Grahame McEwan, President of Coffs Harbour Pacific Lions formally introduced Dr Alec McHarg to his fellow Lion members.
Due to the informal nature of his talk, Alec suggested that questions may be asked during his presentation.
Grahame then introduced the title of the evening talk, where he also added some of his own comments, which included a brief Bio of Dr McHarg on this topic area:
Dr Alec McHarg has visited and considered the implications in the design of urban space in cities as diverse as Dubai, Barcelona, Berlin, Paris, Athens and London. Alec proposes and comments on sustainable health and lifestyle strategies; integrated transport and zoning initiatives for citizens who live and work in built environments. This is where a unique and creative of sense of place helps to stimulate spontaneous, socially cohesive and productive connections between inhabitants. Positive healthy outcomes, also help to minimise frailty, and dementia related conditions and promote positive social connectedness.
A brief review of his featured talk, which is a snapshot of the implications of urban design on people’s lives.
Firstly Dr McHarg discusses some of the illusionary aspects of the, ‘Urban Design Experience’.
The central fundamental illusion in the Urban Design and the development process is that urban planners, urban designers and architects are the main and usually the only agencies in shaping the urban space. This Top-down process engaged by these agencies without the strategic participation of Bottom-up resources, vitally ensures that the design and function of the majority of Australian cities and major provincial centres may not meet the expectations and wide-ranging needs of their citizens.
It is because of this illusion and selective decision makers that we have urban centres that are virtually devoid of what is required in achieving socially cohesive and critical aesthetic qualities that are necessary in this stage of the 21st century. Dr McHarg, hinted that there were very definitive reasons why people do not get the urban centres they want and really need and that this would be commented upon through his presentation!
...Dr McHarg then continued to briefly highlight a wide range of strategic influences that are required for urban centres to be sustainable in a number of physical and non-physical contexts. Where for example there is a focus on the construction of singular road tollway, ‘solutions’, and with limited attempts at building light rail community focused public transport systems. Also needed are inter-linked precincts that promote social and cultural interconnectivity with a sense of identity and place.
There is also the heightened expansion of major cities such as Sydney, thus growing urban sprawl characteristics, which is associated with all the negativity surrounding such urban design perspectives. This comes at the expense of not expanding some regional centres with populations of fifty thousand or more people by encouraging those with professional and trade skills to relocate there. However, this cannot really be achieved without the provision of critical urban amenities. Some of these major regional centres would be ideally placed to include light rail in their need for an interlinked public transport solution with other connecting townships!
What is needed is an integrated solution for their needs because of their present lack of the necessity of services needed to sustain them. This also includes an integrated approach to the management of natural resources, such as water for example and locally produced energy.
The motivation to decentralise from Sydney to regional centres was lost in transit after the 1970s, and the ability to achieve transport and industry interconnectivity between even Newcastle, Wollongong, Orange/Bathurst/Coffs and Albury et al. At present they do not have integrated Fast-Rail services between Sydney and with each other. There are also no rail connections to Canberra, (ACT), which is Australia’s capital city. There are alternatives, however, which involve lengthy bus or car journeys and expensive travel by plane. There are a number of poor health and negative social outcomes from this!
Estimates suggest it will be nearly thirty five years before any thoughts of this occurring, (2052). It is unusual for the capitals of Western cities to be without rail connectivity with its other major cities.
Firstly, as introduced in the opening paragraph, a Top-down formal, centralised and structural approach to urban renewal omits a majority of people from their strategic involvement in the design, implementation and operational aspects in excellence in urban design and regeneration processes. Unfortunately, this is a global phenomenon, which also occurs in some of the UKs cities! This will be commented on later in the text!
The inclusion of Bottom-up organic, intuitive, informal and inclusionary urban regeneration aspects goes hand-in-hand with an integrated approach to urban design. The inclusion of bottom-up, ‘grass roots’ participation is not encouraged and perhaps not favoured by the major developmental players because it may take effective control from those with vested interests. It is also challenging to a single zone perspective favoured by commercial and business interests. This is because some of these interests do not necessarily want to compete with a myriad of organic, artistic and creative, genres, which could help to bring life and vitality to city precincts. It does not benefit neighbourhood districts either, which is an essential component in social cohesiveness. This is if we are to avoid the continuing erosion of social networks.
