  • Cooler neighbourhoods (reduce heat islands)

 

Equity:

  • Low-income people can’t travel far for outdoor recreation
  • Some cultures won’t let women and girl children go far for recreation
  • Without shared space, some young girls will not be permitted to leave the dwelling or the yard

 

We remove shared open space from medium-density housing at our peril.

Let’s keep the Manitoba development as it is.

The brilliant example of shared open space in the Manitoba development in the South-East corner of Adelaide needs to be preserved.

Let’s keep it for its architectural value, for its housing quality and for its residents, as well as an example of how to get it right in terms of design and sensitive provision of shared open space that can benefit all residents.

 

Access to "near nature" supports child development
Access to “near nature” supports child development

PLEASE SPARE MANITOBA!!!

 

Root Shock: Grieving for a Lost Home

wilting leaves

 

Several years ago, I was managing the community engagement processes for the first stages of a large community renewal project in an Australian capital city. The State Minister wanted something to announce before Christmas and he wanted to tell this community of about 3000 public tenants   (half of whom did not speak English and were mainly from refugee communities) that their neighborhood was going to be rebuilt. We sent four delegations to the Minister’s office, asking that the announcement be delayed until February. We failed and on 13 December, I faced a room full of over a hundred weeping tenants.

 

I will take that terrible experience to my grave.

 

And now I wish I’d defied protocol, taken myself to the Minster’s office and laid down the law. Within days, there were reports from the local chemist of a dramatic increase in prescriptions for anti-depressants and basically, everyone fell apart for weeks until we returned in mid-February and started all over again. From scratch. All the residents could remember from that first terrible meeting was that their lives were going to change irrevocably. Some (particularly those who had fled repressive regimes in Southeast Asia) expected to be made homeless immediately. Others did not trust the government in any form.

It took months to put right that one insensitive act.

 

And for what? A Minister’s career? He was sacked shortly afterwards. There have been perhaps nine Ministers of Housing in that State since that time.

 

What we know from evidence-based research (and this applies specially to low-income people and marginalised people with multiple disadvantages) is that people cannot quickly reconcile themselves to the loss of familiar attachments when told that it’s for the “common good”. It takes time – more time than planners ever allocate – for people to come to grips with such shocking information. They were in root shock: grieving for a lost home.

 

It’s been called “Root Shock”. Plants die of it and so do people.

 

The intense grief and sense of loss caused by such a major disruption to social and family ties may never heal. The grief may persist for decades.

 

I spent February living in Boston, teaching planning at Harvard. One weekend, my cousin took me on a long walk to the “50 acres of emptiness” that is now the West End to visit the West End Museum so I could see “Boston’s shame” for myself. See: https://thewestendmuseum.org/

 

Psychologist Marc Fried spent several years in the 1950s with West Enders researching the psychological effects of the forced dislocation of the whole of the West End’s multi-ethnic population as part of “urban renewal” from 1958 to 1960. In Boston, one of the country’s oldest cities, almost a third of the old city was demolished-including the historic West End to make way for a new highway, low- and moderate-income high-rises (which eventually became luxury housing), and new government and commercial buildings.

This came to be seen as a tragedy by many residents and urban planners. Me included. We studied it when I was a planning student. Now, not even the road pattern remains; it was completely reconfigured, as though the planners sought to wipe the memory of the West End from the map.


Only one original building is standing there.


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More than 90 percent of those residents showed symptoms of depression. Fried concluded that cohesive neighborhoods provide residents with a feeling of rootedness that is essential in maintaining a sense of identity and purpose. The study also helped establish the notion that people can grieve for the loss of something other than a loved person.



As I shivered in the cold air outside the Museum, I struggled to breathe. I could hear the voices of the women – still crying. I could see them with their arms wrapped around themselves, rocking, keening”¦ Still grieving”¦

 

 

 

 

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Half a century later”¦   I found it cold, windswept, drab, bare and I felt much, much more shock than I had expected – having read about this terrifying acts of violence as a planning student at Adelaide University in the early 1970s.   Since physically it’s gone, for the displaced residents who are still living, the old West End is now only a “neighborhood of the mind”: a landscape of memory.

 

And inside the Museum, I was reduced to tears. What a tragedy!

 

 

*     *     *

I’m sitting at my desk watching a mother wallaby and tiny, hesitant small joey eating grass and resting in the last rays of the fading afternoon sun. In a moment, the kookaburras will start laughing in that tree across the valley. A distant brushcutter whines. Clouds are scudding in from the east, presaging rain. I’ll need a cardigan as soon as the sun slips behind the trees in the woodlot.

 

How would I feel?   To be told that I would have to be torn from the core territory of my home – and all that it represents to me. I’m an animal, like the wallaby and her joey, who know where their territory is. I AM an animal and I’m hard-wired to protect my territory.

 

And believe me, it doesn’t matter if your name is not on the title. Tenants have “place attachment” too. I have felt as strongly about rental properties as I do about this one. My hopes and dreams live here with me. And the hopes and dreams of the residents of that small public housing estate lived there with them.

 

I hope that — as planning consultants — we did well – in the end – listening and responding to those precious dreams – and all that grief – and helping those gracious and fine people move into a new life.

 

But I wonder”¦ I wonder”¦ wonder I do”¦