In attempting to answer the age-old question of why regular people and architects have “diametrically-opposed preferences for buildings”, Nikos Salingaros – architectural theorist and urbanist – surmises that architects are trained to “judge the world according to abstract criteria,” whereas lay people “react according to their biological intuition, judging their environment for its positive or negative effect on the human body.”
The result of this disconnect, he says, can be architecture that is unintentionally detrimental to people’s well-being.
In addressing a different question, Salingaros perhaps answered one that had been plaguing me, the worst kept secret that no one says aloud: why is urban planning seen as a largely irrelevant pursuit in TT?
All sectors of society have complaints. The public complains that there is a complete lack of order and that the built environment is dysfunctional and unappealing. The private sector professionals and landowners complain that the land development regulations are arbitrary and unrealistic. The politicians complain that the regulatory agencies are inefficient and hampering the development of projects needed for economic growth. The public servants complain that they are under resourced and that neither the politicians nor the public abide by their regulations and advice.
A self-perpetuating cycle of finger pointing and paralysis results in little to no progress and widespread disillusionment. But, what does this have to do with Salingaros’s words?
At the heart of the matter is the spatial arrangement of buildings on parcels of land and along streets; where necessities and conveniences are located in relation to where people are located; and how easy it is to abide by and enforce the regulations.
The catalyst for this cycle unsurprisingly (at least to frequent readers) is the regulations themselves – the seemingly benign rules that dictate the parameters of how one can legally develop a plot of land. These were first developed decades ago, and continue relatively unchanged, guided by notions of how planners believe people should use space – and not how they need to and instinctively do – and how urban areas should develop – and not how they organically do.
Of all of the problems plaguing urban planning in TT, this one is not only the most pivotal – in my opinion – but also the easiest, yet the most difficult one to address.
It is easy because all it takes is a modest monetary and relatively short time commitment to rewrite the regulations. If in-house capabilities in the regulatory agency are lacking, assistance can be sought from one of the many experienced consultants who specialize in this very work.
It is difficult though, for human reasons. The types of reforms needed to the regulations require planners to swallow their pride, in the process unlearning what they have been taught about how things should be, and relearning how things actually are. In other words, no longer trying to impose an artificial order on urban areas.
How does this begin to address our predicament; why change regulations when so many do not abide by them?
It is difficult to ensure compliance, when what you are requesting is often unrealistic. Further, with already weak enforcement capabilities and limited resources, emphasis should be placed on maximising “bang for the buck” when it comes to what you can reasonably regulate. We should stop trying to obsess over and overregulate the things that place large economic restrictions on landowners. Land is seen firstly as an economic asset. Those regulations that most severely hamper the economic viability of land development projects are more likely to be contested or ignored.
For instance, instead of strictly regulating the heights of buildings or the number of residential units that can be housed on a lot of land, we could be far less stringent. If the landowner is likely to reap reasonable economic benefits (typically the primary concern) due to the ability to build more intensely, he/she is less likely to object to other modest design regulations that can enhance not only the value of the property, but also the adjacent public space.
Instead of strictly sequestering residential and commercial uses to separate areas of the community, a wider mixture of land uses could be allowed. That way, someone could open a small parlour in a residential area, where the nearest grocery store is a 20-minute walk away. It would provide a neighbourhood convenience, and promote small business development. Restrict such establishments, and chances are they will pop up illegally anyway, due to natural market demand.
This does not mean that we suddenly stop regulating anything, and that planners give in to market demand and allow a disorderly free-for-all. Rather, it means that we no longer waste limited resources, time, and enforcement capabilities on trying to suppress the natural urban order – often dictated by economics. Instead, we allow it to surface organically, and redirect our efforts to enhance and improve upon it, through more targeted design regulations developed in tandem with as many stakeholders as possible.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org