It is challenging to manage all top-down and bottom-up actors simultaneously and seamlessly. This is because of the very different skills both bring to the urban renewal and regeneration process. There should be an emphasis on a combination of urban development, housing, social, and economic policy instruments involving a network of public, private, and business protagonists.
However, the interlinking of the town centre and neighbourhood districts with their very different needs is an essential component in social cohesion. This is where more robust community networks lead to socially cohesive and integrated societies. This is where providing an integrated framework has been adopted. From a larger city centre perspective, it is more productive and manageable to begin at a single neighbourhood level rather than a whole of city approach.
A focus on an integrated small-project approach as distinct from the large-scale developmental regeneration policy approach envisioned in Croydon, (one of London’s Borough Councils,) leads to more successful outcomes. Croydon is located fifteen kilometres south-west of London. Unfortunately its lack of emphasis between top-down management expertise and local bottom-up local initiatives to solve instances of neighbourhood social and economic decline have been noted. Collaborative relationship has greater successful outcomes, which is a feature of how European Communities address urban challenges.
Cities like Croydon, that have embarked upon retail-led regeneration of its city centre by developing high profile, central retail and commercial development, which rely upon the trickle-down economic effects to bolster their economy, have done so at their peril. The reliance on regeneration where there is an emphasis on a top-down market-led entrepreneurial approach to urban regeneration leads to exposure to the sensitivity and uncertainty of global market forces, especially on local assets.
Previous in-text comments on the reliance on Top-down urban renewal perspective should stimulate a concern for the overall health and welfare of city and neighbourhood populations.
The above comments helped to stimulate a number of most welcome questions from the audience, where the overall theme centred on aspects of their own experiences in feeling, ‘left-out’, from a number of facets of their major city wide projects. This was despite their professional backgrounds and enthusiasm for change and participation in their cities future by attending consultative forums and other non-inclusive forums.
Dr McHarg, answered the question as follows:
Although, I will be featuring this in more detail later, it is timely that I provide a brief snapshot on the reasons why there is minimal involvement of citizens in the critical aspects of the design and implementation of their own urban landscape. I will also provide brief examples of the experiences of myself and others from both positive and negative viewpoints. This included examples of city districts in London, Sydney and a number of regional Australian locations.
This is because a single zone to urban design usually remains an unfortunate feature of urban planning for Australia and UK cities in a number of instances.
The urban regeneration process in Berlin, (both Berlin East and West) and Dresden are briefly reviewed separately.
Overview of the reasons why, from a London, (UK), Sydney and New South Wales regional centre perspective, there is a consultative approach employed to regenerate city precincts and to address wider ecological challenges.
Firstly, the use of a consultative approach by strategically selected decisions makers, (Dr McHarg purposely avoided the term appointed), has the potential to limit the exposure of the merits of proposed development to a wider, critical and usually informed audience.
He briefly reviewed how a consultative approach functioned in reality across a number of areas, including; transport and its access, health, (including security and related areas,) CBD city regeneration projects, social housing, (especially affordable housing solutions), social and cultural connectedness, landscape greening projects and the strategic production and management of regional energy requirements.
Procedure; Local residents and interested parties are invited to comment on a, (limited), number of predetermined, ‘suggested’, development proposals and/or residents have provided their own suggestions based on community needs. Suggests from residents are then presented to planning and closely associated committees. The names of community members who were consulted with were usually not known, so there was little or indeed no direct feedback to other interested parties. There was also very limited participatory aspects of a strategic nature after a consultative approach by centralised decision makers. There are many instances of this, however the focus will be on one these below.
The end result of being a, ‘member of various consultative programmes’, was that none of the consultative panel members that were canvassed, were contacted. In this respect, he also referred to the NSW Long Term Transport Master Plan Forum, which he attended, Friday March 9, 2012 held at the Novotel Pacific Bay Hotel, Coffs Harbour, which was supported by the following:
• Gladys Berejiklian, Minister for Transport and some of her Transport for NSW team
• Andrew Fraser, MP Member for Coffs Harbour
Government inspired Public Transport Initiatives, (PTI), which do not usually deliver within dedicated timeframes and costings**, affect the lifestyle, overall health and wellbeing of Regional populations to such a degree that many negative health conditions, including obesity and dementia related conditions are higher in regional areas. This may be partly due to the existence of poor Critical Urban Amenities.
