Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Game of Monopoly, Town Planning and Quest for Urban Design

I’m not writing this against any ideas presented by fellow professionals in Boidus Focus. On the contrary, I’m very much in support of them. However, I have to caution that we must change the “playing board” or we cannot achieve much, unfortunately.

In my previous writings, I have indicated that a future “less abundance” world will have serious implications for us as professionals. I have pointed out the rapidly escalating building costs - to a great degree due to import, transportation and lack of local production. Thus, there is a need for us to localize building materials production.

Furthermore, we must (as the builder’s advisor) do what we can to reduce the carbon footprint of the buildings as well as maintenance costs (electricity for air-cons, lifts etc) and create a sustainable basis for the building industry for the future. So much for the future...
But we have problems with what has already been built – it’s not up to any standard of value. Right - but I also indicated that we once had some kind of holistic standard that was destroyed! But let’s forget that and take some new steps and go for a “change”!

I read complains about the lack of landmarks in our City. I think that this fact, a holistic incompleteness, is the real background for the “Design Forum 2012” and Boidus focussing on the “State of our Cities”. This is to me a good development and I read with great interest the words from the old doyen of architecture and urban planning and design – Mr L Mosienyane. As well as the words from his junior, Mr P Moalofi.

They are so right about the need for urban design in our cities. The question is how to apply it in the existing web of bureaucratic standards, codes, land evaluations and regulations. It’s like sitting around a Monopoly board, playing a simplified game and asking for new rules that the other players doesn’t feel a need for.

Dear colleagues, this metaphor of  Monopoly is not a laughing matter. In 1974, more than 80 million games had been sold (translated to 27 languages). And many more since then, “upgraded” with skyscrapers and more easy ways of getting out of prison (and even credit cards).

As a matter of fact, the game has been extensively used in university education of finance students. Easy enough for them to understand, I guess. It has definitely had a serious impact on town planning and totally void of design for beauty! A sad story, indeed.

So, pardon me, we are all playing Monopoly! And the whole basis for modern town planning and urban design is this simplified rule of the game. Control an area, build houses, collect rentals, increase the value and build a hotel (and skyscrapers, today). It’s money and profit (and bankruptcy) and not wholeness and beauty that’s the name of the game.

And a strong, sticking web has been developed around this rather lately created concept – that’s what has to be moderated so we have a chance of discussing wholeness, landmarks and beauty!

The web is not “www”! It consists of codes, standards and acts that have been created here. And everybody that has read the Terms of Reference for a planning project knows what I’m talking about – Development Control Code, Urban Development Standards etc. Pre-school regulations for playschool kids – embarrassing - why do we accept it? Funny enough, I have noticed that the strangulating web doesn’t even go very well with urban estate theory and bank lending policies. Maybe, we can walk on toes and hold hands with them for a “change”.

To wind this up and showing the incompatibility of existing rules/regulations and the basic design concept for an urban renewal project, I’m about to present “A New Theory of Urban Design” by Christopher Alexander (CA) et cons. It is from 1978 so “new” must be taken with a pinch of salt. But, I have learnt much from this student project – by the way, Boidus, why don’t we make the ext.2 renewal a student project, for a start? With no restrictions but to beauty and make wholeness! And the CA book a compulsory reading?

To understand CA right, he has for many years been trying to be explicit about the implicit in architecture and urban design in the past. An enormous undertaking and the results are impressing. His books “A Pattern Language” and “The Nature of Order” must be read by us in the field. As well as students aiming for the field!

What was forcing the old masters to comply with the wholeness of the town? What explains the “secrets” our modern masters had? They were ”spiritual” and tongue-tight because, I think, the metaphysical character, artistic approach (contrary to positivistic and modern science). But essential to know for us field-workers in the guild. We must honor him! His book “A New Theory of Urban Design” (1978) is now a collector’s item. As I told you, it is about an academic project, cleaning an area of fixed plot lines, zoning, urban administration, financing and economics.

As an illustration to this writing, I include the dust cover text for your reading 

Not astonishingly, the result was an old fashioned, somewhat Mediterranean coastal city, centuries old. Teaching us a lesson, indeed. See the City they built in a :25 model!

We are victims of “modern” regulations and codes! And the pure “urban design” cannot work without changing the DTRP rules!!

As the Boidus interviews in last issue are indicating implicitly, we have to realize that our present institutions are at odds with a consistent urban renewal process. And drastically so – present-day methods, conceptions and procedures are incompatible with the desire for wholeness, to use the words of CA. That’s our problem, folks!

We have a “climate” full of defects – we call them problems as they require corrections so we can create a well functioning and good looking society. And the problems are inbuilt in the existing planning process.
Remember the following words by Herman Daly: The more we have of permanent rules, the less able we are to make necessary adjustments and meet changing conditions.

We must come up with an alternative planning process!

The Bureaucratic Steps
M C Escher (Dutch artist 1898-1972)–detail from “Ascending and Descending” /Wikipedia

Jan Wareus June 2012

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