Tuesday, 2 June 2015

#10YearsAgo : Planners Still Hate Suburbs

Somebody reminded me over the weekend that I've now been blogging for over ten years now -- which is sort of sad, and also sort of an achievement.

The strange thing in all that time is that while names and faces change, the arguments are often the same old arguments. Consider this post from out of the archives, from this day ten years ago ...

East Germany in East Auckland
Back in the twenties when the villas and bungalows that many Aucklanders still love so much were being flung up across Auckland, and town planning and zoning regulations were still just a twinkle in a busybody's eye, about that time a young Swiss poseur called Le Corbusier began promoting something he called the Radiant City

There it is on the left.

If you find 'radiant' the thought of row upon row of grey, unappealing concrete boxes full of bourgeois-proofed worker housing hovering above a barren and hostile landscape, then you'll find Corbusier's city is just the thing -- and perhaps you should move to the former Soviet bloc where whole radiant bourgeois-proofed cities of this kind of wall-to-wall worker housing were thrown together, and into which people from Leipzig to Vladivostok were gracelessly hurled.

East Germany’s Halle-Neustadt shown above is an example of this aappallingly inhospitable place -- ‘Hanoi’ as its residents soon came to call it.

Of course, Corbusier's 'radiant city' was also very popular with western planners after the war, when their zoning regulations and town “planning” took hold with a vengeance. The plans were never popular with the people who had to live in them however. The Pruitt Igoe housing complex in St Louis (below) was eventually blown up (right) when it became apparent that like many 'brave-new-world' housing projects this was actually the only solution for its woes.

As the schemes for worker housing became increasingly uninhabitable however, the plans for radiant cities drawn up by planners quietly began to be shelved, but the town planners themselves were harder to get rid of, and they began to look around for other pastures to pollute. 

One of them had begun as a very healthy pasture indeed.

Jane Jacobs pointed out in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities that some of the places so hated by Corbu and the planning fraternity actually worked very well. The ‘mixed use’ of streets of terraced housing and brownstones in places like Manhattan she pointed out are very good places to live, with private houses often cheek by jowl with shops, cafes, and the like all an easy walk away. People choose to live in such places because they like them.

So too with the explosion of the suburbs – people everywhere including NZ like living in their own house in the suburbs. But planners hate suburbs. Too bourgeois! And they never really understood Jane Jacobs. They drew up plans that zoned the hell out of everything, ensuring that ‘mixed-use’ became a dirty word, and restricted the density of suburban subdivisions, thus ensuring more of the sprawl they are so against.

Planners hated suburbs all the more for the sprawl they themselves created. American suburbs are “a chaotic and depressing agglomeration of building covering enormous stretches of land,” said, not a planner, but a book titled The New Communist City produced by Moscow State University, whose very graduates had designed Halle-Neustadt. Western planners agreed with those graduates, and bought into their “search for a future kind of residential building leading logically to high-density, mixed-use housing.”

Thus was born a new movement called ‘Smart Growth’ that eager young planners have subscribed to in droves. Portland, Oregon is the home of this drivel, and as an eager young Portland planner told a reporter in the late sixties, "We got tired of protesting the Vietnam War, read Jane Jacobs, and decided to take over Portland." They did, and the city is only now beginning to recover.

There is irony here. Because with the zeal of those for which there is only ‘one true way,’ smart-growth advocates gloss over Jacobs’s’ key point about choice. It is choice, she says, that is the key to what makes some places work and other places just suck, yet they declared that everyone must live in the one true way prescribed by the planning profession. In Auckland we now have a document to ensure that everyone will.

Plan Change 6’ from the Auckland Regional Council sounds like it could have been written by that same team of Moscow State University graduates who built Halle-Neustadt, and it reads the same way. The document has been written with one eye on the Radiant City and the other on the public transport network that exists only in the heads of city planners.

Under ‘Plan Change 6’ no growth or activities will be allowed outside the Metropolitan Urban Limits, or outside any currently existing town centres, without the express permission of ARC planners. None.

Countryside living according to this document is “unsustainable” and “undermines public transport.” How they must hate people making choices for themselves!
This provision is in essence a plan to end countryside living and to make rural New Zealand a National Park.

Meanwhile, inside the Metropolitan Urban Limits plans are taking shape to force developers to build the slums of tomorrow. All development must take cognisance of the ARC’s plans for the public transport that doesn’t really exist and that few care to use. Minimum densities and minimum heights are prescribed for developments near transport ‘hubs.’ ‘Sprawl’ and private cars are the enemy, and the answer prescribed by the ARC planners is gross intensification.

If you felt yourself wanting to Sieg Heil as you read all this then go right ahead – you’re on the right track with where it’s all heading.

Under ‘Plan Change 6’ from the ARC, as the old joke goes, whatever is not illegal has become compulsory. Countryside living will be banned; new suburbs discouraged; high density intensification the compulsory wave of the future. And the very villas and bungalows that are loved so much and were thrown up back before planning was born are now to be protected in heritage zones, even as council plans strive to ensure that such swathes of ‘unsustainable’ suburbia are never built again.

And the choice of people to live where they want in the manner of their own choosing will once again be taken from them by the zealots of central planning.

O brave new world!

O worker housing!

"Oh," as many Aucklanders might now be thinking, "My God!"

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