Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: City Planning

Planning History and Theory: Course Renewal

As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, I taught an undergraduate History and Theory of Planning course last term – my own (somewhat rushed) design. This term, I’m teaching into the postgraduate version of the history and theory course, which now therefore shares many of the same readings and some of the organisational elements of the undergraduate version. As it happens, the postgraduate version is also due for “renewal”, and I’ve been offered a postgraduate student’s dream job: being paid to read, so that I can refresh the reading list and reconceptualise the organisation of concepts presented in the course. While I’m at it, I’ll also rethink the reading list for the undergraduate version, if only to make my life easier if I happen to be the one who teaches that course next time around…

Course readings are intended to be refreshed every few years but, in this case, the course renewal process is also driven by the introduction of a new postgraduate planning history course – the hope being that the history course can provide basic factual knowledge that will enable the theory course to delve into more complex territory when exploring the relationship between planning theory and the broader historical context.

If anyone has any suggestions, please feel free to post them here. For reference, I’ve posted the undergraduate Course Guide and PowerPoints below the fold. (The postgrad syllabus and lectures aren’t “mine”, so I won’t reproduce those here.) My temptation is to use the historical structure of the undergraduate course in rethinking the postgraduate one – with perhaps a bit more “hard” philosophy at the outset to give a firmer understanding of core concepts – romanticism, liberalism, Enlightenment, capitalism, etc. – that can then be traced through the course. Read more of this post

Arsenic and New Homes

With the much-appreciated volunteer assistance of a colleague, I conducted a few pilot interviews in the Laurimar community centre yesterday, testing questions about the local knowledge and use of adult and child education facilities, child care services, travel patterns, and similar issues. This work will eventually feed into the development of a survey that will be administered in a more systematic fashion, in this and other developments in the region.

The community centre also hosues a Maternal and Child Health facility, which was closed the day we were interviewing, but which posts fliers and brochures in the hallway for people to browse. Most of the material was what you would expect to see in any MCH facility – information about immunisation schedules, numbers for after-hours health hotlines, tips on feeding, advice for getting young children to sleep. One brochure, however, warned of a more local health concern: arsenic from mine tailings left behind by Victoria’s gold mining industry. According to the brochure:

“Mine tailings that contain arsenic are spread over large areas of land, including land now used for housing… In many gold mining areas, mine tailings have been used for landscaping instead of normal soil.” From Arsenic and Health: Are You Living in an Area with Mine Tailings? – State Government Victoria, Department of Human Services, pp. 1-2

The publication then goes on to note that arsenic does not tend to build up in the body over time, and that small daily exposure therefore appears to have no ill effect, but that long-term health effects can result from higher levels of exposure over a long period of time, and that immediate acute poisoning can occur if a child consumes a handful or so of mine tailings. The publication offers practical advice for recognising mine tailings – they “look like clay or sand”, and “are usually white, pale yellow or grey in colour” (p. 2). It then warns you not to allow babies or small children to put dirt or sand in their mouths, as this could result in arsenic poisoning, to wash children’s hands often to clear away traces of arsenic – oh, and, while you’re at it: “Do not put mine tailing sand in your child’s sand pit” (p. 6).

If you’ve already made the mistake of filling your child’s sand pit with mine tailings, however, be sure to contact the EPA before removing the offending substance: there are special rules you’ll have to follow in the disposal process.

A toddler contemplates whether to sample the mine tailings...What struck me most about the publication, though, were the illustrations. The publication features a cheerful nuclear family – parents, four children and a dog – all demonstrating the right and wrong ways of dealing with mine tailings. The idea, I think, is to present the information in a non-threatening way. Maybe it’s just because I have a toddler myself, but some of the images seemed unintentionally macabre… This image, for example, portrays a smiling toddler contemplating a handful of sand. It was captioned in red bold ink in the text: “Eating small handfuls of mine tailings containing high levels of arsenic could be dangerous.” (p. 5)

I’ll never look at a sand pit the same way again…

Planted Pots and Other Biodiversity Dilemmas

Last year we conducted a number of site visits related to planning issues arising from Victoria’s Net Gain policy. The Net Gain policy was added to Victorian planning schemes in 2003 as part of Amendment C19, but significant details relating to how the policy would be implemented were still being fleshed out at the time our visits were being conducted in mid-2005.

At base, the policy is intended to provide a strong incentive for developers to preserve native habitat, by requiring native vegetation displaced during development to be replaced by a much larger quantity of equivalent native vegetation, in a similar ecological niche. While everyone understood the strategic intent of the policy clearly enough, there was considerable uncertainty over the details of implementation. It was common for us to witness genuine confusion over what was “equivalent” vegetation, how much additional vegetation was needed to offset the removal of a particular patch of native vegetation, how far from the original site the “offset” vegetation could be located and, especially, how to interpret the apparent permission granted under the policy, on some occasions, to contribute money or other works in lieu of offset plantings.

