policy & design

A note on politics and good ideas (notes from the Ctrl-Z Renewal! symposium)

On Saturday, I dropped in on the Ctrl-Z Renewal! Symposium at the £1000 Bend, where my friend Eugenia Lim of Assemble was speaking. I was there only briefly, to say hello to a couple of people, and catch the final roundtable discussion, chaired by Nikos Papastergiadis, with David Pledger (of Not Yet It’s Difficult), Marcus Westbury (of Renew Australia), and, I think (I missed the introduction), John Hartley from QUT.

The entire event was about digital technologies and digital publics, on participation, and the notion of citizenship in this day and age. While I didn’t attend expecting to be bored, it was more interesting than I imagined, and I left with notes scribbled on many scraps of paper.

One big theme of the discussion was that the importance of the collaborative processes set in motion in recent times (through work of organisations such as Renew Newcastle and The Gap Filler, but also community art, social media, and similar) is in the process itself, not in the outcome – not just for its democratic value, but also because of its inherent efficiency. Marcus Westbury said that the biggest challenge, after the initial success, becomes how not to professionalise participation. One of the distinguished gentlemen noted that government bureaucracies have a tendency to try to solve people’s problems by removing the problem-solving capacity from those same people, from local residents (this principle applies to the welfare state, but equally so to any other branch of government). No matter how good the final outcome, the people have always already disengaged from the process. Collaboration, however, is a form of hospitality, and it must be delivered with a humility: humility of not trying to know or influence the outcome ahead.

Then there was a nice little interlude on the new citizenship of the social media, and the ability of even underage people to exercise their rights of citizenship in new, and impactful ways.

But David Pledger brought it back to government as bureaucracy (or bureaucracy as bureaucracy, to be precise). Marcus Westbury noted that bureaucracies don’t use their enabling function enough, and get stuck in cultivating the conditions of their own existence (Westbury noted that, in the 10 preceding Renew Newcastle, whenever he tried to engage the City of Newcastle, the most common response he got was “That sounds very interesting, but we’re restructuring right now”). Pledger turned that around and suggested that, even more terminally, bureaucracies actively use their disabling function: they inherently don’t believe that individuals have agency, that anything other than another bureaucracy has agency, and so look at individuals, and individual initiative, adversarily. (He also said that that’s why art funding agencies want artists to function as organisations – to mirror something they recognise.) They agreed, ultimately, that a bureaucracy has a tendency to become inefficient (Westbury: 90% of costs goes to intermediaries), and that this ineffiency then has its own force, its own influence. Pledger asked to reconsider the bureaucratic intermediary as a bureaucratic protagonist in their own right.

The other thought were noting was the very unhelpful role of politics in wanting to create genuine change. Westbury said something very lovely: our contemporary politics is extremely binary, he said, but nothing else in the universe is. And so, politics engages in this translation of the complexity of everything else into two campls: the Left and the Right. Whenever a new idea appears, there is an attempt to have it owned by one of the camps, and that needs to be resisted, because, the moment it is CAMPED, half of the audience automatically goes YES and the other half goes NO. Westbury stated that Renew Newcastle happened when it got on board the most diverse range of supporters: the real estate agents, the developers, the artists, the council, and so on. Had he tried to implement Renew through a political process, he would have been forced to take sides. And had he taken sides, it would have never gained enough bipartisan support to happen. It would have been stuck in a discussion in which, in Westbury’s words, people would be arguing the symbolism, not the practicalites of events – in effect barracking for a team.

This last bit (which chronologically happened quite early in the discussion) was genuinely interesting, because it articulated some of the frustration I’ve been feeling for years, and I’ve heard people express, with our heritage of political theory and political philosophy, and how we need NEW thoughts, NEW theories, NEW ideas. Perhaps, instead, we simply need to be practical. What a great suggestion that was.

policy & design

Abnormally Wide Streets of Melbourne #01: North Melbourne

In my 7 years in Melbourne, I have lived mainly in the popular inner-city suburbs of North Melbourne and Carlton North. These two neighbourhoods are in many ways typical inner-city Australian suburbs: built in the 19th century, built right from the start with a fairly strong separation of uses, intended to be predominantly residential, with single-storey detached and terraced houses that were not particularly desirable when built (although Carlton North had upmarket bits right from the start), but now command absurd, astronomical prices. North Melbourne has distinctly industrial parts, but a good residential core. Gentrification has come to both neighbourhoods a long time ago, mainly because of their proximity to the city.

