This short film introduces Berlin as one of the European cities aligned with the URBES – Urban Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services project. The URBES project is funded as part of the EU’s 7th Framework Programme for Research by BiodivERsA, which is a network of 21 research-funding agencies across 15 European countries promoting pan-European research that generates new knowledge for the conservation and sustainable management of biodiversity.

What I really love about this video is that, as our technological abilities increase, and every research project can make its own movies (soon, if not now), we become better able to explain the hidden poetics of things, even dull things, like policy.

Of course, dull things are only dull if you don’t understand them. The strange, two-dimensional emptiness of architectural plans only exists for those who cannot read them in three dimensions. And there is deceit in a rendered image, just like in there is deceit in all images. But movies of this sort, they genuinely show the beautiful part of what I do, the way I see it, the way not everybody necessarily sees it. It is good.

policy & design

Vale Paul Mees

Paul Mees, distinguished transport scholar, and one of Australia’s most important living academics, died at the unfairly early age of 52, following battle with cancer.

This is a terrible loss for Australian urbanism and urbanist scholarship. Paul was a tireless, absolutely tireless advocate for public transport, and fought using impeccable logic, world-class research, and brilliant rhetoric. Only shortly before passing away, he recorded this address to the Trains Not Toll Roads campaign launch:

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policy & design

Thought – while writing about gentrification & artists

It seems to me, and has seemed to me for some time, that gentrification is truly less caused by artists moving into areas and doing them up, than by the egregious inability of contemporary developers (mostly large-scale and private) to create desirable environments. Gentrification may be a problem of scarcity more than of class itself. Gentrificatory push on the inner city is generally less pronounced in places that have plenty of interesting environment to go around (unless gentrificatory push is global, by which I mean outsizing the region significantly – say, the tourist-driven gentrification of Italian inner cities).

In any case, the solution would be to invest in urban design and amenity across the metropolitan region, and not try to protect pockets of beauty and amenity; and certainly not to shrug and blame it on the market, the middle classes, or the artists.

policy & design

The extremely depressing news today

The Victorian government announces funding for yet another massive road that doesn’t even have a positive benefit to cost, and shelves a rail tunnel project that has been green-lit by every funding and economic assessment body, because we are all hostages to two-party politics in this country, and being asked to participate in one massive culture war, instead of getting anything resembling concern for the public interest.

how the world works, policy & design

The perplexing urban news today…

Huffington Post reports the first report of hospital treatment costs in the USA, released by the Federal Centre for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which reveals that hospitals in vicinity of one another differ by as much as 1,000% in how much they charge for same operations. Say, $7,044 versus $99,690 for the treatment for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. HuffPost discusses the inefficiencies, inequalities, and lack of transparency in the market-driven and unregulated US healthcare system. For anyone not inured to the idea that a health problem might ruin you financially, this is a frightening read.

Twitter, meanwhile, brings me two articles about Adelaide policy concerning food trucks: on May 7, the council met to discuss higher concession prices, and on May 8 to decrease the number of concessions. Both, it seems, in order to protect fixed food businesses, who endure higher costs of operation, and who pay rates that fund the council. This might be systemic irrationality at its finest, punishing a service that is thriving financially precisely because it is agile, flexible, and thus able to be where it’s needed when it’s needed, while minimising loss at other times.

Restaurant offer in Australia, in general, is extremely erratic, and it seems to me that it has a lot to do with high operational costs combined with low footfall of low-density neighbourhoods (most of them). In perfectly functioning residential neighbourhoods I have lived in, it is not unusual to have 50-80% of cafes close by 3pm, and finding an open restaurant after 9pm can be difficult even in relatively central areas – the high cost of operation and wages does not warrant staying open past peak-hour foot traffic. How we’re making better cities by protecting that business model from food vans, oh, I really couldn’t say.

To continue the story of irrational legislation, here is a US-based article about the collateral of bad residential zoning. So, for example, “in Milbridge, Maine, seasonal workers sleep in cars and tents because employers can’t build enough housing for them—courtesy of state standards that needlessly inflate the cost of such housing.”

The article above connects NIMBY-ism to class warfare, which ties in nicely with Catriona Menzies-Pike’s critique in New Matilda of a notion that she calls the ‘cultural elitism of the new middle class’. This would be the way those with money feel not just better-paid, but genuinely BETTER people than those without. And which I discuss, to some extent, in my little piece on Brunetti. Menzies-Pike disagrees, but disagrees mainly with one particular book. The whole thing, seemingly, falls neatly into a culture war instead of rising above. But I digress.