**The much anticipated Coffs Harbour Bypass, which in reality is only a ring road with huge negative health outcomes for many Coffs Harbour residents and is not helped by its location in respect to being contained between the hills to the west and the cityscape to the east. It was not what the local Coffs community wanted.
Such is an example of a consultative Top-down approach to the many aspects of urban design, whether it is integrated public transport systems and/or the renewal of inner city precincts or meaningful flood management solutions.
Comments relating to the practice of CBD Regeneration in a London Borough, which is similar to projects in Australia and the Architect Will Alsop was the central figure in this 2020 visionary project. Some of his views and his suggestions follow, which serves as an indication of shortfalls of a consultative perspective, which largely dismisses an urban renaissance holistic approach:
The 2020 promotional document that features the consultant who is responsible for putting the ideas and views of the London Borough of Croydon community into visionary architectural forms.
The proposal by the architect Will Alsop to populate Croydon’s urban CBD city-landscape with tall steel and glass buildings is his architectural solution for the reinvigoration of Croydon’s CBD (2007). The use of the word re-invigoration relates to the construction of larger retail precincts in order for Croydon to regain its position as a premier shopping location. These are economic solutions and do not indicate that there are social challenges to solve for the present inhabitants of Croydon’s CBD and surrounding neighbourhoods. Before examining this further, the following needs to be considered. There are only about 4000 people who live in Croydon’s CBD. The London Borough of Croydon has an area population exceeding 350,000.
Alsop’s, (2007), view that the design of urban space is the primary role of architects is debatable, according to Madanipour, (1999), and Glancey, (1998), in the sense the city is an embodiment of different functions and should show how urban space can be utilised objectively without the subordination of the aesthetics of the built environment. Container architecture is often the result, (Glancey 1998).
Croydon’s Third City proposal is what developers, businesses and the major retail outlets want. The function of buildings therefore reflects the requirements of these interests to achieve the facilitation, flow and distribution of consumer goods, as well as leisure and entertainment services, (Florida 2002).
The question is, will the proposed new buildings in Croydon’s town centre also equate to too many high-rise structures? For that answer a reference to Alsop’s Third City document, (2007), shows artistic examples of modernist glass-enclosed high boxes dotted around the city-skyline and a comment that the city-centre will consist of, “very high buildings like Singapore, seventy stories high” (2007, p. 14). According to Glancey, architects who have created modernist buildings are ultimately engaged in the production of monuments to their own glory, rather than buildings for the masses, so modernism is more of an attitude rather than a style (1998, pp. 124; 128).
Dr McHarg went on to refer to the approach taken from a similar situation that occurred during the London Borough of Croydon’s 2020 Regeneration Project, where there were attempts to introduce an urban renaissance holistic approach: A central government consultant, (who on occasions had demonstrated his sensitivity to the needs of local people), in this 2020 project agreed with the committee ideas, and stated that.
We don’t really engage with residents, especially in regard to their specific needs and concerns.
The often used term is, “We have consulted with our residents”. However, the outcomes usually reflect what was already decided upon by a few, ‘interested parties,’ that fits within their largely selfish agenda.
The second aspect in the minimal involvement of citizens, is where the focus on a single zone-by-zone approach in urban design and planning leads to a separation of functions. In a single zone planning approach, what is at play is where the cultural and artistic identity of a city is at stake. An identity that actively discourages spontaneous interaction between people and this especially applies to a mix of population types, is problematic to social cohesive qualities.
Such separation leading to divorce between physical and social space has widened the gap between architectural and social sciences perspectives, with their very different conceptions of space and place. A single zone approach is easier to manage and control. It is less dynamic in terms of an innovative approach to urban renewal, because less people are involved and they are usually from the business and professionally associated communities.
Single zoning perspectives are also an enemy of an urban renaissance holistic approach, which requires a broader perspective than many professionals or politicians have historically brought to bear. The argument for the inclusion of creative economies and multi-use zoning precincts forms part of a renaissance approach to city design, which is an approach missing from many regional renewal projects, (if indeed they exist in depth.) Where there is still a separation from, rather than a mix of urban functions, this leads to imbalance. It is this approach that draws assets from regional city centres, as it has done in a number of major cities. This shows that there is a planning system in existence, where there is a separation of activities, rather than a planning system that has a range of different assets located in a single area.