But what distiniguishes Carlton North and North Melbourne, not just from other inner suburbs of Melbourne, but from residential neighbourhoods worldwide, is that they have insanely wide streets. They were largely built, right from the start, with insanely wide streets, streets that were, for all intents and purposes, never intended for anything other than purely residential use. Why? I don’t know. Does anyone know?

Rathdowne St in Carlton North, had a tram line going through, which has since been covered with an astronomically-sized nature strip. The rest didn’t. One colleague of mine speculated that the streets were laid out with much taller buildings in plan. We don’t know for sure. They were built before the car even existed, so they certaintly weren’t designed for the amount of parking they provide.

In any case, I am prepared to assume that these two neighbourhoods currently sport some of the widest residential streets in the world. Streets in Melbourne are generally wide, certainly wider than in Europe or Asia, and even wider than in slightly older Australian cities (Sydney or Hobart). But these are the oldest abnormally wide streets I’ve encountered. They are also significantly wider than in other inner suburbs (Fitzroy, even Carlton), which were also more mixed-use. To put this in perspective, the grand grid of the historical central Melbourne has 30m-wide main streets, and 15m-wide laneways, wall to wall. These suburban streets, with hardly any shops on them, all hover around the 30m mark.

What is the benefit of such wide streets? Well, I leave that to you to judge. Here is North Melbourne.

Abbotsford St, corner Queensberry

Arden St, close to Abbotsford

Chewynd St, corner Victoria

Howard St, corner Victoria

Leveson St, corner Queensberry


This lovely presentation by Mikael Colville-Andersen for TedxZurich tackles a whole bunch of good concepts and ideas, including:

  • the birth of jaywalking
  • desire lines
  • design thinking
  • how smart cities change to suit how their citizens live
  • the use of temporary projects to test-drive urban design ideas
  • designing for usability, and how breaking the rules is not a legal problem, but a design problem
policy & design

The phenomenon is more general than security; discretionary systems tend to gravitate towards zero-tolerance systems because “following procedure” is a reasonable defense against being blamed for failure. 

via To Profile or Not to Profile? : A Debate between Sam Harris and Bruce Schneier : Sam Harris.

The trouble with discretionary regulations

policy & design

Note: cyclist shaming


A Current Affair, which is an Australian evening news show (according to almost everyone I know, watching it is a sign of mental degeneration: however, it is a prime-time show on the most watched TV station in Australia, so you be the judge), recently ran a clip about a female cyclist. Here is how they announced it:

Footage of an Aussie mum towing her baby daughter behind her bicycle on a busy road has shocked police and road safety experts. They say it is irresponsible and downright dangerous. You be the judge.

I have previously written about cyclist shaming on Australian television. But cyclist shaming is a product of a whole culture, not just of one TV program. In his discussion of the program, Alan Davies notes that the woman in the clip had sought advice after being filmed, worried that her job as a pre-school teacher might be threatened if she’s portrayed as someone who can’t look after her own child. Unless pre-schools collude with Channel Nine, which is unreasonable to assume and we won’t, Australia has a whole-of-culture problem.

Cyclist shaming, like rape victim shaming, is a knee-jerk hostile reaction to the presence of a person who has been hurt, or might have been hurt, or might in the future be hurt, by the status quo. This person ought not to exist. The fact that they do is their fault. In fact, by existing, they are showing disrespect to the entire reality. And while we’re trying to make them un-exist, we are wrapping our violence into a semblance of concern for them. “Being here is not safe for you. In a perfect world, you would face no dangers, but you do, so FUCK OFF.”

It is a bullying approach to governance, which understands democracy as the rule of the mighty, and the art of governing in democracy as one of, basically, damage control. Instead of seeing democracy as a system in which everyone should have equal opportunities to flourish, it sees democracy as a system in which the powerful rule, and the weaker need to be forced out of their way, preferably by enforced laws. It has been applied to everyone at some point, because most of us are a part of some disadvantaged minority, and all of them were, at some point, told to get out of someone else’s way, or else: women, children, darker people, people of other religions, gay and trans people, people with disabilities, elderly people, and so on.

policy & design

The tyranny of traffic

I was in Fitzroy today, mapping the land uses and the building types on nine blocks (in order to make a map to illustrate a broader policy point). Since I had to have a good look at full nine residential blocks, from front and back, and it was a nice day and I was on a bike, I moved through the area in quite a specific way: crisscrossing a small area of about 400m x 400m in all directions, back and forth, north to south and east to west then back, stopping every few minutes to take photos, draw a line on my map, or try to peek under a fence. Come to think of it, the reason why I enjoy this kind of activity so much is that it’s very similar to how we played in my neighbourhood when I was little. Indeed, this kind of movement, directionless and slow, which covers a small area very intensively, would trace the same pattern on the map as a child playing.