Since today is clearly the day of bashing Adelaide, in this article for Kill Your Darlings, Connor Thomas O’Brien tell how you can kill independent culture by state-creating and state-funding their competition. And this fantastic interview with Dr Ianto Ware details how the creeping changes to the Australian Building Code, planning act, and liquor licensing laws have converged to undermine the Australian live music culture. Oh, we need more of this kind of analysis, and we need more of this kind of analysis actually informing policy. I am currently doing a small research on how temporary use could be helped by changing a couple of small, harmful laws of exactly this kind. There is a lot of legislation we have and don’t really need to have…

But not all is bleak. Here is Urban Catalyst from Berlin, giving a talk about how temporary use of space can be used in urban development.

how the world works, policy & design

In the (local) news today

There is a short article in The Age today about the scheme to revive the Docklands, Melbourne’s notoriously unsuccessful waterfront development, with temporary shops. The scheme is managed by Renew Australia, who founder, Marcus Westbury, has a longish think piece on his blog about the progress so far. Very interesting piece, although with a slight error worth correcting: Docklands isn’t really a testimony to the problems of masterplanning, because there was no masterplan for the Docklands. As even Wikipedia knows, Docklands was developed with the minimum possible coordination between the different developers and their building plans – in fact, only insomuch as to make sure there would be infrastructure, because (in a wonderful summary of what it means when a ‘small government’ doesn’t interfere with citizen freedoms)

It did not take long for the realisation that the lack of government coordination in infrastructure planning would create problems. Developers would not invest into public infrastructure, where benefits would flow on to an adjacent property. This was corrected by allowing developers to negotiate for infrastructure funding with the government. The Docklands Village precinct was planned for a residential and commercial mixed development, but, in late 1996, that plan was scrapped when it was announced a private football stadium would be built on the site.[10] The site was chosen for its easy access to the then Spencer Street Station (now Southern Cross Station), and it was intended to be an anchor for the entire project and provide for a clear signal to the long awaited start of the Docklands project. However, this would create a huge barrier between the City and Docklands.

On one level, it’s hilarious that the Docklands authorities are now employing the power of creative makers to rejuvenate the failed redevelopment. Remember what was there before the redevelopment? Oh, yeah: hugely popular underground dance parties. Wow, maybe that didn’t really need to go…

Meanwhile, Alan Davies reports that the cement truck driver who killed a cyclist in Brisbane in 2011, when he attempted to take over without changing into the right lane has been found not guilty. The cyclist was struck by the rear wheel of the truck. His helmet was shattered, and his body, found 25m down the road, had to be disentangled from his mangled bike. The lane which was asked to contain the cyclist and a cement truck was 3.1-3.6m wide, thus slightly wider than the recommended width of a two-way bike path in Victoria.

However, the Australian society apparently doesn’t think this kind of driving is a problem.

Meanwhile, in The Conversation, emergency doctor argues that helmet protection is absolutely necessary for cyclists. Apparently, studies of cyclists brought into emergency hospitals show that the ones wearing helmets survived more & better than the ones that didn’t. Sure. You could make the same argument for pedestrian armour ®. But no one ever, ever, researches cyclist deaths and injuries in Australia by looking at how many involved collision with a motorised vehicle. Say, a cement truck pushing for space in the same lane.

The idea that motor vehicles might be the really important part of the public health issue here just seems so far from anyone’s agenda. No wonder Australian cyclists often speak in such enraged tone. Different European countries have legislated minimum safe distance that cars need to take from cyclists, as well as automatic assumption of driver guilt, should a car strike a pedestrian or cyclist. The commenters under the helmet article point out that probably saved more lives than any mandatory or non-mandatory helmet. Because I would like to know how many lethal cycling accidents in Australia DO NOT involve a motorised vehicle.

policy & design

Falling in love with the jazz age

Frank Tate Building at Melbourne University is making me fall in love with the first moderne all over again, despite the occasionally kitschy all-angles-at-once featurism of the renovation.

I often wonder if modernist architecture would be more popular internationally if only it had high ceilings (I genuinely do: when people sing praises to 19th-century buildings, you might notice that about 80-90% of the content of their appreciation centres on ceiling height. Conversely, people who hate 1950s architecture almost always hate the boxiness). Frank Tate doesn’t quite answer my question because the dwelling rooms’ ceilings are very high. But the staircases, while low, are so perfectly proportioned, one feels so very happy ascending them (indeed, hanging out in the staircase area gives me pangs of memory of happy small spaces: kindergarten, primary school, my childhood clinic), that it is almost confirming something.

policy & design

Annoying drivers

In Across Europe, Irking Drivers Is Urban Policy (NY Times), Elisabeth Rosenthal tries to explain the last 50-or-so years of European transport planning as a mission to “make car use expensive and just plain miserable enough to tilt drivers toward more environmentally friendly modes of transportation”.

Cities including Vienna to Munich and Copenhagen have closed vast swaths of streets to car traffic. Barcelona and Paris have had car lanes eroded by popular bike-sharing programs. Drivers in London and Stockholm pay hefty congestion charges just for entering the heart of the city. And over the past two years, dozens of German cities have joined a national network of “environmental zones” where only cars with low carbon dioxide emissions may enter.

