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Tuesday 12 November 2019
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Commentary

Cultural inertia in Town and Country Planning

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“There is nothing more inert than a planning office. It gets going in one direction and it is never going to change of its own accord.” Are these the words of a radical disruptor or one of the most revered urban planners of all time?

The late Jane Jacobs was both. She started her life as a journalist, but the architecture and planning projects and ideologies of the day were destroying the city that she called home, and increasingly leading her down a path of activism, social commentary, and immense contributions to urban planning and design and economic theory.

An urbanist in the truest sense of the word, she recognised that the intimate, diverse and vibrant intermingling of people, activity, business, and innovation were part and parcel of what made a great city.

I therefore felt both a sense of hope and despair when the Minister of Planning and Development, in her opening remarks at a public consultation in Port of Spain, quoted Jacobs: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

I felt hope, as I thought that if the minister could be put onto the teachings of Jacobs, then it could spark the paradigm shift that we need. I felt despair, as I remembered that the Town and Country Planning Division (T&CPD), a source of advice to the minister, is a victim of cultural inertia.

The institution propagates an approach to urban planning that Jacobs (and many others) derided, disrupted, and eventually overhauled. Were Jacobs alive today, she would have been doing what she did in her own city, that is, making it her business to “frustrate planners” as she proudly proclaimed. The T&CPD would most certainly have been one of her chief targets.

Her groundbreaking battles began around 1960. Here we are today, and our approach and ideologies have not particularly evolved. There are certainly forward-thinking and highly capable individuals working within the T&CPD, but an institutional culture is an especially difficult thing to overcome in a regulatory agency — a disruptor is needed.

To avoid chaos, monetary and human resources are thrown into ensuring adherence to rules and making sure the system keeps running. Little time and resources are devoted to addressing the fundamental issue. Do the rules and underlying planning ideologies actually make sense, or are these in fact more harmful than beneficial?

Jacobs famously made four “indispensable” recommendations “to generate exuberant diversity in a city's streets and districts”. Land use regulations at the T&CPD, and presumably the advice given to the minister, continue to violate, directly and indirectly, every one of these.

One: The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two.

Mixed-use development is certainly a buzzword that planners love to use, but a look at the actual regulations will tell you all you need to know about the attitude towards the concept.

Sure, we allow and encourage residential development in established or increasingly commercial areas, but for some reason we do not see that our vast residential-only areas are also in need of types of commercial activity to increase functionality.

Two: Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.

Current T&CPD guidelines directly illustrate that a system of long circuitous blocks, with limited connectivity between roads, is a more desirable layout than one with shorter blocks and a more grid-like pattern.

Three: The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce.

Many old buildings cannot be appropriated for new uses, as the lots may not be able to accommodate the stipulated parking requirements that come with a change of use, or other regulations required in the case of additions or alterations to the structure.

The result is that more old buildings than necessary get torn down, lots get amalgamated to provide parking, and new structures constructed. Since new construction typically requires higher economic returns than the renovation of existing buildings, the diversity of potential users of the new building is limited.

Four: There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there. This includes dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence.

The institutional culture of the T&CPD is anti-urban and anti-density. We are not building on our limited land much more efficiently than we were a couple decades ago. In many instances, we have created the illusion of density, by building taller, but with a smaller building footprint. Increased height, with minimally increased floor area or dwelling units per given area of land. The result is more redistribution than densification.

Ryan Darmanie is a professional urban planning and design consultant, and an avid observer of people, their habitat, and the resulting socio-economic and political dynamics. You can connect with him at darmanieplanningdesign.com or email him at ryan@darmanieplanningdesign.com

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