This is a very thought provoking article relative to all of Australia's major cities
Keeping cities alive
May 13, 2008
Successful cities are those that don't become 'temporary paradises', but continue to evolve and respond to the needs of those who live there.
IT WAS on a trip to Australia a decade ago that I first heard the term temporary paradise syndrome. To put it simply, it is the tendency for us to destroy the things that we love. It came up at one of those conferences on urban futures that, like hot spots for the transmission of avian flu, encourage the pitifully few notions that we seem to have for dealing with the city to ricochet around the world.
When one city has what seems like a smart idea for addressing the ills that face it, whether it is building special bus lanes in Brazil or Colombia, or cultural-led renewal in Bilbao, then it's only a conference away from infecting all its competitors. Yet as two years of travel researching for The Endless City brought home, for all their apparent similarities, the world's major cities, remain distinctly different in their essential urban DNA.
It was in Brisbane that I heard Queensland's planners talking to their counterparts from Seattle and Vancouver about how to deal with the way that their cities have become refuges for footloose urban populations fleeing smog, traffic, recession and blight.
For a brief moment, they look as though they have it all: a great natural setting, cheap housing, short commutes, clean air. These are the things that allow you to live in an affordable, spacious suburban home, where you can catch a glimpse of exotic wildlife as you jump in your car for the 15-minute commute to a downtown where the streets are squeaky clean, and entirely free of crime. The trouble, of course, is that this is only a temporary paradise. As more and more people want to share it, the more that house is going to cost, the longer that commute is going to take, and the more polluted the city's air is going to become.
For many people, Melbourne still looks like an approximation of an urban paradise. It's a city that has a sense of itself, with a strong architectural culture that gives central Melbourne a distinct quality. But as those who struggle with the traffic and water shortages on the edges of the urban sprawl know, a city is not just the logo-like central skyline.
The paradox about city life is that people choose it because it offers them more choices, and more freedom, than small towns, or rural life. A successful city is a place in which as many people as possible have the most choice, to make of it what they want and need. It's a place of multiple definitions overlapping but not necessarily interfering with all the others. But to make that possible, it's also essential that there are some shared ground rules about living together. That means shaping growth to keep the essential qualities of what might be called citiness alive.
A new suburb isn't going to look like an old downtown, but if it is going to have any chance of still being a desirable place to live in 10 years' time, it has to invest in its infrastructure in the same way that Melbourne did in the 19th century. A suburb that can't do without the car is going to be in trouble without cheap petrol. A suburb that makes no attempt to create a centre and a focus is going to have trouble offering the things that we expect of city life; even the most basic shops, cafes and education depend on us living close enough to each other to support them.
This isn't urban rocket science. We know that certain levels of density is what makes cities work. But what we have trouble doing is persuading each other that these things are worth paying for, and that we can't afford to go on relying on the generosity of our grandparents' generation with their massive investment in civic life.
Melbourne is not the only city in the world to have suddenly discovered that it has been overtaken by events. Like London, which in the late 1990s found it was going through a spurt of growth after generations of decline, Melbourne is growing. Overnight so many of its deep-seated attitudes about itself seemed out of date. Nor is Melbourne the only city in the world in which physical reality has overtaken political maps. The city's relationship with the state remind me of Mexico City where much of the city's population doesn't live within the political boundaries of the city. It's this kind of mismatch between how we see our cities and what is actually happening to them that accounts for the randomness and the accidental quality of so much development.
Politicians love cranes — they need solutions within the time frames of elections and cranes deliver them. But there are only a limited number of problems that are susceptible to this kind of time scale. The result is a constant cycle of demolition and reconstruction that is seen as the substitute for thinking about how to address the deeper issues of the city.
Visions for cities tend to be the creation of the boosters rather than the theorists, or the policy-makers. City builders have always had to be pathological optimists, if not out-and-out fantasists. They belong to a tradition that connects the map-makers who parcel up packages of swamp land to sell to gullible purchasers, and the show-apartment builders who sell off-the-plan to investors in Shanghai, who are banking on a rising market, making them a paper profit before they have even had to make good on their deposits.
Cities are made by an extraordinary mixture of do-gooders and bloody-minded obsessives, of cynical political operators and speculators. They are shaped by the unintended consequences of the greedy, and the self-interested, the dedicated and the occasional visionary.
The cities that work best are the ones that keep their options open, that allow the possibility of change. The ones that are stuck, overwhelmed by rigid state-owned social housing, or by economic systems that offer the poor no way out of the slums, are cities that are in trouble.
A successful city is one that makes room for surprises. A city that has been trapped by too much gentrification, or too many shopping centres, will have trouble generating the spark that is essential to making a city work.
Successful cities are the ones that allow people to be what they want. A city of freeways, like Houston or Los Angeles, forces people to be car drivers, or else traps them in poverty.
A successful city has a public transport system that is easy to use; an unsuccessful city tries to ban cars. A successful city has room for more than the obvious ideas about city life because, in the end, a city is about the unexpected, it's about a life shared with strangers and open to new ideas. An unsuccessful city has closed its mind to the future.
Deyan Sudjic is director of the London Design Museum and co-editor of The Endless City (Phaidon), which examines the social, structural and economic factors critical to creating a thriving modern city.