To that end, the municipal Traffic Planning Department here in Zurich has been working overtime in recent years to torment drivers. Closely spaced red lights have been added on roads into town, causing delays and angst for commuters. Pedestrian underpasses that once allowed traffic to flow freely across major intersections have been removed. Operators in the city’s ever expanding tram system can turn traffic lights in their favor as they approach, forcing cars to halt.

Around Löwenplatz, one of Zurich’s busiest squares, cars are now banned on many blocks. Where permitted, their speed is limited to a snail’s pace so that crosswalks and crossing signs can be removed entirely, giving people on foot the right to cross anywhere they like at any time.

As he stood watching a few cars inch through a mass of bicycles and pedestrians, the city’s chief traffic planner, Andy Fellmann, smiled. “Driving is a stop-and-go experience,” he said. “That’s what we like! Our goal is to reconquer public space for pedestrians, not to make it easy for drivers.”

Well, yes and no. This may look like pure meanness, but there is a management word for it: disincentivising. European cities would have never been able to accommodate car as everyone’s default mode of transport without razing half of the houses to the ground, and so they just haven’t. (I remember one urban planning tutorial I had, freshly migrated to Australia, where we discussed car use in cities. One student made the garden-variety logical error of saying: “Yes, car ownership is lower in Europe and Asia than in the US and Australia, but it started rising later. So, eventually it will catch up.” I pointed out it can’t work that way, because WHERE would the Europeans and Asians store and drive their cars? After a certain level of saturation, the city gets so congested that people don’t drive anymore. Simple. I have seen this numerous times, across many cities, and the example I quoted for him were my friends in Lisbon, who once said: “Only stupid tourists think you can get somewhere downtown in a car.”)

Meanwhile, Australian and US cities apply the same meanness, but to pedestrians. It feels very unloving to be a person walking in a city like Melbourne most days. Green crossing lights don’t come up automatically, and often there is an invisible window of time to press the light-request button. Every day I stand waiting at the red light while parallel car traffic flows by, because MY green light inexplicably hasn’t come up. Green lights are often shorter than the crossing time. Crossing Nepean Highway to get from Elwood to Elsternwick – something I had to do every day a few years ago because the Highway separated my home from the supermarket, train and tram, and the local library – was always an adventure, because the green light to cross twelve (TWELVE!) lanes of traffic was about 15 seconds long. If you started crossing the moment the light turned green, and you were young and healthy and quick, you could just about get to the last pedestrian island before the light went decisively red, and then cross your fingers and run across the last few lanes. Then there is the strange crime of jay-walking (practiced in cities with pedestrian-unfriendly design more than in Zurich, I must say). The planning demand to provide parking whatever you build, which tends to overcompensate (in Europe, the opposite is true: parking places are capped). Then the way in which the landscape and public manners change as you move from the centre towards the edge of the city: footpaths shrink, then disappear; driveways extend, and cars start crossing the footpaths with a more marked sense of ownership; and, finally, by the time you reach the outer suburbs, the roads are enormously wide, houses have no fronts other than garage doors, and there is not a pedestrian in sight.

But, the times are changing: in Washington DC, traffic engineers are linking speeding to trigger red lights for cars. This is not even particularly punitive: cars, after all, shouldn’t speed. Since it is often assumed than anything other than a state of high and constant alert justifies cyclists’ deaths, certainly some waiting should be distributed as punishment for drivers breaking road rules.

And in New Jersey, police had a flash operation, giving tickets to drivers who don’t yield to pedestrians on zebra crossings. The interesting thing reported in this article is that many drivers apparently don’t understand that they were committing an offense:

In this TV news segment showing an “investigation” into a recent crosswalk enforcement action in Orlando, Florida, you can see what the cops are up against here. As they walk out into four lanes of traffic on what looks like a suburban arterial road, some drivers just keep coming – in one case, almost striking the undercover officer who is crossing. “They have actually got a weapon in front of them that they are driving,” Orange County Sheriff Sgt. Tony Molina said in the segment.

The drivers may be aware of the destructive potential of their vehicles, but many seem to think that just means everyone should get the heck out of their way. “I thought the guy was crazy for walking across like that,” says one guy from behind the wheel, shaking his head.

“Pedestrians are idiots, especially in New Jersey,” said Julie Mendelowitz, of Hoboken, who vowed to contest her $230 ticket. “If someone jumps out into the walkway, what makes you think that that driver can stop in enough time to not strike that pedestrian and not get hit by the cars behind them? Are the pedestrians not endangering the drivers just as much? Where’s their ticket?”

Well, no. Pedestrians (and cyclists) are far less dangerous than a moving ton of steel. And also less polluting. And less noisy. In fact, there is nothing but good externalities to pedestrians and cyclists, while car traffic comes with so many that it really is good public policy to curb car use. Which is what many European countries have been doing for a long time. Why is that even news?