We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children
(Native American proverb).

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Cities: a problematic paradigm of design

Our cities are spreading like a cancer into the regions that once sustained them. I recall as a child driving for mile after mile through productive farm land on my way to school. I never questioned where my food came from, and never expected that the huge expanse of urbanicity would one day consume all that had provided for me and my community as much as it had for those in the metropolis merely 60km away. Yet here we are. Those areas I once observed now only remain where insurance companies will refuse to cover in case of flood or fire. And it is not just the land of my childhood which has suffered a similar fate. Within sight of any of our ever expanding cities you will find the same picture. We have bought into a dream without an historical precedent, based on an inefficient allocation of scarce resources, in an era where the economic paradigm respects efficiency and intensity. It is the urban equivalent of supporting a low tech Australian consumer electronics industry, yet we defend it to the death because THIS is the great Australian dream.

Having bought into this misrepresentation of living standards, we realise something is fundamentally wrong with our present condition. Our response? rather than question the underlying design concept, we hanker for any small resemblance of the former paradigm. Enter the farmers market which now involves farmers travelling inefficiently vast distances in order to sell produce at highly inflated prices, not because their product is overpriced, but because they need to cover the ever increasing transport costs to bring their superior product to market. The alternative, growing your own produce in your ever shrinking backyard, street verge, roof top or balcony. And while this is also a move in the right direction, it ignores the fundamental flaw in the design: we have pushed our farmers away in a selfish desire to have a little (note, not a lot) more space to call our own.

With our trajectory set, the developers move in with big profits in their eyes, and a vested interest in maintaining the new status quo. Here lies a wonderful opportunity to cash in on the new bonanza of land and lifestyle, and inevitably dependence and a reduced quality of life. No, this is not a quantum leap in logic, merely a representation of the reality facing many Australian families, and perhaps families in many an industrialised country. With our patch of dirt, we bite off ever bigger pieces of economic dependence from financial institutions as our piece becomes a commodity to be traded in and upgraded, then downsized or subdivided.

With prices gradually moving beyond the reach of the average household, we sacrifice other elements of our lives in order to enter the fray, or at least, keep up with the trend. We first sacrificed our family model, and while much of the gains that were hard fought and won by the feminist movements of the 60s and 70s was rightly a fight for fairness in opportunity, it was also capitalised upon by that same developers who could see the benefit of it driving ever growing prices. But what happens when all the income a household can earn through their two or sometimes three incomes (often from two individuals or less) is still insufficient for the average house price? Enter the investor and the government handouts of negative gearing. If we want to discuss middle class welfare, one need not look any further than this. When government housing provided the safety net for renters, prices did not increase as rapidly as they have since it was wound back, and still it continued to push the affordability frontier beyond the average household. The USA provides us with a very clear demonstration of the consequences of this path, because even if we take out the effect of negative gearing, the drive to put people in suburban housing commodities eventually made it necessary for lending institutions to push the boundaries of sustainability and good business sense. Enter the sub prime time bomb.

Irony is everywhere in this model. In an attempt to continue the flawed rationale of the suburbs, we have laid the foundations of economic self destruction, design which is increasingly returning our suburbs to a false reality of space, and social fracture in the process. Sub prime loans are our evidence in the first instance, but what about the false reality of the spacious suburbs. With increasing affluence we have demanded larger homes and consumed more resources than ever before, and yet with our ever increasing wealth, why is it that our average land size in all major cities has fallen dramatically? It is yet another function of the failure of the entire suburban model. The ever increasing prices have pushed buyers out of the market, and therefore pushed developers into a volume race where each will outbid the other to maximise the return from each estate, not in terms of the price, but by reducing the size of the package they are selling, setting ever smaller average block sizes at relatively stable prices in order to continue the paradigm.

So what's next? Those who have realised they have been fooled by this false reality have sought to look further afield for REAL space. Enter the semi rural allotment. Have the space, and there certainly is space. And where can one find this space? None other than that rural urban fringe; the periphery where our sustaining food supplies once originated, or valuable conservation areas, or our open and public spaces. If we are willing to sacrifice our quality of life within the home in terms of the two full time incomes or two or more jobs per person, how much less will the collective consciousness care about such ethereal concepts as conservation or food miles, especially when we marvel at the size of our country or the effectiveness of our technology or transport. Who will subdivide further when faced with the continuing expansion of our cities into these peripheral areas? Will our new semi rural populations be as productive as our committed farmers? And if we are prepared to sacrifice this, then why not the rights of these new residents when the economic machine rolls on and discovers (or rediscovers) a more valuable resource in the same location? (Doubtless, the coal seem gas debate will continue to rage in this respect in Sydney at least!) Will we then say enough, or will it then be too late.

No, our chance is now. We need a moratorium on suburban expansion, and not just in our biggest cities, but in all our cities. Let cities be cities, and country be country. High density does not have to mean no green spaces. Country does not have to be so far away we can only access it for long weekend escapes. We have been sold the lie that we can have it all, but that is just not the case. Just as for every action in physics there is an equal and opposite reaction, so too is there a trade off in society. Often not in exactly the opposite direction, for society is too complex a beast to predict it so exactly, but the cost exists. It may be a health cost, an environmental cost, a cost in amenity, or security or in our very freedoms we hold so dear. No, our cost exists, and often it is not borne by those who create it. Does the mining magnate suffer the loss of their aesthetics when the fruits of their labour are constructed? Does the cost of the military contractor come back to the CEO or their family, or is it the price paid by the child soldier or the community destroyed by the wayward missile? This is not a conspiracy, but it is reality. It is vital that we all understand this reality so we might collectively act upon it and affect real change. Lets change the paradigm of design to reflect a more stable and equitable reality.

To be continued...

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