2013-04-05 17.54.47

I was the only person in this corner of Fitzroy doing this. I spent an hour in the area, perhaps, and I didn’t see a single person twice, adult nor child. Even if Australian cities tend to be pedestrian-dead, Fitzroy is a very beautiful neighbourhood, with narrow streets and old houses and not much traffic at all, and it’s surprising how little street life it has. But around 17h, or 5pm, I realised why this might be, when the large roads around Fitzroy started funneling commuters back home, and the traffic through the neighbourhood increased just enough to notice what’s been going on all day.

There isn’t much traffic going through Fitzroy: perhaps a car will drive down a single street once every 5 or 10 minutes during the peak hour. But each car whooshes through at an extremely unpleasant (and too high) speed of about 40 km/h, making lots of noise if anything is in their way. This infrequent, but fast, traffic was completely sufficient to make the area feel like it’s not meant for pedestrians; not even for bikes.

Yes, there’s not a lot of traffic, but each passing car is an unannounced, fast-moving ton of steel, driven by an impatient, self-righteous person. I saw cars veer round corners and take advantage of no traffic signs in the area. I saw cars speed to get through the traffic-calming green islands before a cyclist. I did not see them stop to let a single pedestrian through. I saw cyclists and pedestrians speed up or stop in order not to hamper the vehicular traffic. Every time a car went through the neighbourhood, it was clear that it never occurred to them that the entire Fitzroy wasn’t just edge decoration to their infrastructure.

2013-04-05 17.34.30

But why would it? Everything in this environment is designed to promote car traffic. And I mean everything. City of Yarra is ‘committed’ to getting traffic speeds in residential streets down to 20-40 km/h, and there are traces of traffic calming green islands that narrow roads down towards intersections. But the legal limit is 40 km/h almost everywhere within the council (and this is good: normal Australian speed limit is 50 km/h on non-major roads; in Europe, for example, it tends to be 30 km/h). The roads have two lanes each. Almost every street has car parking on both sides. Perpendicular parking is not uncommon (that is 5-6m off the width of the street). In contrast, footpaths are about a metre wide on most streets: not enough for two people to pass each other.


Look at the ratio between the street width given to cars, and to pedestrians, on a perfectly ordinary small street in this area. The ratio is about 3:1 for cars. Bicycle paths are largely not marked. There is no street furniture (benches etc). There are no shops! There are hardly any cafes. There are no bus stops. There are no playgrounds. There are no water fountains. There is no bicycle parking. There is literally nothing for a pedestrian in this area that could constitute a ‘service’, nothing that would confirm their right to be on this street. In fact, we legislate specifically against any kind of such thing in the residential environments of Australian cities. Outside the private houses, there is nothing but car infrastructure.

Add to it a whole bunch of other, subtler design measures: different ways of criminalising and punishing bicycle use, such as mandatory helmets (on which another time, because it’s a policy & research minefield); an ongoing campaign to scare Australian parents against giving any freedom of movement to their children; and a whole bunch of planning regulations that demand extensive car parking provisions, and result in this kind of street interface:

2013-04-05 17.42.55

in areas where this used to be the norm:

2013-04-05 17.19.25

And there you go. There are no pedestrians on these streets. There is nothing to make the cars slow down. There is nothing to pay attention to. There is nobody else claiming the streets. Streets that should be designed entirely as pedestrian spaces, as spaces for play and slow, un-dangerous movement, have been left entirely as traffic infrastructure.


You can see from this map that many one-way streets have been introduced, probably in the 1970-80s, almost certainly to deter through-traffic and make the area more liveable. But, once a driver finds these streets, there is not much that can stop them driving to the speed limit, and irregular traffic can be as noisy, annoying, and dangerous as constant traffic would be. You can’t give two thirds of street space to cars, far above the minimum they need to pass through, and mandate some of the highest speed limits in the developed world, and then be surprised when it creates dangerous, unpleasant pedestrian spaces. This is an entirely designed problem.