Returning to Alsop: The ideals of a British Renaissance are contained within the, ‘Partners in Towns and Cites’ (UK), 2001, report: Eight dimensions of renaissance: community engagement; pride of place; harmonious communities; networks of enterprise; integrated transport; thriving centres; quality services and valued neighbourhoods were featured as sociological based aspects. These types of initiatives are manageable at the neighbourhood level and are typical in European countries, in the Netherlands for example.
The London Borough of Croydon council in its partnership, (2007), with Will Alsop, who as an architect, has ignored some of the sociological aspects of this, through his, (2007), Third City document. This is a document that sets out his particular vision for the regeneration of The London Borough of Croydon. In his critical analysis of its regeneration, he talks of recognising its more creative aspects. However, recognition is one thing, following through is another!
...Alsop’s key regeneration argument of focusing on construction of a few iconic buildings because it is better to do this, in his opinion, rather than a lot of mundane buildings. This does not equate because for one single building project, the cost is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Funding at this level is fraught with danger as recent globally inspired events have shown, (2008).
In the present period (2018), some regional New South Wales CBD development projects are interrupted and/or halted before completion. This is understandable given that investment in its various forms by government agencies is sometimes, ‘drip-fed’ and limited. Distribution networks including transport and energy/waste management systems are also poor and their efficiency is questionable!
This results in a lack of confidence in regional area development because it limits the investments that are necessary for their future sustainability. For example, mixed-use city centres that have multiple piazzas, pocket parks, with a sense of identity and soul.
...The social, largely subjective aspects of the design of urban space can be easily turned into a functional exercise into how public space as part of urban design can only be associated with the efficient movement of citizens between transport interchanges, retail, commercial and entertainment precincts. Add security, cleanliness and lookalike retail shopping malls in single zone consumption based precincts and a sense of place has been largely replaced by the sanitised values of controlled private-public space, (McHarg 2010, Minton 2006, et al).
Unfortunately, from an Australian perspective and especially from a regional one, integrated public transport systems do not appear to form a strategic part of an urban renewal perspective. The building’s come first, usually residential with high-rise in central areas, if planning permits, precincts away from the CBD, with single/two storey dwellings eating up the landscape. Many of these are reliant on secondary road and poor to non-existent public transport networks. There is also limited inter-linked connectivity with other centres. Even regional airports, (some with existing rail systems,) are not easily accessed, nor do they have other dedicated and regular connectivity with city precincts.
Australian cities suffer from city centricity and this is particularly applies to New South Wales, (NSW) and to the capital Sydney. The effects of this centralised approach results in inefficient transport connectedness with major provincial centres within the state of NSW, as discussed previously!
Whilst Sydney’s light and heavy-rail network has been promised billions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades and with train times in Sydney promised to be every 2 ½ minutes, (as it should be), major provincial centres like Coffs Harbour has two trains day to Sydney and Brisbane which partially includes a train/bus solution.
Despite promises of a NSW long-term transport Master Plan by the then minister for transport Gladys Berejiklian, (Now premier of NSW), the rail travel time between Coffs Harbour and Sydney still takes 10 hours, in passenger rolling stock that is decades old. This equals an average speed of 60 Km per/hour. When one experiences the comfort of a German or Japanese express train, travelling at speeds of 250 Km plus, it makes us wonder if we will ever achieve anything near this level of train travel experience!
One wonders why politicians bother to come to regional centres with promises to fast track an integrated and efficient State public transport rail system when the idea results in very little or nothing. Integrated public transport systems between all centres of populations help to keep people socially interconnected and is a major contributor to all facets of their health and lifestyle.
We are never going to decentralise when the Critical Urban Amenities of provincial cities do not include efficient public transport systems that are interlinked with other major centres so that economic performance can be enhanced.
The influence of globalisation and the focus on economic performance and physical regeneration as a means of providing infrastructure to enhance the competitiveness of central precincts, has led to an almost complete lack of strategic community involvement in both the design and management of urban space in CBD precincts.
The role of architecture and architects is, as a fundamental and strategic partner is in the transition of city centres as places where a mix of populations can meet and freely engage in a range of mixed commercial, cultural, creative and social activities. However, the strategic involvement of other disciplines, especially those from Bottom-up local resources are also necessary elements.
