Tbilisi, Georgia small
Tbilisi, Georgia, August 2018, image by author

We need to focus on the small and adaptive in creating better cities. 


The amputated chair and sunken doorway in Tbilisi, Georgia, illustrates personal adaptation to urban change. It reveals patterns of life more enduring and important than the declining buildings and growing city in which they are enacted. Evidently, this city serves its individuals, not the other way ‘round.

Small is good

Holding this image in mind, consider a recent Grattan Institute report, Remarkably adaptive, Australian cities in a time of growth

It observes that despite population increasing far more rapidly than transport infrastructure growth, average commute times in Australia’s major cities remain mostly unchanged over the same period. 

The authors conclude this is due to a persistently broad distribution of most jobs in these cities combined with personal adaptations by workers, particularly a willingness to move closer to work.

“That’s great”, might be the response, “we now don’t need to spend so much on new road and rail projects; we can blow it on more stadiums instead!”

Well… not quite!

The Grattan authors observe that adaptive measures are slow, but do not eliminate, the demand for further investment in urban infrastructure for rapidly growing cities. 

Rather, they recommend governments change policies that currently impede individual adaptation. 

They suggest phasing out stamp duty to reduce barriers to relocation, easing planning policies to permit greater density and congestion-charging road usage. 

They also recommend expending more on smaller, higher yield, transport projects that improve the city incrementally, rather than the king-hit of spectacular one-offs that only deliver comparatively marginal net improvements.

Amidst the current fashion for broad strategic urban thinking, the Grattan report is unusual in drawing attention to the significance of many small widely dispersed urban events.

Also responding to concerns about Australia’s rapid urban growth, and contemporaneous with the Grattan report, the Commonwealth Parliament released Building up and moving out: inquiry into the Australian government’s role in the development of cities. Published with bi-partisan political support, the report sets out in some detail the case for a greater Commonwealth role in the development of Australia’s largest cities, towns and nearby regions.

Chapter 3 comprises contributor comments on the intricate features of Australian cities as they currently exist and how they should evolve. The inquiry summarised a clear repeated theme: “Cities are complex systems — ‘systems of systems’. They require vertical and horizontal coordination of their planning and development.” (Paragraph 3.69, emphasis added)

Urban interventions must retain that complexity or risk damaging rather than enhancing the cities they seek to improve. 

Unfortunately, when addressing the circumstances under which cities are currently developed, Chapter 13 records far too many significant government procurement failures.

Delivery gone wrong – Sydney’s light rail project 

Against that background, consider Sydney’s light rail project, which has been in the news again, this time concerning the construction impact on individuals and businesses along the route. 

Disruption during construction was always foreshadowed and government had put in place mechanisms to ameliorate the pain for those most affected, including some $12 million paid in rent relief. 

Yet, framed against growing project costs and lengthening delays, harrowing tales of psychological and financial destruction now round out the image of a good project gone bad. 

Disruption is a constant of urban living. 

When imposed by disasters it is often unheralded, extreme and existential. Citizens are left to make do and many suffer irreversible harm.

Despite this, some endeavour to keep their city alive. Following the 2011 earthquake, Christchurch became famous for its adaptation, including imaginative shipping container retail precincts and its cardboard cathedral. The city remains vibrant despite the prospect of rebuilding for many more years.

Compare the Kiwi response to its unbidden disaster with the planned disruption depicted in the second image, below. 

Rather than a city being kept alive, it reveals a problem being managed. Around the edge of a project compound, typical of many city-edge green-field sites, pedestrians are channelled onto narrower footpaths, their thoughts focused only on escape. 

Hoardings are festooned with images of happy people transformed by light rail, in stark contrast to the reality around them. This has been the experience along the entire route.

Meanwhile, project disputes over latent conditions and liquidated damages, perennial features of most large contracts, now approach the courts. 

A parliamentary inquiry hears that, though compensated for rental costs, distraught witnesses are broken and their businesses have died. For them, this state significant project comes at a personal cost; the rest of the voting public only has to endure the spiralling expense.

The disruption is rendered more intense by the symbolic irony of it all. 

Light rail is often held to be the transport mode most suited to the fine grain small-scale intense business activities emblematic of densely populated inner cities, yet these very qualities have been trashed by its over lengthy construction.

There is little doubt the project will eventually be great, but in the meantime, ding, ding, what will the light rail glide past when finished?

Better delivery is needed to match good urban strategy

But what links a quirky image from Tbilisi with Sydney’s light rail anguish?

Well, they both illustrate different ways individuals cope with urban change, or more precisely, the limits in their ability to cope. 

Both images remind us that any panoramic vision for urban growth will ultimately be resolved at pixel level in pictures like these. In the first, the city has changed but life goes on. In the second, the city is changing but its urban life has almost ceased; the project has extinguished what it aimed to enhance.

Monocultural delivery agencies appear to be increasingly shacked by managerialist concerns for time-and-budget KPI’s and a fetishist deflection of risk

Part of the problem is that though strategic thinkers recognise the importance of urban complexity, mono-cultural delivery agencies appear not to. Increasingly they are shacked by managerialist concerns for time-and-budget KPI’s and a fetishist deflection of risk.

With so much good effort now directed at developing ever more wide-ranging urban strategies there is every reason to expect many more urban projects to follow. Unfortunately, more and greater implementation failures can be expected, and the city further harmed than enhanced, unless these delivery mechanisms are improved.

Commencing from a broad analytical perspective, the Grattan report arrived at the importance of attending to the little things that make our cities work. 

The importance of the many small and complex social, cultural, economic and ecological systems in a city

Likewise, the Commonwealth defined cities as expressions of many small and complex social, cultural, economic and ecological systems that must be considered together when planning for change and, crucially, when carrying out that change.

There is little doubt light rail will eventually be a boon to inner Sydney by supporting the growth of a complex vibrant inner urban ecosystem. However, the pathway to that outcome has needlessly damaged the very qualities it seeks to enhance. 

Poor project delivery ultimately erodes faith in government at a time when it is increasingly despised

Unfortunately, these events have a darker consequence than the temporary corrosion of precinct vitality. As explored previously, poor project delivery ultimately erodes faith in government at a time when it is increasingly despised. 

This may not trouble those who hold that government impedes self-actualisation and must, therefore, be throttled. Indeed, this kind of project failure confirms that perspective. 

However, for the rest of us who value good government as essential to civilisation, a failure of this kind should be intolerable and should be sanctioned all the more heavily given this growing global disaffection. 

Remember, we have done better. Though the Commonwealth’s Building Better Cities initiative only funded specific infrastructure projects, the success of Pyrmont and Ultimo renewal resulted from attending – indivisibly – to all the elements that now make it a vibrant inner-city precinct.

Mike Brown has worked in NSW local and state government in planning, urban design, and strategic roles for 15 years. He is also a graduate of the Masters of Urban Policy and Strategy program at the University of NSW.


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