By Mark Sheppard,
If ever there was a time to reimagine the suburbs, it is now. COVID-19 restrictions have already forced us to reimagine our lives. The uncertainties of the post-COVID-19 world demand further re-imagination.
Black swan events such as the pandemic are a reminder that the world in which we live isn’t static; it is constantly changing. Sometimes, shocks trigger positive change, such as our recent realisation that office workers can be effective while working remotely and the rapid introduction of additional bike lanes.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls things that benefit from shocks ‘antifragile’1. This can be contrasted with resilience, which is when things are merely able to survive stresses, not actually get better as a result. Trees flourishing after pruning and eucalypt forests thriving after bushfires are examples of antifragility in nature.
The way we live will be subject to increasingly frequent disruptive changes. Apart from unpredictable events such as pandemics, we know that the atmosphere is warming and this will fundamentally change our climate, including more frequent extreme weather events. We know that driverless vehicles are already here and will soon drastically disrupt our transport patterns. We know that big data, AI and the Internet of Things are changing the world of work. And I could go on.
So, rather than just trying to be resilient to disruption, should we be planning and designing our cities and suburbs to actually benefit from it?
What do antifragile suburbs look like? How might suburbs benefit from shocks?
Perhaps the answer lies in innovation. Improvements in urban life are the result of experimentation in new ways of living, working, travelling, learning, shopping, recreating, and so on. Disruption inspires new ideas, as we’ve recently seen. But the exploration of new ideas can be hampered by the design of physical infrastructure and institutional frameworks.
Inflexible streets, buildings, and planning controls inhibit experimentation. Streets, spaces, and buildings that can only be used in one way are fragile. When circumstances change, they no longer work. As Richard Sennett says, “A too-tight fit between form and function is a recipe for technological obsolescence.”2
Of course, not all experiments will lead to successful outcomes. But when innovation is inhibited, there are fewer opportunities to test improvements in suburban life. And even failed experiments offer lessons. The trick is to make them small enough that any potential harm is contained. For example, the potential downside of the temporary parklets being installed in Moreland and Wyndham in terms of reducing parking supply is not fatal. But the benefit of learning how such spaces might be used and benefit the broader area is significant.
Here are five ways in which we might remove barriers to innovation so that suburbs can benefit from shocks:
1. Design the public realm to enable changes in use. Flexible streets and spaces like shared zones and details like moveable furniture allow different use-configurations to be experimented with, including at different times of the day or days of the week. The pop-up park in Ballarat Street, Yarraville, is a good example. While it may not be practical to physically retrofit all suburban streets in this way, relaxing rules to allow ‘guerilla urbanism’ can facilitate experimentation, informing longer-term investments.
2. Remove unnecessarily prescriptive regulations and onerous processes. Prescriptive rules based on a narrow view of how people should live and work prevent innovation. For example, dedicated studies have disappeared from new apartments since the requirement for them to have a window, diminishing flexibility for working from home. The Secondary Dwellings Code is a good example of simplifying regulations to enable the trial of a different form of housing.
3. Remove the adversarial mindset between planning authorities and developers. Developers are finely tuned to the markets for their products and have an incentive to innovate to attract purchasers and tenants. Planners should welcome and facilitate innovation in development, not be suspicious of it unless there are clear and overwhelming risks to the broader community.
4. Develop a less risk-averse strategic planning attitude. Most strategic plans are designed to manage the potential for harm, rather than to facilitate innovation. The resulting overly prescriptive and mandatory controls breed dull, mediocre outcomes. In contrast, the flexibility to innovate creates space for new ideas that lead practice forward.
5. Enable ownership structures that facilitate change. The need for apartment buildings to be strata-titled for funding reasons inhibits their ability to change form and function over time. Removing disincentives for build-to-rent development will facilitate the retention of buildings in single ownership, making it easier for them to adapt.
Cities need to evolve, like nature, otherwise, they atrophy. Antifragility allows evolution.
1 Taleb, N. (2012). Antifragile: Things that benefit from disorder. Penguin Books.
2 Sennett, R. (2018). Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City. Penguin Books, p.161.
(This article was originally published in the October 2020 edition of Planning News.)