We observed various disputes and negotiations contesting whether and how Net Gain policy applies to particular patches or pieces of vegetation. One of my favourites was an attempt to decide whether a particular patch of trees were “natural” or not. This dispute arose because the policy (at least as it was understood in the field at that time – I’m happy to be corrected on this) did not attach Net Gain obligations to native habitat that was deliberately planted – only to native habitat that had arisen “naturally” – presumably because there would otherwise be a strong disincentive to plant any new native vegetation. This policy exception then led to a series of quite intriguing debates over whether, for example, specific trees had arisen spontaneously from fallen seeds, or had been planted actively by farmers in the distant past.

On one site visit, the developer (who was, by and large, quite interested in retaining red gums for the amenity they would ultimately provide to the development) was negotiating the offset implications of a few trees that would need to be removed to clear space for a wetland (itself a product of a requirement for water sensitive urban design). The developer argued that certain red gums had been deliberately planted, and were therefore not sufficiently “natural” for Net Gain to attach. The Council staff asked for proof, and were shown the way in which the red gum trees had been carefully fenced – presumably to protect them from damage by grazing livestock. The Council staff argued that this wasn’t sufficient evidence: that the trees could have arisen naturally, only to have the farmer decide to protect them from livestock at a later point. The developer then responded by walking Council staff further into the proposed wetland area, and showing them this:

This tree has grown to engulf the pot in which it might have originally been planted.

The tree actually looks too old, to me, to have been originally planted in this kind of pot, but it was a fantastic moment in the negotiation process.

Do Exurbs Dream of Steel Kangaroos?

My research partner C. Speed and I have been periodically photographing the development process in Whittlesea, documenting stages of development as (often marginal) farmland becomes construction site, becomes new suburb. In the Mernda-Doreen area where our research is concentrated, several of the developments are at the “model village” stage – sales offices have opened, model homes have been built, basic infrastructure is being provided for the initial land releases. It’s an interesting period for capturing attempts to communicate (and bring into being) the kind of community the developers are seeking to create on particular sites.

To illustrate some of what we’re seeing, I’ve posted some photos and commentary below the fold. Although the photos have been optimised for the web, the page may take a bit to load for those with slower connections. Read more of this post

Jane Jacobs (4 May 1916 – 25 April 2006)

I just saw in the The New York Times that Jane Jacobs has passed away. I’m unfortunately in the middle of writing a conference piece, and can’t write an adequate retrospective reflection on her work now. The New York Times article is available here (free registration required).

Update: other retrospectives on Jacobs (including an excellent one from 2 blowhards written before her death) can be found at:

2 blowhards on Jane Jacobs

Globe and Mail

The Star

Loving Big Brother

It’s always strange when you find a passage that could easily find a home in a critical text – except that it was actually written by someone who approves of what they’re describing. From the readings discussed in the History and Theory of Planning course today, comes this modernist fever-dream. I could as easily see a similar passage – with a very different valence – in a Frankfurt School critique:

The twentieth century is called upon to build a whole new civilization. From efficiency to efficiency, from rationalization to rationalization, it must so raise itself that it reaches total efficiency and total rationalization. (Paul Otlet, quoted by Le Corbusier in The Radiant City, 1933, p. 27)

A Breath Sufficed to Topple

I’m preparing a lecture for the History and Theory of Planning course on “foundational” figures in the early planning movement, and ran across this passage, which Ebenezer Howard quotes from The Times, 27 November, 1891:

Change is consummated in many cases after much argument and agitation, and men do not observe that almost everything has been silently effected by causes to which few people paid any heed. In one generation an institution is unassailable, in the next bold men may assail it, and in the third bold men defend it. At one time the most conclusive arguments are advanced against it in vain, if indeed they are allowed utterance at all. At another time the most childish sophistry is enough to secure its condemnation. In the first place, the institution, though probably indefensible by pure reason, was congruous with the conscious habits and modes of thought of the community. In the second, these had changed from influences which the acutest analysis would probably fail to explain, and a breath sufficed to topple over the sapped structure.

Ebenezer Howard, Garden Cities of To-Morrow, ed. F.J. Osborn, intro. L. Mumford, 1974, p. 41

I’ve always liked this quotation. Aside from the generational emphasis, with which I don’t particularly agree, it’s actually not a bad synopsis of how I think about historical change – and the complex and usually unremarked interaction between historical change and the ease with which we feel that we have proven or disproven particular ideas.

