How to Make a Place – of our Lands and Towns

Posted on 17 July 2017 | 0 Comments

by Chris Perley

Let us start with a story.  I once had a discussion with a roading engineer.  It started badly and got progressively worse.  He was explaining to me – is there an engineer equivalent to mansplaining? – that the route down the coastal Norfolk Pine avenue of Marine Parade from the Napier Port to the Awatoto Fertiliser works was the shortest distance for the heavy trucks (He spoke slowly so I was able to follow his indisputable logic). 

“I realise that,” I said, matter-of-factly, “but Marine Parade is far more than a route for heavy vehicles dusting people with sulphur and phosphate particles; it is a promenade, it is beautiful, it is sounds and dappled shade, it links city streets to the sea, it is a playground for smiling, running and occasionally unpredictable children.  It’s why we’re trying to divert the heavy traffic to the back route.” 

“No, you’re not listening to me.”  (Slower still, I was obviously being very dim)  “It’s the shortest route by 2.8km for the trucks between the port and the works.” 

It was at that point that I turned away. 

How do you make our land sing, our towns sing?  How do you create smiles and satisfaction, the clean stream, quail coveys in farm woodlands, the street scene, the vibrant life, the creative economy of quality things, the pride and soul of a place? 

This is not some pie-in-the-sky ideal.  Around the world, we have such towns.  We have such landscapes that combine economy, environment and human pleasure; whose ‘functional integrity’ make them both resilient to change, and a place worth living within.  We have cities that embrace the human dimension of neighborhoods and communities.  Dunedin is one of them.  The Otago hinterland of villages and towns, and the farmed landscapes with pastures and gullies of woodland are two others.

Seeing like a Vogon

But there is a threat to the ideal.  Achieving these potentials is not likely where a particular thought process dominates; where the technocrat replaces the human dimension with a narrower view, and calls it ‘objective’.  That threat is greater where that ‘way of seeing’ becomes enshrined in organisations; where hierarchy and a focus on functionary tasks wipes out vision and cooperation across and within silos.  We become the Vogon functionaries of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where intergalactic freeways are punched through planets without much thought for what it is to live, and where – of course – resistance is futile.  Beware the Vogons!

So many of our limitations are within ourselves.  If we think that the world is some predictable machine knowable by reduction to the hardest and most measurable things, then we do at least two things.  We first destroy the potential to realise a beautiful and functioning system because all we see is the monochromatic machine; and then we create a rigidity in the face of that very real reality of future uncertainty.  Non-resilient, non-adaptive and fragile, living in a world of the unforeseen.  Machines are made to march in step with the conditions of the now and today, which they think will be forever.  Alongside the inability to adapt, lies extinction.  Rigid machines die and rust, while integrated systems dance through the inevitable winds of change. 

There are these deep similarities between how we look at both our rural landscapes and our townscapes.  We live in the height of colonial thought, commodity is the focus, all single function and purpose; all reduction to utility.  The beauty, social connections and poetry of space subsumed by some singularity: the big road solution; the suburb for commuters without a village soul solution; the imposition on the ecological magic within landscapes made into a maximum grass-production factory; the single commodity ‘feed the world’ solution. 

So let us look to the principles we might need in order to create functioning landscapes and livable systems.  But first I have to tell some stories, because … I like telling stories.

The Vogon Technocrat

This is a way of ‘seeing’ the world through the blinkered eyes of a specialist.  There are some we should really watch out for.  These are the specialists whose impacts can be highly disruptive to a livable landscape.  Agronomists are one, especially where they specialise within to something even narrower – grass perhaps, or radiata pine.  And then there are the roading engineers Jane Jacobs came up against in her pioneering pursuit of livable cities in the 1950s and 60s (she loved Dunedin apparently).  They treated traffic as if it were water through a pipe.  Jacobs quietly pointed out that people are people, and move about in ways motivated by what it is to be human, not water. 