Dr McHarg also briefly commented on three approaches to urban regeneration in three city and associated suburbs. These were, The London Borough of Croydon, (already referred to), London Docklands, Berlin Social City neighbourhood projects and specifically Neukölln.
The regeneration of London Docklands, especially Canary Wharf, achieved more benefits for the commercial sector than it did for residents and visitors. It is a place where people work and not a place where one would choose to live. During Dr McHarg’s decades of research into the area’s limited critical aesthetics, which included street-based informal interviews, some Euro-zone residents made the journey each week to work in Canary Wharf and returned for the weekend for a more, ‘normal life’ back in Belgium and France for example!
The Berlin government’s integrated Social City programme comprises of refurbished social housing, revitalisation of public space; interactive socio-cultural programmes and art in the public realm. This enhances social connectedness and contributes to social capital. This is achieved through an active community participative approach to physical and social urban renewal programmes, which forms part of a European Community, (EC), initiative and is common throughout many EC countries.
The authorities of Berlin plot population movements between suburbs. It is easier in theory, to determine the social-health and social inequalities of particular districts and to allocate strategic resources accordingly. However rather than an emphasis on an approach of housing-led regeneration, the Berlin government through its Social City programme continues to allocate a range of social and physical resources to address the social and economic deprivation of many of Berlin’s working class districts.
Allocation of a myriad of Top-down and Bottom-up resources, which are undeniably more complex than directives involving a few, ‘interested stakeholders’, as decision makers, does not necessarily mean that social and cultural inequalities are completely understood. It means that they exist and are targeted. There is an organic form of gentrification taking place in some of Berlin’s working class districts that may contribute to a more socially integrated society, rather than one led by proactive market forces.
It is to be noted and generally accepted that weaker ties between citizens are more prevalent in today’s contemporary society than strong ties, hence the need to address these issues by integrating the benefits of Top-down and Bottom-up resources. Unfortunately, in this period in Australia’s history, (2018), people are more socially disconnected than ever and lacking in bottom-up resources!
The design of towns and cities throughout history have been planned, designed and built to influence and produce certain types of behaviour and to benefit particular levels of the hierarchy.
Certainly, in earlier history of humankind, as far back to Greek times and before, even up to the end of the 20th century, cities were built and/or modified to exercise control over populations which the hierarchy had conquered. Without broadening the debate on this issue, even in the present period in some instances, the levels of control are very harsh, leading to the destruction of cultural identity.
In today’s Western context, influences on human behaviour are far more subtle and whilst the outcomes may not seem as necessarily detrimental to overall populations, the effects on the health and lifestyle of people have been identified by critical researchers. It is those who are concerned that it is often not a truly democratic process.
One of the first examples of a modern perspective on the urban city extend back to Roman times, to the Emperor Trajan, who produced one of the first newly designed mixed zone city, which is a feature of many European cities today. This made city precincts inter-dependent. A further extension of this resulted in cities in Italy, especially in parts of Tuscany and Umbria being built on top of steeply graded terrain, with water-wells created deep in the hillside to meet the local citizen’s water requirements. Pigeons nesting in the internal wall systems kept the local people supplied with meat during times of armed conflict between city states.
Napoleon, designed Paris city streets so they would all end up in a central, ‘piazza’, by which the military could then control entrances to major city precincts. This type of control is still practiced today in various forms, so little has really changed in the 21st century.
From a non-military perspective, using a single zoned approach, commercial outlets are usually concentrated in one place so as to maximise economic performance and to influence human behaviour to help facilitate the efficiency of commercial processes. This has disadvantages for neighbourhoods.
Dr McHarg argues that the distinction between the social and built space has heightened the separation between mixed human activities and a space where only singular activities occur, leading to the virtual abandonment of the CBD after 5pm in some regional areas. This particular aspect of the design of Australian cities makes limited and therefore inappropriate use of a town’s assets and results in less integrated public greenspace and, ‘place’, precincts.
Indeed, if it was not due to a few local businesses who have exercised the courage to try to make a difference in revitalising city centres, then social decay would be the result.
Urban regeneration and renewal projects are regularly reviewed in New South Wales Regional and Global Centres by Dr McHarg and his colleagues. His critical observations makes note of a, ’one size fits all’, approach in many regional renewal projects. He welcomes any invitations to present on these and other issues, especially because of the impact on the quality of the health and lifestyle of communities.
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