Pedestrian Access to the 19th Century City

Planning theorists often criticise the negative impact of designing urban spaces around the needs of automobiles. Theorists lament the resultant unsafe conditions for pedestrians, and the associated loss of vibrant street cultures. They cite our increasing dependence on automobiles for even brief travel, and draw attention to the way that we shuttle from our homes into the private, homogenised, commercial spaces of shopping malls, thus impoverishing the public arena. Against this critical backdrop, the following snippet from Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project caught my eye – this from Convolute A, p. 32:

“The narrow streets surrounding the Opera and the hazards to which pedestrians were exposed on emerging from this theater, which is always beseiged by carriages, gave a group of speculators in 1821 the idea of using some of the structures separating the new theater from the boulevard. / This enterprise, a source of riches for its originators, was at the same time of great benefit to the public. / By way of a small, narrow covered arcade built of wood, one had, in fact, direct access, with all the security of the Opera vestibule, to these galleries, and from there to the bouolevard…. Above the entablature of Doric pilasters dividing the shops rise two floors of apartments, and above the apartments – running the length of the galleries – reigns an enormous glass-paned roof.” J.A. Dulaure, Histoire physique, civile et morale de Paris depuis 1821 jusqu’a nos jours (Paris, 1835), vol. 2, pp. 28-29. [A1, 6]

Until 1987, the carriage ruled the streets. On the narrow sidewalks the pedestrian was extremely cramped, and so strolling took place principally in the arcades, which offered protection from bad weather and from the traffic. “Our larger streets and our wider sidewalks are suited to the sweet flanerie that for our fathers was impossible except in the arcades.” []Flaneur[] Edmond Beaurepaire, Paris d’hier et d’aujourd’hui: La Chronique des rues (Paris, 1900), p. 67. [A1a, I]

There is a certain amusement value in wondering whether critical urban theorists – had they existed in the early 19th century – would have generated “tyranny of the carriage!” articles, in the same way they currently generate “tyranny of the automobile” articles. More substantively, though, this passage interests me as a model for highlighting the ambivalent potentials of historical change. Benjamin here takes several steps that are sometimes missing from critical analyses of urban form:

(1) He does not judge the consequence by the cause – he highlights that it was base profit motive and speculation that led to the creation of the arcades, but does not assume that this observation, by itself, carries critical impact;

(2) He does not assume that the impact of change was intentional – speculators were focussed on immediate personal profits, and were not explicitly intending to create an exemplary or novel form of social experience, which would then come to take on a life of its own; and

(3) He recognises the ambivalent character of change – the arcades made money for speculators, but this does not prevent them from also making positive contributions in a broader sense.

These insights – expressed, in typical Benjamin form, through the selective appropriation and reorganisation of the insights of others – are all very useful tools for understanding and critically evaluating historical innovations.

What Theorists Do

I haven’t posted much this week, as classes have begun, and I always require more preparation time when I haven’t seen my students yet, and am preparing lectures or tutorials for an unknown audience. The first teaching and tutorial sessions are always a mixed bag – some flat moments; hopefully a few successful interactions to build on over time. But I did enjoy some of the exchanges in a Planning History and Theory tutorial in which the goal is to assist the students in thinking more theoretically about their planning practice – which necessarily means first getting them to think more practically about their planning theory.

In this case, I started the tutorial with the question of whether the students (who have all completed at least a work experience stint to provide them with some practical background in the planning profession) could provide an example of planning theory in relation to their professional work. I would have been happy if someone had provided an example, but I was much happier when no one did – the best reaction, from a pedagogical point of view, is the one I received: students looking back and forth at one another, laughing out loud at the thought that planning theory could have some immediate resonance in their workplace.

We moved fairly quickly to a discussion of actual practice stories – what is right, what is wrong, what they would improve if they could, who (if anyone) had the power to make improvements, and how. Once in this realm of the familiar, the students were articulate, incisive, and insightful. They were also theoretically-savvy – although the trick is to get them to see this.

The goal of the session – which will continue to be the goal of the course – is to communicate that theory isn’t something that philosophers do behind ivory towers: it’s a general proclivity, for which “professional” theorists have developed a specialised vocabulary and set of shared concepts to assist them in elaborating and communicating theoretical ideas.

So, every time a student says, “This is how x works”, they have generated a theory.

Every time one says, “This is how x ought to work”, they have generated a critical theory.

(Self-reflexive critical theory is probably a bit more specialised – it’s a bit harder to find a spontaneously-generated practice story where someone says, “I believe that x ought to work this way, and my belief can be explained by the following historical or social potentials generated within my own social context.” But anything is possible… 😉 )

The goal will be to keep pushing that theory really is this basic, and to get the students to keep this in mind as they read academic theorists, so that they grasp how these theorists are actually engaged with their own practice stories (however technical and abstract their descriptions of them), and so that the students can then interrogate the usefulness or shortcomings of these theorists with reference to practice stories and counter-theories of their own.