arch-peace editorials

18 November 2007


For Australian voters, the time has come. A chance to vent with a pencil. A pencil is a very blunt instrument in a voting booth though. We are restricted to putting crosses into little boxes, there being nowhere to add a list of comments and provisos to our votes. The crosses require us to simplify complicated and contradictory desires into a 'yes' or 'no'. The vote has to represent our different selves: as global citizens, parents, workers, homeowners, and designers of the built environment. That last one, our chosen career specialty, is often left till the end, partly because it's hard to tell what each party's message is on the built environment, and partly because we're all under such housing / rental / childcare / workplace / global warming stresses that our professional concerns don't rate. Many of us might not consider taking our professional selves into the polling booth at all.

The built environment is everywhere around us, everything ugly and beautiful that we see and touch in a normal day has been sculpted and honed (and destroyed and rebuilt) by a succession of designers, artists, arsonists, planners, builders, sign writers, engineers, activists, and politicians. A random cityscape is a collage of desires and compromises across time, both macro and micro.

The current debates about how a city should be allowed to grow will in years to come become another layer of the city's history, from the residential towers in suburban "transit cities", to the rolling carpets of "green" subdivisions at the city's edge. The city growth debate is intertwined with the sustainable city debate, the housing affordability debate, and the transport debate (among others). Who should pay for the freeway extensions and trains required to service the new suburbs? Is it responsible to encourage first home owners to spend too much money on houses at the edge of the city that are more likely to depreciate? How can a city increase its population and lower its emissions at the same time?

Many of the issues that have kept us thinking on the Architects for Peace forums over the past 3 years have disappeared under the carpet now that it is election time. The main parties are trying to simplify things for the voter. The omissions in their vague published policies are some proof of this: try searching for policies on indigenous land rights, foreign reconstruction aid, illegally-logged timber importation, or collective transport.

The housing affordability 'crisis' is one example of a reduced debate. The parties can't open their mouths about ditching negative gearing or calming skyrocketing house prices without alienating great swathes of the electorate. The affordability debate is restricted to suggesting new ways to top up the wallets of first home buyers, new ways to lower building costs, empty promises on interest rates, and to pressuring state governments to rezone land at the edge of town for new homes.

The responsibility falls to non-governmental groups, academics, the papers, and "think tanks" to expose and discuss the issues that the political parties are unable to consider. Sometimes these think tanks are so close to political parties that they could easily be mistaken for them. The Institute of Public Affairs' Alan Moran released a pro land release book last year entitled "The Tragedy of Planning: Losing the Great Australian Dream." It was introduced by Prime Minister in waiting Peter Costello. The book is not going to win any prizes for balance – here's a sample: "It is only in recent times that opposition to [sprawl] has assumed mystical respectability on a par with saving whales, stopping global warming and preventing GM foods. As with those other goals, opposition to urban sprawl is cloaked in a mantle of moral superiority that pretends to self-denial but is invariably laced with self-interest."

The problem isn't that the IPA has written this entertaining book, but that the government and some newspapers have taken it as gospel. There needs to be an counterbalancing point of view available. Where is it?

The newspapers are swallowing the IPA line along with the hook and sinker. Reports this week on housing affordability, which has zoomed forward to become a key election issue, use graphs and statistics from Demographia, a small St Louis organisation with a website that shouts in red capital letters: "URBAN CONSOLIDATION & SMART GROWTH: DESTROYING THE DREAM OF HOME OWNSERHIP." That typo is theirs. The man behind Demographia, Wendell Cox, is honoured to be at the top of the Sprawlwatch website's list of pro-sprawlers.

Wendell Cox and Alan Moran from the IPA spoke at the Housing Industry Association's conference in Melbourne in 2005, at which the president of the HIA, Bob Day, gave a speech with the familiar sounding title of, "Law of Unintended Consequences – How Urban Planning Policies are Destroying the Great Australian Dream". According to the HIA, Day spoke about, "the successive waves of rules and regulations imposed on the industry as an urban 'planning plague' that must be defeated if affordability is to be restored."

It is unfortunate that one of the key election issues has been framed and scripted by openly libertarian organisations and the HIA. This is an important debate on the built environment but only one of the debating teams has turned up, advocating sprawl.

The quality and quantity of public debate in Australia is low, and a result is that political parties and their proposals don't get grilled like they should. Architects for Peace is trying to address this (in one small corner) by ramping up its op-ed output to address the gaps that appear. Articles are not aligned to any particular party, though it would be true to say that we are not a free market think tank (as the Institute of Public Affairs bills itself). Perhaps we could become a built environment think tank that extends the discourse beyond the market.

Peter Johns

Architects for Peace, November 2007


Crikey 11 July, 2007 "Why housing mustn't mean cheaper houses."

Institute of Public Affairs – Australia's Leading Free Market Think Tank: Housing

The Age - "A generation's home dream vanishes" 13 Nov 2007 -

Demographia - – the list -

HIA conference 2005 -


arch-peace said...

Thanks for this insightful and most needed editorial Peter. Another topic that the election campaign has left out is a policy for the development of public transport. Australian cities are not only car dependant, this country has also one of the highest greenhouse emissions per capita. Going Solar’s latest newsletter discusses the transport issue in regards to the election campaign. See:


Anonymous said...

and we made it!!!

Anonymous said...

..and we made it!!!

Peter said...

Silly me. I was reminded while voting that we were meant to put numbers in the little boxes, not crosses.

Beatriz I held off talking about public transport as that seems to be more of a state government thing. I'd have plenty to say about it though, as the fares have just gone up again - as well as a new ban being introduced on bicycles at peak hour. The Victorian minister for transport said that cyclists should be more considerate, and apparently not go to work in the rush hour.

Peter said...

Here's an artlicle in The Age today that sums things up nicely, though I don't think this is an entirely serious comment from Metlink: "...We're soon to introduce legislation to the effect that any and all passengers found with or without a ticket, inside, or within 10 metres of, a train carriage during peak times will be forcibly removed from said station.

"They will then be made to ride one of what we expect will be many discarded bicycles around and around outside the station while they are pelted with rotten eggs by Connex staff, in an effort, of course, to increase passenger convenience."

THE AGE 02.01.08

arch-peace said...

Is this a joke?? I checked the article and I can't believe it! Must be a bad joke. Another bad joke is the goverment's increase of cost for basic services (electricity water..) and transport!

peter johns said...

Here we go again. This morning the Propoerty Council of Australia released new statistics from Demographia along with some commentary of their own. The AAP duely picks it up and moves a few words around, and then it pops up in The Age as the the most read article of the day. Title? "High prices end Australian dream." Solution? "..the affordability crisis is caused by land rationing, excessive development charges and dysfunctional development assessment."

And this is how press release becomes news becomes bbq stopper becomes election issue.


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