In Japan, and also in Europe, one very often encounters the exact opposite: narrow streets, with lots of street furniture and beautiful paving (both decorative elements that very explicitly present the street as a hanging-out area). These streets are often nominally two-way, and may have very high speed limits: it’s just that two cars cannot actually pass each other, and achievable speed limits are around 5-10 km/h. It’s the uncertainty that makes cars slow down: having to look out for lots of other users. They’re called shared spaces, living streets, home zones, of woonerf (having been invented in the Netherlands). This is how they work in practice:

There is no good way to finish this journal entry. I have been very consciously trying to sustain a life I was living in Germany throughout the 2012, and have thus been noticing all the structural and social impediments to that kind of (very good) life on the streets of Melbourne. It is simply important to keep in mind that the large difference in pedestrian comfort between, say, Melbourne and central Florence is not very accidental, and also not historical. Large differences in quality of life between two cities can almost always be explained by, sometimes very small, differences in how the cities are designed. And everything in the cities we live has been designed by someone.

spatial poetics, travel notes

A Small Collection of Obnoxious Public Writing

In 2011, I started taking photos of public writing around Australia that I noticed was characterized by a particular TONE of overt, dictatorial nastiness. Of overstatement. Of non-negotiation. I was reminded of this project recently, while reading this post on Copenhagenize.com. Mikael wrote:

When I was in Australia last summer I was surprised, daily, at the tone of the signage. I’ve never seen such strict, nanny-like texts on warning signs. Sure, in the States there are warnings on everything but in most cases they are just “Coffee is extemely hot” kind of stuff. In Melbourne, the Authorities are keen to play headmaster, it seems. But thank god they have signs explaining in detail how to operate a pedestrian crossings. Because people are too stupid to figure that out for themselves. I got a kick out of all these warning signs in restaurants and bars. Penalty: Intoxication! $13,000!

Trying to define what sets the tone of this writing apart from what one might get in other countries, here is a tentative list:

1. THEY ARE ORDERS. They are not, technically speaking, warning. There is no appeal to common sense, individual judgement, or assessment of risk, and there is no discretionary element to your decision. ‘Heavy traffic. Cross with care’ is a warning. ‘Crossing tracks is strictly prohibited’ is an order.

2. THEY DON’T EXPLAIN THEMSELVES. When they do, it is simply to say that something is ‘AN OFFENSE’ or ‘AGAINST THE LAW’ or that ‘PENALTIES APPLY.’

3. THEY ADVERTISE A LAW, NOT GOOD CITIZENSHIP. And because of that, they don’t explain themselves, there is no argument behind these regulations other than ‘this and that is illegal.’ ‘IT IS IN BREACH OF HEALTH AND SAFETY REGULATIONS TO PARK YOUR BIKES HERE’, rather than ‘don’t inconvenience your co-workers’. When rules of conduct are advertised in Berlin, they tend to be little illustrations of why you should behave in certain ways: ‘Don’t make other people have to listen to your private phone conversations’ or ‘don’t make your heavy luggage other people’s problem.’ In Melbourne, the equivalent is ‘NO FEET ON SEATS. PENALTIES APPLY.’ Why? ‘IT IS AN OFFENSE TO BE…’

4. THEY ARE LEGAL ICEBERGS: there is often much more to the law than is said. For example, the invisible nine tenths of ‘NO FEET ON SEATS’ is that ‘anything other than the floor’ classifies as ‘seats’ for the Melbourne transport system. You would never know that from the sign. Let me speak here as an employee of a Faculty of Architecture and say that ‘anything but the floor’ is NOT a common-sense definition of a seat. But these signs do not explain themselves. Indeed, demanding they do is often seen as extremely disrespectful attitude. One issue arising from the hidden 9/10 is that one often feels defeated in advance.

5. THEY ARE OFTEN UNNECESSARILY BROAD. Sometimes it’s unclear how you could live without breaking some of these regulations. ‘Intoxication: Penalty $13,000’ is an example. Is one always guilty when drunk? Are you guilty if you haven’t been fined? Is one guilty everywhere, or only in some places and at some times? Whom to ask? Is it disrespectful to ask?

