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Friday 23 August 2019
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Commentary

Re-balancing the urban (eco-) system

Human beings are simultaneously complex and predictable. Unsurprisingly, human settlements, comprised of many of these people, function in very similar ways. The problems posed by a city’s (eco-) system have been described as “wicked problems” by Jonathan Rose, or “organized complexity” by Jane Jacobs.

Wicked problems are not easily defined, because they involve a number of different and seemingly conflicting goals, and any one intervention can lead to a cascade of unintended consequences throughout a system. For instance, the introduction of the Mongoose to the Hawaiian Islands — which also occurred in TT — to control rats and snakes on plantations, has led to a crisis in which many vulnerable species are under increased threats from the Mongoose, which has no natural predators in Hawaii.

Systems of organised complexity appear to be chaotic at cursory glance, but there is in fact a basic order. For instance, in some places, jaywalking is understood as acceptable, everyday practice. These places may appear unruly at first glance, until one observes and understands that the pedestrians are the ones organically dictating the ebbs and flows of traffic, and not regimented electronic traffic signals.

The problems described by both Rose and Jacobs require one thing above all else, that is, an understanding of the actors, their motivations, and the interconnectedness of the system.

Herein lies the great flaw in our approach to urban planning in our dysfunctional places. We either view the problems as simple and discrete, or we view them as insurmountable and impossible to understand. They actually lie somewhere in the middle.

In complicated systems, solutions that appear to be the most logical and innocuous, and meant to solve simple problems, are often the most dangerous.

An example of this is the requirement for a developer to include a minimum number of on-site parking spaces, dictated by the nature of the development and provided for the convenience of drivers. It creates a cycle in which convenient and (seemingly) free parking leads to more cars on the roads and therefore a continuous increase in parking demand.

The parking guru, Donald Shoup, says that “parking requirements cause great harm: they subsidize cars, distort transportation choices, warp urban form, increase housing costs, burden low-income households, debase urban design, damage the economy, and degrade the environment”.

The journey to increasingly effective decision-making, depends on a consideration of all of the moving parts. This can only be gained by changing your perspective, or walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

It’s why I’ve sought out a diverse range of jobs within the area of urban development:

I’ve worked at the Town and Country Planning Division in the capacity of ensuring compliance to planning regulations, and developing said regulations. I’ve worked as a community planner in an economically-depressed and challenging area of the country. I’ve worked as a project manager for a planning and real estate development firm. I’ve worked as a consultant, advising clients on urban plans, development concepts, or navigating the regulatory system.

Every scenario truly does look different depending on the vantage point. Appreciating the different vantage points is the only way that we can do the most good with the least harm.

Years of decision-making by individuals with a disciplinarian, no-nonsense mentality, is likely why things in the planning system, in the environment all around us, and therefore in the wider society, are in a mess. The (eco-) system, that is, the physical spaces that we inhabit and our resultant interactions with one another, is in a state of imbalance.

Are there aspects of our approach that require flexibility? Yes. Are there aspects that require rigidity? Yes. But if we don’t understand, or at least try to understand, the underlying order of the system and the nature of its actors, how will we comprehend when to apply each approach? It’s like a surgeon blindly cutting into a patient and hoping for the best.

Someone who thinks purely as a government regulator is only going to see people ignoring regulations, become frustrated, and likely adopt a more inflexible approach. Someone who thinks purely as a developer, is only going to see an inefficient and unnecessary government bureaucracy, and find ways to skirt the rules.

Rebalancing the urban (eco-) system requires an openness to letting the underlying natural order re-establish itself.

Next week I’ll offer a specific approach to the mundane, yet controversial, and simple, yet profound topic of parking management that will take us towards re-establishing that equilibrium.

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