Town planners of old have had their own history of dividing the world up into zones – commerce, residential, commercial.  Their paradigm, at least, has changed, but the either-or, single function approach to seeing land and townscapes remains the bane of a livable land.  There are others of course – administrators, economists, the odd mad scientist, Richard Dawkins. 

For the immediacy of land and social space, beware these three potential Vogons: agronomists, engineers and planners.  And before someone writes letters of protest, yes, yes, some of them can be highly enlightened – by which we mean, able to see the beauty of the dance, and not wrapped up in making everyone march to the assembly line they call a life. 

The old-style planner creates a space for trucks, and not for people to walk or just sit and be.  The agronomist forces an environmentally sensitive gully that is perfect for woodland or wetland into a piece of poor pasture with degrading soils and forever weed control.  Dis-integrated thinking sees no synergies.  It sees no whole.  It thinks that the efficiency of one is all that will ever be … because they assume that that one thing is all that matters.  Its focus on trade-off thinking then creates nothing but trade-offs and dysfunctionality.  Synergy, be gone.  Emergent property, a hex on you. 

In many ways this focus on life as an assembly line got worse after the World War II.  We saw the rise of the corporate view and the technocrat, and with that, at least if you listen to Jane Jacobs, the incremental loss of democracy.  A lack of reverence for the meaning of life does that.  Irreverence begets a willful blindness for what is outside our control, which begets a belief in control and infallibility, which begets hubris, which begets tyranny.  The corporate focus was on a narrow range of numbered things like production and profit, perfect for a war footing where you need to produce a great deal of tanks, but not very good if you wanted to create a diverse and vibrant township, or a diverse and vibrant landscape.

Lamenting Lawrence

And with that rise of the machine metaphor, we allowed governance to lose its sense of the beauty and poetry of space.  We shifted from the elegant bullnose verandas and panel doors of the gold mining legacies in the town of Lawrence in West Otago, to the worst technocratic bleakness, all with the single function of keeping the rain off the customers, or to stop the weather coming in.  There was no reference to what might be disparagingly called beauty, or art, in utilitarian street frontages.  Destroy the Dunedin Council Chambers as was proposed in 1979, and replace it with a “modern” “fit for purpose” functional design. 

Art?  Beauty?  History?  Culture?  Numberless things!!  Quelle horreur.  You’d have to be namby-pamby la-di-da type to be worried about that sort of nonsense.  Just get the job done, like we did in the Libyan desert.  Like we did when we built New Zealand House in London. 

Lawrence gave us further lessons on what not to do.  Some will remember the drive through a Lombardy poplar avenue, sweeping right into a street of beautiful mature European trees, and then another sweep left (past the cinder block ablution block monument to East German Chic utilitarianism – complete with no toilet seats or soap) into the beauty of the main street.  Ablution block aside, it was attractive vista following vista.  A joy.  I think we ought to stop for a coffee. 

And then the Forest Service advised the old Tuapeka County Council that the old trees, some dating from the gold rush days, needed some tender loving care.  An arborist to cut a few dying branches, a little bit of surgery here and there.  In response to all the expense and worry of branches falling, the County chose to cut the whole stretch down!  Oak, Elm, Ash and Lime over 100 years in the making, gone by lunchtime.  Like taking all your teeth out to save on future dentist cost.  You know the cost, and who cares about the indefinable value.  It is simple arithmetic, and if life is a machine assembly line, who needs tender loving care anyway. 

I drove though Lawrence for the first time in 1984 and remarked on the beauty.  I drove through in 1987 and remarked on the thoughtlessness, on the artlessness.

Pattern Language

So much of a worthwhile life does not fit into silos and lines of marching numbers; so much of what makes a happy cultural place; so many of a landscape’s gifts – leaves blowing in the breeze, the perfect sheltered spot to gather and gossip.  All the Christopher Alexander and Jan Gehl thinking – the “pattern language” of a livable place – all based on the inclusion of the human dimension in design and democratic engagement that lifts the soul. 

