Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Transurbanization – PIA NO.5

When Governments favor large scale projects with the stated aim of solving transport issues by cementing another freeway over the last remaining green space in your city – you are not alone feeling let down.

Steele and Gleeson argue that poor governance is partly to blame for the poor response of our elected leaders to the twin problems of oil vulnerability and climate change. The tendency of governments to restrict civic input, in favour of (confidential) private development interests, is behind much of this poor governance. 

Mind the governance gap: oil vulnerability and urban resilience in Australian cities

Wendy Elizabeth Steele and Brendan Gleeson. Pages 302-310

…Australia’s five largest capital cities have evolved into large metropolitan regions with complex, overlapping and often haphazard governance arrangements.

These cities all suffer to varying degrees what might be termed a ‘governance deficit’, meaning an absence of clear and effective institutional arrangements for the planning of urban development and the coordination of urban services, including infrastructure.

The first urban governance deficit is political…

Cities are human systems first, and built environments second. Contemplation of the built environment is critical but should flow from … this appreciation.

[T]oo often the ‘built environment’ rubric is used inappropriately to describe and lead urban discussion, policy and planning.

A second governance deficit confronting Australian cities … is the episodic attention by Commonwealth governments [which tends] to overlook the public policy significance of cities and urban regions.

The third deficit is a lack of political insight and responsibility at the most appropriate governance level  … the metropolitan region.

An absence of governance frameworks for the nation’s extensive urban regions displaces metropolitan political ambition and activity to local and state levels.

Steele and Gleeson note that state politics reveals the hostility between rural and regional and metropolitan electorates when it comes to development funds and planning, with upper houses in state parliaments favoring the former.

The fourth deficit is the resulting community disenchantment and cynicism regarding metropolitan planning that thrives in this context.

Communities sense the vacuum of leadership and responsibility [and] the absence of integrated urban policies and planning mechanisms. The ‘Transition Towns Movement’ is one type of community reaction to [this perceived] governance deficit around the issue of petroleum depletion.

The authors also mention ASPO and motivated individuals in this context. The following section though, is probably the most interesting.

[The] fifth deficit emerges from the waves of micro-economic reform that … have given new status and influence to private interests, especially in the field of infrastructure and urban management systems.

[C]hanges to infrastructure and planning … have widened the fiscal risk levels
and role of private interests in urban public policy and services. This … has re-orient[ed] the focus of planners towards infrastructure projects rather than strategic visions, sustainable policies or plans. Thus, despite the outpouring of strategic metropolitan plans across Australia that emphasize sustainability though compact urban form, ‘the surge of new urban investment schemes that emphasize large, complex and fiscally demanding infrastructure projects has weaken[ed] the influence of planning agencies … [on] metropolitan policy, in favour of infrastructure departments and ad hoc engineering project investigations’.

What follows is a sharp criticism of the new arrangements adopted by governments to “develop” urban areas; the public private partnership (PPP). The secrecy surrounding these arrangements, ostensibly out of so called “commercial-in-confidence provisions”, permits government bodies to avoid public scrutiny of the decision making process.  Planning responsibility/decisions can also become overly concentrated – perhaps witness the controversy surrounding some of Planning Minister Justin Maddens decisions in Victoria.

The broad scale ‘opening up’ of public infrastructure (e.g. energy and transport) to the private sector has resulted in newly competitive markets that ‘replace monopolies with highly fragmented and differentiated styles of service provision’.

These shifts do not typically attract the political, community and scholarly scrutiny they deserve.

The authors then illustrate the above using the example (unfamiliar to me) of the TransApex Scheme in Brisbane. The details are beyond a blog post and I leave it to interested readers to see the original. The authors argue that:

The TransApex project can be seen as an infrastructure initiative and not a mainstream planning ambition, as the full scheme was not foreshadowed or marked out in strategic or statutory planning instruments at the State or local level. It was pitched politically as a congestion initiative that would repair a decade or more of infrastructure ‘neglect’ by previous administrations.

However while the plan was proposed as redressing previous neglect, the proposed infrastructure would actually run counter to State and Council commitments to reducing car dependency and increasing sustainability.

The urgency and singularity that increasingly resonates in infrastructure politics is starkly at odds with planning’s claim to value deliberation and sustainability.

Increasingly, planning and, more generally, ordinary administrative processes, are cast both as inhibitors of needed development, including infrastructure, and unable to anticipate and respond to fundamental community need, especially the assumed imperative of free circulation. Fears around the impacts of the 2008 (and beyond) Global Financial Crisis (GFC) have already been mobilised as a ‘reason’ for further
paring away of process and accountability.

Which perhaps echoes the “Disaster Capitalism” or “Shock Doctrine” of Naomi Klein, in turn an extension of Chomskys Manufacturing Consent thesis. The remainder of the paper adresses the required changes if Australian cities are to become more resilient to the stress of oil price increases and shortages.

Fundamental to these changes is the need to bring oil debates in from the governance periphery to the centre, linked with the imperative of climate change. This means moving away from ‘business/politics as usual’ towards the active promotion of dynamic and sustainable metropolitan processes.

Several guiding parameters are proposed to help ameliorate the governance/policy failure perceived by the authors.In proposing infrastructure Governments need to consider:

. the spatial scale of causes and effects;
. the magnitude of possible impacts;
. the temporal scale of possible impacts;
. the reversibility of impacts;
. the measurability of factors and processes; and
. the degree of complexity and connectivity.

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