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Learnings from a Long Lost Article

A popular clichéd adage states ‘to know where you’re going one must first know where you’ve been’.

During an end of year office clean, our Founding Partner John Henshall discovered an article written over 40 years ago by Alan Parker. The two-page spread in ‘The Digger’ – a Melbourne publication of the time – advocates the ‘bicycle-isation’ of Australian cities.

This article (which can be viewed on the Essential Economics website) provides a snapshot into the state of Australian cities and the issues their citizenry and planners faced 40 years ago. The article triggered some interesting discussion within the walls of Essential Economics concerning how the passage of time sheds light on the complex environment(s) in which urban planners take their footing.

Written in a time when motorcars were largely viewed as the dominant form of commuter transport, Alan Parker’s 1974 article advocates for a paradigm shift in transport planning and urban investment. Parker calls for the cessation of freeway building and other “massive road construction”. Instead, the energies of planners and capital investment should be redirected to facilitate an “integrated public transport system” where “safe systems of bicycle routes through residential suburbs be planned to connect with railway stations, key bus and tram stops, schools, shopping centres and factories.” Inspired by documented success of cycling infrastructure overseas (such towns as Davis, USA), Parker envisaged that a recalibration the transport system would create transport efficiencies; improve suburban amenity; and benefit local economies. In effect, ‘bicycle-isation’ would make the city work better as a whole, allowing citizens to benefit from proximity and connectedness inherent to urban living.

In his article, Parker also expressed concerns about the expansion of Melbourne’s suburban fringe and the car dependency and the exposure to shifts in energy prices this was causing (the OPEC oil price crises happened in 1973 which dramatically increased the price of oil-based energy and products around the globe). Parker was also concerned by what he described as a “slow death of the inner suburbs”, a phenomenon he believed would be exacerbated by further car use that would adversely affect neighbourhood amenity of inner areas.

Interestingly, Parker’s primary justification for displacing the motorcar with train, bus and bicycle wasn’t to reduce congestion, improve the amenity of neighbourhoods, or even facilitate greater integration with the existing transport system – these were secondary: It was to reduce road fatalities. Victoria’s road toll was roughly 1,000 fatalities at the time – Melbourne’s 500. In horror, Parker speculated how large these figures could become if Melbourne were to one day reach 5 million people: 1000 fatalities, just for Melbourne. As Parker saw it, increased and needless car use would result in more people dying on the roads.

Parker based his assertions on what he then knew to be true in regard to the technology, safety standards and drink driving culture of 1974. He also recognised the need for cities to offer transport modes that effectively connect people/organisations and facilitate the exchange of their ideas, cultures and capital, to generate wealth – what Parker broadly envisaged as gains in health, safety, sense of community or financial income.

Parker was correct in his assertion that greater provision of bicycle infrastructure would lead to an increase in the functionality of out city and the wealth of its citizens. Testament to this is the swathes of cyclists observed today using pike paths built subsequent to the writing of Parker’s article and arriving sooner than anticipated (and healthier) at their desired destination.

But Parker didn’t calculate that future technological advancement would dramatically reduce the likelihood of fatality or serious injury to motor vehicle occupants. Nor did he anticipate the cultural shifts that would facilitate the use of seat belts and unwillingness to drive under the influence of alcohol. These are factors which – in the light of ever-increasing car numbers – informed a dramatic decrease in the road toll. In 2015 the toll numbered 257 fatalities. Although Parker did warn of the danger that unrestricted expansion of urban boundaries may pose, this was in expressed in terms of increased car use and connected road deaths, not the socio-economic polarisation we see exacerbated by suburban sprawl today.

Regarding the broader form of future cities, at the time he wrote his article Parker couldn’t have entirely foreseen the digital revolution of the post 1990s which allowed people to work from home, organise their social lives differently, or firms to zap money across the globe in an instant. Nor would Parker have completely understood the social, political and economic factors that lead to the dramatic rejuvenation of the inner suburbs observed within the last 20 years.

What futures Parker correctly anticipated at the time he wrote this article, as opposed to what he didn’t, isn’t the point here. None of us has the capability of perfect foresight.

A city’s current form – like any other social or economic construct – is essentially the end point of a timeline describing an infinite number of number of human decisions/actions made across the course of history. No planner, economist, engineer or anyone else for that matter can profess to entirely understand the rationality of other people and thus how they will interpret and inform the world (including the form of cities and types of common wealth they produce). Equally no scientist (or anyone else) has ever had full understanding of our planet’s intricate and interconnected natural environments and what impacts (including climate change) these will have on future urban areas.

However, for all the complexity and unknowns concerning cities, there are two fundamentals that planners can grasp and use to forge functional, vibrant urban environments.

Firstly, that change is natural to cities. As technologies, cultures and environments of the past informed the unique state of urban geographies at that time, the technologies, cultures, and environments of tomorrow will transform future cities in unique and unforseen ways.

Secondly, there is a fundamental reason or purpose inherent to our cities: A desire of urban participants to develop the natural ‘urban’ endowments of proximity and connectedness to generate desired forms of wealth (financial, cultural, family and friends, hobbies and interests etc.). Parker’s arguments stem from this fundamental need for people and places to be proximate and connected.

While a city’s form is fluid and uncertain, its fundamental reason for existence stays true and consistent as years pass.

These fundamentals must be reflected in practice if urban planning is to optimise the nature in which cities function for people. Primarily, the core frameworks and institutions of urban planning – be it master plans, structure plans, planning schemes etc. – must reflect the general reason and principles for a city’s existence – to generate common wealth via the exchange of ideas, culture, skills etc. At the same time, these frameworks and institutions also exist to ensure fluidity of changing technology, cultures and environments generates urban forms that work for the broad citizenry.

Today’s urban planners and others engaged in allied professions cannot entirely anticipate the Melbourne of tomorrow and how it will function. Yet the work of urban planners can and will continue.

Within the clutter, complexity and flows of todays Melbourne I walk, ride a bike, drive a car and use the rail and bus networks. You can probably guess which is my first choice in getting from A to B. Thankyou Alan Parker.