Much of what we know as our cities of today was built before complex town planning regulations were developed.

The irony is that it is the accidental parts of our cities – the parts developed during periods of the least regulation – that we now most seek to protect.

An increasingly urbanised world is placing pressure on governments and policy makers to more carefully control the use of land within recently defined urban boundaries. But this is, in terms of the history of our urban development, a largely modern construct.

Regulatory town planning itself is largely a post-war concept, first notably embodied in the UK Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. There had been previous ‘town planning’ Acts prior to this in the UK but the 1947 Act significantly overrode land ownership and required virtually all proposals to seek planning permission from the local authority.

Given the post-industrial state of much of urban Britain in the pre- and inter-war period, it’s not surprising that regulators sought more control over how land was used and for what purposes. Well-intentioned urban planners sought to segregate housing from industry and to carefully define and control how future urban expansion occurred. Higher standards of living, less pollution and the pursuit of a more equal society were among the motives, though the extent to which these hopes were achieved is open to debate.

Fast forward some 20 or 30 years, and in the antipodes, Australia’s turn was to come. Our urban development history had largely been a free enterprise model until perhaps the mid 1970s. Certainly by the mid 1980s, regulators were having more say in land use policy and controls over private land. Prior to this, the 19th century had seen industrial and housing uses develop in close proximity, often centred on transport nodes such as sea or river ports.

It was a walkable society back then because there was no choice, except the horse, which wasn’t so much needed when the factory or wharf was only a few blocks from home. Tiny workers’ cottages and terraces sprung up amongst the tanneries, warehouses and factories of industrial pursuit.

The 20th century witnessed a gradual transformation of work from blue to white collar. Australia by the 1960s was a very different nation – one with a rising middle class, white collar employment and the post war baby boom in full stride.

Suburban development took hold and an upwardly aspirant middle class quickly embraced the quality offered by modern brick homes with flushing toilets and fancy kitchens (by their standards), with yard space for children to play – all features which had largely been absent from the homes they and their parents had grown up in.

Land was developed for suburban use with minimal regulation or control. Cities expanded and entire city administrations had relatively small building divisions with perhaps a few city engineers to ensure what minimal standards existed were met. The notion of town planning departments was something novel.

As growth continued and society progressed, governments found themselves under increasing community pressure to control and regulate this growth. By the time comprehensive land use regulation took hold, most of the structure of our urban form – including major transport routes, suburban housing development, centres of industry, centres of white collar employment, the locations of hospitals and schools – all had largely been developed and delivered, as if by accident and certainly organically with minimal regulatory direction.

There is no question that modern town planning has helped deliver some very high quality outcomes. Witness in particular the large swathes of urban renewal projects which have leveraged private capital to transform brownfield and largely abandoned inner city industrial land into high quality (and high priced) inner urban housing and commercial developments.

But the point should be remembered that there are limits to what regulation can provide and there are benefits of enterprise-driven development which are too quickly forgotten. ‘Accidental cities’ has become a derogatory term used by those who see benefit in increased planning control over public and privately held land. The price of not intervening through fine grained regulation, the argument goes, is inefficient cities which lead to inefficient economies.

For me though, this has a touch of Stalinism about it. There are huge sections of cities globally which are now admired for their unique character. They are invariably parts which developed ‘by accident’ through free formation of common interests and private capital, unrestrained by the dead hand of regulation. Often messy, sometimes disorganised and invariably hectic, they are nonetheless the places that feature in tourist brochures. Think of Singapore’s Chinatown, or Hong Kong’s night markets. Think of Venice’s canals, New Orleans’ French Quarter, or New York’s many ethnic enclaves like Little Italy.

I struggle to think of many places elsewhere in the world which were created under the rigid guidance of regulatory planning, which we’d like to mimic or replicate. To me, it seems very much the accidental parts of cities that are somehow more ‘real’ and less reconstituted. It’s as if we can tell the difference, without even really thinking about it.

So it should come as no surprise that it’s also these parts of our cities that we tend to want to preserve. They aren’t necessarily just historical structures or places. Sometimes, like the laneways of Melbourne’s CBD, they can be uses which have sprung up as if in defiance of the regulator’s rule book.

What this means for modern town planning is that the efforts to control and command in fine detail the nature of urban outcomes – even down to deciding what type of retail shop should be allowed in one place or another for example – is counter-productive. It stifles competition and smothers creativity.

There is a balance between the planned and the accidental and to find where that balance lies first means appreciating that accidental cities, or the things that are allowed to happen without intervention, can have as much appeal as those parts which have been carefully planned, controlled and documented.

Perhaps once we begin to appreciate the design dividend that is delivered through accidental aspects of urban development, we might as a community become less wedded to the idea that only more regulation can achieve the quality urban outcomes we most admire.

  • The expansion of the Urban Design disciplin has been mirrored with the demise of the Architectural "Design" profession. Even small developments require reams of conflicting and overlapping approvals, may require relaxations and years of court costs. We need look to the crimp too much oversight has on our economy wand on the supply of infrastructure and housing. Sydney, Melbourne and Australia, has the Urban Planning produced more liveable outcomes and a better environment? It most certainly has worked to concentrate wealth because the cost of undertaking development is prohibitive to new entrants. Why in Queensland, for instance, do we have independent planning requirements for each building typology when they are within the same jurisdiction? Why do we have many different definitions of basic concepts like "Site cover" and area calculations? Planning reuirements to create bloated bureaucracies rather than enhance outcomes?

  • As a planner, I say spot on Ross. The challenge for planners is to make judgement calls about when, how and what to intervene in, ie, how far to go.

  • I've been an architect for 30+years and I am still waiting to see a good result from the plethora of planning rules and regulations. All of which has grown in complexity during those years. Maybe all we need is a right to a road/pedestrian access and an overall in-principle planning envelope for any site. Exceptions to the rule to be welcomed provided that the demonstrated end result makes for a better outcome for your neighbors.

  • All too often the tangible benefits of overly prescriptive town planning and local 'design guides' seems to create little more than mediocre homogeneity.

  • The ancient Greeks and Romans had extensive planning regulations and the practice continued wherever and whenever there was effective government. Wonderful Dubrovnik (many scenes from Game of Thrones are filmed here) results from statutes dating from the 13th Century and the back lanes of Melbourne that Ross refers to were planned by Robert Hoddle in 1837.
    Planning by land-use zoning, which is probably what Ross is really talking about, dates from Baumeister and Adikes' work in Germany from 1874. The UK first adopted it in the 1909 Town Planning Act, and from there to Australia. The problem is not planning regulation per se (to say that any hyper-complex problem can be solved by less planning is clearly nonsensical), but that land-use zoning is no longer a useful tool in a post-industrial city. Form-based codes and transect based planning are making significant headway in the USA, particularly after the GFC demonstrated the greater economic resilience of places built using these tools, but despite some great examples by the handful of new urbanist planners practicing in Australia, the wider planning profession appears unable to move forward.

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