There are so many examples of how we can create these values.  Dunedin Councillor Jinty MacTavish pointed out a number of examples on a trip taking in many of the innovative cities and counties throughout Europe.  The example of the Brazilian town of Curitiba was documented by Morgan Williams while he was Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.  Once again, the human factor was at the centre of things; building the connections between  people and place, links to community culture, building neighborhoods, patterns of shared human movement and communal gathering and expression through street art; all with a focus on the human dimensions that create belonging and a sense of warmth in people’s hearts.  Then watch things sing, watch the whole become greater than the sum of the parts.

There will be those who presume that trade-offs are the rule, and so will believe that the greater focus on life or environment will diminish economy. This is oh, so wrong.  There is so much work demonstrating the contrary.  The importance of local ownership to civic attitudes to an ethos of care, and civic attitudes to local enterprise; the vital place of trust, participation and justice in enterprise start-ups, and economic and cultural diversity; the importance of esprit de corps, hope, happiness and civic engagement in the realisation of potential.  These are the patterns revealed by Robert Putnam and advanced by Amartya Sen. 

Why need Morality and Community Justify itself to Technocracy

But why we need to justify what is a moral and life-centred view against those who would presume that ‘the economy’, the ‘transport network’ and the ‘housing situation’ will somehow suffer by including ideas of morality, life and art is the real question we ought to be asking.  Why is it us who need justify taking a wider view?  Why not the technocrats justify their reduction of humanity to some measured thing?  Is this indicative of how pervasive is the technocratic mechanical view?  Is this an indication of what Jane Jacobs meant when she argued that the rise of corporate technocracies was a threat to democracy and human values?

Paraphrasing Aldo Leopold, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the [biotic] community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”  People are biotic.  Leopold is not just right; he is sensible from all perspectives.  The economics of communities with high ‘social capital’ (trust, participation, justice, etc.) is better.  The wisdom of engaged communities is better. 

And within our landscapes, the economics, and the environmental outcomes, and the social outcomes are better when land is integrated.  Land has its own pattern language where woodland, wetland and soil health can be designed to create resilience, improve profit, create the market position away from the economic nonsense of our colonial commodity approach – with its ever reducing real prices, ever greater dependence on fossil fuel inputs, and the continued concentration of ownership away from community and towards corporate. 

Reimagining Our Space

There is a lesson in all this re-imagining of space.  It is one of hope and potential.  It isn’t a time to despair as the Vogons march their next subdivision and a freeway through community values.  Our world is waking up.  Our post World War II generation emphasised ‘two blades of grass where there were one’, meaning to believe in production over quality and diversity.  Singular obsessions.  Mechanical myopias.  But we are starting to avoid the cartoon Judge Doom from Who Framed Roger Rabbit whose evil scheme was to sell off the streetcar system and invent ‘freeways’ with all the hype of the better life it would mean for all.  Now we laugh at the satire.  Jobs, GDP and ‘efficiency’ are becoming as loaded as claims of ‘trickle down’.

We have taken the first step.  There is a growing realisation that the narrow specialists are not wise.  Wisdom comes from connection to community and place; to breadth and a long-term view.  Communities made up of people who care.  It is for community to trust in their collective wisdom, to engage and decide.  Give community boards more power, and stock them not with technocrats.

The other key step is to move beyond the idea of universal treatments.  Place matters.  The only thing universal is a set of principles; we live in an uncertain world where ‘resilience’ is far more important than the ‘efficiency’ of one thing.  Life is not a marching machine, it is far more a dance or a murmuration, so create the conditions that create that dance; build connection and dialogue.  Talk, discuss, laugh, sing, play, belong.  We always do more than one thing, and so we ought to be looking for the patterns, the connection and synergies, because they are there in abundance.  Land and town can be many things at once – a living, an environment and a life. 

Avoid the machine.  Tear down the walls between silos.  Let those who would reduce our world to the two dimensional cartoon in their own minds justify to us why that is in any way a rational thing to do. 

If they present numbers as that justification – as if numbers are the measure of worth – then ask them what is the value of belonging or love; ask them what is their quantitative assessment of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or perhaps Picasso’s Guernica.

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