6. THEY ARE OFTEN VERY PETTY, BUT IN OMINOUS LANGUAGE. For example, ‘HOLD THE RAIL’ on public transport. Or the signs telling you how to use a zebra crossing, or how to leave a bus. Is that necessary? Is that a law? Can I be fined? Am I allowed to choose?

7. THERE IS NEVER, EVER AN APOLOGY. I have never seen a ‘WE APOLOGISE FOR THE DELAY’ sign on a train schedule screen, or ‘WE APOLOGISE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE’ on a sign blocking off a footpath.

8. EVERY SO OFTEN, THEY ARE PATRONIZING AND RUDE. For example, the ‘swap your stop and walk part of the way’ sign, apparently to prevent one’s risk of chronic illness. There is an incredible wealth of scientific evidence out there showing that people who regularly use public transport walk much more than those who don’t (because they walk to and from the stop). When I’m on a tram that’s running infrequently and is often late, I don’t want anyone to worry about whether I’m walking enough. I would much rather be reminded of the efforts to improve the public transport system. There is no possible excuse for that sign (or for that campaign).

So here is my growing collection.


On Buildings and Doors

One quality of Australian spatial design I have become more aware of recently is that places are often not simply designed badly – in that maximisation of flow and possibility is not well thought-through – but sometimes they seem to have been designed specifically to maximise frustration.

A particularly salient quality of many Australian spaces is a lack of doors and windows that can be opened and used. This is often not a feature of the original architecture, but has been added later: doors and windows are often physically there, but have been blocked, alarmed, locked, or disabled.

This is so pervasive that even I, someone who didn’t grow up here, didn’t realise how much our everyday movement is hampered. The moment of enlightenment came in 2011, when I spent a few weeks at Nagoya University in Japan, working on campus. I spent a whole week walking around the large building of the architecture faculty to reach the front door, ignoring the back door and the many staircases leading directly to the upper-floor studios, because I simply assumed that those doors were not there to be opened. Yes, some of it is a cultural perception: western spaces tend to prioritize front entrance, while Japanese spatial thinking privileges access in 3D (providing for access not simply from every side of the building, but connecting buildings underground and on upper storeys as well). But the very special Australian cultural assumption I realised I was employing was that of a closed door: purposefully disabled access infrastructure.

A case in point is the ERC library at Melbourne University. This building went through a renovation around 2011, which glammed up the third-floor entrance, but had otherwise left the circulation intact. ERC is a good building. It has 5 floors, and, built on a slope, two entrances: the ground floor entry from the Grattan St side, and a third-floor entry that connects to the walkway leading from Swanston St and its large tram stop. There is a staircase running through it, and a lift, connecting all floors. However, some time in 2012, all ways connecting the first floor with the rest of the building have been blocked. I returned from Germany to find a barrage of heavily sign-posted barriers to movement:


The particularly annoying quality of this design intervention, what brings an emotionally charged quality to bad design, is that there are clear lines of sight over these barriers. You can see the doors that are locked, the lifts and staircases behind them, and the exits that you cannot reach.


From the first floor, you are generously encouraged to leave the building, walk around it and up a long line of stairs, and then enter again. All while you are standing no more than 2 steps away from a fully functional internal staircase that used to lead up.


Similarly, once you enter from the third floor, and make your way down to the second, you can reach the same point from the other side. You can see the first-floor exit from the building. You just cannot get all the way to it.


I am sure there is some kind of reason for this change, possibly the security requirements for an all-hours access zone on the lowest level. Still, the way in which it seemed completely justifiable to someone to create such a huge impediment to movement (requiring users to walk around a building simply in order to go one level up), and not try to solve it in a more elegant way, speaks volumes for the kind of service design thinking that underpins so much of spatial design here. It doesn’t help that the building has been peppered with authoritative signs that neither apologise for the inconvenience nor promise a better solution in the future. They matter-of-factly, dictatorially, without argument and without explanation, state that THINGS ARE IMPOSSIBLE. Turn around. Walk around the building. Et cetera.

To encounter such barriers, in such a non-negotiable tone, in a building that largely caters to architecture students, creates a mindset of defeat before the undergraduates have even properly started to think about the ethics of good design. And, perhaps, just perhaps, it slowly prunes a generation of young people for living in a world in which unreasonable regulations cannot be discussed.